Spoiler warning: This article reveals surprise elements of the games A Normal Lost Phone, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Gone Home.
At first, the game A Normal Lost Phone looks like a series of simple puzzles: The player is presented with a lost phone and must snoop through it to learn about its owner. But there's something more happening under the surface.
Poking through emails, texts, and dating apps, a story begins to emerge. “I’m getting a little tired of my family telling me ‘you’re a man now,’ ” writes Sam, the phone’s 18-year-old owner. That sounds like a fairly normal complaint for a teenager, but then the player finds a second account in a dating app. Sam’s been presenting as a girl whose description is similar to Sam’s male appearance. Later, players find a text message that threatens, “Don’t ever set foot back in this club or I’ll have to tell your little secret to everybody.”
By the time the player discovers a forum for gender-questioning teens in the browser, it’s no surprise to see that Sam wrote, “I don’t really know what I am, and I’m feeling kinda lost at the moment.”
A Normal Lost Phone was developed by Accidental Queens, a small team that has essentially built a meet-a-trans-kid simulator. The game, which can be played on desktop or mobile devices in about three hours, features around 25,000 words of text to flesh out a world in which the player sees Sam struggle to break up with their girlfriend, confess their fear of being disowned, and investigate hormone therapy. This all plays out against the backdrop of a larger mystery—why did Sam lose their phone on the night of their 18th birthday, what happened to them, and are they all right or did something terrible take place?
“We wanted to deliver a message on a specific subject, working especially on the empathy that could be expressed by the player in this kind of game,” said Diane Landais, programmer and co-founder at Accidental Queens, via email. “Placing the player as a witness rather than an actor (as is most common in video games) lets us present a situation not as an example to follow, but rather as a whole situation to analyze. ... If there’s one thing the game is encouraging, it’s playing the game as oneself: There’s no player character, there’s no avatar, only the player and their phone playing themselves.”
This is the latest addition to an emerging genre of game that highlights queer experiences in the context of gameplay. Past examples include Gone Home, in which players explore what looks at first like an abandoned haunted house but turns out to be the home of a young woman struggling to understand her sexuality. In that game, the dark turmoil of the environment mirrors the stress of the character; and as with A Normal Lost Phone, players never encounter another person but instead learn about characters exclusively by reading materials they've left behind.
In the game Dragon Age: Inquisition, the player encounters a character named Krem who indicates that he binds his chest, which can lead to lengthy branching dialogue in which players can ask invasive questions about Krem’s transition. Between epic battles, the game runs through many of the difficult questions that cis people often have; and by providing a simulated trans friend, it allows cisgender players to pose questions without risk of offending a real person. Crucially, Krem is also a gesture to trans players that they’re welcome in the game world.
Of course, these games are not without controversy, with some players complaining that the revelation of a queer storyline in Gone Home amounted to “propaganda” and “deceit.”
“im not a homophobe, but im not really interested in roleplaying any sexual preference that i personally find... ackward,” wrote one player in a forum post.
While not an ideal response, even that reluctance to engage may be a promising sign. The mainstream game industry has lagged somewhat behind television and film in terms of depicting LGBTQ characters; and now that game content is growing more inclusive, player feedback harkens back to the ways that audiences responded to the Ellens and Will and Graces of the late ’90s. Gay characters on television caused a nationwide freakout two decades ago; it was through ongoing visibility over the intervening years that Ellen moved from a polarizing figure to a mainstream talk-show host.
We know that one of the best ways to move the needle of public opinion on LGBTQ people is simply exposure and conversation. David Fleischer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Leadership Lab has pioneered research into effective messaging when reaching out to voters. His findings hinge largely on empathy: finding a connection between people who might not otherwise have expected to see eye-to-eye. In his studies, canvassers went door-to-door, guiding people to put themselves in the place of someone who is or who knows LGBTQ people. His findings were that when voters are asked to imagine the lives of queer people, they're less likely to vote for policies that harm queer people.
Similarly, games like A Simple Lost Phone, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Gone Home all have the potential to bridge a gap by allowing players to envision interactions they might never otherwise have. Through the games, they can learn to become allies, that they're not alone, or simply how it feels to know someone who is out.
There’s no research to compare the impact of Fleischer’s canvassing with the impact of queer content in games. But they're providing similar opportunities to participants: “We think there’s a potential for actual education in the content of the game,” said Landais. “We never intended the game to be played and enjoyed only by a queer community.”
To be sure, many will probably respond as that forum user did, shying away from content that makes them feel “ackward.” But Gone Home sold hundreds of thousands of copies, which translates into hundreds of thousands of gamers spending hours in the position of a person concerned about a lesbian family member. That’s the kind of public outreach that canvassers can only dream of.