Is queerness wholesome now?

A couple weeks ago, I was following the Summer Games Fest and other video game presentations. And because I’m so interested in queer media, I asked myself, of all these different presentations, which is the queerest of them all? It’s hardly a question, because the answer is so obviously the Wholesome Games Direct.

The next day, I read a story about proud boys creating a disturbance at a Drag Queen Story Hour, and I thought, of course. Of course the queers would be doing something so wholesome as reading stories to children, and of course the edgy fascists would hate that.

Is this a thing? Is queer wholesomeness a thing?

My impression of the Wholesome Games Direct is largely based on vibes, it might not be as obvious as I’m making it out. One could point out, for instance, that the Summer Games Fest ended with The Last of Us Part 1, which is a remake of that game whose sequel had the famous kiss, so I guess it technically has a queer protagonist? Or If you’re more quantitatively-minded, you could point out that, according to the Gayming Magazine, the Tribeca Games Spotlight had a higher proportion of LGBTQ+ games–unless you only count confirmed examples, in which case Wholesome Games wins out. The practically-minded may point to the LGBTQ tag on Steam, and observe that there are a large number of dating sims whose status as “wholesome” may be dubious.  I’m not here to persuade you that queer wholesomeness is a thing, I’m just going to assume it’s a thing and talk about the implications.

What is wholesomeness? Wholesome Games has some helpful things to say on that question:

One of the goals of Wholesome Games is to change how we think about which games are taken seriously. For many years, the most critically acclaimed titles have been the ones with the darkest themes and grimmest depictions of life, but there’s also a whole world of hopeful video games with rich storytelling, innovative gameplay, and beautiful art and sound. We want to be a part of showcasing the breadth of experiences that games can have for players.

What makes a game “wholesome”?

That’s up to you to decide! It’s subjective and we don’t want to pretend that it isn’t. Something we’ve always tried to be mindful of is that what looks wholesome to one person might not look wholesome to someone else.

If a game is cute and cozy but contains harmful stereotypes, is it wholesome? We say no! If a game is violent, but that violence is about overthrowing an oppressor, is it unwholesome? We say no! The opinions presented by our curation are just that: one group’s opinions.

According to Wholesome Games, wholesomeness is not about cheerfulness that implicitly endorses the status quo. Rather, wholesomeness contains an element of rebellion against dominant aesthetics. Video games are a relatively violent medium, and gamers have historically been hostile towards the sort of games highlighted by Wholesome Games. On the other hand, Wholesome Games is not opposed to violence in games on principle, rather they assert a prevailing principle of opposing oppression.

Wholesome games are a natural fit for queer games, because of an alignment in value systems. If you put yourself into the shoes of someone creating a queer game, they’re probably not into it to appeal to the masses. They’re interested in creating a game with an alternative aesthetic, perhaps with a touch of rebellion against the oppressors. And queerness is a narrative element, so that implies a certain interest in creating a narrative game, like what Wholesome Games is trying to promote.

But there’s the other half of this definition of wholesomeness, the “up to you to decide.” Which is to say, it’s up to the games. I should say, I quite like Wholesome Games, but the major criticism I have is that while these games might be distinctive in the wider context of video games, the Wholesome Games Direct places them into a context that creates an illusion of homogeneity. If we look over the games that are actually included in Wholesome Games, we see a bunch of visual themes repeated over and over: bright colors, cute animals, female protagonists, witches, cartoons, chibi, nature… There’s nothing strictly enforcing these aesthetics, but they’re definitely there.

Does queerness necessarily align with the whole visual aesthetic of the genre? Is queerness all about chibi tree witch bears? I suppose it could be. But I don’t think this visual aesthetic is for everyone. For one thing, the wholesome game aesthetic seems to be largely feminine, but for some people, queerness might involve specifically putting distance between oneself and femininity. For such people, queer wholesomeness may provide little satisfaction.

Going beyond video games, wholesomeness seems to serve a political purpose, portraying queerness as an unobjectionable source of happiness and love. Wholesomeness can be seen in slogans like “Love Wins”, in the joyful exuberance of “I’m coming out” (thinking of the song by Diana Ross, but also in general), and in Drag Queen Story Hour. I think wholesomeness also tends to be associated with children and youth, so the resonance grows stronger as we talk more and more about LGBTQ+ kids. Edginess, which may be considered the opposite of wholesomeness, is increasingly associated with alt-right trolls and “scientific” transphobia.

This whole discussion is meant to be descriptive. I’m not saying it’s good that there’s this queer wholesome aesthetic. On the contrary, to limit ourselves to one aesthetic will inevitably leave people out. On the other hand, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing either, because it’s not like queer wholesomeness rules out the existence of other queer aesthetics. I think that recognizing current patterns will help us push towards greater diversity in queer media.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    “I think wholesomeness also tends to be associated with children and youth.”
    I agree, but I also associate it with Conservatives “protecting” children and youth as in banning certain books from libraries, or even objecting to Nichelle Nichols being in the cast of Star Trek (which some people did do). I can see this is an attempt to repurpose the word the way “gay” was, I just wonder if the word today is seen as so hopelessly archaic that today’s gamers wouldn’t even recognise it or want to be associated with it.

  2. JM says

    Something that just occurred to me is that while good overall it’s very unbalanced. Lots of lesbian leads but not a lot of gay ones. More over a gay lead will most likely have the story structured around them being gay but being lesbian could just be a character detail.

  3. says

    I hadn’t been keeping track, but you’re right. Most of the Wholesome games, and most of the queer subset as well, have female protagonists. And, I don’t think that’s true in general of queer games. A lot of those dating sims I mentioned are about male characters.

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