Since the 1970s, queer identities have rapidly been assimilated into Western society, largely due to the hard work of gay liberation movements led by Black and trans activists. Looking at how far we have come, however, allows us to see how far we still have to go. Homophobia remains a cornerstone of western society and of conservative rhetoric.
Every queer person has a story involving homophobia. This is not to say that we all have the same stories to tell, nor to deny the role social privilege plays in this equation, but rather, it is to highlight the systemic nature of the issue. Contemporary Western society remains anchored to sexist and heteronormative understandings of gender and sexuality. Being heterosexual and cisgendered is considered the ‘default’ way of existing in this world, and any divergence is abnormal. Institutions like education, healthcare, marriage and the state converge to create a heterosexual script. To be queer is to fail to reproduce certain societal ideals.
How do we begin to imagine a world outside of these rigid social norms? How do we carve out a place for ourselves? Self-expression and exploration can be made shameful and difficult when ‘failure’ to conform is at the forefront of queer existence. It’s hard for queer people to access safe and comfortable spaces, even more so queer people of colour. The few spaces available are often predominantly white, fostering racism (Garcia, 2017). Perhaps unexpectedly, in recent years, gaming communities and role-playing games have become one possible answer to such dilemmas.
While gaming cultures have a reputation for being stereotypically toxic and predominantly white masculine spaces, emerging research has highlighted the potential for gaming as a method of play which promotes queer exploration and transformation (Storm and Jones, 2021; Gray and Leonard, 2018). In particular, the table-top role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) has experienced a rapid rise in popularity over the past ten years, including an increase in the visibility of it’s queer fan base.
What is D&D?
At its core, D&D is made up of a group of players and a Dungeon Master (DM) who narrates and adjudicates an interactive story. It involves imagination, role-playing as a set character and active participation in world-building within the magical fantasy genre. The game was developed in the early 1970s and was originally played in accord with a set of rules organised by mass-marketed guide books that had specific stories for the DM to choose from. D&D was received particularly negatively during these years as the satanic panic of the 1980s led to the (largely) American public scapegoating the game as morally devious. While there have undoubtedly always been queer players within these circles, the early development of the game was dominated by white, ‘nerd-bro’ culture which maintained a niche and under-ground reputation (Garcia, 2017). Recently the game has experienced a cultural renaissance in the media, through shows like Stranger Things and Twitch, a streaming platform which allows people to watch gamers play.
Many of the original rules and parameters of D&D are rooted in patriarchal, racist and xenophobic ideologies. When you create your character, you choose from magical ‘races’, many of which are ‘black-coded’ such as dark-elves, orcs and tieflings which are disturbingly aligned with the forces of evil. This blatant race essentialism captures a type of symbolic ethnic mapping which uses light and dark imagery. Although it has now been removed, an old feature assigned female characters less strength and more charisma in comparison to the male characters. Queer-coded villains and other tropes such as the damsel in distress were rife among popular storylines, and the heroes of these stories were almost always men. From a cynical point of view, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to see D&D as a twisted power fantasy that people play to get pleasure out of exerting control and violence on others.
But it is precisely this strict adherence to social norms and the reinforcement of eurocentric systems of oppression which makes D&D the perfect battleground for it’s reclamation by women, queer people, and people of colour.
The Queer Renaissance of D&D
What sets D&D apart from other forms of media and literature is the ‘home-brew’ system. Players are given freedom and agency in determining the boundaries and rules of their own world. In other words, players can decide whether to adhere to the racist, sexist and homophobic structures described above, or challenge the rules in order to imaginatively reshape and transform these boundaries. This flexibility has allowed the game to reach wider and more diverse audiences and regain popularity in contemporary times.
Paradoxically, it is people of colour, women and LGBTQ+ individuals who have risen to claim the game as a haven for safety and joy. One of the key positive aspects it brings to these communities is the ability to explore one’s identity within the confines of a safe imaginary world. D&D can be ‘the springboard to gently interrogate and revel in queerness with reduced risk and without ongoing commitment’ (Carter, 2022, p. 16). However, considering the ugly roots of the game, it is certainly worth questioning how these spaces can be made safe for absolutely everyone- particularly when observing the way the intersections of racism and homophobia have historically been ignored by the queer community (Corteen, 2002). Safety can have different meanings for different people.
Despite the initial flaws of early iterations, faith must be placed on the shoulders of players. We must consider the potential of D&D in extending and reshaping not only the systems of the game itself but the societal norms which regulate the lives of queer and minority communities. Cross (2012) writes about her own experience with identity and playing D&D as a queer trans woman, and how the game has been crucially important in processing her own understanding and expression of gender. She describes the way the game allows you to see a potential future ‘and allow yourself to become enchanted by it all’ (Cross, 2012, p. 76).
By allowing for the disruption of social norms and encouraging inner reflection, D&D has been found by one study to positively impact queer people’s gender dysphoria as well as more generally increase mental health recovery (Causo & Quinlan, 2021). Another study found that queer youth who regularly played D&D were not only able to recognise patterns of inequality and oppression within the game, but playfully subvert and reclaim these worlds by creating queer utopias (Storm & Jones, 2021). This points to the potential for role-playing games such as D&D to offer alternate worlds which show what queer and other marginalised people wish they could embody or see in mainstream media.
D&D offers a space where ‘no revolutionary project is too bold … providing relief from and insight into real-world dominant, oppressive socio-political institutions’ (Kawitzky, 2020, p. 132). It is not often that moments of queer joy are seen or celebrated in society, with the focus often placed on the grief and hardships experienced by the LGBTQ+ community. Queer pleasure and joy are powerful tools in publicly reclaiming heteronormative spaces. As the famous drama theorist and activist Augusto Boal once said, play is a ‘rehearsal for revolution’ (Boal, 2008, p. 135). Perhaps it is possible that by fostering radical queer joy and utopian transformation, queer D&D players are slowly working to un-do the stitches of heteronormative society.
Boal, A., 2014. Theatre of the Oppressed. In The Improvisation Studies Reader (pp. 97-104). Routledge.
Carter, T.J., 2022. They Came to Slay: the queer culture of D&D. 404 Inklings.
Causo, F., & Quinlan, E., 2021. Defeating dragons and demons: Consumers’ perspectives on mental health recovery in role-playing games. Australian Psychologist, 56(3), 256-267.
Cross, K.A., 2012. The new laboratory of dreams: Role-playing games as resistance. Women's Studies Quarterly, 40(3/4), pp.70-88.
Corteen, K., 2002. Lesbian safety talk: Problematizing definitions and experiences of violence, sexuality and space. Sexualities, 5(3), 259-280.
Garcia, A., 2017. Privilege, power, and Dungeons & Dragons: How systems shape racial and gender identities in tabletop role-playing games. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 24(3), pp.232-246.
Gray, K.L. and Leonard, D.J. eds., 2018. Woke gaming: Digital challenges to oppression and social injustice. University of Washington Press.
Kawitzky, F. R., 2020. Magic Circles: Tabletop role-playing games as queer utopian method. Performance Research, 25(8), 129-136.
Storm, S. and Jones, K., 2021. Queering critical literacies: disidentifications and queer futurity in an afterschool storytelling and roleplaying game. English Teaching: Practice & Critique.