Culture industries increasingly use our data to sell us their products. It’s time to use their data to study them. To that end, we created the Post45 Data Collective, an open access site that peer reviews and publishes literary and cultural data. This is a partnership between the Data Collective and Public Books, a series called Hacking the Culture Industries, brings you data-driven essays that change how we understand audiobooks, bestselling books, streaming music, video games, influential literary institutions such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, and more. Together, they show a new way of understanding how culture is made, and how we can make it better.
—Laura McGrath and Dan Sinykin
In 2018, at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), perhaps the largest and most influential trade show for videogames, two women shared a kiss. And this kiss—though between two fictional characters, Ellie and Dina, in a trailer for The Last of Us Part II—sparked a divisive struggle within the gaming community over how queer people were being, and should be, represented in videogames.1 This debate was accompanied by online harassment, reminding many of 2014’s #GamerGate—a loosely organized online campaign that targeted women and minority peoples in the game industry, media, and academia with threats of violence.
Some gamers (predominantly white, heterosexual, and male) saw the lesbian kiss as just the latest example of social-justice warriors forcing gay politics and agendas down their throats. These gamers responded to the kiss by harassing developers and writers who were working on the game and attempting to review-bomb it before it was even released, in 2020.
For queer players, feelings were mixed. Certainly, Ellie and Dina’s kiss was clearly a step toward a more diverse and inclusive environment in games. Many queer players had never thought they would see lesbian characters so prominently featured in a mainstream videogame. And, despite the backlash, The Last of Us Part II went on to sell over 4 million units in its release weekend, beating staple franchises like Marvel’s Spider-Man.
Yet, as much as this was a victory, it also felt like a frustratingly small one: one queer kiss in a trailer, one queer relationship in the game itself. And even this limited amount of representation still elicited aggressive, reactionary, and even violent responses from some gamers. All this pointed to how much work remained to be done in building equitable, diverse, and inclusive spaces in games and beyond; it reminded queer players that, even as previously unthinkable representation finally happened, there could still be fierce resistance to any positive portrayal of LGBTQ people in games.
Indeed, the response to the kiss at E3 2018 calls into question the common refrain that representation is improving in games and other media. This notion of steady progress obfuscates a number of persistent, pernicious questions in representation: Has representation really improved in games? If so, how? Who is leading this alleged improvement? And, most importantly, for whom has representation improved, and who continues to be left out? We set out to answer these questions by analyzing data about LGBTQ characters and content in video games since the beginnings of the game industry in the 1970s.
Queer representation is intersectional, because, in addition to questions of sexuality and gender identity, queer characters inherently encompass other identities—of race, class, disability, and so on. Queer representation thus involves many nuances, and, as with effective representation of any group, must make space for multiple perspectives. Simply studying the total number of queer characters or scenes that appear in games, or focusing on a few prominent examples of representation in mainstream games, cannot capture these nuances.
To capture an intersectional understanding of queer representation in games, we drew data from the LGBTQ Video Game Archive—an online resource, founded by Adrienne Shaw, that aims to collect all known examples of queer representation in games since the 1970s. Using this data, we were able to investigate and visualize the numbers to paint a more nuanced picture of what has changed in games, and what has not.
We found, for example, that while it’s true there are more games with LGBTQ content now, there are also simply many more games generally than ever before. The proportion of games that contain queer content has remained incredibly small and relatively stagnant since the 1980s (see Figure 1, above). This trend holds even on platforms that have a reputation for supporting queer game developers, such as itch.io, where less than 3,000 of the more than 530,000 games on the platform contain LGBTQ content.
The differential became even more stark when we dug deeper into the data. Consider the fact that many of the games counted as containing queer representation had, in fact, very limited queer content—a side character, say, or a passing reference, even a joke. Decade after decade, only a minority of games counted as queer actually place queer content front and center.
In the 2010s, the number of games made that contained queer representation increased fivefold as compared to the 2000s; but, even so, queer content remains very much on the margins. If you play a game and avoid or never meet a particular queer character, did that queer character really exist for you? If you miss a passing reference to LGBTQ people, places, or activities, does that content count as meaningful representation?
