Queer video and tabletop games from Australia and New Zealand that celebrate LGBTQIA+ culture and resistance


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Apr 16, 2023

Queer video and tabletop games from Australia and New Zealand that celebrate LGBTQIA+ culture and resistance

The very first queer character to appear in an Australian-made video game was

The very first queer character to appear in an Australian-made video game was Big Gay Al, in the 2000 racing game South Park Rally. Based on the flamboyant character from the edgy American cartoon series, he was a subject of ridicule.

Pride at Play, an exhibition that debuted at Sydney World Pride and is now opening in Melbourne, shows how far queer games have come since then.

Xavier Ho, a Monash University lecturer in interaction design and a visiting fellow at the University of Sydney's Hunt-Simes Institute in Sexuality Studies, curated the exhibition, which features 22 video and tabletop games made in Oceania and the Asia-Pacific.

Ho told ABC Arts that these games, made primarily by queer designers, "centre the [queer] characters as the main quests; so if you were to remove the lead protagonist, who happens to be a lesbian, from the game, then the game will completely lose its plot".

This stands in sharp contrast to the "bury your gays" narrative trope, by which queer characters are treated as expendable.

"[Instead] these games show that queer people can be happy and that queer people are here. The experiences that we live through are actually excellent storytelling plots," says Ho.

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While queer video games have found appreciative audiences on smaller, independent platforms such as Itch.Io, they tend to suffer on mainstream gaming platforms such as Steam, where they are often review-bombed. Their game trailers are also inundated with negative comments on YouTube.

"It is still going to be a while before the mainstream audience will have a broader acceptance [of queer video games]. I don't think we're there yet, but it's getting there slowly," Ho says.

The Guardian recently reported that at least nine queer events have been cancelled by Melbourne councils in the past six months due to far-right threats, including an event in the City of Monash, where Ho works.

"[That's why] it's super important to put this on. This event celebrates queer culture and is the kind of resistance that is needed," Ho says.

Drawing on Pride at Play, here are eight queer games made by Antipodean LGBTQIA+ designers.

Warning: This article contains sexual references.

Kinder World is a mobile game in which players nurture and care for their house plants by completing real-world wellbeing exercises. It was created by Naarm/Melbourne games studio Lumi Interactive.

Ho says: "A lot of queer games are really loud, just like the Mardi Gras parade is super loud; Kinder World is doing the opposite of that."

Players are guided by a non-binary Samoyed named Samy and have the option of decorating their spaces with pride items — such as a frog waving the transgender flag.

You can write letters in the game, which the Lumi team then responds to. Some players, inspired by Samy, have come out as non-binary in their correspondence.

Importantly, Kinder World can be played in countries where being gay is illegal.

"Kinder World looks like a game where you're just tending to house plants, so you can have your little queer moment without danger," says Ho.

Logan is an autobiographical tabletop role-playing game made by Melbourne games designer Logan Timmins.

Described as "a work of queer joy, trans pride, resilience, growth and love", the game allows the player to journey through Logan's own transition. Unusually for a tabletop game, it's played solo.

As you play, you face questions and quandaries that Logan faced growing up: What kind of clothes will you wear to school? Which classmates will you spend time with? What will you tell them?

"In this game, transitioning is non-negotiable; at some point you will hit that stage and then you will have to make a few decisions," Ho explains.

"It's this condensed slice of life narrative, which is really fantastic and leads to a very interesting moment of self-introspection for the player."

This short computer game is inspired by the 2016 viral YouTube video 'British lads hit each other with chair' (which is true to its name, but also begins with the British lads in question pecking on the lips).

Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland-based American artist, writer and games developer Robert Yang makes "extremely gay games," says Ho.

"When he saw that video, he was like, this is the epitome of 'It's so straight, it's basically gay'. And he wanted to make a video game about it as a tribute."

Hard Lads takes its inspiration fairly literally: The gist of it is shirtless men hitting each other on the back with a folding chair.

