How Game Jams Are Driving Better Queer Representation

Game Jams

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For many queer gamers, finding a video game in which they’re able to see a story like theirs means venturing into the world of indie games. The problem is, these can be harder to find.

Queer Games

These are the games that aren’t making it onto high profile ‘game of the year’ lists, and that can’t be found by relying on the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia. Its ‘list of video games with LGBT characters’ confidently shows 61 games meeting that criteria being released over the past five years (2014-2018). However, according to Queerly Represent Me’s database of games featuring queer content (which is still by no means exhaustive) there should have been at least 902 games within that time period – 153 in the past year alone.

There is a large discrepancy between what exists, and what is typically being recognized. So where’s that difference coming from?

Queerly Represent Me

It seems that the answer is game jams.

Game development tools are becoming more accessible than ever, and everyone – including, obviously, queer people – can jump in, mess around with free software like RenPy, GameMaker, Twine, or Bitsy, and start to tell the funny, heartbreaking, wacky, and often deeply personal stories they’ve always wanted to tell, but never had the opportunity to do so.

It can still be hard to find that motivation to finish a project on your own if you don’t have some kind of support, even when you have passion. This is where game jams come in. Usually held over a 24 to 72 hour period, a game jam will see programmers, game designers, artists, writers and producers will gather together to create a game. Not unlike a hackathon.

Fostering a sense of community is listed as one of the most important aspects of queer-focused jams in particular, according to those who run them. Organisers of the popular Rainbow Jam, Kirsty Fraser and Steven Taarland, highlight the fact that the growing community encourages devs “to participate and be supported by one another. It’s comforting to know other developers in the LGBTQ+ community who you can reach out to should you need to.”

These benefits are more than short-term. The host of Yuri Jam and Trans Gal Jam Nadia Nova calls this sense of community “incredible and encouraging”, and suggests that the communities live on through discord servers that stay active after the jam is done, with new participants “becoming part of the game development queer community.”

Not only do these communities help participants to feel more comfortable during the game-making process, but one frequent game jam participant, Alison Huang, suggested that they may be a key reason for many smaller, queer games being released into the world.

“The morale boost from having people excitedly comment on your work in progress screenshots is invaluable”, says Huang.  “Some game jams are fine with having people finish games that they started working on before the jam too. So games that might have never been released, have been released thanks to game jams.”

Game Jam Queer Games

The world is much richer for these unique games. The host of Bristol Pride Game Jam, Eriol Fox, noted that despite not necessarily encouraging them, themes of identity, inclusion and acceptance, which are not necessarily highlighted in “standard” game jams, emerged as common points.

Game jams might not only strengthen communities of queer developers, but break down barriers across the whole industry by changing what is seen as ‘the norm’.

“The games scene is very cis-hetero male orientated and it’s at worst a hostile environment and at best, just uncomfortable,” Fox states, emphasizing the importance of creating spaces where creators like her and many others could feel safe, and open to explore game development, making room for games that are an honest and celebrated appreciation of the creator as a whole – ” without them feeling a need to hide any part of their identity.”

Game jams might not only strengthen communities of queer developers, but break down barriers across the whole industry by changing what is seen as ‘the norm’. We all want to be able to see ourselves take on the world. We all want our stories to be told. We should all be able to feel that spark when we’re reflected on the screen, and suddenly we don’t feel so alone.

“There are many queer people who are still out there who have never read, watched, or played a story about people like themselves,” Nadia Nova points out,  “and the more visibility these projects get, the more people will get to experience representation.”