LGBTQ+ History Month: A Look Into Queer Gaming History

LGBTQ+ people have been creating and playing video games since the earliest days of Atari, Sega, and Nintendo, but up until very recently, there were very few games that had explicitly queer themes.


In honour of LGBT History Month, we cracked open the video game history books to uncover some trailblazing LGBTQ+ games and game devs whose stories are rarely told.


We hope this short look into queer gaming history will encourage you to fall down the rabbit hole with us, learning more about LGBTQ+ creators & games that shaped the modern gaming industry, and, just as importantly, seek out those that are charting the future of queer game development as we speak.


Pioneering LGBTQ+ Game Devs

Danielle Bunten Berry

Danielle Bunten Berry was ahead of her time, both as a visionary game designer & programmer and as a trans woman.


Danielle pioneered the multiplayer genre with the release of M.U.L.E. in 1983 (credited as ‘Daniel Berry’), a multiplayer strategy game combining real-time and turn-based combat as players battle for resources and territory on a newly colonized planet. She imagined a world where gaming was defined by interconnectedness.


As she once put it, "No one ever said on their death bed, 'Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.'"


Although Danielle contributed so much to the gaming industry as it exists today, the same industry that once celebrated her achievements when she identified as a man largely shunned her after her transition.


Still, Danielle continued to make games. She was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Computer Game Developers Association in 1998 before tragically passing away of lung cancer that same year at only 49 years old.


David Gaider

As one of gaming’s leading writers and an influential voice in the Dragon Age franchise, David Gainer has played a significant role in shaping the fantasy RPG genre over the past 20 years. One of his career-defining moments was the introduction of one of gaming’s most iconic gay characters in 2014: Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Dorian Pavus.


An openly gay man, David has made it his mission to change the narrative behind LGBTQ+ representation in games and expand the boundaries of what is considered “normal” in narrative storytelling.


In an interview with IGN, he said:

“There’s a tendency for every character’s default to be straight, white, and male in our industry… The moment you make them anything else, you suddenly need reasons why that’s okay… or do you? A certain amount of deliberateness is required to challenge the idea of a default, and while it feels a bit unnatural to do so, it’s absolutely necessary.”

Rebecca Heineman

Rebecca Heineman is a gaming industry veteran, having broken onto the scene in 1980 at only 16 by competing in the first-ever national gaming championship - and winning.


After earning the title of ‘Best Space Invaders Player’ in the United States, Rebecca became a game designer. In her early career, she worked on iconic titles like Crystal Quest and Doom, and she would go on to help found several video game companies, including Interplay Productions, Logicware, Contraband Entertainment, and Olde Sküül.


Rebecca struggled with the idea of coming out as transgender in an industry that was (and in some ways, still is) homophobic and transphobic. It wasn’t until she joined Electronic Arts in 2003 that she felt comfortable living as her authentic self.


In a testament to the importance of creating LGBTQ-inclusive studio policies, it was EA’s unprecedented policy for transgender employees that made all the difference. As Rebecca said in an interview with Xtra, “When I got hired and I read the employee manual, I cried tears of joy. It was eye-opening to me that this company was going to have my back.”


Since coming out, Rebecca has served on the advisory board of the Video Game History Museum and the board of directors of GLAAD. She was also inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame in 2017.


Rebecca is undoubtedly one of the most successful trans women in the history of the gaming industry.


Early LGBTQ+ Representation in Games

Caper in the Castro (1989)

Caper in the Castro is a murder mystery/puzzle-solving game developed by C.M. Ralph in 1989, widely considered to be the first LGBTQ-themed video game in history. Players assumed the role of a lesbian detective searching for clues along Castro Street in San Francisco to solve the disappearance of their friend, a local drag queen.



The Castro District is an internationally recognized hub for LGBTQ+ people in the Bay Area. After finding acceptance there in the late ‘80s, C.M. created the game to give back to their community and raise funds for AIDS charities. The game was distributed as “Charity Ware”, meaning players could download it for free but were encouraged to donate to an AIDS charity of their choice.


Like so much old media, Caper in the Castro has been largely lost to time, with only a few playable copies of the game left. But, its legacy as the first queer video game lives on.



GayBlade (1992)

Created by Ryan Best in 1992, GayBlade was billed as the “world’s first computer fantasy role-playing game for gay and lesbian adventurers”.


Affectionately known as “Dungeons and Drag Queens”, GayBlade prompts players to explore a dungeon filled with hordes of homophobic enemies while on a quest to rescue Empress Nelda and return her to Castle Gaykeep.



GayBlade strikes an expert balance between the silly and the political: the game is full of funny spells, items, and antagonists, but its final boss is real-life conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan, the era's most notorious opponent of gay rights.


In its creator’s own words, GayBlade “gives lesbians and gays—and straight people—a chance to strike back at homophobia from behind our computer screen.”



Once thought lost, Berry recently rediscovered a copy of the game’s software, and it’s been preserved by the LGTBQ Video Game Archive, Strong Museum of Play, and Internet Archive. You can even play GayBlade right in your browser!


 

We had a lot of fun learning about these iconic LGBTQ+ games & game devs, and we hope you did too!


If you want to continue reading about the history of queer & trans people in game development, and the LGBTQ+ game devs doing amazing work today, here are some places to start:


Online

  • LGBTQ Video Game Archive: A curated collection of information about LGBTQ content in games organized by Adrienne Shaw, a faculty member at Temple University’s Lew Klein College of Media and Communication.

  • Gayming Magazine: An online LGBTQ+ video gaming magazine dedicated to bringing together the queer and gaming communities, and uplifting LGBTQ+ games & game devs.


In print

  • The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games (2020): Bonnie Ruberg presents twenty interviews with twenty-two queer video game developers whose radical, experimental, vibrant, and deeply queer work is driving a momentous shift in the medium of video games.

  • Queer Game Studies (2017): A collection of in-depth, diverse, and accessible essays that use queerness to challenge the ideas that have dominated gaming discussions, covering important subjects such as the representation of queer bodies, the casual misogyny prevalent in video games, and the need for greater diversity in gamer culture.