Can you believe we’re nearly halfway through 2021? If you’re like me, it feels as if the events of 2020 took place sometime between yesterday and 100 years ago. But the midpoint of each year marks an upturn for many in many marginalized communities with the annual onset of Pride Month.
Yes, it’s that time of year when organizations, companies, and brands across the globe show their solidarity and support with the LGBTQIA+ community by updating their logos to include the iconic rainbow spectrum. Every year, however, many of those same businesses miss the mark; Pride Month is about so much more than sporting rainbow colors for a few weeks. As my colleague Lara Rosales mentions, Pride Month, “is about resilience, equality, and human rights,” as well as the people who have cried, fought, and bled to convey that message in order to be seen, accepted, and loved for who they are.
When we think of the struggles and outpouring of love that coincide with Pride, we rarely – if ever – think about video games or the video game industry. It’s not surprising why, either. Though LGBTQIA+ people make up anywhere between 10% to 20%+ of all video game consumers, their representation in the very games they play has historically been lacking, at best.
To help celebrate Pride, I wanted to highlight some of the most iconic LGBTQIA+ figures throughout the video game industry’s history, and how their identities and innovations alike have helped shape the future of that industry and the LGBTQIA+ community.
In this article, I’ll give you my pick of the 6 LGBTQIA+ icons who have helped trailblaze diversity and inclusion within the video game industry.
1. Danielle Bunton Berry
Berry is widely regarded as one of the most high-profile transgender women in the video game industry’s history, and remains one of the most inspirational and brilliant designers to ever grace the industry to this day, having received recognition and dedications from both Will Wright, creator of the hit video game series The Sims, as well as Civilization franchise mastermind Sid Meier for her innovations in the industry.
Perhaps best known for her work on the 1983 multiplayer video game M.U.L.E., designed for the Atari 400 and early generations of PCs, Berry was able to take advantage of the Atari console’s 4 separate joystick ports to design the title for up to 4 players at a time. She also played a pivotal role in M.U.L.E.’s gameplay having a hand in designing a broad number of options, strategies, and scenarios for players in a time when anything over 8 bits was considered nearly impossible.
Berry also had a key role in the development of Electronic Art’s (EA) 1984 title, The Seven Cities of Gold, which is widely considered to be one of the industry’s first open-world game titles.
Both M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities are commonly cited amongst the top 100 best and/or most influential games of all time. Though Berry is credited on both titles, the credit is under her dead name of Dan Bunten, as she transitioned in late 1992, less than six full years before she passed away in July of 1998 from lung cancer. However, she was able to receive some recognition from her career before her death, having received the Computer Game Developers Association Lifetime Achievement Award in May of 1998.
2. David Gaider
Anyone who has picked up, played, and enjoyed any major role-playing game title cast in a fantasy setting over the last few decades owes a bulk of their love for those titles to Canadian writer David Gaider.
Having worked for Alberta-based game development company Bioware from 1999-2016, Gaider is most well known for his writing on award-winning titles such as Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and the Dragon Age series. He is also responsible for creating the fantastical, fictional world of Thedas in which the Dragon Age takes place, as well as many of the series’s characters. As lead writer on Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third installment in the series, Gaider is accredited with the game’s plethora of awards it received, including the Academy of Interactive Arts & Science’s prestigious DICE Award and its placement as a contender for the 2014 “Game of the Year” award title by industry publications like Polygon, IGN, and Game Informer. His writing and creative direction with Inquisition have also led the title to become Bioware’s most successful game launch to date in terms of units sold.
In 2014, Gaider published a post on his now-removed Tumblr blog about his experience as an openly gay developer within the video game industry. The post, which outlined his career as a game developer who happened to be gay (opposed to calling himself a “gay developer”) brought some much-needed insight into issues surrounding sexuality, gender identity, and inclusion within the industry. In the post, Gaider expresses his surprise at the number of straight men who are also developers in the industry who wanted to not only accept, but include more LGBTQIA+ inclusive content in their games.
“Really, I’d just like to get to a point where this sort of thing doesn’t need to be discussed,” Gaider said in the Tumblr blog post, “where it’s simply expected.”
3. Gordon Bellamy
Unless you’re an adamant fan of sports game titles such as EA’s Madden NFL franchise, or keen to watch a Netflix documentary series about the history of the video game industry, this is likely the first time you’re hearing about Gordan Bellamy.
Bellamy possessed an interest in playing sports such as soccer and football from an early age, but the self-realization of his homosexuality led him to feel alienated from his athletically-inclined peers, and so he sought solace in sports-based video games instead. After graduating from Harvard College with a degree in engineering, where he was also recognized as both a John Harvard and AT&T Bell Labs Engineering scholar and wrote sports articles for The Harvard Crimson, a young 23-year-old Bellamy landed a role at EA as Assistant Producer of the company’s next installment in what would eventually become the Madden NFL football game series.