Yang describes it as a "a downloadable masculinity simulator for Windows, macOS, and Linux … about shirtless hunks who smoke, drink, kiss, and hurt each other". The ending is utterly surreal.

Stand Up is an interactive online poem game designed by non-binary transgender writer, educator and zine maker Rae White, who lives in Meanjin/Brisbane.

White says the trans experience is often reduced to as "one simple/single/matter-of-fact impersonal medical procedure," when the reality is far more multifaceted and nuanced.

In their words, Stand Up "unzips the notion of what it means to be trans. Because being trans isn't just about one single thing — it's a medley, a blend, a bundle".

The game runs for around 5 minutes, and takes the player on a short journey from a doctor's office into a wider world, where characters have poetic, affirmational messages for them.

Stand Up was made on Bitsy, a free, lo-fi game engine that allows non-coders to create and self-publish pixel-art-based games.

"It shows that you don't have to learn how to program or code or even make [visual] art to make a video game," says Ho.

TOMBS stands for the unlikely phrase "toot on my balls skeleton". Yep. It's a tabletop role-playing game for two or more players, in which the players are skeletons trying to have sex with each other.

Naarm/Melbourne designer Cameron Burke explains: "You are both horny and up for each other's sex. But over the millennia you have forgotten how sex works."

In order to figure out which of your bones remain, and how to use them, players engage in a series of mini games.

Burke had made tabletop role-playing games before TOMBS, but this was their first foray into something personal. TOMBS was developed during the pandemic, when Burke was reconsidering their gender identity and had also become chronically ill.

"The game turns the idea of sexual intimacy into this very silly space, while also touching on the idea of disability and the idea of forgetting," Ho says.

"It is quite wonderful; I highly recommend it to any group of friends who want to have a silly night."

That Boy Is a Monstr is an award-winning online game designed by Melburnian Sav Emmett Wolfe, a prominent figure in the local games scene.

It's about a transgender man going on a date with a cis man, faced with choices ranging from the banal (what to wear, whether to make his bed) to the rather more stressful (when and how to reveal the fact that he's trans).

As the date progresses, through a text-based story, there are more choices to make. Should you talk about work or werewolves, for example – and where will that choice lead you?

"[It only touches] the surface of what someone who's transgender goes through, but it's quite powerful," Ho says.

The Beat is designed by Luke Miller, who runs The Queer Games Festival in Naarm/Melbourne and was responsible for the first documented queer Australian game: My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant (2012). The Beat is a turn-based narrative computer game in which you play a closeted gay cop trying to solve the murder of a gay man.

The Beat's story is fictional but was inspired by the unsolved murders of gay men in Sydney from the 1970s-90s, the 1972 murder in Adelaide of gay academic George Duncan, and the police's alleged indifference to or complicity in those crimes.

Miller used photogrammetry (scanning photos of significant real-life places) to create the game's backdrops.

"[That] he brought these locations into the game, and then he constructed a fictional story that is very close to home for the LGBTQ community, is really quite something," says Ho.

This Game Boy — yes, Game Boy — game is set in a small Aotearoa/New Zealand town in 2007. It's about an awkward 17-year-old boy named Ken, who is struggling with a crush on his best friend, Fergus.

Small Town Emo was made by Fnife, an indie video games studio in Ōtautahi/Christchurch that specialises in LGBTQIA+ projects.

"You're playing through a story where you're dealing with multicultural immigration, [in] a town that's quite rural, and so technology is limited — you don't really have ready access to information [you need] — and you're dealing with your inner thoughts," says Ho.

"It's properly done on the Game Boy; you've got 8-bit MIDI music, really limited colour palettes, and the world feels like the original Pokémon."

Pride at Play is on at the Carlisle Street Arts Space, St Kilda Town Hall, until June 24 as part of the St Kilda Film Festival.

Warning: This article contains sexual references. Pride at Play is on at the Carlisle Street Arts Space, St Kilda Town Hall, until June 24 as part of the St Kilda Film Festival.