It is Pride Month. For those of us who needed years to figure out our identity, the timing couldn't be better. We try to find spaces where we can be us, or where we can determine who we are. Video game fandoms can serve as such a space. That is, if the space remains safe.
Many LGBTQ indie game creators relate their experiences of exploring identity and use the medium of games to discuss and explore mixed emotions or high tension. A sweet love story may emerge, or perhaps a riveting drama. In this context, there is potential for creators to attract LGBTQ fandoms. The fandoms that surround some games can become unique spaces where people can find themselves.
That might sound too good to be true. Sometimes it is, thanks to a phenomenon known as gatekeeping.
What is gatekeeping and why is it problematic?
Gatekeeping, as per the Cambridge Dictionary, is "the activity of trying to control who gets particular resources, power, or opportunities, and who does not". In the case of fandom, it may refer to who may meet standards regarding whether or not a person can assert a particular identity, or if a show meets benchmarks for accurate representation.
The big problem with gatekeeping is that it inherently excludes some people. In some contexts, gatekeeping might refer to scenarios where the barrier to entry for a particular experience or status is higher for specific people (or people in specific groups). This could manifest through, for example, one group needing to put in more effort or spend more money than another to achieve a particular status or experience. But gatekeeping can work the other way around, too. Fans - or sections of fandom - might apply gatekeeping principles to particular subjects, ideas, or genres. The creative individuals involved in these projects may be expected to meet certain discriminatory criteria. As a result of this, some animators, coders, and creators have lost their jobs merely trying to tell as tory.
When gatekeeping arises from within a given fandom, it's sometimes the case that individual gatekeepers actually lie about their identities or engage in heinous acts in an effort to enforce particular criteria on others. It seems to be true that when the fandom is larger, there's more opportunity for bad apples to arise. LGBTQ fandom is ostensibly about openness and inclusivity. Ironically, some fandoms do the exact opposite, by creating an atmosphere of exclusion, especially regarding queer representation in games. The result is often that these fandoms become less welcoming for queer fans. That's why I believe it is important to call out "anti" behaviors and nip them in the bud.
What are "antis", anyway? This term is used to describe individual fans who believe that fictional characters must conform to a very specific code of morality. When antis see other fans liking a villain - or even an "imperfect" character - they will typically label that fan a villain. While most fans likely adopt a "whatever floats your boat" attitude (to each their own, in other words), others believe it's actually important to control how others view fictional characters. Polygon has discussed this very issue with professor Paul Booth, where he describes the phenomenon as "protective fandom".
Are video games really that different in terms of representation?
Yes, they are. There is more LGBTQ representation in video games than in most other forms of media, particularly corporate media (like Western animation). There are certainly problematic fans of movies and books as well, but the overarching narrative around fandom and toxicity seems to be largely centered on video games.
It's not really surprising, especially when you think about indie games. It is now easier than ever for individuals and small teams to produce and ship a video game to the public. This means there are more games being made than ever before. And these games are being made by a much wider and more diverse set of creators. Distributing games via the internet has radically leveled the playing field in a way that hasn't quite happened in, say, film. If you know how to code and tell a great story - ideally with some gorgeous art to boot - then you stand a pretty good chance of finding an audience for your game.
Examples of gatekeeping in gaming fandom
Undertale is a game with a wholesome queer rep. Two prominent characters are Alphys and Undyne who - regardless of the route - are established as a couple. Then there's Mettaton, who uses they/them pronouns. Mettaton is happy to wear a dress and play Juliet, flirting with the human player character as part of the show. The semi-sequel Deltarune goes further by depicting a WLW (woman-loving-woman) relationship as canon between teen characters.
Some fans, however, take issue with the fact that some of the fandom-based relationships involve the human player character. It should be noted that while some of the monsters are centuries old (and therefore, a legally adult human would still be a "child" by their standards) is irrelevant, especially given that none of these characters are real people. It's not my thing - I read Undertale analyses for hints around the greater lore - but I'm not going to bother people about something that floats their boat.
What of the antis, then? Well, there's the story of the Sans-Frisk 'shipper fan artist who received cookies that had needles baked in them. While there was no direct proof that the dangerous items were baked by someone who didn't approve of this fan-created relationship, the internet nevertheless debated the possible cause. After all, why else would you go out of your way to harm an artist at a convention? Other horror stories exist related to the game and its fandom. It's embarrassing how some fans used to harass "let's players" (people who post recordings of their gameplay online) when they didn't want to do a full pacifist play through.
