Queer Mechanics is a regular feature here on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanics is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.
If you’ve been around the gay scene in some form or another – pubs and clubs, online gay communities, or dating sites/apps like Adam4Adam or Grindr – you’re bound to have come across terminology like “bear” or “otter”, used as a kind of shorthand to discuss people’s body types. These terms of identity also help foster social groups and subcultures.
A quick run-through of the most common of these terms, all of which have some degree of overlap: “Bears” are typically large men, often with plenty body hair and facial hair, and their size can either be down to fat, or muscle – though large, muscular men can also be called “bulls” as well; by extension, “cubs” are younger men with all the attributes of the aforementioned bear bodytype. “Otters” are lean, hirsute men; “wolves” are similar, but are typically more muscular than lean, and also tend to have an aggressive or assertive quality to them. “Chickens” has almost fallen out of use in favour of the word “twink”, to describe younger men, typically without much bodyhair.
These terms of identity are a big part of the experiences of gay men in the West, but have largely been ignored in videogames (a sneaky nod to bear subculture in Mass Effect 3 notwithstanding). They may seem trivial or inconsequential in comparison to previous literary contributions from, for and about gay culture and subcultures; but then, the content and mechanics of videogames – or any genre, in fact – don’t have to have an immense literary quality to be worthwhile to represent or include. And you know what I think would be awesome? A game all about the dudes we know in those subcultures!
Last month we delved into the potential for letting players define their character’s gender and sexual identities in a wide variety of different types of games – this month, let’s explore what we could do with a game that specifically focuses on a particular element of gay male subculture in Queer Mechanic #2: Wolves & Otters & Bears!
Much of game design can be boiled down to the idea that as many elements (mechanics, graphics, sounds, narrative, etc) of the game as possible should support the game’s purpose, and that those elements should resonate together in a thematic way – and this is demonstated beautifully in Youtuber Egoraptor’s “Mega Man Classic vs Mega Man X” episode of Sequelitis which just goes to show how you can adapt games to fit a given theme.
Similarly, our thought-experiment-game can also make use of different elements harmonising and resonating together to support an overall theme and purpose.
What kind of theme and purpose could we create for a game that focuses on different body-types? Well, considering that these labels – particularly the bear label – was created at least partially as a response to body shaming in gay communities (where toned, smooth white dudes are the norm by which everyone is judged against), it would make sense that our game’s theme would be to show how bodies other than toned-smooth-white-dude are just as “normal” and worthy of value and celebration.
So, given that each of these labels tends to focus on body-types, it would make sense that our game would focus on body-types as well. Is there a genre that would resonate well with this idea?
One genre that would easily allow us to alter gameplay based on different body types is the platform genre — almost all platform games are built around the simple mechanism of moving a character’s body through space, and the way a player interacts with the game-space changes depending on the physical attributes of their character. Mario can pass under blocks when he’s shrunk down, can take more damage when he’s larger, and can float when he’s wearing the Tanuki suit; Sonic can reach far-away platforms when he’s moving faster, whereas Knuckles can glide through the air to reach platforms; Crash Bandicoot can jump higher by using Arrow boxes, but can easily find himself falling into a pit if his jump is mistimed.
That’s not to say that other videogame genres couldn’t also be considered for a game realising gay subcultures – it could just as easily be an RPG with different battle stats depending on body-type, or a visual novel that lets the player romance one of a number of characters who belong to each of these subcultures. Any of these ideas are viable, but a platformer game would let us directly address different body types in a way that seems fluid and natural.
What about characters? Well, considering that we’re talking about a small number (4 or 5) of different body-types, it would be fitting that our game could feature a number of different protagonists, each of whom fall into the category of “bear”, “otter”, or any of our myriad terms.
The most obvious route to making each choice worthwhile would be to make each character handle differently depending on their body type, such as the following:
- the Bear is slowest, and least acrobatic, but has the most hitpoints and strength
- the Cub is slow, has a little bit of acrobatic skill, and lots of hitpoints and strength
- the Otter has a medium speed, acrobatic skill, hitpoints and stength
- the Wolf has high speed, high acrobatic skill, but the lowest hitpoints and strength
Although this list might seem self-evident and realistic, we’ve inadvertantly created a hierarchy where characters can easily be seen as more valuable for being more athletic, or for being more hardy. The statistics for our characters also come very close to the idea that fat characters cannot be athletic, whereas thin characters will always be capable of athleticism – a fallacy of equating “fat” with “unhealthy” that often goes unnoticed and unchallenged in media and modern society despite how untrue it may be. We also come close to the absurdly common trope of Disability Superpowers - where disabled characters are frequently given some kind of special ability that “makes up” for the fact that they’re disabled in some way; in our example, our fat character isn’t very athletic, so we compensate by making him stout and hardy – as though simply being unable to do something doesn’t make them fully human in their own right. The fact is, someone being fat doesn’t actually necessitate that they’ll either be slow, unathletic, strong or hardy.
