“I choose you!” – the surprising power of queer playgroups

Hello! Eurogamer is once again marking Pride with a week of features celebrating the intersection of queer culture and gaming in all its forms. Things kick off today as James Croft reflects on the special magic of LGBTQIA+ playgroups.

Reh is slaughtering the Cabal while fighting Destiny 2’s Emperor Calus in the heart of Leviathan. He’s lobbing grenades at packs of space dogs, headbutting Psions, and double-jumping on flames as his fireteam once again attempts an intricate attack on the shadow realm. Calus’s health is low and the tension is building – if they do, they’ll finally defeat this fiendish boss, otherwise it’s back to the beginning. But their rockets really fly, their superchargers crash into his mechanical body, and – finally! – The callus is cut. But Reh’s excitement is short-lived. “Wow,” says a member of the fire team during the call. “I can’t believe my first date was with a fag.”

This was the final straw for Reh. Tired of homophobic commentary and eager to find a place to be accepted, Reh took to Facebook – ISO queer clan Destiny! – where he discovered Guardians of the Rainbows, a group founded by two gay men in 2016. He’s been involved ever since, graduating to administrator and de-facto clan leader. For Reh and many of its other members, Guardians of the Rainbows — which has grown into a thriving international community over the years — is a refuge, a safe space away from the toxicity of gaming. But more than that, it is a place of strange joy, and even the source of some of its members’ deepest friendships.

I can relate. In December 2022, after 15 years in the US, I returned home to the UK and moved to Brighton on the south coast. I was new in town, so I did what I’ve done before when I wanted to meet new people: I found a local game store and played Magic: The Gathering. Coincidentally, I sat down with Louie, who, right after the Covid lockdown, had gathered some MtG friends he’d met in person and on Grindr (they literally shared photos of the decks) to create a regular cadre of LGBTQIA+ players. That informal group has grown into the group that now calls itself Tragic: The Gathering – and its members have quickly become some of my closest friends.

Louie admits he was initially worried about how the group would interact outside the confines of the game. “If we’re not going to play together,” he recalls wondering, “are we really going to continue?” But we’ve started seeing each other more and more outside of our Magic time, going to the cinema, meeting up in the pub, even visiting an impromptu Dungeons & Dragons show together at the Brighton Fringe. We’ve become a community, and it’s made me wonder about the relationships that LGBTQIA+ gaming groups tend to foster: why do I feel so close to these people even though I’ve known them for such a short time? What makes these groups feel like home — like family — to so many of their members?

ManicPixyGirl joined the Guardians of the Rainbows for much the same reason as Reh. She is trans, and often faced harassment and toxicity while playing online first-person shooter games. “If I’m playing with random people, I’ll generally keep myself quiet to avoid experiencing misogyny or transphobia,” she tells me. In Guardians, on the other hand, she knows that if someone says something out of line, others will call them out. Everyone works to make the space safe for queer people of all kinds, and that makes all the difference. “I feel more confident speaking on comms,” she says.

An in-game image of a Destiny 2 player character resting in a neon-lit chair.

ManicPixyGirl relaxes after a tense raid encounter. | Image credit: ManicPixyGirl

James, who regularly plays Overwatch with a group of gay friends, agrees. “Games with LGBTQ people feel safer,” he says. “There’s a lot of hate online – there are still people saying derogatory things.” But as a group, it’s easier for James’ team to deal with the homophobia they sometimes face. And although everyone I spoke to had experienced queerphobic bullying during the games, James says he’s noticed that allies are speaking up more and more. “We like to help them, heal them more or protect them.” In this way, queer gaming groups like James’ Overwatch gang and Guardians of the Rainbows can help make games feel safer and more welcoming not just for LGBTQIA+ players, but for everyone.

But it’s not just about security. “I find that in queer spaces in general there is so much joy,” ManicPixieGirl tells me. “We’re all capable of being completely ourselves. I’ve experienced going out to gay bars and I’ve experienced it in this clan. Everyone is so authentically themselves and it brings this joy.” And for queer nerds, finding a group that both affirms their queer identity AND their player identity can feel particularly powerful.

