Decolonising queer games and play


Guest editor Khee Hoon Chan is a writer from Singapore, with bylines in Polygon, Edge Magazine, PC Gamer, Unwinnable and more. They daydream about being a professional Street Fighter player. Follow the author on Twitter


It isn’t exactly a little-known secret, but do you know that queer people have always lived on a different temporal dimension—in other words, in queer time? Part of the unsaid, but largely conventional, markers of adulthood means achieving certain milestones by a specific period: dating other people, finding your first jobs, getting married, and eventually having kids. Queer folks, however, often have to live by our own temporal logic; some of us can only begin to start dating in earnest after we have settled into a career. Others can only fathom out the concept of civil partnership—even marriage—in middle adulthood. And across cultures and regions, the latter may not even be an option for many queer folks, such as in parts of Asia.

But rather than just using queer time to explain the delayed access to these supposed markers of adulthood, there’s another way to frame this perspective: the queer ability to manipulate and control time, which suggests that queer people have the supernatural-esque power to live out their lives in their own temporal dimensions and pace—while presenting a way to subvert and queer the typical conventions of linear time. This is reflected in how Max Caulfield, the protagonist of the first Life Is Strange (DONTNOD Entertainment, 2015), reverses and manipulates time. In this episodic adventure game, Max discovers that she can, at any time, tap into her supernatural temporal powers to reverse and redo specific events. She uses this power to right wrongs, undo short-term consequences, prevent tragedies, and ultimately save her best friend, Chloe Price, from a universe that seems hell-bent on ending her.

At the same time, this also enables Max to discover and navigate her burgeoning romantic feelings for Chloe, as they share a relationship that is more queer-coded rather than overt. You could, as Max, play up specific interactions between them throughout these episodes by making sure you’re choosing the most appropriate responses—should you, say, pop out of the closet and take the blame for Chloe’s weed-smoking, or stay hidden as Chloe instructs— after rewinding time again and again, just to see the consequences play out. All these decisions can affect the final scenes, and clarify the duo’s ambiguous “will-they-won’t-they” relationship.

This time-travelling mechanic is a powerful way of framing games through the lens of queer game design, of reimagining traditional practices of play in video games. In this case, it’s about subverting the subverting the medium’s typically linear temporal progression of time, and speaking to a diminishing sense of chrononormativity in Life Is Strange. Feminist writer and queer theorist, Elizabeth Freeman (2010), defines this term as “the use of time to organise individual human bodies towards maximum productivity (…) through particular orchestrations of time” (p. 34). Such time is often used to refer to the heteronormative phases of adulthood: moving out, marriage, and having kids. In this context, Life is Strange is actively subverting—even queering—normative models of linear progression with Max’s powers of time manipulation. It’s a rare but powerful statement that represents many queer people’s experiences of time, even if it exists only as a queer-coded example. Only by framing the events in games like Life Is Strange, through queer time and other queer perspectives, can games begin to simulate or reproduce a thorough, multifaceted understanding of the world outside of heteronormativity, capitalism and colonial ideals.

That said, the narrative of queer time, and other unconventional depictions of queerness are often hampered by the overwhelming whiteness of queer protagonists in games. The everyday affairs of Life Is Strange’s white leads, Max and Chloe, are the predominant ones in queer games (although Life Is Strange’s sequels do heavily feature non-white queer protagonists). Filtering games through the language of queer design may be a powerful and crucial step towards embracing diversity, but what is usually lacking in these discussions is intersectionality. Despite the growing prevalence of queer narratives in games, the bulk of these stories are still based around casts of queer white characters. Even Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment, 2016), which had made waves for queer representation, has two white heroes, Tracer and Soldier 76, featured as its most prominent queer characters.

Even in games featuring queer relationships, the perspectives of real-life, minority races are largely eliminated. In the blockbuster games Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007) and Dragon Age: Inquisition (Bioware, 2014), race is framed as differences in species, like fantasy races and alien types, rather than that of race, as defined by our differences in skin colour in the real world. Even if queer experiences are briefly touched upon in these games—as with the Asari, a monogender species in Mass Effect which are clearly female coded, as well as the optional queer romances that the player can engage in—their queer experiences hardly, if ever, extend to race. These narratives rarely address the lived experiences of queer people of colour and racial minorities, whose experiences, such as the impact and influence of queer time, are vastly different than that of white queer folks. Science fiction and high fantasy games that depict interspecies relationships are most culpable of this, with differences in species—like that of human-elven relationships—used as a metaphor, and even as a substitute to real-life discussions around race. Plus, it’s no coincidence that most of these human and elven characters in high fantasy realms happen to be light-skinned, too.

Perhaps unwittingly, whiteness seems to have become central—even the default—to depictions of queer identities in pop culture. Critic Natalie Flores (2020) points this out in Gayming Magazine when she identifies Sean Diaz from Life Is Strange 2 (DONTNOD Entertainment, 2018) as one of the few bisexual men of colour in games. It’s rare to see depictions in games about the impact of race on the lived reality of non-white queer individuals, and rarer still for games to explicitly confront the racial discrimination faced by them within queer spaces and communities.


