Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or, I don’t know, you aren’t involved in the indie game community), you’ve heard about this shiny new game called Monsterhearts. For the rock-dwellers, I’ll briefly say that Monsterhearts is an Apocalypse World1 hack for supernatural teen romance written by Joe Mcdaldno. Think Buffy, Vampire Diaries, True Blood, or Twilight. (I prefer to think of Buffy, and never, ever, ever think of Twilight for any reason. But that’s your call.)
Fairly early in the Monsterhearts game text, in a section called Queer Content Joe says:
This isn’t really a game about monsters. It’s a game about
the confusion that arises when your body and your social
world start changing without your permission.Your story will be more interesting and real if it includes
queer content.. . .Use the game to explore and challenge your own ideas
about gender, sexuality, relationships, what’s normal and
Now, ever since I discovered Buffy, I have adored supernatural teen romance, as a genre (and I keep being disappointed by everything else I see in the genre, but that’s another matter), and I knew Apocalypse World was good, so I was already very excited about Monsterhearts. But on my first read-through of my advanced PDF copy of the game, when I got to this section I was immediately completely sold on the game.
Back in ancient times (on an internet timescale, that is), Vincent Baker wrote a blog post about “three insights” required in designing a game. Vincent says:
When you design a game, you’re taking three different positions, expressing three different insights, putting forth three different opinions. Saying three different things. First, you’re saying something about the subject matter or genre of your game: something you think about adventure fiction, or swords & sorcery, or transhumanist sf, or whatever.
And that’s what this is. Queer content is Joe McDaldno’s completely fucking brilliant insight into the supernatural teen romance genre. I didn’t really know it before I read that section of Monsterhearts, but good supernatural teen romance needs queer content. It doesn’t always have it (even my very favorite show ever, Buffy doesn’t have all that much), but that’s a flaw.2
There are a lot of different possible meanings for the term queer, so it is worthwhile to discuss exactly what it means here. The text from Monsterhearts quoted above makes it clear that Joe intends it as an inclusive over-arching term for all sexual identities which are not strictly heterosexual and monogamous, and all gender identites which are not cisgender. I am using sexual identity in perhaps a non-standard way, as an umbrella term which includes all identities which revolve around sexual and romantic attraction, such as sexual orientations (gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, pansexual, etc.), monogamous vs. polyamorous identities, asexual identities, etc. I use gender identity in the established sense, to refer to identities such a male, female, or genderqueer. Joe clearly intends to include transgender as well as genderqueer and other gender identities under the term “queer.” By adopting Joe’s terminology, I do not mean to imply that transgender people are something other than strictly male or female. I am using Joe’s terminology for simplicity, even though I am not sure it is entirely accurate.
Joe’s point about “your body changing … without your permission” when you are a teenager clearly points to gender identity issues, and the summary text at the end mentions both sexual and gender identity issues. However, most of the examples are about sexual orientation or identity, and this is no accident.
The main mechanism by which Monsterhearts encourages queer content (other than simply advising players to include it) is the turn someone on move.3 This move gives PCs mechanical advantages when they successfully turn another character on. The stated goal of this move is to get PCs to question their sexual identities, and my play experience suggests that it succeeds there.
However, this mechanic does nothing to address queer gender identites, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my (albeit very short, so far) game content has addressed non-hetero sexual identity several times already, but has not (yet) addressed trans or queer gender identities.
The question remains whether Monsterhearts provides a good environment to explore issues of (and stories about) gender and sexual identity. My answer is an emphatic yes, and the game even encourages players to explore sexual identity even if they did not come to the table consciously intending to explore it. However, while exploration of queer and trans gender identities fits perfectly into Monsterhearts from a thematic sense, and in my opinion leaving this content out is a big mistake, conscious effort is required to include it.
As might be clear by now, I really enjoy Monsterhearts and my experience has been that the turn someone on move works extraordinarily well at supporting a goal I think is very important. However, I wonder whether being the target of this move might be problematic for some women. As gamers, we are often encouraged to think of our characters as our own, and Monsterhearts especially encourages strongly identifying with your character,4 and as women, we are often expected to mold our own sexuality, sexual responses, and sexual identity to fit the whims of society and of our partners. In that context, perhaps being the target of a successful turn someone on attempt could feel somewhat nonconsensual. My thoughts here are not all that well-formed (though I know for sure it’s not an issue for me personal), so I would love to hear what other women have to say in the comments section.
- Apocalypse World is the latest and greatest from rockstar indie game designer Vincent Baker. ↩
- For the most part Buffy focuses on other sorts of themes, to do with power and responsibility and that sort of thing, and, paraphrased from the commentary on the first season DVDs (yes, I have listened to all the commentaries, more than once, why do you ask?), how high school is hell. However, it could have used a lot more explicitly queer content! I do, of course, understand that expecting that on network television at the time Buffy was airing would have been completely unrealistic. ↩
- Move is the term for all the mechanics-based actions players (including the MC–the GM-like role) take in Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts. ↩
- What I have in mind here is where Joe mentions a character’s thoughts and emotions “bleeding into the player’s own experience.” ↩