Queer lives are not “side quests”—a term used for the optional, shorter adventures videogame players can choose to engage in, before getting back to the more meaningful main quest. For people who do not identify as straight or cisgender, being queer is an essential part of the main quest, precisely because it has such a tremendous influence on everything that happens around them. What mainstream games have offered so far is, essentially, tokenism: an acknowledgment of queer existence, perhaps, but only rarely the opportunity to be a central figure or hero.2
This should change. Queer videogame characters have immense potential to challenge normative narratives and render new modes of existence possible. Making meaningful change to representation means giving queer people the chance to stand on their own, rather than as part of someone else’s story.
Indeed, the sheer quantity of sidelining, homophobic, and transphobic content that appeared in games between 1985 and 2020 tells us that mainstream games are not made for LGBTQ folks. This erasure reinforces heteronormativity and can alienate queer players and developers. The positive LGBTQ content that we do have is built on the hard work, sacrifices, and tears of the queer people in gaming that came before. And now, perhaps surprisingly, there aren’t as few of them in the industry as one might think. In 2021, about 31 percent of game developers globally described themselves as nonstraight or noncisgendered, as compared to the less than 10 percent of the general population who self-report these identities, according to census data. This divide between the number of queer developers and the amount and quality of queer representation hints at the difficulties queer developers face in getting primary queer content approved and circulated.
We argue that games and game developers cannot shy away from queer narratives any longer. Simply representing inclusion is insufficient to provide meaningful change. For this inclusion to have meaning—to really bring the lived experiences of queer people into the main narrative more often and with more nuance—videogames featuring queer content must be coproduced with queer folks.
How can queer narratives be meaningfully represented in videogames? To do so, they must be purposeful, relate to the audience, and bring marginalized folks to the center. Unfortunately, video games—historically and today—haven’t done a good job of representing queer lives “wholly, honestly, and responsibly.”3
Look at the games containing queer references in the 1980s (25 of them) and the 1990s (92). Here, we found queer representation was often limited to explicitly negative content, including homophobic references (13 games), implicit and stereotypical queer characters (81 games), or LGBTQ peoples described in coded phrases like “men more ladylike than ladies are” (9 games). LGBTQ characters were often presented as exaggerated villains or as the butts of jokes. Or they were closeted, with only passing references to their gender or sexuality—often to insult their implied difference.
Such shallow and limited representation of queer characters made them easy for players to miss or ignore. This is “straight-washing” queer content: choices made by gamemakers to render queerness optional, or seemingly nonexistent.4
A prominent example of the negative queer representations through the ’80s and ’90s is the Leisure Suit Larry series. These games focused on the adult comedy of a bumbling heterosexual womanizer, and they often used LGBTQ characters as jokes or even as conditions for game over. For instance, if Larry was “tricked” into sleeping with a trans woman, the player would lose the game.5
Over time, as seen in Figure 2, queer representation in video games has trended away from the transphobic and homophobic content prevalent in the 1980s—like that of Leisure Suit Larry—toward more neutral or positive representation. Even so, negative and harmful portrayals have not disappeared altogether.6
Early queer games history does have some examples of positive LGBTQ representation. However, even these positive examples demonstrate limitations that remain with us today. Take 1989’s Caper in the Castro, the first LGBT murder mystery detective game, which featured a lesbian detective and a missing drag queen. Castro’s author, C. M. Ralph, sold the game to a publisher and, in the process, had to change all its queer references and rename the game Murder on Main Street. Ralph was able to make a steady income for many years with Main Street, but the game’s players likely never knew about its LGBTQ origin.
The years since have seen a steady increase in the number of queer representations, but often with the same tendency to sideline, hide, or mute queer content. New romance options appeared with the debut of Dragon Age: Origins (Bioware, 2009). Here, players could engage in romantic and sexual relationships with characters of the same sex, but only if they chose to complete these side quests fully. In Fable II (Lionhead Studios, 2008), players could complete an additional side quest—only after beating the game—to obtain a potion of transmogrification. This extra work would allow gamers to change the gender of their character, though the options remain binary male/female.
We also looked at the number of games recorded in the Archive that featured queer playable characters (PCs) and protagonists versus those with queer nonplayable characters (NPCs, including enemies and side or background characters), as shown in Figure 3. (This is a smaller sample, since we only had a partial set of encodings available on each character entry.) Queer characters are more often nonplayable than playable, demonstrating that, even when LGBTQ characters are represented, they tend to play a supporting role rather than getting to take center stage.
