Trans Women, the Queer Games Scene, and DIY Game Design
Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.
Over the past few years, a thriving indie games scene has sprung up, which is challenging the standard tropes and narratives in all kinds of games—videogames, tabletop roleplaying games—you name it, people are designing it for themselves.
One aspect of this has come to be known as the queer games scene—games that center queer experiences and perspectives—and credit is due in particular to the trans women who are the pioneers of this movement. It began before Anna Anthropy’s 2012 book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, but that was definitely a turning point in awareness and momentum. The book is a call to action for everyone who considers themselves an outsider to mainstream culture, to use the tools at their disposal and tell their own stories.
Trans people have a rich history of playing games—roleplaying is a great way to explore aspects of yourself that it may be daunting to express in real life. More than one trans person I know has used roleplaying as a way to understand themselves better, just like I used it to try on new (more gender-neutral) names until I found the one that fit me. But mainstream games have never been kind to trans people, especially trans women, and queer games as a movement are still relatively new.
What’s a queer game? Well, in the most literal sense, queer games are those that tell queer stories. One platform that allowed people without much technical experience to create and distribute games easily is Twine, “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories,” or, in simpler terms, hypertext browser games reminiscent of old-school choose your own adventure books. Queer and trans women have been using Twine and other low-tech game development technology to tell autobiographical stories, inviting players to step into their shoes. Some great examples are:
- Conversations With My Mother, by Merritt Kopas, in which the player (as Merritt’s mother) can cycle through different options in phrasing an email, choosing from different degrees of misgendering and/or acceptance.
- Dys4ia, by Anna Anthropy, a series of vignettes that simulate the confusion and isolation of Anna’s first six months on hormone therapy.
- Lim, by Merritt Kopas, an abstraction using colored blocks of the violence inflicted by the pressure to fit in to normative society.
These games can be intense, confusing, and frustrating. They are not fun in the usual sense that games are fun. They are a catharsis for the designer, a way of reaching out to other trans people and saying, “You’re not alone.” They might be educational to the cisgender player, but that’s not usually the main goal.
Although Merritt Kopas got her start making autobiographical games, she has since written about moving away from memoir as a genre:
“There are a lot of parallels between trans people’s literature and trans games: in both cases trans authors are both rejecting traditional literary forms and appropriating them, using them to tell new kinds of stories. Importantly, both trans literature and trans games represent a breaking out of the genre of memoir, to which trans people have been mostly confined by traditional publishing. This is a big deal because memoir is fundamentally outsider-oriented: it’s about explaining how weird and gross and sexy it is to be a trans person to a cisgender audience. But more and more trans authors are forming our own publishers, or using the internet to get around gatekeepers entirely and release interactive works directly to our communities.”
—Merritt Kopas at Lambda Literary
Memoir was a great place for queer games to begin, especially since trans stories were until recently very rarely told (and even then, the stories that were told were those that conformed to an acceptable trans narrative), but it’s not the be-all and end-all of queer gaming.
Queer games can also be those that challenge the player to embrace a queer viewpoint. Tabletop roleplaying game designers Avery Mcdaldno and Joli St Patrick gave a talk at the Queerness and Games Convention in 2013 called “Beyond Representation: Queer Mechanics in Tabletop Games.” The talk outline can be found here. and a video of the presentation can be found here.
They discussed the shallowness of representation that places queer people within normative storylines. They contrasted the “straightness” of fixed stats, of mechanics that mean the same thing in every situation, and highlighted many games that challenge these narratives.
—Avery Mcdaldno and Joli St Patrick in Beyond Representation: Queer Mechanics in Tabletop Games
Avery Mcdaldno herself has made several games that explore queer mechanics. Monsterhearts is a game about teenage monsters that explicitly encourages players to play queer characters or explore what happens when characters experience unexpected attraction to someone of the same (or another) gender. It also reflects the philosophy above in that its stats and mechanics are fluid and open to interpretation. They mean different things in different situations.
She also wrote Dream Askew, a game about queer community-building in the post-apocalypse. The apocalypse, she argues through her game design, is a source of terror and destruction for normative culture, but in its wake it leaves a void in which queer folks and other outsiders might thrive.
(As a side note, I feel this perspective fits alongside my recent post about Zombie Awareness Month: Terror of the Masses. Zombie apocalypse stories are one manifestation of mainstream culture’s fear of the Other.)
As videogame development technologies become more widely available and more usable by people without formal technical expertise and as self-publishing becomes easier via ebooks and publish-on-demand, writers and designers are relying less and less on the traditional structures of literary and software publishing. The democratization of technology is putting game design in the hands of people who previously faced systemic obstacles to it.
The internet and DIY culture has made artworks more accessible to their natural audience, who previously might never have heard of them, and brings people together to work and build on each other’s ideas, where in previous times they might have been relatively isolated.
It’s a really exciting time for queer gaming, and I can’t wait to see where it goes!