Of course, Undertale isn't the only game with this issue. Some antis have claimed that Detroit Become Human involves an incestual relationship between an android and his partner on the force (GeekDad writes about this, and I had to read this tidbit twice to make sure my glasses weren't fogged up with disbelief).
With all of that said, not every game with a queer reputation suffers from these issues. There's such a high volume of indie games being released every year that there are still plenty with smaller fandoms - and therefore, fewer antis. Night in the Woods is an example of a game that hasn't gone viral with people who bake needles into cookies or harass creators about perceived 'immoral' fictional relationships. This certainly suggest there's some hope, and that it's not inevitable for indie games to fall into the toxic community trap.
If gatekeeping is so awful, why does it exist?
Ah, the eternal question. Logically speaking, both creators and fans should want to include more people in their communities. And yet, for some reason, every fandom community seems to have that moment where they diverge down one of two pathways: either they begin to exclude people (or find reasons to make them feel excluded), or you raise the standards so high that few can enter.
Of course, creators and fandom organizers may want to 'screen' people to make sure they aren't antis, TERFs, acephobes, or biphobes. I believe antis are especially dangerous due to the way they try to impose strict moral codes on other fans (and even creators). It's always necessary to watch out for dog whistling, profiling, and harmful rhetoric. It can be especially painful when you engage with someone on Tumblr who seems to be a senpai (a mentor or senior member of the community), only to find out that they harbor hateful opinions. This happened to me once, and I still feel betrayed.
The cases I described above are the thin end of the wedge, in the sense that they are theoretically easier to identify. But there are also cases where fans will have legitimate concerns about representation in a game not being accurate, or devolving into harmful stereotypes. It's often the case that LGBTQ+ people have to settle for crumbs when it comes to accurate representation in their favorite media. Many forms of media still struggle to represent gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans characters. And that's to say nothing of how asexuality is represented.
It doesn't help when bad actors take advantage of community rules to cause chaos (or they eventually take over the space and make the rules).
Sometimes it feels like years of (often warranted) anger about poor representation suddenly explodes at the wrong person. Rather than gently and respectfully guiding an artist through constructive feedback, some fans end up attacking creators personally. It feels like that needs to change, especially if we really do care about protecting the marginalized and vulnerable.
The way forward for video games
It can be deeply meaningful when a video game connects with a player. It's an act of love. You feel that moment; someone has seen you and understands you. It's only natural that we want to share and celebrate that moment of connection.
Many fandoms arise in the first place with such context. You might play a new game and decide to stream it. Maybe it slowly gains traction. It's an LGBTQ game like Night in the Woods or Glitchhikers. The game has a Discord or Twitter following. The community seems welcoming and friendly, so you join, and you do what you can to contribute. Alternatively, you might be the one who discovers a new game well before it becomes popular. You might want to use any influence you have on social media to promote it. What's understandable is your desire - having found a great experience - to want to share it with others who might also enjoy it.
It seems clear that the best time for intervention and rule-setting is when fandoms are in their embryonic stages. So, when a new community is set up in Discord for example, that's the time to lay down some ground rules around expected behaviors. It's also useful to be well-armed, in terms of understanding signals for homophobia, transphobia, and racism just to name a few examples. Be prepared to call out these behaviors as much as you're prepared to follow a community's rules yourself.
And of course, when setting boundaries within a community, make sure to set your own personal boundaries too. If you feel you're becoming too emotionally invested in a way that might be harmful to your own mental health, don't be afraid to step back and take a break when needed.
The path to healthy pride
It goes without saying that there should be no tolerance for outright Nazis and homophobes; after all, rainbows are only illusions until we make them real. If you see red flags that suggest anti behavior, especially when one fan is gatekeeping another, make note of it. Keep a record of any harassment you encounter. This is especially important if you run the community or Discord for a particular game. It is the responsibility of community leaders to make sure that these spaces are truly safe for people; so don't be afraid to give bad actors the boot the moment you detect them.
Instead of resorting to judgment, let's see if we can encourage kindness and healthy conversations. Video games are a great space for us to welcome people who are still exploring their identities, and they provide an opportunity to establish positive new communities. At least a dozen games released this year feature some kind of queer relationship (with even more arriving just within pride month). Let's celebrate these experiences together and enjoy their stories, both in the virtual and the real worlds.
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