The limited data available so far for the 2010s seems to suggest that, as time goes on, more games are being made that feature queer PCs/protagonists. However, if we were also to include games that exclusively feature heterosexual and cisgendered characters in this analysis, the visualization would look much more like Figure 1. Even if the gap is closing, games with queer content still constitute an extremely small minority—and the queer characters that do appear are primarily optional side characters, rather than protagonists.
The limited nature of representational advances in games was further revealed when we took an intersectional approach, looking not only at gender and sexual identities, but also at race, nationality, and disability. Even where queer characters do appear, most of them are white, male, nondisabled, and homosexual.8
Indeed, we found—somewhat surprisingly—that queer representation in games actually became more white from the 1990s to the 2010s. And some intersections of identity—for instance, Black, Latinx, or Middle Eastern trans men—are, according to our analysis of the most up-to-date data, not represented in video games at all. These identities do not appear once across the 50 years and 1,300 games with LGBTQ content recorded in the Archive (see Figure 4).
We certainly do not contend that representation in gaming has not changed at all, or even that it has not changed in positive ways in recent years. The data shows clearly that representation is constantly changing, and more games with queer content are being produced than ever before. Yet, we can see that, alongside progress, there are still identities, communities, and peoples who are left out, their experiences erased. That common refrain of “representation is improving” rings hollow when you can still only find a few stories like yours—if you can find any at all.
How can queer narratives be meaningfully represented in videogames?
Who is telling queer stories in games is just as important as which stories are being told. Queer folks in the games industry—including developers such as Anna Anthropy, Robert Yang, and micha cárdenas—are working to make emphatically queer games, primarily for LGBTQ players.9 The majority of these developers are independent, meaning they work outside of large, mainstream game studios; the games they make are often smaller in scope, with an explicit focus on queer and trans identities and experiences. Their independence affords these developers the freedom to create games that center LGBTQ stories—and, in fact, almost every game available today that features a queer protagonist or storyline is made by these developers. But that independence also means these few, crucial developers are often creating with minimal support and fewer opportunities to get their games out in the world and profitable.
The data reveals that queer indie developers are responsible for most of the increase in LGBTQ representation in games. We are aware of approximately 4,200 queer games and examples of queer content (including games on itch.io that are not currently counted in the Archive); of these, roughly 3,100 (or around 74 percent) were made by indie creators. This correlative—between queer indie developers and queer content—is even stronger when we focus in on deep, meaningful representation: games in which queer characters and stories are primary.
This means the people doing the most work to advance queer representation (and diverse representation more generally) are also those least compensated for their work—since queer indie developers receive fewer opportunities, awards, and funds that could make their game development more sustainable.10 Here, again, the general narrative that representation is improving masks an inequity, in terms of who is doing the labor of changing representation, and how much they are rewarded for doing so.
This is further reflected in the platforms many queer indie developers choose for their games—platforms like itch.io and gumroad, which allow any fledging or professional designer to open a store page and distribute content for free or at a very low fee. Leaf Corcoran, the creator of itch.io, modeled the platform after Bandcamp, a website where music artists sell digital albums. Unlike major commercial platforms like Steam and Epic Games Store, itch.io imposes no minimum qualification that game designers must meet in order to upload and distribute their games. Launched in March 2013, itch.io hosts more than 530,000 games as of March 2022. More than 2,500 of those games (about 0.47 percent) are tagged as “LGBT.” Most of those are made by queer folks for queer folks.11 Across the entire industry, the vast majority of LGBTQ games are distributed on itch.io and made by independent game designers: self-funded and self-published, without any institutional backing.12
Platforms like itch.io are changing how queer characters are represented in mainstream media. But these changes are limited. With over half a million games on this one platform, the influence of LGBTQ developers and their games is still limited by mechanisms of discovery.13 Many of these games will never gain mainstream attention, large numbers of players, or significant returns on their game development.
Our research demonstrates how representation remains contained and controlled in the games industry. Furthermore, it reveals that most of the much-lauded changes in representation within this industry have been disproportionately driven by excluded and marginalized developers, who have inequitable access to resources and opportunities. We do not wish to undermine or minimize the ongoing efforts of the many people working to improve representation in games. Still, the mainstream games industry can do better—and our visualizations of the LGBTQ Video Game Archive data demonstrate some specific ways this could be achieved.
