Queerness in digital games can mean a few different things. In one sense, a queer game may challenge the dichotomies that traditionally structure digital games: narrative and gameplay, player control and player agency, winning and losing. In another sense, a queer game may represent a world beyond the limitations of the present in order to convey a sense of hopeful possibility for future change. In both senses, queerness troubles notions of what a digital game should or could be, disrupts what we are conditioned by the dominant culture to expect from the present, and imagines a future that is otherwise.
Most role-playing games prioritize epic stakes, character progression, high-resolution graphics and the player’s pleasure over lasting consequences and meaningful play. In mainstream games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition, players customize their characters’ physical appearance and put points into a skill tree that determines the character’s strengths and weaknesses before the player sets out to save the world from dragons and interdimensional demon portals. Moreover, in Skyrim and more recent games like the mega-hit Read Dead Redemption 2, players can steal, destroy property, commit mass murder, and then pay a fine or bounty in order to absolve themselves of their crimes. While Read Dead Redemption 2 does include a morality mechanic whereby evil actions will result in increased infamy, this mechanic is easily exploited (repeatedly catching and releasing fish earns “good” points) and doesn’t prevent the player from making narrative progress. This flimsiness is ironic in a game that is otherwise absurdly realistic and detailed (e.g. much internet hype has been made about in-game horse testicles reacting believably to different climates).
Whereas mainstream games like Read Dead Redemption 2 or Skyrim seek to maximize the player’s pleasure through escapist fantasies of power, Mattie Brice’s queer digital game Mainichi diverts the player’s attention away from him or herself and towards the personal reality that Brice wants to communicate through the game’s protagonist. In contrast to the mainstream model, Mainichi demands empathy for its protagonist (and by extension, it’s creator, from whose experiences the game draws its episodes and encounters) through its central design feature: failure. The game does not establish an achievable, winnable goal; the possibility of achieving acceptance in the world is beyond the player’s grasp. Instead, the game forces the player to fail over and over again; the player’s satisfaction or sense of achievement is not Mainichi’s focus.
At the beginning of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, as in many other mainstream role-playing games, players customize their respective character’s physical appearance and distribute points in a skill tree in order to determine their character’s strengths and weaknesses.
In many open world role-playing games like Red Dead Redemption 2, players can pay off their crimes with in-game currency.
Mainichi, which is Japanese for “everyday,” is a role-playing game about the daily struggles of navigating the world as a trans woman of color. The game is cyclical and places the player within a perspective of fixed subjecthood and limited agency. It begins with the player getting ready to meet a friend for coffee and ends with with the protagonist being disappointingly misunderstood by that friend. The events of the day reset after these two narrative points, and the player can experiment with different choices — to crawl back into bed, to shower, to put on makeup, to play video games to pass the time until meeting the friend. But just as Mainichi’s protagonist laments that “I wish I didn’t have to change myself” in order to pass through the world unharassed (which the game portrays as impossible), the player cannot choose to experience anything other than the experience of being a mixed trans woman.
The protagonist of Mainichi fails to pass as a trans woman of color and is aggressively confronted by a man on the street
Mainichi rejects the safe pleasures of universal experience for the discomforting context of individual subjectivity — a subjectivity that is repeatedly dismissed by normative society. While the player’s choices may slightly alter other NPCs’ (non-playable characters) reactions to the protagonist, they are ultimately insubstantial. The player may choose not to put on makeup before leaving their house, with the consequence that bystanders will openly deride the protagonist: “Oh my god, look. Is that a boy or a girl?” “Shhh! They’ll hear you!” “But isn’t that gross!?” Conversely, if the player decides to put on makeup — to “put on my face” so that “I feel like me again” — men on the street will make sexual overtures to the protagonist, only to be repelled in disgust after realizing that the protagonist is trans. Additionally, strangers will comment on the protagonist’s afro and obtrusively reach out to touch it. The protagonist’s frustration at having to suffer such gender policing and racial microaggressions is indicated by a dark cloud that appears over the protagonist’s head after each of these interactions. These frustrations even extend to mundane transactions of capital, as when the player must choose between paying for their coffee with cash or credit. If the player chooses to pay with cash, the interaction is completed without emotional risk. If the player pays with a credit card, the cashier will hand back the protagonist’s card while faltering to decide whether to address the protagonist as “Miss… er Mr.” Each day’s sequence ends with the protagonist’s friend either hypocritically dismissing the protagonist’s prospects of a romantic relationship (“I mean… Does he know? You know? I just don’t want you to get hurt”) or patronizingly recommending that the protagonist take hormones.
The protagonist’s friend in Mattie Brice’s Mainichi attempts to console the protagonist by suggesting that they take hormones.
Ironically, Mainichi suggests the possibility for change in its very substitution of repeated failure for the pleasurable escapism of mainstream games. To be sure, interactions with NPCs are highly-scripted and, with the exception of the protagonist’s friend, exclusively unidirectional. The player is afforded a set number of choices, but those choices’ consequences and the order in which they unravel are claustrophobically circumscribed. The game’s design replicates the very normative constructions that oppress it’s protagonist. There might be a temptation to answer the seeming hopelessness of Mainichi with something like Judith Butler’s observation that the possibilities of gender transformation lie in the possibility of a failure to repeat acts of gender performance. Yet such a suggestion would overlook the core of the experience Brice wants tell, like the friend who suggests hormones as a palliative for perpetual existential misery. Mainichi doesn’t provide any answers or solutions to the predicament of its protagonist. It does, however, present an opportunity for empathy and engaging in a form of play that isn’t about winning or losing, but feeling. Failure in Mainichi provides a way of fantasizing not about some place else, but of existing everyday alternatives to a present that obsessively divides itself into winners and losers.