(Photo by Flickr user Videogame Photography, used under a Creative Commons license)
Adrienne Shaw’s newest research initiative will never end. Or at least that’s what the Temple University assistant professor hopes.
It’s called the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, and it’s a curated and researched collection of information on LGBTQ content in video games from the 1980s to the present.
“I view this as something I’m going to be working on for the rest of my life,” Shaw said. “If I’m never done, I’ll be perfectly happy because that means people are finding new things or people are continuing to make LGBTQ content [in video games] which would be great.”
(Fun fact: The earliest LGBTQ reference in a game she found was from a 1986 game called Moonmist where a character is described as being jealous about her girlfriend marrying a man.)
"It's not enough to just include a gay character. We've had those for 30 years, so what else can we do with those characters?"
Diverse representation in media, particularly in video games, has been Shaw’s specialty ever since she studied for her Ph.D. at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication in 2010. The origin of the archive actually goes back to 2006 when she was working on her article, “Putting the Gay in Game,” where she started making a list of games with LGBTQ content. It never turned into anything bigger.
“I kind of assumed that I’d always get back to it and never had time to,” Shaw said. “I think part of me was just secretly hoping somebody else would do it.”
It was last year when she decided she had a bit more time in her work schedule, taking a sabbatical to focus on the project. Now with an academic fellowship award from Temple’s Digital Scholarship Center (DSC) to help with the more technical aspects, it’s been her primary workload.
And what a workload it is. When we talked with her last month, she had around 360 games on the list to research, but that list has been growing ever since as research into one game can lead to discoveries of other games Shaw didn’t even know existed.
The amount of research for each game differs, too: The first pass of ‘80s and ‘90s games took two weeks, working 60 hours a week on both decades, while the Grand Theft Auto series alone took two weeks.
Fortunately, in addition to the DSC, she has help from Evan Lauteria and Emma Leigh Waldron, researchers from the UC Davis ModLab, along with Temple students and the vast gaming community she has met either in-person or via Twitter. The archive’s public nature has also allowed for people to send in suggestions or even add their own entries to the games they are currently researching themselves.
— Adrienne Shaw (@adrishaw) June 24, 2016
So what has Shaw learned so far?
Probably the biggest trend is how little has changed with LGBTQ representation in games.
“There’s been an increase in the number of examples, but there’s not really an increase in the kind or the quality of those examples,” Shaw said. “It’s pretty consistently white men are represented. It’s pretty consistently that trans people tend to be used as the butt of a joke with very rare exceptions. If there’s any shift, it’s that there are a lot more games that have gayness as an option as opposed to explicitly queer characters.”
In terms of surprises for Shaw, the most came from Grand Theft Auto, a series known for its controversial content, and Leisure Suit Larry, where you play as a man trying to have as sex with as many women as possible. Granted, the representation of LGBTQ content isn’t necessarily good, rather it’s “nuanced” — one mission in Grand Theft Auto may have you save a gay guy from a homophobic murderer while another mission has you killing a gay character.
“That’s something I think game designers can learn from it — this is a hugely problematic game but it’s doing useful things with gender and gender sexuality,” she added. “It’s not enough to just include a gay character. We’ve had those for 30 years, so what else can we do with those characters, what more interesting stories can we tell with these characters?”
At the moment, the archive is on a WordPress site but with the DSC’s help, Shaw plans on building a more traditional online archive with Omeka, an archiving software that would allow for more original materials to be stored.
If you want to volunteer any of your time to help out with the research, you can contact Shaw here.