Design Strategies for Queer Games

Later tonight, I'll be giving a short talk to kick off GXDev, a game jam for queer games. For part of my talk, I've prepared a list of 8 strategies that I think are useful for creating queer or subversive games.

1. Diverse characters

This one's pretty obvious. Simply populate your world in a way that represents the breadth of diversity in the real world. Try to remember the vast number of dimensions of diversity: Age, race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, ability, size, nationality, and more.

2. Stand in my shoes

Give the player a first-hand simulation of what life is like for someone else. Example games that do this well include Mainichi, Dys4ia, and Coming Out Simulator 2014

3. The slow reveal

It’s normal for a player to become emotionally attached to a game character as they invest time. As you reveal more secrets about the character, the player will likely be more emotionally open to accepting that character for who they are. In the same way that being out can change the opinions of those around you, an out game character can change opinions too.

This approach is sometimes erroneously called bait and switch, but that label is mostly hurled by people who simply feel upset that their assumptions were wrong. With a bait-and-switch, we first establish one identity for a player and then change it later. In contrast, with the slow reveal, we leave enough room for the player to make their own assumptions and then correct those assumptions over time.

4. Depoliticize social issues with abstraction

When it comes down to it, we’re all affected by prejudice. We don’t live in a vacuum. However, we can depoliticize a social issue by removing the words or symbols that prompt prejudiced reactions. If we can get someone to understand a social issue symbolically, they may be open to applying those lessons to real social issues. One of my own games that I believe uses this technique effectively is A Game About *.

Abstraction can leave a game open to interpretation and create conversations. It also leaves space for players to consider how the game's concepts are relevant to their own lives.

5. Role reversal

Consider a world in which heterosexuality is considered an abomination or women are expected to be the primary wage earner. Games are, at their heart, simulations. What parallel universe should we experience?

6. Play both sides

Real-world conflict doesn’t usually come from an evil antagonist butting heads with a kind protagonist. Real conflict comes from two well-intentioned people with different motivations and value systems. With games, we can ask players to play both sides, forcing them to see the complex impact of well-intended actions.

7. Explicit consequences for your actions

Many games take advantage of the fact that your actions are inconsequential. In war games, it's easy to just ignore the huge body count that you rack up. But it's worth considering the power of making a player's actions have more significant consequences.

For instance, in the game jam game “Mook is Murder”, the creator specified a global finite supply of enemies. When they’re all dead, they’re extinct -- for everyone who ever plays the game forever. As another example, in “You Only Live Once”, you can literally only play the game once. This makes your choices more pressing — will you spend time with your family or attempt to find a cure for an apocalyptic plague?

8. Rules are for breaking

It’s easy to draw a parallel between game rules and societal norms. Consider a game in which the only way to win is to break the rules. This is, after all, the real-world definition of subversive movements. Think about the impact that Rosa Parks had when she refused to follow a simple rule.

How might that be applied in games? Imagine a fighting game where the only way to win is to not fight.

What do you think? Have I left out any design strategies that you think might be useful?