LGBTQ people currently experience unprecedented visibility, and that visibility (whether overt or covert) is sneaking into the games industry. If you search “LGBTQ Representation in Games” you’ll be greeted with numerous Top 5 or even Top 10 lists, and feedback from a vibrant community of queer gamers.
When looking for age-appropriate content for young LGBTQ or questioning people, however, things get trickier.
Games with queer themes often feature mature content: sex, violence, language, and drug use, just to name a few content warning heavy-hitters. These topics aren’t always safe for everyone looking to see their identities represented in their favorite medium. The younger you are, the harder it can be to find grounds within games (and other media) to experiment and help you vocalize your identity that isn’t also asking you to also engage with content you may not be ready for, or that your parents aren’t ready for you to consume. Even if you’re not a young queer person, sex, violence, and drug use are common triggers for people dealing with PTSD and other mental illnesses that require strict personal curation.
Likewise, the cultural perception that same-gender content is more obscene than Ariel kissing Prince Eric, or that same-gender relationships are inherently sexual, often puts family-friendly media and games in a box that exclude them from being friendly for all families. This means that the games most likely to be able to “get away” with LGBTQ content are carrying a mature rating, or not have gone through the ESRB at all. An M rating alone gives many parents pause, and navigating the independent games landscape can be even more of a minefield.
That’s not to say those things are inherently bad or distasteful storytelling—it has more to do with the lack of options queer people have while growing up, coping with trauma, or just knowing we don’t want to see heads explode on our monitors in 1080p every time we want representation.
That brings me to the wonderful opportunity Avengers Academy has right now.
Some background info: Avengers Academy is a spritely, high school-themed Marvel mobile game and Sims skin that caught on in spite of an unusual premise. Reviews overall appear mixed, with critics either enjoying it despite its tedium or considering it a pretty but petty cash grab. That being said, it has generally good user ratings by averaging 4/5 stars on both the App Store and the Android marketplace, and you can’t quite go anywhere in Marvel fandom without seeing someone post a screencap of a zany conversation or a character they just had to fork over the extra cash for.
I happen to be in the camp where I find it a good deal of fun. I’m a huge Marvel fan, and I love seeing my favorite characters so out of context. It’s also good for me to have at least one gaming experience that I can trust not to be emotionally draining.
When I heard about the upcoming dating feature, I was tentatively excited. It’s the dream of everyone who’s scraped out a 20k-word alternate universe fanfiction to be able to pair your favorites up and see how dinner and a show plays out. Then I got that nagging, uncomfortable feeling between my shoulders. It’s a sense I get whenever I find out that a game is going to have romance in it and googled whether there would be any options for same-gender dating.
The information is—unfortunately—unclear. On one hand, a fan reached out to TinyCo support and received this response:
“We can’t disclose much about the dating feature before it’s released, but rest assured that Marvel has plenty of LGBTQQIA characters and we don’t plan on having an academy with only straight, cisgender superheroes. Loki’s already in there and he is very much neither straight nor cis.”
The responder is referring to Loki’s status as bisexual and gender fluid, as well as alluding to the future inclusion of other LGBTQ characters from the Marvel Comics canon into the game, which is all highly promising. That being said, rumors of leaked dialogue from the dating feature show dialogue for only heterosexual dates. Granted, those are rumors, and it doesn’t exclude the idea that TinyCo may be actively working on more diverse dating options. But it doesn’t bode well, either.
But I want to focus on the positive. Since the dating feature is still under development, TinyCo has an amazing opportunity for inclusivity. If they include a wider variety of LGBTQ characters who may be able to date each other (a short list could include characters such as America Chavez, Wiccan, or Hulkling). Since they’re eschewing canon relationships anyway, they also have the option of simply allowing anyone to date anyone. Only the developers know which of those options would be most financially viable for them, but they are all possibilities.
If the youth-targeted Avengers Academy included chaste same-gender dates, it would set it apart among many other T-rated games. This is important for all the reasons previously discussed. That this is a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously is another boon. Games with LGBTQ themes are often serious or dreary, and I’m not the only one who wants a break from the grind of stories about homophobia to play out a fun, uncomplicated on-screen date between two adorable same gender-attracted people.
Beyond the chance for inclusivity presented to TinyCo as a developer, this would also be a great opportunity for Marvel and Disney to engage with their increasingly vocal LGBTQ fanbase. Hashtags like #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend and #GiveElsaAGirlfriend are ways for an often invisible audience to express themselves to a large producer of stories we love. Avengers Academy has a youthful, carefree aesthetic, and that wouldn’t change with the option for same-gender dating, and that may lay casual, valuable groundwork for games targeting a similar age-range.
I’m also saying that Wasp and Spider-Woman have a ton of chemistry that it would be a shame not to follow up on!