Finding Ourselves in Play: A New Database of Games on Sexuality, Gender and Relationships

"Opportunities for queer representation are improving, but there are certainly still gaps that need to be filled."

by The Editor & Alayna Cole on October 18th, 2016

In a games industry still dominated by heteronormativity, Queerly Represent Me is surfacing games that build an alternative to mainstream representation, and connecting the queer community with games that reflect and support their lives, identities, experiences and relationships. Currently documenting over 450 games and featuring descriptions, images, and game details, the site also contains a number of resources, articles and survey results for the queer gaming community and its allies. In this interview, we chatted with Queerly Represent Me creator Alayna M Cole — a developer, game maker, researcher and teacher — about building the database, the state of queer representation in games, what’s still missing, the best games of 2016 so far, and what comes next.

MVC: First, can you tell us a bit about Queerly Represent Me? What was the inspiration for the idea, how did you get started and what are some highlights of your work so far?

Alayna: Queer representation is one of my primary research areas in my academic work, so Queerly Represent Me was inspired by the connection between this research and my ongoing work with games — although committing to undertaking a project of this magnitude required a little nudge from my partner, Dakoda, who works with me in the industry. Early database entries were inspired by my own game experiences and previous reading on the topic, as well as responses to a Queer Representation survey that I conducted in May. The database has since been populated through suggestions by the community, on top of my own discoveries.

QRM is primarily sorted into the broad categories of sexuality, gender, and relationships, although it is also possible to search through the database for more specific key terms. Initially a collection of examples and resources that I could access as part of my own research, QRM was never designed to convince people of the importance of representation; rather, it is mostly used by journalists and academics seeking titles to inform their research, or gamers seeking titles that align with their interests. I never expected the database to have such a wide-reaching impact so quickly, and I am pleased that my work has helped people within the queer community find representations of themselves in games, as well as students and academics find valuable information to inform their research. Every email I receive celebrating QRM helps motivate me!

Database entry for Aoi Shiro, 2008 visual novel by developer/publisher Success. Reads "Aoi Shiro features same-gender relationships between women, as the game is a Yuri visual novel focusing on lesbian pairings. The game has 56 narrative trajectories to follow that explore differing relationship dynamics. The game features limited sexual content (although there is some sexual implications and eroticism in interactions involving vampires)" and contains a screenshot from the game picturing a woman lying on a pedestal. Dialogue reads "While thinking that, I reached down to touch Yasumi who was lying on the pedestal to carry her. At that moment..."

Queerly Represent Me entry on Aoi Shiro.

MVC: As you built the database, what trends did you see, and what gaps still exist, when it comes to games in this space?

Alayna: One thing I’ve found in building the database is that while all queer representation is lacking across games, same-gender relationships or attractions are the most common in games, particularly between women. However, these representations are often designed less for the women they are representing, and more to appeal to the straight male gaze. Diverse genders and relationship structures are lacking strong, positive examples of representation, as is asexuality.

With so many free and easy-to-use game-making tools available, indie game development is an industry that is rapidly expanding, and this allows for more diverse stories to be told by those with first-hand experience with the identities they are portraying. So, opportunities for queer representation are improving, but there are certainly still gaps that need to be filled. I am currently exploring these more thoroughly in a paper set to be published by the end of the year.

MVC: This past May, you conducted the Queer Representation Survey. What were the goals of that survey and what were the most interesting findings?

Alayna: The Queer Representation (2016) survey was initially a simple poll, which I intended to use as a foundation for QRM and for some ongoing writing about queer representation in games. I did not expect the survey to gain the traction it did—it ended up receiving approximately 150 responses in the two weeks it was open, which is ten times what I was expecting! The survey results have offered a lot of interesting quantitative and qualitative data, but by far the most interesting results were the incredibly personal stories offered by participants about individual characters or games that reflected their own identities and the reasons these representations were so important to them. These stories reaffirmed my belief that diverse representation is vital and that the fight to improve representation is valuable.

