Lesbian detectives: the history of queer video games

"Rainbow Arcade" exhibition shows off colourful and controversial history

New exhibit showcasing queer history in gaming opens at the Schwules Museum in Berlin

A new exhibit at the Schwules Museum in Berlin explores the colourful history of LGBTQ video games. (Nicolas Simoneau/Schwules Museum Berlin)

In Caper in the Castro, a computer game from 1989, you play the character of Tracker McDyke, a world famous lesbian detective searching for their missing friend, drag queen Tessy LaFemme.

The murder mystery puzzle saga is the first known gay-and-lesbian-themed computer game, and is one of the many titles that make up the rich and colourful history of LGBTQ gaming. That history is now on display in The Rainbow Arcade, the world's first exhibit of its kind, at Schwules Museum in Berlin.

The collection, which includes 12 playable exhibits created by indie game designers and studios, looks at LGBTQ representation in videogame culture throughout the years. They include games like Dominique Pamplemousse, a musical, stop-motion adventure, and Genital Jousting, which is played with joysticks shaped like dildos.

The exhibit's co-curator Adrienne Shaw says that a lot of early LGBTQ game history has been lost, partly because the older digital content doesn't work on new hardware, and partly because people have lost the only remaining copies of games.

Adrienne Shaw is the co-curator of The Rainbow Arcade at Berlin's Schwules Museum. (Submitted by Adrienne Shaw)

"Actually, diskettes are how we rediscovered Caper in the Castro," Shaw told Spark host Nora Young. "We were able to make it playable because [the game's designer C.M. Ralph] retired a couple of years ago and, in the process of moving homes, found the original diskettes buried in a closet somewhere."

Shaw is also the founder of the LGBTQ game archive, a online compendium that documents the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer content in games.

She highlights five key titles that were significant in LGBTQ gaming history:

1. Caper in the Castro (1989)

A screenshot from Caper in the Castro computer game. (C.M. Ralph/LGBTQ Video Game Archive)

Caper in the Castro is the first known gay-and-lesbian-themed game. In it, players take on the role of lesbian detective Tracker McDyke as they search for their friend and drag queen, Tessy LaFemme.

It was created by designer C.M. Ralph, who originally released the game as "charity ware" and asked players who downloaded it to donate money to an AIDS organization of their choosing.

Ralph also released a "straight" version of the game called Murder on Mainstreet, which took out queer references. Tracker McDyke became Tracker McDuff, and drag queen friend Tessy became a model.

2. GayBlade (1992)

The cover for the GayBlade computer game manual. (Ryan Best/LGBTQ Video Game Archive)

GayBlade is the first known gay-and-lesbian-themed role-playing game. Developed by Ryan Best, the fantasy game puts players on a quest to rescue an empress from "the disgusting right-wing creatures inhabiting the dungeon."

According to the manual, "the rescue party is made up of heroic Drag Queens, Queers, Lesbians, and others who will stop at nothing to get their beloved Empress back to luxurious Castle GayKeep."

The game was widely covered by the press at the time of its release, but unfortunately, its source code has since been lost.

3. Foobar vs. the DEA (1996)

The opening screen of Foobar vs. the DEA. (Tom Kluge/Dr. Dick/LGBTQ Video Game Archive)

Foobar vs. the DEA is the first known gay-themed arcade-style game. It features a character named Foobar, who is on a mission to save his boyfriend Ned, who has been captured by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Developped by Tom Kluge and Dr. Dick, it was intentionally political with strong pro-gay rights, anti-war on drugs and anti-censorship themes.

The game also had two sequels: Foobar vs. the FCC, where Foobar must save Ned from the Federal Communications Commision, and Foobar vs. His Local School Board, where Foobar must save his and Ned's adopted son from religious fanatics that have taken over the local school board.

4. Great Greed (1992)

Great Greed is an environmentally-themed role-playing game for the Nintendo Game Boy. Developped by Namco, it's known in Japan as Bitamīna Oukoku Monogatari.

The protagonist is Sam, a resident of the "real world" who is transported to the fictional world of Greene and has to help save it from further pollution by Biohazard Harry.

Although not explicitly queer-themed, the title features the first time that a same-sex marriage option is available in a game. At the end of the game, the king allows Sam to choose one of his five daughters to marry. If the player continues to interact with any of the other characters in the room — including male characters — they can opt to marry any of those characters instead.

5. World Heroes (1992)

World Heroes is a fighting game developed by ADK and originally released on SNK's popular Neo Geo arcade and home consoles. It features playable characters based on real historical figures, who have to fight tournament-style in order to determine who is the strongest fighter of history.

One of the characters, Rasputin, based on the infamous 20th century Russian mystic and faith healer Grigori Rasputin, is often assumed to be queer or homosexual. In his special move, called The Secret Garden, he pulls the other fighters (nearly all men) into bushes, and for a few moments, hearts emanate from them.