In this Ask an Archivist, Adrienne Shaw, founder of the LGBTQ Video Game Archive and Associate Professor at Temple University, provides background on the development and categorization of the collection and its mission to show that LGBTQ+ people have always been involved in gaming. Adrienne further underscores the importance of including queerly-read games and explains the difficulty of running a community-based archive.
I understand that the LGBTQ Video Game Archive differs from traditional archives, given that it isn’t solely comprised of primary sources. Could you explain the motivation behind using the “archive” terminology? How would you describe the LGBTQ Video Game Archive to a perfect stranger?
The LGBTQ Video Game Archive is an evolving, public facing database of a research project that seeks to collect and document as much information about LGBTQ+ content in primarily (but not exclusively) digital games. It is not a true “archive” in the sense that what is presented on the main website is a synthesis of all the information I, or research assistants or volunteers, found in the process of researching each game. However, at least at the earlier stages of the project I also saved copies of all the original materials used to write those entries. Combined with a digitized archive of game materials from Joshua Savage, that data is available now via a hard drive stored at The Strong Museum of Play and the catalog of what is available on that hard drive is on the related Omeka site.
The central focus of the LGBTQ Game Archive website, however, has always been about synthesizing all that research for a public audience. I decided to make the archive publicly available in part because in doing research on LGBTQ+ content in games for other projects I often came across contradictory or incomplete information about specific characters or games and had to piece together information across various sources. I wanted to create a repository so others could benefit from labor I had already done. That said, I find the “archive” terminology useful in part because it emphasizes that what the website represents is more than simply a list of games and summary of content. One of the things I am most proud of from this project, for example, is helping get playable versions of Caper in the Castro (1989) and GayBlade (1993) up on the Internet Archive. While there is much more curation and synthesis work involved in the LGBTQ+ Game Archive than would ever be true of a traditional archive, my hope is to do as much related saving of materials and uncovering of lost early examples of LGBTQ+ Game Content as I can for future researchers.
Could you talk about the process of developing and organizing the archive? What is considered LGBTQ+ content, and how is it classified for the collection? And what is the value of including queerly read content?
I include on my main list any game that anyone has said has LGBTQ+ content. I started early on by relying on published lists of games with LGBTQ+ content, but the list expanded as I or assistants researched other games. Once the site was made public, people regularly submitted updates. The original list we started with in 2015 had about 150 games on it, and the list now (which needs updating) has almost 1,300. Each game is researched one by one to piece together all the information I (or whoever is working on the entry) can find about that instance of LGBTQ+ content. An early research assistant Elizaveta Friesem and I worked inductively while researching the content of the games to come up with the categories listed on the site. The content we consider can include gay bars, potions that change your character’s gender, homophobic or transphobic jokes, player created mods (modifications), or hidden easter eggs (content that is buried somewhere for players to discover). Most of the entries and games listed, however, feature LGBTQ+ or queerly read characters or relationship/romance/sex options. For the latter, we separate that from characters if the opportunity to have those interactions only occurs at the intersection of a player’s choice of gender for their character and choice of who to romance in the game. So, for example, if a game has a female non-player character (NPC) who will flirt with the player character regardless of what gender is chosen and the player can flirt back, that is an “optional relationship.” If, on the other hand, the NPC has been coded to have a specific sexuality and will flirt with specific genders, then we include them as a character in our database.
When it comes to labelling characters’ sexualities…it’s tricky! When there is explicitly labelled representation it is easy to go and count the number of characters of a given type. But a lot of characters, particularly in older games, often never have their sexualities explicitly stated. Characters may be coded as queer through mannerism, clothing, professions, or dialogue, and LGBTQ+ media studies have a long history of identifying implicit representation that I draw on in making some of those assessments. I also include games where, when I dig into the research, I can find no evidence of implicit or explicit LGBTQ+ representation (such as this game). These games made it to my list due to someone believing that they did have LGBTQ+ content, so by publishing what I found I can correct the record while also noting past documentation. Similarly, queer readings of texts have been a longstanding source of community building and queer culture broadly. Being able to document how queer players have found ways to read games queerly is an important part of documenting LGBTQ+ gaming history.
What role do video games play in LGBTQ+ communities? How does the LGBTQ+ Video Game Archive help uncover the intersections between video games and queer scholarship and challenge assumptions about gamers?
A main goal of all my work is to document and demonstrate that LGBTQ+ people have always been a part of gaming. Since the 1980s and 1990s there has been a general perception in the US (and most Western countries) that video games are “for boys” (often white and middle-class boys). This has largely been driven by how the game industry advertises to its perceived core audience. It does not seem to matter how much work comes out demonstrating that people who play games (not all of whom even identify as gamers) are more diverse than that perception assumes. That caricature persists. It doesn’t help that for a long-time major LGBTQ+ news and culture outlets did not spend much time talking about games or gaming spaces. Indeed, in a project I did in 2007, a lot of gaymers I spoke to felt that gaming spaces were homophobic but that gay male culture in particular was not very geek/game friendly. But, despite this, LGBTQ+ people and other members of marginalized groups have been part of gaming and have formed their own gaming spaces for as long as there have been games. My life’s goal is to make that fact as visible and available beyond just academic circles as I possibly can.
LGBTQ+ people and other members of marginalized groups have been part of gaming and have formed their own gaming spaces for as long as there have been games.
The LGBTQ+ Video Game Archive is an expansive resource for both academics and the general public. How have you seen these communities engaging with the collection? How does the archive’s list of academic sources fit in?
