I Dream in Pixels: Queer Games and the Importance of Safe Spaces

The first time I played Nicky Case’s “Coming Out Simulator 2014,” I was still largely ignorant to the LGBTQ community. Growing up in a conservative, isolated household, it had taken some time for the outer world to seep through the filters put up by my family. It was in my mother’s basement that I read/played my first coming out story.

The pseudo-autobiographical narrative experience, “COS2014” is a short interactive vignette told through text messages about Nicky Case’s experience coming out as bisexual to his parents. While coming out stories are often sad and painful to read, the act of playing as someone having such an emotional and intimate experience struck me more than words alone likely ever could. By the end, I was in tears.

In subsequent years, I’ve learned far more about the existence and struggles of the LGBTQ community, and have continually looked for better representation within games that continue to be starkly heterosexual.

Compared to legal and social rights, video games likely do not rank especially high on the list of important milestones for the LGBTQ community. Although it may provide fewer immediate tangible gains for LGBTQ persons, I see media representation as one of the most crucial factors in helping normalize queerness to the public at large.

Media reflects the ideals of the social climate it’s made for, and, as slow as LGBTQ acceptance has been, media featuring LGBTQ characters and themes has been equally slow to appear.

Even when LGBTQ characters exist in games, such as Dontnod’s “Life is Strange,” they do so in ways that are safe and calculated. Rarely can queer characters feature without developers curtailing their sexual or gender identity for the sake of making them more relatable to a straight audience.

This is the case if we are only looking at AAA games. As it turns out, queer games made by queer folk not only exist, but are also actively forming safe spaces for themselves within indie communities. Venture onto indie hub, itch.io, and the sort of personal, groundbreaking games currently being made by small developers become immediately apparent.

Take for instance “Queers in Love at the End of the World,” by Anna Anthropy. Given only 10 seconds, you must decide what to do during your last moments with your lover. It is a short, text-only experience, but few games convey love and loss as affectingly.

Or consider Robert Yang’s “No Stars, Only Constellations,” a slightly longer narrative experience of stargazing with your gay lover. It is a game better played than explained, but, similar to Anthropy’s work, it touches upon love and life in ways particular to the LGBTQ experience.

The variety of games being produced by LGBTQ indie developers is incredible, but, more than that, they have also created a space where these games can exist and thrive. Though widespread representation is necessary and important, equally so is the ability for queer folk to have safe spaces to express themselves and exist without needing to legitimize themselves to people who refuse to accept them.

There is much that I love about itch.io as a games platform, but perhaps most among these is how it has given a voice to those who are routinely ignored, within a medium that is in desperate need of better representation. It might be years still before Ubisoft and Activision include LGBTQ characters in their games, but although they might lack the prestige of larger developers, I can’t help but see the work being done by Case, Anthropy and other explicitly queer developers as something far more important.

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