From Birdo, the 1988 Nintendo character described in the manual as a boy who “thinks he is a girl”, to Robert Yang’s recent Radiator trilogy, which includes an autoerotic game about pleasuring a gay car, there’s a surprisingly rich history of queer content in gaming. However, these instances are rarely portrayed as part of broader LGBTQ culture. Berlin’s Schwules Museum has opened a new exhibition called Rainbow Arcade, that does just this.
The show leads visitors around a rainbow, each colour a different section, covering the last 33 years of queer content in games through fan art, memorabilia and video interviews with designers – as well as playable titles such as Caper in the Castro, one of the first explicitly queer games. In this 1989 game, based around the famously queer San Franciscan thoroughfare, players take on the role of lesbian detective Tracker McDyke to solve the disappearance of her friend and drag queen Tessy LaFemme. Made by developer CM Ralph, the game was only recently rediscovered and turned into a playable format with the help of Dr Adrienne Shaw, who co-curated the exhibition with Jan Schnorrenberg from the Schwules Museum and German gaming journalist Sarah Rudolph.
Shaw launched the LGTBQ Video Game Archive website in 2016, the first attempt to catalogue queer content in games. “Until the archive, there just wasn’t a historical understanding of LGBTQ content in this medium,” she explained. This often means that new games with queer content are perceived as a radical break from the norm, rather than additions to an existent cultural history: “It makes it really easy to forget that this kind of content has always been in games.”
In the exhibition’s indie games section (walls and arcade-style machines painted Pikachu yellow), visitors can play games such as Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World, a 10-second text-based game about intimacy and the apocalypse, or Dietrich Squinkifer’s 2013 stop-motion detective musical about gender and the economy, Dominique Pamplemousse.
Queer storylines have featured just as plentifully in mainstream series such as GTA or Final Fantasy. Even when these storylines are not explicit, fans are quick to fill in the gaps. Schnorrenberg points out a T-shirt made by the artist androponos, which collages screenshots of comments from Metal Gear Solid forums debating the series’ latent homoeroticism. “Fans are capable of finding representation where it’s not publicly acknowledged, or where the developers haven’t thought about the implications of what they did,” Schnorrenberg says.
This is not to say that queer content in games has always been enthusiastically received. A vocal minority of gamers have engaged in a virulent backlash to gender-inclusive storylines. Rainbow Arcade’s blue area comes with a content warning, and details some of the discrimination and trolling that queer creators often deal with.
The Gamergate controversy in particular was emblematic of resistance to the diversification of “traditional” gaming culture, that had previously been catering mostly to straight men. Despite this perception, Shaw explained, queer representation in games hasn’t changed dramatically, but rather reactions to this content are changing. For example, in 2006, the MMORPG World of Warcraft refused to allow a player to found the first LGBT guild, citing concerns about members’ harassment. The developer eventually relented and today there is an annual pride parade within WoW’s world.
What’s more, LGBTQ communities today are beginning to include gamers as part of their social structures. Shaw points to a flyer from a club in Philadelphia from a drag show about gaming earlier this year: “Ten years ago I don’t think you would have seen that.”
The exhibition is, as Schnorrenberg puts it: “a love letter to games”. The end of the rainbow, purple of course, presents numerous playable contemporary titles including Freelives’ Genital Jousting (it’s pretty much exactly as it sounds) or the Butterfly Soup dating simulator, about four queer, Asian American high-school girls. “For all the horrible things that have happened, there are also people who develop video games as therapeutic measure – to explain themselves,” Schnorrenberg says. “I just hope that people who go to this exhibition get to feel what an extremely interesting culture exists here.”