The website has gotten millions of views, and—at least from what WordPress’s dashboard tells me—has had visitors from just about every country in the world. I regularly get requests from people who want to use the underlying dataset in their own research. That underlying data is much more detailed than what is on the public site, as I was able to start including additional data like race, how major/minor a narrative was, etc. as part of a related research project. As long as people credit me and the site for providing the data, I’m always happy to share. There is so much more to be analyzed here than I could ever do on my own. I also have a section on the site where I highlight any work that comes out of others’ research on this data (including two data visualizations conducted at different points in time). I also hear quite a lot from students, largely high school through grad school, who found the site and like to dig into some of the older game examples they didn’t know about. I haven’t been able to update the list of academic sources in a few years, but I love public bibliographies because it makes it easier for new folks to jump into areas of research. I was deeply indebted to TL Taylor’s gender and computer games literature bibliography for helping get me started when I was a grad student in a program where no faculty studied games. I am trying to pay that forward as much as I can.
How does the LGBTQ Video Game Archive grapple with the transient nature of video games?
It isn’t just the transient nature of games, but digital objects broadly. Many of the online LGBTQ+ gaming communities that served as a starting point for my research in the 2000s had all but disappeared right around the time I made the LGBTQ Game Archive site public.
Many queer archives rely on community support due to a lack of funding and the undervaluation of LGBTQ+ scholarship. What are the challenges of operating a community-based archive, and what roles have volunteers played in helping to preserve queer game content?
The biggest challenge of the LGBTQ+ game archive is that I do not have any ongoing funding. I have been able to get assigned one-off doctoral student RAs at different points in time, but this is not something regularly possible in our program. I have pieced together funding from different sources to help pay for a few years of undergraduate RA help and some material resources needed to work on the project. However, the ongoing existence of the site requires me to pay out of pocket every year. I have been lucky that various collaborators and volunteers have offered their time to work on different elements of the project. But processing the volunteer labor requires a lot of time, which I have less time for as my other responsibilities consume more of my available hours. To keep up with the pace at which new games come out while also digging into the yet unfinished historical research and managing the new submissions requires at least one person working full-time on just the LGBTQ Game Archive. The biggest problem I’ve found though is not just the undervaluation of LGBTQ+ scholarship, but that most academic funding is really focused on either seed funding to get something started or on a single major project with a clear end date. The nature of this project is that it will always be evolving and ongoing, but maintenance of public ongoing academic projects simply does not exist (at least not that I’ve found), and there are legal hurdles that would have to be overcome to imagine this as a crowdfunded affair.
In a similar vein, what impact do partnerships and collaborations have on the LGBTQ Video Game Archive’s promotional efforts? For instance, could you speak to the Rainbow Arcade exhibit at the Schwules Museum in Berlin, Germany, and how it affected the archive’s reach?
I would actually say that Rainbow Arcade and the LGBTQ Game Archive had a symbiotic relationship. My co-curators at the Schwules reached out to me for help on the exhibit they wanted to do on games because of the site, and a lot of the success of the Kickstarter campaign for the Rainbow Arcade catalog was possible because of the existing LGBTQ Video Game Archive social media following (in addition to my own network). The archive made it easier to show granting bodies we applied to for the exhibit that a lot of this content exists even if people are not generally aware of it. The exhibit was great because it allowed me to cover a lot of the other aspects of LGBTQ game culture that cannot be fully addressed in the archive itself, like LGBTQ+ people in the game industry and broader aspects of LGBTQ+ game culture. It also gave people a chance to play games, which is not something I can make accessible through the website itself.
How do time period and geographical location affect the quantity and quality of LGBTQ+ content in games? How do these factors further influence the volume and categorization of archived games (for example, certain decades holding more material than others)?
This is one of the hardest questions, because one thing that has become really clear throughout this process is how many games were created before 2010 that we just do not have enough information about. There are many more games on the list from in the 2010s and will be in the 2020s than previous decades, but that is also because more and more people have been keeping track of games with LGBTQ+ content and new tools and distribution platforms make it easier for people to find noncommercial or non-mainstream games with this content. We have many more games from the US and Japan on our list, but that says more about what the people who have been tracking these games play than anything else. I have focused in recent years on trying to add to the 1980s and 1990s sections as much as possible to correct for the fact that there is just so much more that has been documented in the more recent decades, but it is hard because this is a history that we just do not have a solid record of. Many hobbyist-made games for example were shared in forums, chat rooms, private listservs, etc. and unless they’ve been written about or saved somewhere there is no easy way for me to document if any of them had LGBTQ content.
How does the collection contend with homophobia, transphobia, and other harmful language present in games?
When there is homophobia or transphobia in a game, I have largely tried to make it a standalone entry and/or use our tagging function to show that it has homophobic or transphobic content. When an entry is linked to a video or site that includes harmful language or scenes, I have tried to ensure there is a content warning.
The archive’s about section addresses numerous scope limitations, including language and the availability of lists on LGBTQ+ game content. Could you describe these barriers and how you’re approaching them?
A major barrier has been language. Most of our sources are in English, and particularly with games that were made in Japan there is a long history of mis- or incomplete translations resulting in confusion over the intended gender or sexuality of characters. And, as I say above, we are not working from a complete list to begin with, as no one had been documenting every example of LGBTQ+ game content until very recently. The only thing I can do is ask for volunteers familiar with other languages or indie gaming scenes in different countries to share what they know, and ask that anyone interpreting the numbers in the dataset be careful about how they describe the data. I’m aware that game culture expands far beyond digital games. Table-top games, cosplay communities, live action role-playing, and other fan communities are also important parts of LGBTQ+ gaming history, as are LGBTQ+ game designers working in and outside of the industry. However, given the existing challenges in completing this project, it is important for me to focus just on games.