The year is 2013, and a group of friends sit down to record and upload a play-through of Silent Hill 2. The audio is crunchy, the visual quality is far from HD, and the video will soon be attacked with a copyright claim from Konami. But it doesn’t matter, because they’d have barrels of fun doing it all.
This was the beginning of Hex Code Girls, a feminist let's play channel run by four queer best friends.
Flash forward two years, and it's official: Hex Code Girls have entered the boys club that is the YouTube gaming scene. From playing games with strong LGBT+ themes like Life is Strange, to cult-classics like Shadow of the Colossus, they’ve uploaded hundreds of videos and built up a very loyal fan base.
I was recently lucky enough to speak to the girls — Petra, Omi, Elise, and KT — about how their channel has grown since its inception and about smashing the patriarchy - that is the boy's club of the YouTube gaming community.
“We felt like there was a growing space for queer women in the gaming scene on YouTube, and we wanted to make that space even bigger,” Petra told me. Petra is an illustrator who edits most of the episodes for the channel. She brings 20 years of highly skilled gaming expertise to the group so she can kill tough bosses, but still loves to play around within the game's universe and make new discoveries as she does.
While HCG helps us seek out diverse representation in video games, the video games industry as a whole is greatly lacking.
“So we tried to up the quality of our recordings and thought long and hard about how we would brand ourselves," she continued. "We brainstormed the name of our channel and the aesthetic of the visuals and music for about a month or so — there were a lot of scrapped concepts.
"We wanted something cohesive and fun and I think it paid off in presenting our amateur content into something more appealing," Petra explained. "I really think that was something that helped make our channel distinct, and I think it still accomplishes that. We were proud of the space we were making, it was fun and mindful and inclusive. We were very passionate — and still are.”
Petra is the primary artist for all of HCG's graphic design needs. Each Hex Code Girl has her very own chibi avatar that greets the viewer at the start of every video. Each member's alt style shines through in the artwork, and automatically let's the viewer know that the channel is a queer and plus-size friendly place to be.
In their play-throughs, the girls bring with them a critical feminist eye to each game. While having fun with the game mechanics and storylines, they ask themselves how diverse and sensitive each game truly is.
While HCG helps us seek out diverse representation in video games, the video games industry as a whole is greatly lacking. Luckily, there are a few games here and there that actually do a great job of being inclusive.
HCG's Hits and Misses
I asked the gang what their favorite games of the past few years were, as well as which games they felt could have done a better job.
“Overwatch is the game of the year every year since it first came out. So jot that down. It’s far from perfect, but Blizzard [Entertainment]’s supposed commitment to diversity has really shown in both the game itself and the community surrounding it," Petra said, referring to the company that developed Overwatch. "I think it’s become a space where marginalized folks feel like we can be proud fans together and has a loving fan-art community.”
Elise expanded on Petra's thoughts with some of Overwatch's negative side: “Though I have to add that Overwatch is in this weird place for me where there's fantastic fandom and space for queer folx that butts up against the rigid sameness I find comes with FPS [first person shooter] games.”
Elise is a writer and movie buff who translates her love of thinking critically about novels and film and applies them to video games. She never shies away from conceptual and emotional discussion and is always finding ways to cope with just how extra Petra is.
“The e-sport aspect of Overwatch really enticed me and got me interested, but then I see all the players saying hateful things and getting fined or banned and so many commentators and casters just ignoring it or even endorsing it," she told me. "Overwatch is one of my ultimate favorite games, and you can really find good people and safe spaces, but over all the community is really far from perfect. (Just a little rant.)”
What makes games like Overwatch ironic is the fact that they attract many bigoted players despite the best efforts of their game developers, who are working to produce diverse gameplay. Despite having canonical LGBT+ characters, disabled characters, and many un-sexualized playable women, there are still an abundance of trolls on multiplayer. Cishet (cisgendered, heterosexual) white men still flock to the game to complain about “SJW's” taking over "their" shooter. It's actually slowing down further developments of the game, according to Blizzard.
Overwatch isn't the only game that is such a mixed bag, in fact one of the biggest games of 2017 shocked the gang.
"I’ll admit that to me even as someone who tries to advocate for diversity in games and in gaming spaces I’m not very knowledgeable about the accommodations differently abled gamers need."
“Persona 5 is definitely a game we talk about quite a bit with each other on how painful the writing is. Which is a shame because we’re all huge Persona 3 and 4 fans! Within the first chapter of the game, the writing introduces heavily misogynist concepts and dialogue and honestly keeps up that pace throughout the rest of the game. It inconsistently condemns specific acts of misogyny and sexual violence, while pardoning others. It paints relationships between teachers and students as wrong when the teacher is a man. Yet encourages the player, a teenage boy, to romance much older women.”
One of the main aspects of Persona 5 is to highlight how poorly children and adolescents are treated by adults with authority. So to turn around and have a teacher accept a romantic relationship with a teen, or to show the female victims of sexual harassment in skimpy bathing suits, is horribly hypocritical.
