The video-game industry operates on a distinct binary of gender. Gaming companies and websites catering specifically to “girls’ games” peddle games based on shopping and cooking.
Simultaneously, games like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and God of War are marketed towards cisgender and straight males. These games have visuals of graphic and gratuitous violence, often catering to hypermasculine expectations of gender. The demarcations remain so rigid, that there have been active campaigns, such as #Gamergate, where cisgender male gamers have aggressively dismissed the sexism in games and the gaming workplace.
Yet gaming is beginning to be informed by discourses on gender. In the niche space of indie gaming, developers are using their own experiences of gender violence and struggles with gender identity to create games that deal with exactly that. Most of these games, for example, have no gender expectations on the gamer (no ‘Are you a boy or a girl’ as in the beginning of Pokemon Red). Instead, they explore what masculinity and femininity even is, by placing the player right at the centre of this investigation. In one game, the player plays from the perspective of a trans person, living out the complexity of the everyday, like using a public bath (one night, hot springs). In another, you interact with a variety of people (or, as in the case of Night in the Woods, anthropomorphic animals) of different sexualities and genders as you play along. Most of these games are developed by people who identify as lesbian/gay and/or trans, meaning that the narratives are often autobiographical and subversive. Here are five games that you can play across different platforms, which challenge gender binaries and heterosexual narratives in gaming:
- one night, hot springs
Compatibility: Windows, Android, Mac OS, iOS, Linux
This incredibly short game is a “visual novel”, where the choices you make determines the outcome of the story. You play as Haru, a Japanese woman assigned male at birth. Haru’s friend Manami invites her for a weekend to relax in the hot springs. The game unfolds to express the complexity of simple pleasures for transgender people in public spaces: how gendering forces a constant divide between wanting to act on what you like and being forced to opt out because of your gender identity. Depending on what you choose to do, the game can result in seven different outcomes. This simple design and story makes it very friendly for anyone above the age of three, and indeed, is a good way of explaining the gender spectrum to a young person.
- Falling Out of Place
Compatibility: Windows, Mac OS, Linux
If you are looking for a game with quirky design that explores what male-ness and female-ness even mean, Falling Out of Place is a great game to turn to. Just like one night, hot springs, the game is a visual novel, where the choices you make determine the outcomes of the game. At the beginning of the game, you can choose whether you want to play as a male or female college student. As the game progresses, you wake up, having switched bodies to the other gender. As you embark on different choices, the situations work to examine the gendered nature of public spaces, and different gender expectations.
- Night in the Woods
Developer: Infinite Fall
Compatibility: Windows, Mac OS, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Price: £10 on Steam
One of the more popular games on this list, this game is notable for its exploration of gender and sexuality within the intersections of class, mental health and modern-day alienation. In this adventure-mystery game, you play as a college dropout named Mae, who happens to be a cat. On returning to her mining hometown, Mae interacts with her friends, family and neighbours to uncover the mystery of secret disappearances. Mae struggles with poor mental health through the game – a narrative element that has been dealt with with exceptional sensitivity. Mae identifies as a pansexual. Through the game, she interacts with characters that have different genders and sexualities. That each of the characters is an animal adds a greater sense of gender as performative. The game has a brilliant design, and is suited for veteran gamers, who are as interested in moving the game forward, as they are in a stimulating narrative.
Developer: Ryan Rose Acae
Compatibility: Windows, Mac OS, Linux,
Price: £5 on itch.io
Genderwrecked is fascinating, because it takes on so many different politics, while placing investigations of gender right at the centre. The game begins with you being able to choose your own gender, from “she/her/her” to “ze/zir/zir” or even typing out your own gender. You play in a post-apocalyptic world, filled with terrifying monsters who philosophise and puzzle over the difficulties of claiming any gender. This visual novel is rife humorous and dark commentary on gender that convinces you the being genderqueer is the normative, and everything else is simply a façade. Much like Night in the Woods, by having monsters as the different characters of the game, the game dislocates gender expectations. You will enter this game for the nuanced and thoughtful discussions on gender, and you will stay for the dark visual delights of the game.
Developer: Anna Anthropy/Auntie Pixelante
Compatibility: Online, Adobe Flash enabled
This autobiographical game is designed in the old 32-bit style of Gameboy and the original Mario. The game designer, Anna Anthropy, designed the game to present the social and emotional impact getting hormone therapy had on her life. With 4 levels and multiple mini-games, this short game looks living with gender dysphoria, the difficulty of accessing oestrogen, and the emotional toll transitioning takes on one’s body. Through simply the arrow pad, you shave, take pills, make doctor’s appointments, bypass a street that mis-genders you and mentally fortify yourself against the mood swings that medication brings. As the developer wanted to make the game accessible to people undergoing transition and their families, the game is free-to-play online.
Each year, the number of gaming consoles and gamers increases, yet game designers’ perception of what constitutes “games for girls” and “games for boys” has remained strangely fixed. By explicitly challenging the very idea of gender through gaming, these games (among others) act as important points of intervention in this narrative, which is what makes them so powerful.
- Stuti Pachisia is studying for an MA in Comparative Literature at SOAS University of London. She is interested in culture, ecology, gender, society and policy, which means she spends most of the time feeling deeply troubled.