Last year, during my recovery from a painful surgery, my boyfriend purchased me a Nintendo Switch so I could entertain myself while bedridden on Oxycodone. Both he and I decided the first games we’d play were Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield. “I’ll get Sword and you get Shield,” he advised confidently. “That’s the one the bottoms are buying.”
When a new Pokémon game is released, there are typically two separate titles of the same game, each of which features a different set of Pokémon. This time around, the discrepancy between titles got political: Shield was designated for bottoms and Sword for tops. The distinction not-so-cleverly implies that swords are phallic and shields are penetrated (not to mention, Galarian Ponyta, the queen herself, was exclusive to Shield.)
Combined with the fact that this same top/bottom rhetoric circulated when the Nintendo Switch debuted, and that every non-hetero person with an affection for gaming I know owns a Nintendo Switch, I wanted to know once and for all: Why is the Nintendo Switch so damn queer?
At first glance, the Switch is aesthetically different from its competitors. While Sony and Microsoft opt for bulky, box-like structures in solid black or white, the Nintendo Switch is slim, portable, and has multi-colored Joy-Con controllers in every color of the rainbow. Add to the fact that the Switch has been deemed the most “versatile home console ever,” and gays jumped on it quicker than a visiting top on Grindr.
“The fantastic color schemes and customization options are definitely more attractive than the drab Xbox and Playstation options,” Brian Kunde, culture and operations manager at GaymerX, a nonprofit organization that supports LGBTQ people in gaming, tells NewNowNext. “But more important than that, the console is affordable and Nintendo has a reputation for solid hardware. Queer folks are more likely to have limited means for a variety of reasons, so we want our gaming hardware to be a good investment.”
The video games available on and exclusive to the Switch are another draw for queer people. Kunde believes much of this is owed to Nintendo’s decision to include small studio and indie titles in their e-shop, since these tend to speak to queer experiences more often than mainstream titles do (see: Undertale, Gone Home, and Dream Daddy).
Unlike competing consoles, the Switch favors non-violent gaming experiences over violent ones, which often feature a very sexist, heterosexist, and cissexist form of hyper-masculinity (Call of Duty, Gears of War). “It’s the very same kind of masculinity that most queer folks correctly associate with the folks who happily marginilize us,” Kunde says. “I can understand why some queer folks struggle to connect with these kinds of games.”
Avery is one of said people. The 22-year-old gamer plays on multiple consoles and finds that the Switch hosts few toxic environments, whereas on Xbox and Playstation, it’s not uncommon to hear misogynistic, homophobic, or racist attacks in group chats. “It’s a real deterrent for marginalized groups to want to play those games,” he tells NewNowNext.
By comparison, Nintendo’s family-friendly approach is safer and therefore more queer-friendly. “Their brand is built around non-violent gameplay, and they only recently started adding more first-person shooters and other player versus player (PvP) games, so you don’t have these chat rooms full of toxic masculinity,” Avery explains. “These games become more inviting for me because of that.”
Kyle-Steven Porter, special events manager at GaymerX, says this is because the typical gamer is regarded as a white, cisgender male in the teen or young-adult demographic. “A lot of times, certain games and franchises are marketed exclusively toward that audience,” he tells NewNowNext. “I know a few individuals who fall into that category, but the majority of the people I know are not included in that demographic.”
Nintendo is not without its faults. The brand has made some poor decisions regarding queer inclusion, most notably in 2014, when it refused to include same-sex relationship options in its real-life simulation game Tomodachi Life. Considering games like The Sims have had these options for years, the brand was justifiably scrutinized, and the omission elicited a heated response from GLAAD.
To its credit, Nintendo does appear to be taking steps in the right direction. For example, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a newer game, offers genderless options when creating a character, which is a pretty significant step considering its original title confined certain styles of clothing to separate genders.
Kunde believes queer people are collectively captivated by Nintendo’s ability to create games where the protagonist (Mario, Link, Pokemon Trainer) has very few spoken lines or narratives beyond what players choose in dialogue boxes, which allows us to interpret the story as we choose. “We aren’t dissuaded from imagining a queer narrative with these games because there is room for it,” he explains. “The canon for our story is more easily what we want it to be.”
Then, of course, there’s the nostalgia factor. Nintendo games are often the first games families allow children to play, and games can function as an entry point to a queer person imagining a different sort of world than the one they actually inhabit. “I definitely have strong emotional attachments to Pokémon; I remember playing it in middle school as I was starting to figure out my own sexuality,” Kunde shares. “Nintendo games such as Ocarina of Time, Starfox 64, and Metroid Prime were big parts of my stress relief and coping skills during adolescence.”
Especially now, with so much of what’s “normal” being put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are looking to feel some comfort and safety in familiarity. For queer folks, that can be rolling down Rainbow Road and dodging green shells as we inch toward the finish line.
It’s worth mentioning that an estimated one in 10 gamers are LGBTQ, so the gaming industry really needs to step up to better reflect its diverse audience. This is especially important since, as Kunde believes, gaming has helped so many of us not only explore who we are, but love those parts of ourselves in ways no other media could.