Firstly, game developers could make representations more prominent, deep, and meaningful. This can be done by refusing to relegate diverse characters and stories to optional, secondary content. Making a game with primary queer content is an active form of queer resistance, a way of undermining normative narratives in mainstream games and imagining otherwise. Making a queer game is about designing playful experiences for queer folks—not just as a subset of your audience but, potentially, as your primary audience.
Secondly, those in the industry could work to seek out stories, voices, and identities that are not currently represented in games at all. The observed increase in queer content does not, of course, mean all identities and experiences are seeing improved representation. Consider, for example, how the number of white queer characters has increased without a corresponding increase in the representation of trans men of color.
Thirdly, the distribution of resources to indie developers is necessary for fairer, more equitable production. Currently, the work of increasing and changing representation falls disproportionately on the shoulders of marginalized, indie developers, who see the least returns for their labor. When we looked at the LGBTQ games on itch.io, we found that queer stories are more likely to be primary in the games made by queer folks for queer folks. If we want to see more meaningful and diverse representation, we need to direct more attention, funding, and support to the indie creators driving the change.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the way to change representation is to change the dominant narrative that representation is already improving. This prevailing belief needs to be revisited and interrogated, if we are to advance meaningful diversity, equity, and inclusion in games—or, indeed, any other medium. Representation is a longstanding topic of debate in conversations about media from literature to film to television: What should representation look like? How much of it should there be? Should current modes of representation change at all? As with these other media, representation in games is not a problem to be solved as much as it is an ongoing, evolving question to navigate.
If we don’t critically measure, quantify, and qualify representation in games, we might start to feel complacent about the supposed inevitability of progress. Our data on queer videogames suggests that complacency can be dangerous, hiding the many aspects of representation that continue to stagnate and exclude. While representation is improving in some ways, we always need to keep asking: How is it improving? And for whom?
- The Last of Us Part II was developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, in 2020. ↩
- For example, Anna Anthropy pointed out that in the Mass Effect franchise, the mention of a gay character’s ex-husband did not faze the main character, Shepherd—as if this sci-fi world, though filled with war and hatred, had no quarrel with homosexuality. ↩
- Roger Smith and Adrienne Decker, “Understanding the Impact of QPOC Representation in Video Games,” 2016 Research on Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology (2016). ↩
- Bonnie Ruberg, “Straight-Washing ‘Undertale’: Video Games and the Limits of LGBTQ Representation,” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 28 (2018). ↩
- Adrienne Shaw, “Leisure Suit Larry: LGBTQ Representation,” in How to Play Video Games, edited by Matthew Payne and Nina Huntemann (New York University Press, 2019). ↩
- Negative portrayals tend to be homophobic or transphobic, involving, for instance, jokes that punch down or do harm. Positive portrayals tend to be educational or supportive; an example might be one character calling out harmful behaviors. ↩
- This chart only included games that contain moments when characters explicitly mention the LGBTQ community or talk about another character’s gender or sexuality. They make up a relatively small portion of the sample. ↩
- For detailed breakdowns over each decade, see the data visualizations in the “Gender and Sexuality” section of Queer Intersections in Video Games. ↩
- Though, as Bonnie Ruberg notes in their 2019 book Video Games Have Always Been Queer, a lot of qualities of queer games have influenced the mainstream game industry through their successful use of innovative, strange, and affective game design. ↩
- Bonnie Ruberg, “The Precarious Labor of Queer Indie Game-Making: Who Benefits from Making Video Games ‘Better’?” Television and New Media, vol. 20, no. 8 (2019). ↩
- LGBT games on itch.io haven’t been completely counted in the LGBTQ Video Game Archive yet, and the full number of games on itch.io are not included in the MobyGames database, which is why the numbers are larger here. This will hopefully change in the coming years, as the authors are collaborating to include them. ↩
- This only accounts for games that are made using English as the primary language. For a deeper discussion on the cost of making video games and issues of labor, see Bonnie Ruberg, “The Precarious Labor of Queer Indie Game-Making.” ↩
- Fortunately, itch.io supports discovering game by tags, which encompass genre (e.g., horror, puzzle, visual novels), visual aesthetics (e.g., 8-bit, retro, low-poly), and themes (e.g., gay, romance, drama). You can mix and match the tags to hone in on what you’re looking for. ↩