Language has power. Back in 1977, Loretta Ross, an African American academic, coined the term “women of colour” together with a group of Black and minority activists. It was, according to Ross, a “solidarity definition”—and a “commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of colour who have been minoritised” (Western States Center, 2011, quoted in Grady, 2020). This is largely in response to the uncomfortable connotations of the term “coloured” that were prevalent at the time in the United States, and how feminist movements were traditonally dominated by white women. Yet this very term has since lost much of its political meaning, as Ross explains, because “so many times people of colour hear the term ‘people of colour’ from other white people that they think white people created it” (Western States Center, 2011). And the etymology behind “people of colour”—a phrase popularised by groups like the Black Panther Party as a gesture of solidarity for non-white identities in America (Grady, 2020)—has much less relevance in Asia, since many countries are populated by people who are not white but who, at the same time, make up the racial majority in these regions. It’s the same reason I hesitate to refer to myself as a person of colour, even though I’m Chinese. In Singapore–my current country of residence–the Chinese diaspora makes up the racial majority here. It’s not that racism doesn’t take place in Asia; it’s that its origins and ramifications can be vastly different from those that take place in the West. “Women of colour” is a phrase deeply rooted in American and Western history, and is less relevant to this region when discussing issues of racism. Using “people of colour” as a blanket term to refer to everyone of non-white descent should be avoided, if we want to preserve the phrase’s meaning and potency.

More than that, however, the history of this phrase is also an example of how a one-size-fits-all approach to discussing multifaceted experiences, such as queer racial identities, should not be applied when talking about queer stories in games. At the same time, aside from picking apart the most visible layers of queer narratives in these games, it’s also the very language of queer games—the structures, design and even gameplay—that should be analysed and reckoned with. Doing otherwise risks diminishing the potency of the voices of not just people of colour, but racial minorities that are often disproportionately underrepresented: Black, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNIM), and South Asian ethnic groups. In other words, queer games should be further decolonised from a predominantly white, Eurocentric paradigm, and decoupled from the coloniality enforced by Western European thoughts across the world.

That’s why this First Person Scholar project on decolonising queer games and play is an extremely pivotal one. It’s one where I’ve been humbled to be invited as a guest editor, and was given the invaluable opportunity to work with writers and critics of colour, who will be discussing how race, in particular, plays into LGBTQ+ identities in video games.

With that in mind, I would like to introduce the brilliant essays you’ll be reading as part of this First Person Scholar project:

  • A Boy is a Gun: Weaponising Black Gender in Video Games by Oluwatayo Adewole is an invigorating analysis on how Black bodies, including that of trans individuals, are depicted in games and media. Adewole delves into how Black people have long been othered and weaponised for non-Black people, in particular white people, to justify and even enforce eurocentricity.
  • Unmaking and Undoing: A Trans* Reading of Katamari Damacy by Julie Fukunaga looks atthe non-normative ways of play in the game as a crucial exploration for trans identities. A quiet rebellion against binary states of existence, Katamari Damacy, as seen through the lens of queer design, nudges the potential of queer games to more than just a superficial re-skinning of its roster of characters.
  • Oliva Popp presents their interview with Caro Asercion, a non-binary, multiracial Filipinx game designer, on how they design for tabletop games, explore identity in gameplay, and move beyond artifacts of play. It’s a much-needed discussion on the design motivations of a non-white, non-binary game designer, and how they infuse themes of queer disapora in physical and digital spaces.

To rigourously critique games through the lens of queer people of colour—or simply through the powerful and essential tool of intersectionality—is a critical conversation in games criticism these days. The lived experiences of queer people is more than that of white queers; the intermingling dynamics of race, class, sexuality, culture, and nationality also influence the queer experience.

Long left out of mainstream games discourse, more of such discussions and representation in our games, as well as in broader popular culture, can only address the inherent power imbalances enacted by more dominant queer identities—and how we can, perhaps, eliminate these disparities eventually.



Life Is Strange (PC) [Video game]. (2015) Paris, France: DONTNOD Entertainment.

Flores, N. (2020, March 27). That’s Underrated: Sean and Finn from Life is Strange 2. Gayming.

Freeman, E. (2010). Time binds: Queer temporalities, queer histories. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Overwatch (PC) [Video game]. (2016) California, United States: Blizzard Entertainment.

Mass Effect (PC) [Video game]. (2007) Edmonton, Canada: Bioware.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC) [Video game]. (2014) Edmonton, Canada: Bioware.

Life Is Strange 2 (PC) [Video game]. (2018) Paris, France: DONTNOD Entertainment.

Western States Center. (2011). The Origin of the phrase “Women of Color [Presentation by Loretta Ross]”. YouTube.

Grady, C. (30 June 2020). Why the term “BIPOC” is so complicated, explained by linguists. Vox.