There is a shithead at the heart of Boyfriend Dungeon. He is terrible, well-depicted, and this piece is not about him. This piece is, instead, about everything hanging in the air around him.
The response to Boyfriend Dungeon has been…scattershot to say the least. Middling review scores from some publications, adoration from a large subset of the game’s audience, intense backlash (including harassment and vague threats of violence) from a smaller part of said audience, and the backlash to the backlash throughout the corner of the industry I happen to reside in. And for all of this, many people have been left wondering how the fuck we got here.
To answer that question, I will have to regale you with a short history of terrible discourse. I am very sorry, but it can’t be helped. Strap in folks: It is time to address anti-shippers and — I hate this — anti-anti-shippers. “Anti,” in fandom hell, originally referred to people who did not like a specific relationship pairing. If I don’t want The Arbiter to oh-so-tenderly smooch Master Chief, then I would be a Master Chief/Arbiter anti. However, in 2016, the term changed to mean someone who was against the depiction of relationship dynamics deemed morally compromising, student/teacher relationships for example.
To be clear, this isn’t just about finding these dynamics distasteful; it is actively believing they should not exist or be depicted in media. Regardless of framing, tone, or content, the dynamic itself is fundamentally poisoned and encourages people to mirror it in real life. To be an anti, then, is to actively campaign against art that includes such problematic material, which is how we get anti-antis — called such because they aren’t for people making art about [enter problematic dynamic or relationship here], but they believe that said art shouldn’t be policed. The most dedicated antis say that anti-antis are pro-pedophilia, the most dedicated anti-antis say that antis are puritans and borderline fascist.
I am not that interested in the individual arguments here. You can read those pieces, and they’re good. I am, however, interested in how the idea of an anti transformed between the early-2000s and the mid-2010s. And for that, I would argue we’ll have to look at the structure of Tumblr and ArchiveOfOurOwn(AO3), the two biggest fandom-related websites on the internet. There are three points of overlap between these two sites: fandom-related content, extreme audience overlap, and, I would argue most importantly, the tagging system.
People have always categorised things. This isn’t new. Genres exist for a reason. People like art, people look for more art that resembles what they like, those resemblances become categorised in genres. Great, cool. What’s different about the tagging system is the ease, speed, and volume of categorization which can occur. Does a piece of fanfic include two specific characters? Tag them. Does it take place in a particular setting? Tag it. Does it include particular relationship dynamics? Tag it.
This system allows your audience to very specifically tailor their experience to their own desires. If I’m on AO3 looking for a fic where Master Chief goes to a coffee shop with the Arbiter, I can find it by exclusively searching fics under those two tags. However, this categorization also encourages flattening. There’s a tag for “Student/Teacher” but there isn’t a tag for “Student/Teacher That Acts As An Interrogation Of The Complexities And Abuses Inherent To A Relationship Compromised By Power.” If you’ve spent 10 years on AO3, that tagging system is absolutely going to shape how you understand art, whether you know it or not. This flattening effect is how depiction becomes — for some — synonymous with endorsement.
Tumblr’s tagging system has a similar flattening effect, but as a social media website, it has an additional function: facilitating community. This is best exemplified by what Tumblr is known for: fandom. Tags let you tailor your feed so that you’re only seeing posts from people in that tag. Interact with the same users in the same tag enough times, and a community forms. For fandoms built around shared interests like an anime or video game series, this makes sense. However, the community-forming effect of tags also extends to aesthetics. Do you like cute nature shit? Cottagecore. Do you like ghosts and cemeteries? Ghostcore. Are you that kind of lesbian? Dark academia.
Once you build a community, people start tying their identities to and associating values with said community. I cannot tell you the number of early-20s gay women on Tinder who have the word cottagecore somewhere in their bio. I’m not trying to suggest that Tumblr invented subcultures. I am, however, suggesting that it has allowed for subcultures to become increasingly prevalent and insular. Aesthetics more quickly crystalize into identity, and with those identities comes a sense of ownership.
And at the centre of all of this is Boyfriend Dungeon. A game with a cute, queer aesthetic and compromised relationship dynamics that just so happened to release in 2021, just as Tumblr communities have started collapsing in response to poor ownership — sending their remaining members to Twitter, where they’ve found easy access to the personal accounts of developers. What has followed is a veritable shitstorm of people who are very mad about a game they wanted to play not catering to their particular standards of what content should and should not be included in a text.
There are definitely legitimate criticisms of the game’s content warnings. We’ve covered those already. However, the “All Media Should Be For Me” attitude surrounding the recent Boyfriend Dungeon backlash has gone beyond content warnings, and on to content removal. There has been a call to make the game’s stalking ghoul, Eric, optional from the onset of the game. The idea that an offending relationship can just be removed from a text feels deeply in line with commodified and tag based approach to art that Tumblr and AO3 facilitated. If you can distill a relationship to a tag, then that tag can be just as easily removed and another relationship dynamic slotted in its place. It isn’t just that the same people who call themselves anti-shippers are pushing back against Boyfriend Dungeon but rather that the same theory of art underpins both critiques.
This is all compounded by the nature of the medium itself. Games are rendered in the moment, updated frequently, and often prioritise player control and comfort over all else. There’s a real precedent for removed, or optional, content in games: Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” level and the controversy around a rape scene in Ladykiller in a Bind serve as examples at opposite ends of the queer art spectrum. Censored content isn’t unique to video games — alternate editions of books and films are released all the time — but the medium has a unique capacity for post-release modification. This then seeps into the way we think and talk about video games as products first and foremost.
With all of this in mind, these last few days of discourse are anything but a shock. Which doesn’t make it any less exhausting. I think all of this sucks. And as we look at Boyfriend Dungeon, and the almost certainly messier queer games that will come after it, we’re left with a question. What do we do?
I think the answer for queer creators is to do what queerness has always done best: relentlessly reject easy categorization. And I do not just mean in the texts themselves. Queer games have always been good at that. I mean in the things around the game. Marketing materials, hot takes, reviews — the list goes on.
If the structure of platforms and of discourse is what got us here, then dismantling those same things will get us out. Go make some weird shit and then refuse to name it.