The Rainbow Arcade is an exhibition of LGBTQI* representation is video games currently taking place at the Schwules Museum in Berlin. New Zealander in Berlin Joel Thomas went along.
There’s a perpetual greyness to the Berlin winter; everything’s desaturated and everyone’s a bit on edge. I’m walking through the rain in Berlin’s famously queer district of Schöneberg, where leather kink stores are common and every second shop has a rainbow flag on display. I trek through puddles to the area’s northern corner and towards a building with neon lights that read ‘Schwules Museum Berlin.’ If your German is better than mine, you’ll know that ‘schwules’ means ‘gay.’
I pay the €7.50 entry fee – reasonably low by European museum standards – and make my way past a display of beautiful paintings by queer artists, into a bright back room where The Rainbow Arcade is exhibited. Inside I hear the polyphonic hum of videogame music, the occasion ‘pew pew’ of some sort of laser gun, children running around and laughing, German couples are talking quietly, and British tourists are talking loudly. Everyone seems to have lost their stressed-out edge. At this bleak time of year it’s rare for a space to have this much of an effect on people, unless there are drugs or alcohol involved.
“As long as there have been creative tools available, LGBTQI* have found ways to express and represent themselves,” reads the introduction to the exhibition, which is laid out much like a colourful, interactive essay.
The Rainbow Arcade is an exhibition of LGBTQI* representation in video games, made with funding from the German Department of Culture. Officially opened in 1985, the Schwules Museum “is dedicated to the wide variety of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans * identified life concepts in history, culture and the arts.” It’s an exciting and important move to include video games in this definition of “culture and the arts”, considering the impact they’ve had on society as a whole.
The show is broken into sections, each painted a different colour of the rainbow flag. Combined with the artificial hum of games around me, I immediately feel like I’m in a bright new world and I half-expect to find Toad from Super Mario (who I’m now informed is one of the first genderless video game characters) waiting around the corner in their racing car.
The pixelated title-font tells me the first section of the exhibition is a timeline of important queer games throughout history, starting in the 1980s.
One of these early games is GayBlade (1992) in which designer Ryan Best placed “every type of person that had bullied [him] into the game as a monster you had to destroy.”
I try to decide if I agree with this. Though the idea of digitally crushing my enemies appeals to me, I’m also aware that this maybe isn’t the most healthy way of processing things. I eventually decide I’m for it since GayBlade was of the first games to highlight the way queer people are treated and give others the opportunity to experience perspective first hand.
Another game mentioned is the murder/mystery charityware game Caper in the Castro (1989) designed by C.M. Ralph, which is playable on an emulated ’80s Macintosh. I watch a man stop reading the text on the wall and rush straight to this game. He fumbles through it as his boyfriend dutifully helps him figure things out. “I felt like I was going in a time machine,” he later tells me.
The exhibition works to remove the idea of video games being standalone objects separate from their creators. It does this with a wall of fame featuring notable designers like Anna Anthropy and Robert Yang who have worked tirelessly to put their own voices and experiences into the stories that video games tell.
Before today I couldn’t name any videogame creators, and when the point of gaming is usually to immerse yourself in new worlds, it’s easy to forget these worlds are constructed by people who, consciously or subconsciously, have agendas.
Teenage me spent a long time playing Grand Theft Auto without realising the impact these stories were having. In one mission in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a character named Jeffrey commissions you to hunt down and kill Freddie, a gay character who Jeffrey used to have sex with in prison. You’re doing this to “protect [his] rep.”
In the exhibition, a video essay de-constructs this, arguing that GTA’s treatment of queer characters is actively harmful. It also attempts to debunk the myth that its homophobic ‘humour’ is just innocuous satire.
“I like the fat ass, not the slow ass,” Freddie says in an overly effeminate tone that only straight people think gay men speak in. In the mission, you chase him down and shoot him simply because he’s queer. It’s hard to believe the humour here comes from a place of satire and not prejudice.
I feel shame creep in as I’m reminded of a time when queerness was a joke, when it was something me and my year-nine gamer friends would laugh about in school. We’d call each other homophobic slurs as we’d shoot each other in Call of Duty. This is definitely a behaviour I had learnt from the media and my peers. Until now, I didn’t realise the power immersive narratives and digital worlds had on shaping my prejudices.
The “Discrimination” section of the exhibition highlights the harm this mindset can have. A wall of GamerGate tweets and discriminatory chat logs are printed out, tangible and separate from their digital unreality. “Please die in a car crash,” one tweet says. Another reads, “U are not a real gamer go die. Get out of here #GamerGate.”
Opposite these tweets is an empty wall, acknowledging those who never finished their games, or those who took them down because of the violent backlash they faced.
As a queer creative who lives in a liberal Berlin bubble, I think about leaving this comfort zone and releasing my art in a place where people think the world would be better off without me. And it terrifies me.
“Can we envision a future where distinct and colourful queer characters are no more controversial as the white male hero we see in most other mainstream games?” This is a quote from the “Next Level” section of the exhibition, which speculates the future of queer representation in video games.
The Rainbow Arcade claims that queer narratives in games are often shied away from because of “fears children may access inappropriate content.” But when I see children running around the exhibition and laughing as they play the games on display, I can’t help but think that’s bullshit.
If queerness was celebrated through the digital worlds I immersed myself in as a kid, I’d be way more comfortable with who I am now. Maybe if I had to travel through worlds of Super Mario fighting Goombas and Piranhas to save a prince from a castle rather than a princess, or if I had to play as a female version of Sora from Kingdom Hearts in search of the lost and lonely Kairi, I wouldn’t have seen queer relationships as such an other, unspoken topic.
Perhaps in the future, instead of slinging slurs in Call of Duty and playing homophobic narratives in GTA, the “queer hero” will be the norm, and creators won’t feel the need to take their work down in fear of hateful backlash. Perhaps spaces where gamers can feel comfortable with their queerness will extend past a niche museum in Schöneberg.
The Rainbow Arcade is a space which stands in celebration of queerness while acknowledging that both real and digital worlds deny this to LGBTIQ* people. And when I see attendees of this exhibition helping a man in a wheelchair that they do not know, or a grey-haired woman patiently waiting over an hour for her girlfriend to finish playing 2064 Read Any Memory, I know that this is a space that breeds kindness, which is something the world definitely needs more of.
“It’s nice to see someone has taken the time to curate these nuggets of sexuality,” says Óscar González-Díaz, an artist who I meet at the exhibition. This helps reassure me that someone will always be there to care. As long as there’s continued importance placed on curating and creating queer spaces, both digitally and physically, the world will be a little bit warmer – even if it’s raining and zero degrees outside and a woman I’ve never met is yelling at me in Spanish as I walk home.
If you happen to be living in Berlin, you can attend the Rainbow Arcade at the Schwules Museum.