It was in this role that Bellamy focused on improving the game’s interactive experience through authenticity and inclusion. Noting that the majority of real-life NFL players were Black while the Madden NFL games themselves had, up until then, only depicted in-game players as white, Bellamy sought out technological improvements that would allow him and his team to depict a more diverse array of in-game football players, and also convinced EA to place two Black NFL players – Erik Williams and Karl Wilson – on the cover of Madden NFL ‘95. His initiatives led to him being awarded EA’s “Rookie of the Year” title in 1995 and have since sparked a movement for more DEI advocacy in video games.
Over the better part of the last two decades, Bellamy has played a crucial role in strategizing and directing content for the video game industry. After serving as Executive Director of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Science, Bellamy served as a consultant for MTV where he helped lead Spike TV’s weekly GameTrailers TV program as well as the channel’s annual Video Game Awards show.
4. Maddy Thorson
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. So, when Thorson released their 2014 indie video game title Towerfall: Ascension – a multiplayer fighting game reminiscent of previous titles such as Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. – and saw it met with praise as one of the year’s most popular underground games, Thorson went to work almost immediately on developing a sequel focused on the challenge of, quite literally, scaling a mountain.
As with many creatives, Thorson realized partially through the sequel’s development that it was not going to work well as a direct follow-up to the original Towerfall game. Instead, the sequel was rebranded as a new original title, Celeste, which went on to sell more than 500,000 copies in the first year following its release in 2018 and has since been recognized as one of the industry’s best games of the 2010s.
What many may not know, however, is that Thorson struggled immensely with their gender identity. In 2019, Thorson publicly came out as non-binary on their Twitter, which, given the success of their previous titles, has made Thorson one of the most prominent and awarded non-binary creators of video games in the industry’s history. Players of Celeste may recognize this, however, due to elements of anxiety, isolation, and mental illness that center around Celeste’s story and protagonist.
In April of 2021, Thorson also released a teaser video to the next indie video game title they and their team of developers are working on, Earthblade, which has yet to be given a set release date.
5. Rebecca Ann Heineman
As a child, Heineman was unable to afford games for her Atari 2600 console, but used her resourcefulness and interest in video games to learn how to build pirated cartridges for the console. Though she eventually became disinterested in pirating games, Heineman instead began reverse-engineering the Atari’s code to understand how it – and the games it could play – worked, culminating in what some may describe as a “small obsession” with the hit video game title Space Invaders.
In 1980, a then-16-year-old Heineman traveled to Los Angeles, CA, to compete in the regional placements of the first official Space Invaders national championship. Though she didn’t expect to break the top 100 players, Heineman won the regional championship, and later traveled to the national finals in New York later that year where she also placed first, making her the first official video game champion in history.
With her top placement came its own fame, and Heineman was quickly scouted by industry publishers and programmers at the time, leading to her moving across the country, halting her plans to obtain a high school diploma, and diving into a series of roles for the next 15 years with publishers like Avalon Hill, Boone Corporation, and Interplay Productions before co-founding Logicware and serving as the company’s CTO. Throughout this time, she obtained credits as a programmer, developer, designer, and/or producer on titles such as Wolfenstein 3D, The Bard’s Tale, and Out of This World.
Heineman later founded Contraband Entertainment in 1999, serving as the company’s CEO and overseeing the development of original game titles as well as Mac OS ports for Baldur’s Gate II and Alien Vs. Predator. In 2003, Heineman was officially diagnosed with gender dysmorphia and began her transition, formally changing her name to Rebecca Ann. Since then, Heineman has identified as a lesbian woman and lives in California with her wife and fellow game designer, Jennell Jaquays.
Along with her work on dozens of award-winning video game titles, Heineman was inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame in 2017 for her trailblazing roles throughout her lifelong career in the video game industry and also serves on the board of directors of GLAAD.
6. Ryan Best
In 1992, Ryan Best became a near-overnight (albeit underground) sensation when he released his role-playing action video game, GayBlade. The title is among one of the first video games available for commercial sales to have its themes, gameplay, characters, and story centered around LGBTQIA+ themes; so much so that it was commonly referred to as “Dungeons & Drag Queens.”
The game took players on a journey to defeat hordes of enemies which, though virtual, resembled the very real homophobic enemies of the LGBTQIA+ community such as rednecks, skinheads, and neo-nazis. The game’s final boss was even designed, modeled, and named after conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan, who at the time was perhaps the strongest voice opposing gay rights. Altogether, GayBlade was accredited with giving a voice, platform, and outlet to LGBTQIA+ voices in a time when the fight for gay rights was still struggling to be brought into the light of legislature.
Undoubtedly, GayBlade set new precedents insofar as the extent that game developers were willing to go in order to make unabashed statements regarding politics, sexuality, or gender. However, as Best describes in the third episode of Netflix’s documentary series on the video game industry, High Score, he had lost all remaining copies of the game during a move from Hawaii to San Francisco years prior, and feared the game in its entirety would be lost to the annals of history.
As fate would have it, High Score’s production team began scouring the internet for any signs of the game following the series’s filming. Eventually, after enlisting the help of the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, the team was contacted by Berlin’s Schwules Museum who still had a copy of GayBlade and returned it to Best. Together with the Internet Archive, the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, and the Strong National Museum of Play, Best has been able to preserve GayBlade in the form of both emulation and downloadable version of the game, making it available to players once more.