This hypocrisy is partially rooted in toxic masculinity, as many people out there believe that boys cannot be sexually assaulted, and that being preyed upon by older women is actually some sort of compliment. The latter is our good ol' friend misogyny in action.
Luckily, there are also games out there that don't fall into these traps.
“Butterfly Soup from last year impressed me so much,” Petra suggested. “It’s probably one of my faves of all-time. Queer indie games with a lot of heart just mean so much more to me.”
Butterfly Soup is a heart-warming visual novel that centers on a handful of Asian gay and bi girls who love baseball. It's innocent, it's funny, and surprisingly realistic.
Since visual novels are often very NSFW and misogynistic in concept, the fact that Butterfly Soup exists is pretty miraculous. It treats queer teens with respect, while painting each character in a unique and quirky manner.
The Issue of Accessibility and Aggression
Another issue that needs a lot of improvement in video games, is the idea of games being accessible to everyone. Both in terms of game play mechanics, and in how gamers discuss the topic.
“I’ll admit that to me even as someone who tries to advocate for diversity in games and in gaming spaces I’m not very knowledgeable about the accommodations differently abled gamers need,” Elise stated. “I think our channel tries to make space for queer female voices, as well as be considerate of other marginalized folx needs, and that definitely is part of the way to make change, like y’all said above. I think we’re very philosophical people, and we might not know the physical mechanics that need to change.”
There is a string sense of ableism in the gaming community when it comes to playing ability. If you don't play on hard mode or turn off all tutorials, you're suddenly not a real gamer.
There was a huge uproar when Mario Kart dared to add an auto-steering function. This function makes it a lot easier for players to avoid falling off of the race track or slam straight into walls. For those who don't want or need it, it's easily turned off mid-game or in the character selection menu, yet there was still a great deal of anger towards it from able-bodied players.
Not only is this function great for young players and inexperienced players, but it's also perfect for those who have cognitive disorders or physical disabilities that stop them from being able to make specific and quick finger movements. The idea that other gamers think they'd be better off just not playing games, is extremely unfair and lacks common sense.
This kind of gatekeeping happens with every game, and it always comes from the most angry privileged players.
“Most of the channels I choose to watch are led by cishet male voices that are typically very aggressive/problematic, especially in fast-paced games like Overwatch,” Omi told me.
Omi is also an illustrator and is as passionate about dismantling the patriarchy as she is about hating Hanzo mains in Overwatch. She is driven and loves to win more than anything else, while also holding a lot of nostalgia and love for games.
“So the more I can create space and put my voice out there and change what’s out there the better!" she told me.
This is why we need more channels like HCG; to remind the community that it's not just able bodied, white, cishet male players that enjoy video games.
The future of Hex Code Girls
While hearing their thoughts and browsing their endless playlists on YouTube, I began to wonder what is next for the gang?
“Merch has definitely been talked about and been on our minds.” KT explained.
KT is a visual artist who brings her absurdist humor and adorable quirks to episodes. Her exuberance for life really shows when she's holding the controller and screaming. She is the mother of two cats that she and Omi both care for.
“I know we would love to create a line of t-shirts, pins, stickers, etc. But we haven’t put any gas to it yet being still a very new and young developing channel. We want to make sure the interest is there.”
Merch is always a great way for viewers to help support their favorite content makers. Buying merch lets players help to fund their favorite channel so they can invest in better equipment. AND, the viewer gets a kickass t-shirt or poster out of the deal!
Another way the players want to expand is exploring live-streaming. Said Omi:, “More and more I have been excited for the prospect of live-streaming myself playing video games!"
“Since Overwatch is my favorite game at this time, I would love the opportunity to go with it and maybe stream on Twitch or YouTube. Part of me really loves that prospect because MoBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena Video Games) seem to be particularly lacking in queer women voices.”
The Industry Will Always be a Mixed Bag
Despite the fact that the video games industry has come a long way in terms of diversity, there are other areas that haven't improved much. Cyberbullying is still rampant, women and gender non-conforming individuals still feel unsafe at meet-ups and cons, and we still haven't quite recovered from the Gamer Gate abuse.
This is why we need gamers like the Hex Code Girls, channels like BlkLoliGamer, and publications like FemHype. Not to mention a bigger feminist let's play community in general. We need these voices to drown out the bigots, and to bring back the fun to games without falling back on racist jokes. We need to let game developers know that we're tired of the same old white cishet man pain-based games that depict women as objects, and people of color as target practice. Why is this change taking so long?
"I feel like what is holding a lot of large developers back is just the fear," KT suggested. "It’s those few but loud internet voices from unmoving prejudiced gamers that like to stir up any controversy at the sight of inclusive media. It makes the industry seem as though from the outside inclusive games won't sell and don't have a market but we’re out here yelling for games to be catered to our lives and experiences but only very few are making the leap."
So if you want game developers to take the leap, we have to leap with them. Subscribe to diverse channels, buy diverse games, and even make your own if you can.
We can change the future of games, even on an old slow computer with crunchy audio.