Straight-washing "Undertale": Video games and the limits of LGBTQ representation

  • Bonnie Ruberg University of California, Irvine
Keywords: Cultural discourse, Games culture, Homophobia, Limitations of inclusivity, Player reception, Queer erasure, Queerness

Abstract

A widely beloved video game, Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015) has proven popular with players, reviewers, and commentators from across sectors of games culture that often hold conflicting views. What makes Undertale's broad appeal particularly surprising is its queer content, which can be found in both the game's representational and interactive elements. As many have observed, homophobic attitudes have long characterized reactionary gamer subcultures, which are often explicitly hostile toward diversity. Yet these subcultures are also among those most vocal in their appreciation of Undertale. What explains this seeming contradiction? While it is tempting to interpret this phenomenon as a sign that gamer culture is becoming more inclusive, a critique of the discourse surrounding the game's reception reveals that Undertale has in fact been straight-washed by many writers and fans. This straightwashing entails both an erasure of the queerness found in Undertale and a recasting of the game as one that jibes with the interests of heterosexual male gamers, such as innovative design, player mastery, nostalgia, and humor. At a moment when diversity has become central to academic and popular discussions of video games, increased LGBTQ representation is often presented as the ready-made fix to antiqueer discrimination. Yet the straightwashing of Undertale serves as a cautionary tale. It suggests that the cultural impact of LGBTQ representation in video games has its own limitations, and that a game with queer characters may not only fail to change the mindsets of straight players; it may itself be stripped of its queer potential by its reception.

Author Biography

Bonnie Ruberg, University of California, Irvine

Assistant Professor of digital media and games, Department of Informatics, UC Irvine

Published
2018-09-15