Normalizing Queerness in Games

(Photo by Jason B. from Eskhaton Larp. Models: Stan Stanley and Ericka Skirpan.) Happy Pride Month everyone! The next few weeks should see some wonderful guest posts from various queer larpers, but I wanted to start with a topic which has been on my mind a lot lately: Queer stories in larp. I just premiered a game called ‘Velvet Noir’ which much of the community is jokingly calling ‘Be Gay, Do Crime’ the larp. At first, this catch phrase slightly bothered me. The game isn’t inherently about being queer. In fact, it’s directly highlighting several other marginalized cultures and the ‘queer’ crime family are the disempowered npcs that are a part of the setting’s background. They aren’t a primary focus of the story. So, it felt disingenuous to call it “Be Gay, Do Crime” the larp, when it was about so much more than that.

But then our first event happened and I realized something beautiful. No, this wasn’t a queer themed larp. It was a queer-normalized one. Within the games’ space, being queer isn’t a spotlight of the story. It’s not what makes people’s struggles or where the focus of narrative is being told (there is no “Token Gay Couple” to be killed at the end of the day.) But there are many queer people in EVERY faction of the game, to the point that being queer in the space is simply a normalized function of all the factions. In this setting, people get to be queer AND black, queer AND violent, queer AND a leader, etc. By not putting the spotlight on queerness, people are simply allowed to exist as queer people telling a thousand other interesting stories in the same way straight people have gotten to tell stories for a thousand years. Once I wrapped my head around that, I realized just how freeing it felt. It’s incredibly nice to be able to play a queer individual in a larp and ALSO be horribly flawed, because I don’t feel this necessity to be the pinnacle of ‘what it is to be queer’ when representing myself in a game. It lets queer folx tell stories in a way which isn’t constantly fighting just to be seen, exist, and respected in a space.

It was really damn nice.

I’d recently played another game that did this quite well: Real Royalty. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now better understand why queer players felt so free and so comfortable to be themselves in that space. It wasn’t styled as an inherently queer game, though there were queer inspired factions and queer aesthetics were definitely a great part of the style. Queer characters were simply an everyday occurrence in each of the factions, so queerness was easily normalized in the space. It let queer players focus on other narratives, goals, and representation than holding space for their queerness at a larp.

Now, this isn’t to say we shouldn’t tell specifically queer stories too. The first larp that comes to mind when I think about a specifically *queer stories* game is Just a Little Lovin’. It was probably the first larp to go mainstream that specifically focused on queer stories and experiences. I hope, very desperately, that one day I’ll get to participate in a run of it. But sometimes, queer larpers don’t want to be in a space where they have to contemplate the struggle of their own existence constantly. Queer stories are not easy ones. It’s been a struggle for all of us and the current political climate isn’t letting it feel like things are getting easier any time soon. Therefore, it feels even more important to me to give queer folx a space where their existence can be comfortable and normalized while they focus on being able to tell stories in the same way the heteronormative community has for ages.

How Can I Normalize Queerness in My Game Design?

To new game designers, you might be wondering how to do this; And should you? In my personal opinion (especially looking at the demographic of larpers these days) there is every reason in the world to normalize queerness in spaces you are designing, even if you do not intend on making a specifically queer game. Short of historical reenactment (and trust me, history was INCREDIBLY queer also, but it’s just a different way of telling queer stories), most games would benefit from having queerness a simply normal background part of the concept. If you’re wondering what this looks like, there’s any number of modern television shows which are doing it well (The Orville comes to mind first, because I’m a nerd.) But here’s a few easy tips to use to normalize queerness if it doesn’t come to you naturally.

Queer Character and Setting Examples: Most games use fictional characters to describe parts of the setting, how certain mechanics work, or even in fluff fiction at the beginning/end of the book. When you are writing these pieces, use as many queer characters as you do heteronormative characters. If it doesn’t go against your style guide, use they/them as pronouns when describing a character. You shouldn’t make the examples about HOW they are queer (aka: Don’t make the example story about the character coming out to their parents, or their queer lover dying), but simply how queer people do every day things in your setting like anyone else.

(Photo by Jason B. Also, photographers! Take as many photos of queer love as you do straight love. In all my hundreds of gaming photos, I could literally find 2 that were actively of one of my queer characters being queer.)

Make Gender Fluid: If you are in any sort of fantasy or science fiction setting, there is no need for them to conform to the construct of gender as we currently have it build into our patriarchal society. You don’t need to write a huge packet about the intricacies of gender in the setting (not unless you are specifically writing a larp to explore those dynamics, which is a totally different thing), but having a paragraph about how the expectations of gender in this world don’t match our own and that players are welcome to portray any gender they wish to play without it being considered ‘strange’ in the setting. If you are really hung up on how to write something like this, as it does need to be treated with respect, higher a gender fluid writer or sensitivity reader to help you cover the topic. Lastly, do not ERASE all gender either. Making a setting a blanket ‘they/them’ setting is just as hurtful to queer folx as forcing people to conform to heteronormative standards. Gender should be personal choice and expression, not something players are forced to conform to portraying.

Queer NPCs: Every time you cast a couple for NPCs, are they heteronormative? Stop it! Showcase as many queer couples as you do straight couples. In fact, why not start with a queer couple as the first major plot couple you put on stage? It’ll set a good example for things going forward in the future. And it doesn’t have to be a couple! You can write it into NPC backstories that they are going home to their same sex partner(s) once they are done with this last mission. A simple throwaway line can make a queer player feel so much more accepted in the setting.

Allowing Queer Characters to be Imperfect: I think this was my biggest realization for Velvet Noir, that normal people aren’t perfect paragons of representation. When you have queer characters on stage, allow them to be as flawed and human as anyone else. Queer characters shouldn’t be scared to take risks, fail, and have it reflect on EVERYONE queer around them. Queer characters should be individual humans and normalized enough that the entirety of the cast isn’t looking at that small group of people to define what it is to be queer for the whole setting.

Reexamine Family Structures: (Suggested and written by Samara Metzler. You can find her at Samara, Dancing Frozen.) This is especially important in fantasy games and other settings where kingdoms are prevalent. Does your monarch absolutely have to be the blood descendant of the previous monarch? Could they be adopted, or born via surrogate, or even wished into existence? Displaying non-nuclear families in your story setting and NPCs is a great way to show that all types of relationships are accepted parts of your world. One character might have two dads, while another might have a dad and two moms, while another was raised by the whole village, while another was found under a tree as a baby and grew up with a single parent. Normalizing adoption and de-emphasizing heredity can be huge ways to make queer players feel comfortable at your game, especially since so many queer folk rely on chosen family in real life.

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