Is “the world’s first gay video game” an affectionate homage to a vibrant community or clumsy reinforcement of offensive stereotypes? We speak to creator Michael Patrick.
Homosexuality in video games is problematic. Those that attempt to explore it, even hint at it, run the risk of misstepping, or being seized upon by those who believe it has no place in games. As a result many avoid it altogether, which in itself contributes to the problem. Elsewhere homophobic slurs are commonplace in many online multiplayer games.
Looking to wade through this maelstrom is Ultimate Gay Fighter (UGF) a 2D beat ‘em up for mobile devices developed by New York-based Handsome Woman Productions. It features a roster of characters inspired by the LGBT community, including tanned gym bunny Gogo Gary, drag queen Carrie Cupcake, and ‘no-nonsense lesbian’ Sappho Ethridge. They compete in the Gay Fight Tournament, organised by the nefarious League of Oppressive Self Righteous Zealots (or LOSRZ). Every character is armed with their own ‘Gaytality’ finishing move. It’s exactly as subtle as it sounds.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to take a ‘stereotypical’ flamboyant gay man and have him kick everyone’s ass? It’s empowering.”
Creator Michael Patrick found inspiration for the game in his many years of living in New York City, where he is part of a vibrant LGBT community. “A bunch of friends and I were just goofing around and throwing in a bunch of ideas about the concept for a game. I wanted to make it real because I thought it would be hysterical. I took the responsibility for developing it. I like to say that my friends rolled the snowball and I threw it.”
This was his first time making a game, though he is a lifelong fan of beat ‘em ups. “I grew up with games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. [Ultimate Gay Fighter] is a throwback to that. It’s supposed to be reminiscent of early 90s fighters.”
It’s hardly common to see openly gay characters on fighting game rosters. Patrick noticed the same trend in comic books, with even those aimed at the gay community always featuring an unrealistically masculine hero. “And I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to take a ‘stereotypical’ flamboyant gay man and have him kick everyone’s ass? To me that’s interesting and cool. It’s empowering.”
UGF’s ostentatious all-LGBT cast has polarised opinion across the internet. Some take it as homage to a varied and colourful community, an affectionate satire of the numerous myths and stereotypes that persist around homosexuality. Others consider it to be exploitative and crass.
“It’s not meant to be hateful,” says Patrick. “If you allow yourself to make fun of a stereotype in a way that isn’t cruel, I think you diminish the power of that stereotype. I’m gay, and although I’m not a stereotype, I have stereotypical traits. Why not laugh at that and enjoy it?”
Patrick maintains that this approach has been done countless times before in other media, such as television and online comedy sketches. As we’ve seen in the past with issues such as sex and violence, he believes that video games are the only medium scrutinised so closely when they try to tackle a difficult subject. “My game is a whole new thing,” he says. “When you have gays in a new kind of media, without any kind of background or precedent, I think people’s initial reaction is: who did this? Where is this coming from? I think somewhere in that the positive message might have got a little lost.”
The game’s roster is formed primarily of American gay men, leading to accusations that it marginalises the other letters that form LGBT. Timmy Spears, the emasculated ‘Asian twink,’ is the only Asian character present, and Jacqlyn Daniels, the only bisexual, is perpetually drunk. These stereotypes seem more malicious in their singularity, as if they are painting all bisexuals and gay Asians with the same brush.
Patrick instead attributes this lack of balance to constraints in time and budget, and swears no cruelty is intended. “[Every character] is a love letter to my gay brothers and sisters,” he says. It’s for this reason he made a conscious decision not to include any trans characters.
“I didn’t want to offend the trans community,” he says. “I couldn’t think of something creative. I wanted it to be funny, I didn’t want to be mean.”
There is also Shawdee Killah, a black rapper who sports a gold chain around his neck that looks uncomfortably like a noose.
“That’s not a noose,” says Patrick. “It’s supposed to be a dookie chain from the Run DMC era. I wanted all the weapons to be fantastical, and his was inspired by Gogo from Kill Bill. I was looking at it from a different angle, and I didn’t see the connotations. When people thought it was a noose my heart fell into my stomach. We went back and tried to re-design it.”
While the general disquiet didn’t come as a surprise to Patrick, he admits that he may have been blinkered to the game’s potential to cause offence, and that these problems may stem from his own naivety. “I live in New York, so I’m used to how people treat gay culture here,” he says. “I forget that Manhattan isn’t the world. Just because you think something’s acceptable here doesn’t mean it’s acceptable in other places. That’s small-minded. When you’ve lived somewhere for so long you get tunnel vision a little.”
“There are apps for gays, but other gay video games are small and esoteric. For the general public I think this really will be seen as the first gay video game.”
UGF is being marketed as ‘The World’s First Gay Vido Game… EVER!!!!’ It’s a contentious claim, as other games exist that deal meaningfully with facets of homosexuality, from smaller personal projects such as Mattie Brice’s Mainichi, which puts you through a day in the life of a transgender person, to massive franchises like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. The difference between these games and his own, Patrick believes, is that his intended audience is the same bubble in which the game was made.
“A gay video game is something you market towards gays. It’s specific,” he says. “There’s a huge saturation of games marketed to various demographics, but none that I could see that were marketed specifically towards gays. There are apps for gays, but other gay video games are small and kind of esoteric. For the general public I think this really will be seen as the first gay video game.”
It puts a certain amount of pressure on UGF to represent what Patrick hopes will soon be a burgeoning movement. By marketing itself as the original, it assumes a great deal of responsibility for opening the door for others to follow. There’s also the risk that, if the game is not well-received, it could be damaging to future games that prominently feature homosexuality.
“I disagree with that 100%. You can’t pin the success of other gay video games on my game. I wish my game was that powerful! It could never infringe on the success of other games.”
On the contrary, he believes that, should UGF fail, it could help other gay video games by creating a hunger for something better, and inspire other developers to top his effort.
“The gay community has huge economic clout – you’re telling me my game will prohibit someone from targeting that fucking wealth? I don’t think so.”
Whether Ultimate Gay Fighter succeeds or not, Patrick hopes it will reach its intended audience, an audience he believes will take it in the spirit he intended.
“Not everyone will enjoy it,” he says. “And that’s fine. I celebrate and relish diversity. I hope people see that.”
Ultimate Gay Fighter is scheduled for release on iOS and Android devices this month.