How to 'Queerly Rep' it in your game

Workshop for #ResistJam. Can be found in video format here (coming soon).

Hello! I’m Alayna Cole, and this workshop is all about how to ‘Queerly Rep’ it in your game. Queer representation is a topic that’s particularly important to me, and one which I’ve spent many hours researching. I’m looking forward to sharing some of the basics with you in this short workshop.

First, a little bit about me! I founded Queerly Represent Me in May, 2016. Queerly Represent Me is a database of games that feature queer representation in some form, as well as a resource hub that collates information that can help you learn more about representing identities.

I lecture in the Serious Games program at the University of the Sunshine Coast, teaching courses in physical and digital game design, and interactive narrative. I am working on my doctorate in creative writing, specifically in the area of queer representation in fairy tales. This project involves a lot of research into how queer identities can be depicted in stories of various forms.

I work as a freelance games journalist for a number of publications, and also develop games independently and as part of Horned Llama Studio, which I co-founded. Many of the pieces I write and the games I develop feature queer representation in some form, because it’s a topic that I’m passionate about and surround myself with.

But why do I care so much about representation? Why is it important?

Representation allows audiences to see themselves reflected in the media that they consume—and this includes videogames. Diversity in media also allows others to understand experiences outside their own, which is important for fostering empathy.

What about queer representation specifically? Well, including more queer characters in narratives helps combat the heteronormativity typical of videogames—and media more broadly. Heterosexual and cisgender characters are more common in videogames than diverse sexualities and genders, and as developers, it is our responsibility to alter this by creating game worlds that more accurately reflect the varied people who live in the real world.

So who can represent queer perspectives?

The simple answer is everyone. But there are some simple guidelines.

Of course, I encourage members of the queer community to represent queer perspectives in your games. Games that are inspired by the personal experiences of a developer can be incredibly meaningful, and we have seen a number of games filtering into the indie space that have these roots. However, it is important to remember that the experiences of one person are not always indicative of the experiences of all people, even if you identify in similar ways, so ensure that your work is still supported by and respectful of others.

Last year, I designed and released a game called Snapshot, which is about my own experiences as a queer woman; I feel it was vital that I specify this game is a semi-autobiographical narrative, and is not designed to encapsulate the lived experiences of the wider queer community. I highly recommend adopting a similar approach if you wish to make something like this.

It’s also possible—and in my opinion, recommended—that allies of the queer community represent queer characters in their games. Many allies often try to avoid representing identities outside their own for fear of getting these representations ‘wrong’, but this isn’t going to help the games community to diversify the content of our games. If you’re an ally, it’s important you feel welcome to create characters dissimilar to yourself.

That said, don’t create queer characters—or characters of any identity—based on stereotypes, a movie you saw once, or your one queer friend. It’s important the characters you include in your stories are well-researched and authentic, and that you have included these representations deliberately and thoughtfully. When making a game, your decisions should be meaningful—most negative representation comes as a result of thoughtless design.

The resulting representations can take many forms. Each serves a different purpose, suits different game titles, and varies in how positive and authentic it can be. It’s worthwhile understanding the differences between these forms, so you can determine what works best for your game. In my research, I’ve divided these representations into three sets of two: explicit or implicit, fixed or player-centric, and central or incidental.

Explicit representations are impossible to miss. These representations involve characters explicitly telling the player their sexuality, or making it unquestionably apparent through their actions. The example I have here is Athena and Janey from the Borderlands series, who explicitly refer to one another as girlfriends and otherwise indicate their romantic interest in women.

This can be compared to implicit representations. These representations rely on stereotypes to hint at queerness, without explicitly confirming it. The example here is Sorey and Mikleo from Tales of Zestiria, who are very close friends and who exhibit some stereotypical behaviours to hint at a relationship that’s more than platonic, but this is entirely unconfirmed. Implicit representations of queerness in games do little to challenge the heteronormativity of videogame narratives.

Queer identities in videogames can be fixed or player-centric. A fixed queer identity is one that doesn’t change, regardless of the player-character and their actions. The example listed here is Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition. He is a commonly used example because his assertion that he is only interested in men is made very clear. There are other characters within this game—and many more in other titles—that are similarly certain of their identities, and will tell the player about them regardless of the player-character’s traits.

Player-centric representation typically involves characters whose only queerness comes from their interest in the player-character, regardless of their gender. Playersexual romance options are an area of research that I am particularly interested in, as playersexuality is a less-positive way of representing bisexuality or other types of multiple-gender-attraction in a game. When a game features playersexual NPCs, typically all romanceable characters will be attracted to the player-character, while existing in an otherwise heteronormative game world and with a heteronormative romantic history—if they have a romantic history at all. Playersexual NPCs can generally be treated as heterosexual if the player prefers, allowing players to erase all queer content from a game if queerness makes them uncomfortable.

The example of player-centric representation listed here is Stardew Valley, which allows both a male or female player-character to romance the same selection of characters, and presents the player with a game world otherwise filled with husbands and wives. If the player-character marries somebody of the same gender, the town is surprised by the union, despite being accepting—for the most part.

