Changing the Game: How Small Studios and Creators are Raising the Bar for LGBTQ Representation

by Kate Gray

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday September 4, 2021
Originally published on June 25, 2021

  (Source:Getty Images)

In 2020, two huge gaming milestones were reached. "The Last of Us II" — a video game about surviving a zombie apocalypse and a lauded sequel to the massively successful "The Last of Us" — came out in June, and was the first time that a major studio had ever released a game with a playable openly lesbian protagonist. French studio DONTNOD, known mostly for their work on "Life Is Strange," released "Tell Me Why" in August of the same year, making them the first major studio to feature a transgender main character.

But these incredible watershed moments are only "firsts" in the world of multi-million-dollar budget game companies with hundreds of employees. In the world of queer indie games, where budgets rarely graze six figures and teams of one or two developers can be found crafting games in their bedrooms and finding funding on Kickstarter or Patreon, LGBTQ characters are nothing new.

With the success of "The Last of Us II" — which sold four million copies in its first three days on the market — developer Naughty Dog has hopefully shown the games industry that LGBTQ-led games are a viable product. But representation should not have to be profitable to be valuable. As Dr. Bo Ruberg says in the first sentence of their book, "The Queer Games Avant-Garde," "the medium of video games is currently undergoing a momentous shift, both artistically and politically — and, in many ways, it is queer, independent game-makers who are leading that change."

Indie Studios Take on Diversity

"Schrodinger's Catgirl"
"Schrodinger's Catgirl"  (Source: Spider Lily Studios)

"Smaller studios can take more risks," says Els White, a writer and narrative designer at Spider Lily Studios. "I wish that [LGBTQ content] wasn't seen as a risk, but that's how it is." That idea that making content with, about, and for queer players is a "risk" is pervasive, but the gaming audience can be a loud, angry, and occasionally violent one, and it's their response that frightens larger studios and makes LGBTQ representation low as a result.

White spoke about the fact that LGBTQ representation is often seen as "pushing [an] agenda," implying that it's a cynical, left-wing tactic to force people to accept their opinions rather than an attempt to expand the horizons of who gets to be on-screen. "The 'pushing agenda' people are definitely a big reason devs get scared to put queer characters in their game," says White, but he's not convinced that an "agenda" is a bad thing. "Maybe I do have an agenda, huh! It's to make lots of cool queer characters in my games! What's wrong with that?"

"As soon as you're trying to be commercial," adds White, "there's a lot of pressure to "appeal to a broader audience ...because the alternative is not being able to keep the studio afloat." Smaller studios creating LGBTQ content (still often considered niche) can afford to market their games to a smaller, queer audience because their budgets won't be as astronomical as those of a major studio.

Queer Games Are Already Successful

A still from "Spirit Swap."
A still from "Spirit Swap."  

A handful of indie queer games have found success in recent years, showing that the demand for representation is there.

"Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator," a game about gay fathers with a range of body types and ethnicities dating each other, received rave reviews from some of gaming's most prominent publications. "Undertale," which features trans, non-binary, lesbian and gay characters, is a game so successful that it's amassed a large and occasionally scary fandom. "Celeste," a hugely popular game about climbing a mountain told through challenging platforming levels, was created by a team led by a non-binary creator, Maddy Thorson, who later stated that the lead character, Madeline, was trans.




At the time of writing, "Spirit Swap," a joyously candy-colored match-3 game about queer, witchy friends living in a forest, is almost 200% funded with the support of over 2,400 fans hungry for heart-warming LGBTQ games. The creators' focus is "making games that look like us," a goal that only exists because the mainstream games industry has left them out for so long, both in their games and in their hiring practices — although a recent census showed that LGBTQ representation is above average in the games industry, issues of overwork, burnout, and low pay mean that not many marginalized workers reach the senior levels.

"The majority of people I have met [in indie games] are queer POC who just want to see themselves in video games, so they did it themselves," remarks Dani Lalonders, head developer on the queer dating game, "ValiDate." "I think as more indie devs get the resources they need, it will be a change to the scene."

Visual Novels: Accessible Entry For LGBTQ Game Development

(Source: Getty Images)

Many developers, including Lalonders, were inspired to make their own games by playing visual novels, like "Ace Attorney" — games that involve little interaction but a lot of story.

Visual novels offer the easiest way to make games yourself: There is a veritable treasure trove of free tools specifically for turning a narrative into a game, like Ink, Twine, Ren'py, Fungus, and more. For those who want to branch out into role-playing games, or any other genre, there are other free or inexpensive tools: Unity, RPG Maker, and GameMaker, to name a few. All of these platforms have easily accessible guides, tutorials and Q&A forums. "I think the tools being free and accessible are a pretty good way for a lot of queer folks to get into 'easier games'," says Lalonders. "I personally taught myself how to code in Ren'py with the guides online."

