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Casper in the Castro: A Monument of Queer Representation

By: Shankar Chawla

At the height of the Digital Revolution in the 1980s, when household computers became commonplace and massive international corporations began to pump out billions of dollars worth of digital games, a new gateway for representation and advocacy was formed through commercial gaming. While larger video game manufacturers and business conglomerates typically favored a path clear of potential media backlash, smaller game developers seized the opportunity to utilize the creative and effective forum to advocate for underrepresented communities. One of the foremost examples of video games featuring LGBTQ+ themes was the 1989 point-and-click adventure game ‘Caper in the Castro’ for Mac OS. The murder mystery starring lesbian detective Tracker McDyke was constructed as a passion project by artist C.M. Ralph.

The player is tasked with searching for McDyke’s close friend Tessy LaFemme while exploring ‘The Castro,’ a real, historical LGBTQ+ neighborhood located in San Francisco. In the designer's words, “I wrote this game as a labor of my love for the Gay and Lesbian Community.” Atop the leaps in LGBTQ+ representation the game facilitated, C.M. Ralph developed the project to draw awareness to, and raise money for, the ongoing AIDS epidemic. “If you enjoy playing the game, I would ask that you make a donation to the AIDS related charity of your choice,” read the game’s opening panel. Casper in the Castro was a small-scale indie game, not sold in stores. Nearly all of its distribution came from queer internet forums where the game was released at no cost. C.M. Ralph relied solely on the collective power and determination of the LGBTQ+ community to spread their message.

Even amid the HIV/AIDS crisis and the increasingly frequent calls for equality, the ‘80s and ‘90s witnessed a substantial amount of hate directed toward both the queer community and the advocacy occurring on its behalf. In the years surrounding this game’s initial release, an astounding number of anti-gay agendas were popularized in the United States. Politicians and anti-LGBTQ+ parties labeled the queer community as enemies and a danger to the larger population. As a result, nearly every publisher, manufacturing corporation, and digital distributor abstained from releasing content that touched upon, or simply commenting on, LGBTQ+ matters. The firm beliefs of these entities meant that Casper in the Castro could not be published or sold in a commercial setting. This hindrance caused C.M. Ralph to publish a game dubbed ‘Murder on Mainstreet’ later on in 1989. Murder on Mainstreet was an exact copy of Casper in the Castro, but it excluded all hints of LGBTQ+ themes to appeal to a greater market.

While it is unfortunate that Casper in the Castro never saw light as a consumer title, in the nearly-35 years after the game’s release, queer representation within the gaming industry has improved dramatically. Today, some of the largest players in mainstream gaming – from Overwatch to League of Legends, Pokémon, and beyond – incorporate loveable and openly queer characters.

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