Press Start for Inclusivity: Big Gay Gameboy Shines Bright at FREEPLAY! Exhibit

by | Feb 21, 2024 | ART, COMMUNITY NEWS, HOBBIES, GAMES & COMICS, MUSEUM & GALLERY NEWS, POP CULTURE, QUEER RVA

Of all the things that I have been able to do and write about, being able to write the phrase “How the Big Gay Gameboy Was Conceived” is probably at the top of the list.

The Big Gay Gameboy and about eight other exhibits are wrapping up their last week at The Iridian Gallery this week as part of the FREEPLAY! exhibit. Originally conceived and curated by MeeNa, who uses they/them pronouns, the exhibit hopes to expand the concerningly low amount of representation for the queer community and other marginalized communities. Originally scheduled to premiere this past September, FREEPLAY! has more than shown that it was worth the wait.

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The “Is it That Deep, Bro” exhibit features a custom cabinet showcasing the text-based game. The game explores the inner thoughts of a teenager attending a gay cowboy movie with a friend. Play it HERE

Part of how the show was pulled together was by their professor from undergrad at VCU, Nathan Tersteeg, who also happened to be a co-chair at The Iridian Gallery who was looking for exhibit submissions. Artists and developers were found afterward, many of whom were friends from undergrad where MeeNa was a sculpture major.

“[Around the time of the] Black Lives Matter protests there were a lot of conversations amongst black artists and other marginalized groups about how all of these opportunities were popping up but they just weren’t accessible for so many people,” said MeeNa. “Around that time, me and a group of friends (who also show at the exhibit) threw together an event called ‘Tutorial Stage’ to make it more accessible for people who wanted to get into game development or art to learn certain things about the trade. Things like ‘how do you put together a resume’ are things you need but aren’t really taught. Years down the line one of my professors from undergrad, Nathan Tersteeg, who is a co chair at The Iridian Gallery, reached out to me personally because they were looking for submissions and [thought MeeNa and their friends should put together a games exhibit after their work in gaming]”

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Everything considered, the exhibit took about a year to put together. Approval came in January of 2023 from The Iridian Gallery, with production around June of that same year. Only a handful of games were made by solo developers while the majority were made in teams between artists and developers. Some builds for the show came in as late as the first week of the show.

“Production really started around June [2023] for the developers,” said MeeNa. “That’s around the time that we really felt like we really had everything planned out, the timeline felt good. Getting everyone in a Discord server, that takes a month or two.

As far as making the games go, the exhibit was pushed back a bit. It was initially going to open around September or so, but once we hit July or August we were like ‘Yeah, that’s really not realistic at all’. Luckily though The Iridian Gallery was super supportive, [and were like] ‘Yeah, that’s fine let’s do January.’ Some games take as long as they take, [and some games] the builds came in January.

That’s how game development goes. That’s something that is really nice in regard to this exhibit, and something I’ve been really thinking about in regard to supporting marginalized artists is that flexible deadlines are really important. Marginalized people have a harder time, that’s the definition, right?

So being able to accommodate and be like yeah, you really can work up until the last second and still have a really great installation. I think that’s one of the benefits of running a games exhibit like this.”

While some games may have pushed it for time, the biggest take away was more so that some games ended up being larger than they thought, and that they needed to buy more computers to accommodate some of the builds.

Big Gay Gameboy 2024

Of all of the pieces, the Big Gay Gameboy is certainly one of the front pieces for the show. A lot of design problems ended up being solved early on, and if anything he ended up being a large fancy box whose emulator was tricky to program.

“Big Gay Gameboy was definitely one of the most interesting things to problem solve,” said MeeNa. “First of all, just getting him down from Pennsylvania to Virginia was really great, had help from a friend with a truck.

The thing is with Big Gay Gameboy is a lot of the design problems were solved really early on. That was one of the things that I was working on before we started the production part of the exhibit that involved all of the other developers. Before then the designing of the physical cabinets we wanted to make sure was done before we brought people on.