It's this ease of accessibility that has led to a glut of quality LGBTQ-focused games on the market these days, but the next step is where it becomes problematic. Games need to be published on a storefront to make money — and the largest gaming storefronts are far from LGBTQ-friendly.

Publishers are Necessary But Not Always Friendly

"Blood Pact"
"Blood Pact"  

Steam is arguably the largest storefront, with millions of concurrent players at just about any time of the day. Earlier this year, Steam removed the categories for "LGBTQ+" and "Female Protagonist" — not removing the games under those tags, but making them harder for players to find.

Likewise, Twitch, a streaming platform that predominantly features people playing games, can immensely help a game's sales if they get featured by a popular streamer. Twitch's Community Guidelines, however, often mean that LGBTQ games (and, sometimes, streamers) are banned from the platform.

Creator and games academic Robert Yang made "The Tearoom" as a response to Twitch banning his other games. On the surface, it's a game about fellating men in a public bathroom whose genitals have been replaced with guns; in reality, it's a deeper conversation about the dangers of cruising in the 1960s, but also about the games industry's double standards. "If I put dicks in the game, it will definitely get banned," said Yang in Ruberg's book, "The Queer Avant-Garde." "Guns are apparently OK in video games, but sex isn't."




Most LGBTQ creators turn to the smaller storefront itch.io as a way to publish their games without censorship, heavy content moderation, and giving Steam a 30% cut (itch.io defaults to 10%).

Ana Valens, a games critic and developer who has published queer sex games such as "Blood Pact" and "She Hungered" on itch.io, praises the platform for its hands-off approach to content moderation, letting players decide for themselves what to play, rather than relying on puritanical censorship policies. "[itch.io] largely lets creators express themselves freely and openly," she says. "On a personal level, itch.io has been fantastic to me."

But she cautions against seeing itch.io as a savior for queer folk making games. "For a lot of queer developers," she says, "Steam actually is more profitable than itch," despite its draconian censorship. She cites an essay by game developer Badru, which calls itch.io "a Silicon Valley startup with a rainbow pin," suggesting that queer creators should not feel limited to a platform that supports them but makes them less money, but rather be welcome on a platform that will earn them a living, the same as anyone else.

Valens recognizes that her ability to profit off her games on itch.io is partly due to her visibility on social media. "Because I have a sizable online following, I can upload games onto itch.io, then advertise them on Twitter," she says, saying that her two "lesbian adult games" have made over $5,000 in profit as a result.

Intersectional Representation and 'Creating With Care'

"ValiDate"
"ValiDate"  

Queer creators continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with radical effort, even as they are redacted from specific platforms. Lalonders calls it "creating with care" — "[which] means so much more than just putting [marginalized characters] in there and going back and being like, "Oh yeah, this character is queer." This approach can be seen in larger games, like "Overwatch," in which their first two gay characters were outed in comics years after the game was released. "That isn't creating with care," Lalonders says. "That is an example of doing something to appeal to a queer audience."

Els White agrees: "if you... only mention it in side materials or press... is that really representation?"

To "create with care" means researching the identities you want to include in the game, asking people for their opinions, and "actually putting in the effort to celebrate a character that is typically ignored," says Lalonders. It's going above and beyond in representation, not solely out of a capitalistic desire to grab the attention of an untapped market, but because that demographic deserves representation. "My work in 'ValiDate' is all the stories that I have been dying to see in media," they say. "I saw that I could just do it. Make the change that I wanted to see in this world."

"ValiDate" is more than just an LGBTQ story. It also represents people of color, different body types, and different genders. Many LGBTQ games, including "ValiDate" and "Spirit Swap," feature intersectional representation, something even rarer in blockbuster games than just having LGBTQ characters in the first place. As a result, the LGBTQ game community is doing a lot of representational heavy lifting.

"The problems of underrepresentation and discrimination in video games are by no means limited to queer and transgender identities," Ruberg says in their book. "Such issues are fundamentally intersectional." Whereas larger companies often include LGBTQ representation performatively, "many of the artists in the queer games avant-garde are committed to thinking beyond surface-level inclusion," says Ruberg.

Queer game creators are at the frontline of a cultural battle in which they continue to fight for their right to be recognized, making games to represent and uplift their communities. The slow but steady advancements are largely hard-won by creators who have been putting in the work for years under their own steam.

"In the long-term, I'm optimistic," says Valens. "Queer artists are notoriously resilient. They've also survived a lot of moral panics and kept creating."

Kate Gray is a writer and journalist working in video games. She has written for Kotaku and VICE Games on sex, gender, and sexuality in games.

EDGE-i

This story is part of our special report titled EDGE-i. Want to read more? Here's the full list.