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MIT Students Create LGBT Storyline for New Video Game

by Dan Meyer
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Thursday Oct 6, 2011
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It’s a well-known fact that LGBT characters are sparse in video games, and even rarer is the program that revolves around one. These characters often have to be unlocked or straight personas are cheekily forced into a gay situation.

For one of the first times ever, however, a video game based on an LGBT character and storyline has been developed.

The Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology GAMBIT Game Lab spent the whole summer making a program that would include LGBT content that didn’t feel like it was "tacked on," according to the company’s research statement.

The role-playing game ("RPG" in gamers’ terms) is called "A Closed World" which revolves around the story of a girl who flees her village in the hopes of finding a more accepting place. Her lover, also feeling ostracized, quickly follows her lead-that’s the role the player assumes.

The game, which has an old-school feel to it with the simple graphics and easy-to-use console that allows players to move the character with the arrow keys, takes place in the forbidden forest outside the village. Gamers from the 90s may notice a similar landscape in Zelda.

Todd Harper, who calls himself the "client" of the project, said the artists used Zelda trees from Links of the Past in the early stages of development. Whether or not the nostalgia is part of the act, it works.

The process of developing "A Closed World" was an amazing team-building experience, said Harper. While the group of nine students and interns didn’t quite know where to start, a weekend celebrating Boston Pride and watching "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" allowed them to better understand the LGBT community and grow into a "tight-knit group" that became a key factor in the research process, according to Harper.

"The students haven’t been given enough credit in the press," he said. "It belongs to them and they worked really hard to make this. It may have been my plan but they’re the ones who actually created the game."

Harper thought of the idea for the project last fall when Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate allegedly streamed a video of him having sex with another man over the Internet. As a mass communications pro, Harper wanted to develop a product that revolved around a similar story. The resulting program, however, was very different.

"There is a British game magazine called Edge that published an article called ’Playing it Straight’ last October," he said. "They interviewed a whole bunch of game marketers and designers... and asked why these [queer] characters haven’t shown up yet."

With that mindset, Harper went to work on his proposal: a project that would create LGBT content in a video game that was relatable and drove the storyline.

While they might not be the very first to complete similar research, Harper and his group of GAMBIT workers consider themselves a starting point in the creation of queer gaming. "There’s an iPhone app right now that’s similar to Tamagotchi," he said. "We wanted to develop something more."

Still, the result isn’t considered revolutionary by Harper, yet.

He did say that he understands why the project is important... and the answers are coming from gamer comments. "Things like ’I’m so happy someone finally did this. They were unapologetic about it and this is what it is.’ So if there’s anything revolutionary about what we did, it’s that," said Harper.

Log onto gambit.mit.edu/loadgame/aclosedworld.php for more information.

Dan Meyer is a young professional whose stories have appeared in publications such as The Advocate online and UCLA’s LGBT magazine entitled "OutWrite." He is also a part-time ESL teacher in Boston.

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