MVC: What are some of your personal favorite titles that have come out in 2016 as far as queer representation?

Alayna: It’s not perfect, but my favourite title from 2016 so far is probably Stardew Valley. Although it enforces binary genders in the character creator and adheres to heteronormativity in the town, the game is progressive in terms of ungendered customisation options and options for same-gender relationships (including marriage and having/adopting children).

Another favourite title from this year is Reigns, in which you play as a succession of kings and make decisions about your kingdom. It’s possible to choose to take a male lover and the kingdom has no problem with it, just as they don’t mind you taking a female lover. Representation of sexuality in the game is subtle, making it an interesting example.

I’ve also just had a chance to preview Dishonored 2, which is coming out at the end of the year and which is rumoured to feature some queer themes. It’s excellent to see a triple-A title incorporating diverse representation, particularly one that looks as awesome as this game!

MVC: Tell us a bit about the tech stack for Queerly Represent Me! How is it built, what was the hardest technical challenge you faced, and what are your plans for its future?

Database entry for Queers in Love at the End of the World, 2013 interactive fiction for PC by developer Anna Anthropy. The description reads "Queers in Love at the End of the World features a queer relationship, and you have ten seconds to spend with your lover before everything is wiped away." A screenshot from the game reads "In the end, like you always said, it's just the two of you together. You have ten seconds, but there's so much you want to do: kiss her, hold her, take her hand, tell her"

Queerly Represent Me entry on Queers in Love at the End of the World.

Alayna: QRM is hosted on a private server and built on Pico. I use a custom-made admin interface, which I also use for my personal website. Pico’s simplicity and lack of built-in constraints has made it more suitable for me because I like having the freedom to make the site look and behave however I want. I have done most of the coding for the site myself, but also use some custom plugins that were built by Pontus Horn, who I work with at our co-founded development studio, Horned Llama.

Because of the freedom my setup allows, I’ve had very few technical difficulties with QRM. The database is growing all the time, and I have no major plans for a new iteration at this stage; instead I am hoping the site will continue to gradually expand with new entries and resources until the need for a new version presents itself.

MVC: In addition to creating Queerly Represent Me, you’re also a game developer yourself. Can you tell us a bit about some of your most recent work, and where it fits into your overall practice and philosophy?

Alayna: Most games that I design and develop feature queer representation in some way, and has done since before I founded QRM. My work varies from titles such as Fairy Tale and the upcoming Constellations (which I am working on with Horned Llama), which feature queer characters as part of the game environment, to interactive fiction such as The Icecream Parlour and Snapshot, which feature queer themes as central to the game.

Screenshot from Snapshot game: shows a room in pixelated graphics with skull and heart posters on the wall, a computer desk, several bookshelves, a rug, and bed with pillows.

Image from Snapshot.

I began writing creatively for games even before I began writing about them critically as a journalist and academic, so embedding the themes that are important to me in the games I make has always felt natural. I am continuing to develop games when I am able to because I am now teaching game design at a tertiary level; when working in that environment, it’s just as important to keep my creative development skills honed as it is to practise my academic work.

MVC: What’s next for you and for Queerly Represent Me overall, and how can our readers support your work?

Alayna: In the short-term, QRM will continue to gradually expand as new titles arise or existing titles are brought to my attention. The database will form the basis of academic research I am presenting and publishing in the upcoming months, as well as helping with the research and writing of other students, academics, and journalists. In addition to my work with QRM, I have several game titles and alternative media products to work on, students to teach, and games criticism to publish, as well as a few more games conventions and academic conferences to attend. There’s plenty to keep me busy!

If readers are interested in supporting QRM financially, they can donate directly on our site (link in footer!). The site takes a lot of unpaid time to maintain, so any donations that help to support me and my work are appreciated. Otherwise, readers are welcome to contact QRM via Twitter or email if they encounter queer representation in the games they play—I’m always happy to receive tips!