Adrienne Shaw worked in her local grocery store and played video games in her spare time after she graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. This focus on video games was hardly unproductive for her.
“As soon as I started grad school, I started focusing on games, because when I applied to Penn they really were interested in my focus in video game studies,” she said.
Adrienne Shaw is treading on unprecedented territory when it comes to her largest pursuit, the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, a resource for the history of the LGBTQ community in video games.
“I always had an interest in questions of representation, mostly LGBTQ representation, but also representation of women and racial minorities,” Shaw said.
The archive, which has been a work-in-progress for longer than a decade, documents any gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer men and women, as well as non-gender-conforming content, in video games that have been made from the 1980s to now.
Shaw has written peer-reviewed articles like “Putting the Gay in Games: Cultural Production and GLBT Content in Video Games.” She also authored the book “Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture.”
Shaw, who served as co-chair of the International Communication Association’s LGBTQ Studies Special Interest Group from 2011 to 2015, noticed in the years of her research that most people didn’t know about when the LGBTQ community began to appear in video games.
“People would ask me about the history of queer content in games, and I would answer, ‘Nobody really knows,’” Shaw said. “There are lots of lists online, like Wikipedia, but nobody researches them. So I waited a long time to see if anyone would ever do it and they didn’t, so I did.”
Recently, Shaw created a curated master list that will allow her to produce statistics on games with LGBTQ representation, she said. With her research, Shaw said that people can see the long history of these types of characters and possibly make game designers create more in-depth, less archetypal LGBTQ characters.
“For the industry, having a well-rounded character in a video game that was successful, would give them permission to have better characters,” Shaw said. “A lot of it is, it’s risky. They’re afraid if they have well-rounded queer characters, that people won’t buy the game.”
A large part of Shaw’s findings have shown that LGBTQ characters have already been in games for decades, yet a lot of gamers don’t realize it.
“Every time a new gay character shows up in a game, people are like, ‘Oh! This is groundbreaking,’” Shaw said. “It can’t always be groundbreaking. … The ground has been pretty broken.”
Chris Persaud, a junior sociology and French major who assisted Shaw with research this summer, said the archive uncovers LGBTQ characters in all sorts of games — even his old favorites.
“It’s been fun to kind of be surprised,” Persaud said. “There’s gay characters in games that I played years ago and just never remembered about it, until the research.”
Depending on the game’s writers or whether the game came from a different country and was adapted to American style, the existence of LGBTQ characters can sometimes be hard to recognize, Persaud said.
“There are games I’ve done this summer that took two hours to research and some that took 40 hours,” Persaud said. “Games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘The Elder Scrolls’ are huge and have been going on for a long time. They tend to have more LGBTQ characters, and more content in general.”
Shaw said she receives financial support for her project from Temple’s Digital Scholarship Center, which helps her pay research assistants like Persaud.
“One of the things that stood out in Adrienne’s project is that she’s doing an analysis,” said Peter Logan, the academic director of DSC. “She’s not just creating an archive for others to analyze. She’s creating a database for her own analytical purposes.”
Shaw encourages gamers to interact with her website and also add their own entries, making the archive an all-in-one LGBTQ database for all gamers.
While the 1980s and 1990s list are considered complete, Shaw is still working on compiling games from the 21st century.
“I would like the archive to be an all-encompassing resource for information about not just LGBTQ game content, but information about players, fan groups, alternative gaming as well,” Shaw said. “I would like to have it be a ‘Digital Museum of Queer-Related Game Stuff,’ than just about the game content.”
Henry Savage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.