So how could we work around that? Well, we could incorporate the idea that body-type doesn’t completely determine one’s physical abilities by making each of the attributes of “athleticism”, “speed”, “hitpoints” and “strength” randomized at the start of the game. Perhaps it’s more likely that our Wolf character will be fast, but it’s not necessarily a given. We could even allow the player themselves to a spend points on each character’s attributes in a points-buy system – or go further and make it such that none of the body-types have inherent negative qualities, and they all handle the exact same way, simply allowing the player to play as a character with a body type that’s either often misrepresented in games or deried in gay communities – however, we may have to deal with the possibility that some players may feel this simply glosses over the differences between body types for the sake of a generic “we’re all human!” message.
That’s part of the beauty of designing game mechanics; there are no “right” or “wrong” mechanics to pick, only mechanics that support or detract from the experience you’re trying to craft – and anticipating the problems that players may have with certain design decisions is a brilliant way to make a game more inclusive, more responsive and more focused towards its players – who are utlimately the people that a game is for.
When we’re talking about bodies, it can be all too easy to end up (sexually and non-sexually) objectifying the person whose body we’re talking about, reducing that person down to the static role of an object to be acted upon, rather than as a person with an agency of their own. Of course, videogame characters don’t actually have any agency of their own – all their choices are made for them by the people created for them. Nonetheless, these subcultures stand in defiance to the almost ubiquitous standard in gay communities – and elsewhere in society, such as advertising – that only men with toned white bodies, six-packs and absolutely no body hair are of value, are attractive, and – most importantly – are the “norm” that everyone else is measured against; every other body-type aside from this ideal is thought of as being part of a niche, or a fetish.
As such, it’s important that our game doesn’t devalue our characters simply because of the type of body they have, but instead treats it as just another normal human body, worthy of inclusion in media. Our characters might be classed depending on their body-type, but that should in no way imply or state that there’s such a thing as an objectively superior or inferior body-type – so, for example, our cast of characters shouldn’t be throwing fat-related slurs at our “bear” character and then have the game treat those characters as though it was okay for them to do so.
There are two other animal-themed terms of identity in use in the gay community that we haven’t yet covered, partly because they’re used not to identify someone’s body-type, but to identify their sexual kinks, fetishes and practices. We have “pig”, a term typically used to indicate that someone’s into kinky, raunc hy play in some form, such as watersports, boot/feet fetishes and the like. We also have “dogs” or “pups”, a term used in pet-play & BDSM to describe a person who is roleplaying a submissive animal role.
These terms also aren’t exclusively linked to queer communities – they can also be used in kink/fetish subcultures regardless of sexual orientation.
Both “pigs” and “pups” could be represented in our game either by making them characters in their own right, or by using “powerups” that allow our current roster to let out their pig/pup side (since you can be a “bear” and a “pig” at the same time) – our powerups could take the form of something relevant to pig and pup subcultures, such as leather harnesses, or a dog mask.
Given that “pigs” are often into kinks that are anything from subversive, transgressive or downright risky, perhaps this too could be represented mechanically – perhaps they could be twice as powerful as other characters, but with the risk that contact with enemies – whatever form those enemies takes – does double-damage. Similarly, given that Pet-play focuses on having the “pup” take the role of a submissive animal – to make them something “other than human” – perhaps our Pup takes little or no damage from enemies, because they’ve become something “other”. To balance out this advantage, perhaps Pups cannot be directly moved by the player, but have to be remotely controlled and given commands; this both resonates with the idea that Pups are submissive to their masters, but also brings a new method of “moving a body through space” that was the foundation for our choosing the platformer genre in the first place – its a mechanical choice that resonates with the rest of the game’s theme.
Another element we could look at is what that “space” that our characters move through actually is – what would our platforms and levels look like? Considering that our theme focuses on bodies, it would be fitting for our “space” to also be focused on bodies – critically, we’re also lucky in that there are a number of spaces that are focused not only on bodies, but also has some relevance and resonance with (some subsets of) gay men as well – such as gyms and saunas. That isn’t to say we’re necessarily confined to using those spaces in our game – our theme is, after all, very open-ended, and could support a vast range of different environments without it being detrimental to our vision of the game – it’s just that these spaces in particular overlap with the lived experiences of many gay men, and they also focus on bodies (specifically exercising them – in the gym – or rubbing them together for a bit – in the sauna).
There remain a lot of other elements we haven’t talked about which could also support our main idea, but for brevity’s sake – and to give others a chance at chiming in as well – I’ll open the floor to you folks:
- What other ways could we realise the animal-related terms of identity of “bear”, “wolf,” “otter” and the rest in a queer-focused videogame?
- Are there other ways these labels could be represented mechanically?
- Are there ways we could improve the “platformer” idea to make it more fun, more inclusive, and more resonant?
- What other elements could involve and resonant with our main theme of animal-related identity & bodies?