It’s tough being gay in China.
Millions of LGBT Chinese face discrimination, intolerance, family pressures to get married and have a baby, and sporadic government crackdowns on public events aimed at promoting equal rights.
Now you can experience for yourself what it’s like to be gay in China in a first-of-its-kind video game.
In A Gay’s Life, players star as a young gay man who must learn how to live with his identity and come out to his friends and family, while navigating the dating scene. Since its release in May, the interactive web title has attracted nearly one million players on Chengguang, an online distribution platform for interactive games. Currently it ranks as the third most popular game on the Chinese site over the past 30 days.
A Gay’s Life recently made a splash beyond the Chinese-language community, after Ken Wong, lead designer of hits such as puzzle game Monument Valley and interactive love story Florence, acknowledged the title in a tweet, spurring media attention.
Behind the game is Huang Gaole, a 27-year-old PhD candidate in computer science based in Beijing. A gay man himself, Huang said he created the game with the help of several gaming enthusiasts as a hobby, because he wanted to provide an authentic account of the everyday lives of LGBT people living in China.
“I hope through an easy-to-read, immersive, emotional, and interesting interactive story, I’ve created concrete figures to show some of the awkward situations that gay people around me still face in today's society,” he said.
In A Gay’s Life, players need to tap the screen to keep the narrative moving forward, and make choices along the way to earn “self-acceptance points” and lead the story in different directions. So far there are nine endings in the game, which include the protagonist living happily with his doctor gay partner, entering a fake marriage with a straight woman, or going through “conversion therapy” and becoming a monk.
The plot lines are not pure fantasy though and reflect the very real difficulties many gay people face in China despite some progress in recent times.
China decriminalised homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from the official list of mental disorders four years later. Although there’s growing acceptance in cities, it is still not uncommon for families to force their relatives to undergo conversion therapy including electroshock treatment and injections. Many Chinese gay people opt to marry heterosexuals and keep their sexuality a secret from their partners.
Others make arrangements where a gay man marries a lesbian woman and they continue to lead their own lives, with parents on both sides in the dark.
While gay dating apps are thriving in China, authorities have banned the portrayal of same-sex relationships on television and online. LGBT gatherings are routinely subject to government crackdowns, along with many other events that advocate for forms of human rights. In A Gay’s life, the game begins with a plot where the police have raided a bar hosting an LGBT festival without registration. Huang said he had toned down the story in the game to avoid censorship.
While writing the 140,000-character script for the game, Huang took inspiration from his own experience of being a gay man and living in China, as well as anecdotes he collected from several prominent LGBT rights groups in China. He even referred to academic materials on LGBT – including two books from sociologist Li Yinhe – to make the game instructive.
Huang’s team is now working to improve the narrative of the game to make it more conversational, while exploring how to add new storylines and endings. They are also planning an English version, which is expected to launch by the end of next year.
“We have one concern: China’s national conditions, beliefs and traditional culture are different from those of foreign countries. The story in our work might only resonate in some East Asian countries,” he said.
In the comment section of the game, most users have posted positive reviews. “I married the doctor in the end. I’m so happy and jealous. I hope someone can be that brave to hold my hand in real life,” one person wrote.