The issue with the Big Gay Gameboy is, I am a terrible programmer. Hardware, fine. Totally chill building because it’s just a big fancy box with buttons, which was super doable. It was tricky programming the emulator inside to work. Which was interesting because there are so many streamers and modders into retro gaming.

So while there are a lot of tools available for retrogame modding, trying to prep something specifically for a gallery or an exhibit is an entirely different design problem. Most of these gallery emulators, it’s like a library so you can pick whatever game you want to pull from. They are designed for someone who is already very familiar with playing a game, and someone who is familiar with their own hardware.

And that’s the tricky thing [with this], is people don’t want to cause hard but they do want to rough house. Totally cool, but trying to design the software we had to create a virtual gallery, so all three of our Gameboy games are hosted on that device. How do you make it easy for someone who doesn’t play games, and how do you make it full proof for someone who does want to button mash? So that was the problem that definitely took up until the launch almost.”

The main game style present in the show ended up being the visual novel, which given the nature of the exhibit makes the most sense. Each piece was allowed more room to tell its story more easily because of this. As we chatted on about the medium and gaming as a whole, we both came to the damning realization that we were struggling to find any concrete queer representation in gaming.

Most of the things I could actually think of were carried entirely on the backs of our favorite word – subtext. While from an artistic standpoint, subtext when well done is a masterful way to tell a story. However, when it is the only thing you are able to maybe, possibly, if you squint kind of see yourself in – it’s horseshit. Of all the things we could name, my two examples were Dream Daddy (which on a serious note is one of the most fun dating sims I’ve ever played) and The Last of Us with Ellie in the form of a DLC prior to the sequel.

“So that’s my frustration with AAA games, or mainstream games is the need for profit often influences what you’re able to show or what you’re able to communicate,” said MeeNa. “The fact is that there are queer developers making these games, and queer writers, and so many games are being carried [on their backs]. But that’s why subtext has to exist, right? Because that’s as far as you’re allowed to show, especially if you’re working with a larger IP. I’ve always been a fan of indie games for that reason. When you don’t have to worry about profit, it’s just the urge to get something out there. There are a handful of really great commercial indie games on the market which are queer indie games on the market and I really hope they get space and visibility. I felt it was important to have space for games that don’t get to make money, [and] the games you can beat in 30 minutes.. It’s like queer short form poetry.”

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“Come Home, Wolf” at FREEPLAY! Experience a futuristic journey in Amseng. As a returning resident from a stellar work contract, navigate life after prolonged use of Lygone, a lycanthropy suppression drug. Explore identity and culture as you reconcile with your werewolf heritage. What path will you choose?

FREEPLAY! was originally funded through Kickstarter which helped allow them the leeway they had. Through the kickstarter they were also able to fund a zine which will include artist’s statements and bios to further engagement with the exhibit.

With such a successful first year under their belt, what does a year 2 look like for FREEPLAY? Hopefully the return of The Big Gay Gameboy.

“The cool thing about the Big Gay Gameboy is that he is in itself a gallery,” said MeeNa. “The plan for the Big Gay Gameboy has always been for him to travel and play what’s on him. After the exhibit each developer can choose to keep or donate their cabinet so that we can use it for the exhibit next year.”

FREEPLAY! Is currently showing at The Iridian Gallery through Friday, February 23rd, 2024. The Iridian Gallery is located at 1407 Sherwood Ave, Richmond VA, and is open 10-6 daily. For more information visit diversityrichmond.org/iridian-gallery for The Iridian Gallery, or visit HERE for FREEPLAY!

Ash Griffith

Ash Griffith

Ash is a writer and improviser from Richmond. She has a BA in English from VCU and an associates in Theater. When she isn't writing or screaming on a stage, she can usually be found wherever the coffee is. Bill Murray is her favorite person along with her black cat, Bruce.




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