In an open-world game where the player is able to do whatever they wish, allowing them to also romance any characters they choose almost feels like part of the experience. However, a player-centric approach to queer representation does not depict a realistic vision of how identity functions, so if you—as a developer—plan to adopt a player-centric approach to sexuality in your games, it is important that you understand you are deviating from more authentic methods of representation. It is not impossible to use player-centric representations in a way that is valuable, but do not use this approach accidentally—ask yourself the key questions: why and how?

Queer representation in videogames can also be central or incidental. Central representations are seen in games that revolve around queerness in some way, such as Dys4ia, which is focused on the experiences of a trans woman. Most games that revolve around queer representation are being released independently, meaning these games are typically not as widely distributed as a triple-A title might be.

If you intend to develop a game that is centred around queer experiences, please ensure that you are letting your queer characters exercise their agency, and that you are exploring stories of queerness rather than using queerness as a plot point. It is important not to write queer characters out of their own narratives, and it is also important not to simply use the reveal of queerness for ‘shock value’ or as a narrative climax.

Incidental representations of queer identity are what we are recently seeing more of in the triple-A sector. Games where queerness is present but does not drive the narrative or mechanics are using incidental representation. The example here is Life is Strange, which is a game primarily about Max’s time travel powers, the disappearance of teenagers, and the impending doom approaching the town. Max and Chloe’s friendship is important, but secondary, and their sexuality is even less significant to the game’s narrative and mechanics. Similar incidental queer representation can be found in action-adventure titles like The Last of Us and Dishonored 2, and in the relationships within open world RPGs like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls.

Incidental representations help to normalise queer identities, demonstrating that queer characters—and other diverse identities—exist within worlds where other, more interesting plots are taking place. These representations help combat the heteronormativity typical of videogames. Central representations are a different and equally important approach to improving representation, with these queer-centric explorations of identity helping audiences better understand their own identities or the identities of queer folks.

The fact that central and incidental representations are different, but equally valuable, indicate that queer characters can be included in any game title; even if your game isn’t about queer experiences, you can still help to champion diversity that is reminiscent of the real world.

There are a number of other ways you can champion the inclusion of diverse representation. If you are using a character creation screen in your game, it’s important to think about the questions you ask. If you ask your player about gender, think about why. What are you trying to learn? If you are only going to use this information to inform which pronouns are used to refer to the player-character, it might be better to ask your player their preferred pronouns instead of their gender. Games like Read Only Memories are praised for the wide range of pronoun options they give their player, including the option to input their own pronouns.

The Sims 4 is all about their sim creator, and it was updated last year to include more nuanced ways for men and women to interact with the world around them. Maxis seems to have realised that the stereotypical appearance and clothing preferences of a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’ simply don’t reflect reality. They also seem to be thinking more consciously about why they are asking about a sim’s gender: they are really asking questions like whether a sim can get pregnant and whether they can use the bathroom standing up. Instead of making assumptions, The Sims 4 is now asking those questions explicitly. I’m looking forward to Maxis taking it one step further and allowing sims to choose not to identify as either binary gender.

On that note, if you do include gender in a character creators, think about the order of your options. It’s typical to put ‘male’ in front of ‘female’, or ‘masculine’ in front of ‘feminine’. ‘Other’ and ‘non-specified’ almost always come last. If you’d like to shake things up, feel free to flip these orders around.

Other ways to shake things up include approaching gender in innovative ways that might make everyone a little uncomfortable. When Rust made a very deliberate decision to start assigning gender based on a user’s Steam ID, they received all sorts of complaints. It’s almost as though cisgender players didn’t like being in a body that didn’t align with the gender they identify with. I wonder if that might teach some empathy.

I appreciate you listening to this workshop about the varied approaches to queer representation that are out there, their pros and cons, and how you can use them in your games. Here are some key points that I’d love for you to take away from what I’ve talked about today:

Anybody can represent queer perspectives in videogames. Do not be scared about including diversity in your games simply because you do not personally connect with a particular identity. Channel this fear of doing something ‘wrong’ into quality research, rather than using it as an excuse.

To create great representations, this research is vital, regardless of your own experiences. It is also important to remember that negative representation typically comes from a place of ignorance or thoughtlessness—you can fix this in your own games by making deliberate, well-informed choices.

Always consider the impacts of your decisions. Think about whether you are remembering to let your queer characters exercise their agency. Think about why you are including binary gender options in your character creation screen. If you can’t explain these choices to yourself, then you are unjustifiably alienating and excluding members of the queer community. There is absolutely no harm in making your games more inclusive to your players.

Lastly, remember that representing diversity is important and that the first step to improving representation is including it. You can be a champion of this cause.

Thank you for taking the time today to learn a little about queer representation. This is a huge topic and, while I’ve managed to touch on a lot of important thoughts today, there’s always more to learn! If you’d like some more information, I recommend checking out the resources on Queerly Represent Me. And I’m always happy to answer your questions if you’d like to get in touch!