Lee, a member of Tragic: The Gathering and a young MtG YouTuber (one of the relatively few gay creators in the space) puts it this way: “Gay and stupid, that’s a bit of a bummer in life – the more misbehavior do you need them?” But when he plays games with his tragic friends, he can share both of these parts of himself. “I feel pure joy [playing with Tragic]”, he says, “because they accept my joy about this hobby because they understand it”.

A screenshot of a green haired Destiny 2 player character, caption overlay

Guardians of the Rainbows member, Reh’s Destiny 2 Guardian. | Image credit: James Croft

Perhaps the joyous buzz that comes from this double burst of affirmation is why these LGBTQIA+ playgroups can be so good for non-queer people, too. Guardians of the Rainbows, while still explicitly a clan for LGBTQIA+ players, has always welcomed cis members. “It’s good not to single ourselves out,” Reh explains, “because when we play with allies, they protect us when they encounter things that aren’t right.”

While most members of the Guardians clan are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s not uncommon for three or four members of a six-person raid fireteam to be straight. I asked Reh if he feared this might affect the nature of the clan, but the group is careful to ensure that all potential members understand who the clan is for and the strange ethos it promotes. And if you’re wondering why a straight person might want to join an LGBTQIA+ clan, the answer, I think, comes back to that queer joy.

I know from personal experience that a queer fireteam is one FUN fire team, and there’s a kind of looseness that lurks. Reh gives an example: there’s an infamous jumping section in the Kings Fall raid in Destiny that requires players to jump from platform to platform while avoiding a series of push pistons. Careless players can be pushed into the abyss by the impact poles. “They’re very phallic,” says Reh, “and straight guys will joke about the ‘penis wall.’

This may sound like typical straight male ribaldry, but I think there’s something deeper going on here: the abundant and unapologetic authenticity of LGBTQIA+ people can, in a sense, liberate straight cis people, allowing them to explore aspects of themselves that otherwise find it difficult to fit within society’s rigid scripts for gender and sexuality. Thus, LGBTQIA+ gaming groups (like all queer groups) can be spaces where everyone—not just queer people—can be a little freer and more honest.

A photo of the author's Magic: The Gathering group sat around a pub table for him "AGM".

Yes, our Magic: The Gathering group had a real AGM. | Image credit: James Croft

But perhaps even more encouraging are the kinds of truly deep relationships these groups so often facilitate—with members even becoming chosen families. James’ Overwatch team was originally formed as a board game group, but they wanted to stay in touch during the pandemic – so they chose Overwatch as a relatively easy game they could all play together online. And they played every day. “It saved my sanity during a jam,” he admits – and now his team are some of his closest friends. “Playing together accelerated our closeness.”

It’s a similar story for Guardians of the Rainbows. Reh tells me that a number of clan members have difficult relationships with their birth families, who don’t always accept them as queer—yet they’ve found a place for themselves by playing together. And the community built in Destiny 2 is slowly extending beyond that: after a few Zoom meetings during the pandemic, a group of Guardians will soon share a cabin in Michigan, meeting offline for the first time. Reh is excited but nervous: his social anxiety is kicking in. But the clan has helped him with this too.

The final word, however, must go to my Tragic: Gathering friend, Lee. “My real family didn’t understand me at all growing up,” he tells me. “I was a weird gay art kid in a family where no one understood the weird gay art kid.” For him, “it was a lifeline to find groups where people understand what you’re talking about. You spend your formative years feeling so profoundly alien, then the common references suddenly make you feel like there’s a group little aliens running together Don’t feel so alone, I’ve found more comfort in these people I’ve known for two years than in my family I’ve known for 45 years.

That’s a special kind of closeness—the magic created when queer gamers who share a minority identity and a passion find each other and say “I choose you!”

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