Orcs and Bowsers and Bara, Oh My: The Complicated Case of Monstrous Queer Male Bodies

Watch Session:



Writing for the now sadly defunct GayGamer.net, Mitch Alexander once discussed the relationship between queer embodied sexuality and what he called “the monstrous:” representations of queer bodies that identifies with fantasy and mythological monsters and non-humans. For the players and devs in Alexander’s piece (thankfully retained in the Internet Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20160304064117/http://gaygamer.net/2015/07/monstrous-identity-monsters-and-their-lgbtq-fans), monsters and nonhumans like orcs, mermaids, and dragons that were often coded as inherently evil or bad are reclaimed by queer players and creators who see parallels between their own marginalized identities and the always-already abjectionable monsters of myth.

Alexander would go on to begin creating Tusks: the Gay Orc Dating Sim, a project still in progress. Tusks is a game that focuses on orcs, and a queer male embodied sexuality that they can represent. While the orc as a figure of traditionally bestial, masculine power in myth makes them attractive to male-identifying queer men for a number of reasons, they are particularly of interest to those queer men who do not slot cleanly into hegemonic body norms. In particular, there is a strong intersection with fans of “bara” or gay manga, Japanese (and Japanese-inspired) gay male art with a focus on big or muscular bodies.

The characters of Tusks are remarkable in this regard, in that the range of potential love interests — true to the dating sim genre norms — also present a wide configuration of body types and gender expressions. This is atypical of male/male dating sim content, which can relentlessly focus on hegemonic, “twink” or “muscle dad” body norms.

In this talk, I will discuss the unique position and opportunity that monstrous bodies can offer to queer players, with a strong focus on their affordances for queer people who do not meet hegemonic body norms. Games like Tusks offer a space that not only reclaims the monstrous-as-queer (the always-already evil and marginalized) but also the monstrous body. These othered bodies offer a site of resistance for players that don’t fit into a neat and compact set of body labels and types. Considering the prevalence of body dysmorphia among queer individuals, this is particularly important.

However, I will also discuss the limits of the monstrous, with attention to the figure of the orc in particular. While popular, the fan portrayal of queer orcs trends dramatically to the “fit muscle dad” stereotype which, in contrast with their monstrous appearance, slots cleanly into culturally dominant concepts of male sexuality and embodiment. While monstrous queerness offers us a site of resistance, we must be careful not to merely create a parallel hegemony that, rather than resisting, offers the same buffet of images… just with green skin and fangs.



Todd Harper is a professor in the Simulation and Digital Entertainment program at the University of Baltimore, and is formerly of the MIT Game Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research centers on video games as cultural communication, with a focus on gender and queer representation, body types, and the social dynamics of competitive gaming. In addition to his scholarly work, he has contributed freelance games writing on a variety of topics to Polygon, Paste Games, and Vice Games.