Real Indie: the Queer Game Scene
Traditionally, indie gaming has been the home of the fringe. Much in the way that art house cinema delves into different topics than traditional mainstream film, independent games can explore different themes than most big budget games. Sometimes this is done in a less than serious way, like the white-knuckle fun of games like Super Meat Boy, other times it is used for more serious topics.
This isn't to say that AAA titles can't talk about serious or controversial topics, but oftentimes they don't. When so much money is on the line, it's really no surprise that major studios would want to bet on something that doesn't offend a subset of the population or alienate some players. This is the gap that independent games often fill.
An emerging, or more recently recognized, subset of independent games is the queer gaming scene. Queer gaming is an amorphous term, much like the usage of the word "queer" in general, but queer developer Zoë Quinn defines it really well in that , "A queer game is usually, like, a game where it's not a straight, white male doing things."
So what does it mean to be "queer?"
The term queer is an ever-expanding one. For starters, it used to be used pejoratively to describe homosexuals. Today, it is used more as an umbrella term to describe any gender identity or sexual attitude that delineates from the mainstream. People who identify as queer can be lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, gay, and depending on your definition, heterosexual identifying people who do not ascribe to traditional gender roles.
It's important to recognize that the term has only fairly recently been "taken back, " and for some it's still considered a hateful epithet. As such, some people are not comfortable using the term.
What does a queer game do that traditional games do not?
There are exceptions to this, but you could make the argument that many mainstream games are monolithic. Maybe it's because a great deal of developers are straight white men, maybe it's because we haven't accepted that we can do other things than craft stories that most closely resemble action movies.
Take two examples from the past year that have been lauded for their ability to tell stories; Bioshock Infinite and the Last of Us. Now, I enjoyed playing both of these games. But both feature characters that are relatively similar -- straight, white, older father-figure men who escort young women, with the young women having varying degrees of game play helpfulness. In fact, both characters are voiced by the same voice actor.
Anna Anthropy, a major figure in the queer games scene, said,
if mainstream games culture has no place for these perspectives, where do they go? Mainstream games having no space for them, marginalized people have to CREATE a space for themselves in videogames. And that's exactly what they've done, by inventing new communities and repurposing existing tools.
Anna is perhaps known best for game Dys4ia, an abstract, autobiographical game about Anna's (also known as Auntie Pixelante) gender transition and hormone replacement.
Anna's perspective is her own, and it's an important contribution to video games as a whole. She will probably not make games about straight, white men, because she isn't one. But without perspectives like hers, the gaming industry would become more homogenous.
Sure, games like Mass Effect allow you to choose your sexuality, but there are very few games that allow you to experience the world from the perspective of someone who is queer. While allowing the player to customize the characters sexuality is a good step, it doesn't go into the experience of being LGBTQ.
For example, 1 in 5 transgender youth are homeless, and as many as 20-40% of homeless youth identify along the LGBTQ spectrum. Their experience is a part of the human experience, and is being left out of one of the most interactive media known to man.
Queer games also critique the typical heterosexual narrative ignoring its own issues: with divorce being so prevalent, why aren't there situations surrounding that? In a world that denies cultural partnering rituals to certain groups of people, why aren't there games that address heterosexual couples' conflict with keeping sacred with that they keep from others? it sounds like romance in games needs to get a little more queer.
What she brings to video games is her perspective, one unique to her population. Her reality and experience can even be used to help put others experiences in contrast, and that's the importance of queer gaming and other off-the-beaten-path scenes.
Indie Games, including Queer Games, Help the Industry Experiment
If you are a big budget studio, chances are you aren't going going to go too far out on a limb. If you do, people's jobs are at stake. You can leave that for the developers who don't even do this as a full time job, the smaller studios, or the one person operations.
Fringe developers, like queer game developers, also often work with more experimental forms and software.
Take, for example, Twine. Twine is a free, open-source software originally created by Chris Klimas as a tool to help writers of interactive fiction (text adventures). The software was not intended to make games on, but it has been embraced by the queer gaming industry.
Twine can be seen as being a part of the democratization of the video game industry. For one, it allows people who have little to no experience in computers to create games. Twine games don't require a long background in CS--just the ability to use html.
As video game developer Porpentine puts it, "Twine is easy for spreading. You don't need a console. You don't need a high-end PC. You don't need to spend money. The browser is the lowest common denominator thing, and that is what Twine is on."
This experimentation is a part of the contribution that queer game makers make to the scene. With little overhead, you can use programs like GameMaker, RPG Maker, or Twine and craft a story. Anna Anthropy writes in her presentation to Indiecade; "communities like this exist becasue of the inventiveness of marginalized people and their will to be heard even when the system is committed to silencing them." It both allows them to bring their unique perspective to the industry as a whole, and allows them to experiment with the form as well.
Take any one of Porpentine's Twine games; she's a master of the form. Her games can be a powerful form of expression, and for the most part, they rarely go further than hypertext. She has turned her limitations into a strength.
So I'm not Queer. Why should I care about these games?
Anna Anthropy has a great line in her presentation to Indiecade. "For lack of voices, all we would have is silence." Queer gaming brings new perspective, new voices, to the conversation. By it's existence, the industry is made richer.
Take Merritt Kopas' fantastic game Lim. Lim is not the flashiest game you'll ever play, but it demonstrates violence in one of the most spine tingling ways I've ever experienced. Even if you are not queer or trans, even if you just have an experience being considered "different," you know the violence she's describing. These games can speak to you because they are a part of the human experience.
Not only are they games that bring another perspective to the industry. but they can also be fun. I've played Porpentine's Crystal Ke$ha Warrior probably three times, and shared it with everyone I can. And it's amazing.
If games are to be someday considered art, we don't need more Bioshock Infinite or the Last of Us, no matter how fun those games are. What the industry needs is the perspective of people like Anna Anthropy, Mattie Brice, Merritt Kopas, Porpentine and many more.
Because for lack of voices, all we have is silence.