Ling Hao is dealing with an often-haunting existential question as he comes to terms with his sexuality: “Am I the only man like this in the world?”
It’s here, after Ling’s inner monologue, that you — a person he's never met — can take his place and help him decide how he feels about his own sexual orientation.
Ling, a nondescript young man, is the protagonist of “A Gay’s Life,” a first-of-its-kind interactive game and choose-your-own-ending story that highlights the feelings and fears of many gay men — from confronting their sexuality to accepting their identity and revealing it to their family. Since its release in May, the game has attracted nearly 1 million players on Chengguang, a website that publishes user-generated games and interactive novels.
In this role-playing game, the first few chapters are about Ling’s sexual awakening in his small hometown. Players embark on a journey with Ling as he moves to a big city to pursue higher education and later settles down. Users get to know Ling as he becomes aware of his sexual orientation and gains self-acceptance; they witness his romantic exploits and experience the grueling interrogations from his family after he comes out to them.
Players are also faced with multiple options that appear in the form of questions at different stages of the game, all of which will ultimately decide Ling’s fate. How they answer will result in nine different endings, including a happily-ever-after outcome with a handsome doctor, a marriage of deception with a woman, or becoming a monk. The answers can also affect Ling’s “self-acceptance points” and can even see him sent to a “conversion therapy” facility during the game, should the points get too low.
The mastermind behind this game is Huang Gaole, a 27-year-old native of China’s eastern Shandong province, currently in Beijing pursuing a doctorate degree in computer science.
“I aimed to produce a game based on reality to popularize information,” Huang told Sixth Tone in a phone interview. “I didn’t expect the game to draw so much attention.”
A still from the TV series ‘Crystal Boys.’ From the Taiwan Public Television Service Foundation
As a gay man, he said the 2003 Taiwanese television series “Crystal Boys” was revelatory: He could empathize with the struggles of the show’s young protagonist as he watched the character get suspended from school and kicked out of home for being gay. The series inspired Huang to develop a game that could reflect the struggles of hundreds and thousands of gay men like him in China.
China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from its list of mental disorders four years later. Many Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu seemingly harbor progressive attitudes and have bustling LGBT scenes: There are gay bars, queer film festivals, and even gay pride events. In a rare-but-encouraging victory for the LGBT community this year, China’s microblogging platform Weibo backtracked plans to censor gay-related comics and videos. However, setbacks have also riddled the community: Online depictions of homosexuality have been banned, gay-themed acts were cut from an international broadcast, and participants at an LGBT awareness event in May were physically assaulted.
In “A Gay’s Life,” Huang said he wanted to document the current realities of life as a gay man in the Chinese mainland. He drew the game’s plot from his own coming-out experience, along with anecdotes he collected from gay-rights organizations. He also sifted through academic journals to provide readers with additional context on LGBT-related issues. The game even addresses other topical themes such as HIV, pink capitalism, open relationships, sham marriages, and gender equality.
The purpose of this, Huang said, is to make his audience reflect, regardless of their sexual orientation. “I think if we want to push for a more diverse and tolerant society, it’s important for people in the community to speak out, to tell their stories, and to state their demands,” Huang said.
Sixth Tone spoke with Huang to find more on his game’s backstory, his beliefs about promoting equality, and his take on the state of the LGBT movement in China. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Huang Gaole poses for a photo in Beijing, May 20, 2018. Courtesy of Huang Gaole
Sixth Tone: You came out to your parents while developing the game. What made you decide to do it, and how did they react?
Huang Gaole: When I was writing the coming-out chapter, I decided to look for inspiration from my own experience.
I was confident in my parents. I told my father via WeChat first, because he’s the more rational [of the two]. As expected, he said he could accept [my sexual orientation]. I told my mother while we were shopping during the Dragon Boat Festival. She thought I had a boyfriend and asked to see his photo. My parents married for love, so it’s easier for them to empathize with me. Parents like them, especially those who’ve dealt with pressure or interference from previous generations, typically won’t break from their principles to hinder their child’s love life and marriage.
Sixth Tone: The official attitude toward LGBT issues in China tends to be opaque. Did you have any concerns while developing the game?
Huang Gaole: While writing the script, I wondered if I would be worried when my parents saw the game. If so, I would delete the part that might upset them.
Now [my team has] some concerns, because the government has never stipulated a clear-cut standard for scrutinizing gay-themed media productions. We aren’t sure how far we should go when self-censoring. Now that the game has gained popularity and [more] attention, I’m worried that it could be banned or taken offline. But even if it’s removed, I can publish it again in a few years when there’s a more open and tolerant environment and when we make more progress in the equal-rights movement.
Sixth Tone: “A Gay’s Life” has many references to academic journals and books. Why did you decide to include these seemingly dry elements in the interactive narrative?
Huang Gaole: I volunteered [at an LGBT organization] during my undergraduate days. That’s when I got to know celebrities [in the community] and became more familiar with the community. I met people from every social class, and I’ve always thought about the division within the gay community. Some want rights like marriage equality, while others want to uphold the patriarchy and marry a woman. Back then, I was only aware of the division but didn’t understand the reasons behind it … I didn’t read many academic materials.
Many people learn about [LGBT issues] from stigmatized reportage or unrealistic danmei [boys’ love] fiction. In fact, these are not complete portraits of our lives. Some are neither true nor objective.
Early this year, I read two books by sociologist Li Yinhe, and they addressed many of my doubts. I think sociologists have the answers to many of our questions, but people don’t usually have the patience to read through such in-depth academic works. So, I thought of producing something that was lighter, more entertaining, and more popular to get people to study some of these scholarly arguments and opinions. At first, I was worried about the game becoming boring, but it’s [nonetheless] better than a thick book.
Screenshots of scenes from ‘A Gay’s Life.’ Courtesy of Huang Gaole
Sixth Tone: The game’s protagonist has three possible dating prospects: an activist dedicated to equal rights, a second-generation rich man who prefers not to reveal his sexuality, and a fashion icon who isn’t a fan of monogamy. How does that reflect real-life situations?
Huang Gaole: There’s something called “survivorship bias.” People who live in first-tier cities and have good educations are the ones who can speak up: In most scenarios, you only hear from activists. We can’t hear from those facing enormous pressure and who’re staying hidden in the closet. They silence themselves, and by doing so, they might be reinforcing the stigma.
People like [the game’s] celebrity character don’t [tend to] care about the equal-rights campaign, because there are many sugar-coated benefits for them in China like gay bars and LGBT-friendly dating apps. Decades ago, people could only meet up in public bathrooms or parks and were in constant fear of being arrested for hooliganism. The rich man and the celebrity [characters] are examples of those who are satisfied with the status quo.
So, what I’ve tried to do is let people think about whether the current tolerance toward homosexuality [actually] means true acceptance.
Sixth Tone: The happily-ever-after scenario happens to the protagonist after he chooses to come out. Does this mean that people should come out and seek stable relationships?
Huang Gaole: I think it’s okay to see the game as a form of self-expression. I, however, don’t want it to become a moral standard.
We all have different backgrounds and social upbringings. Two decades ago, when Li Yinhe wrote about homosexuality as a subculture, almost all gay men chose to trick a woman into marriage, because there wasn’t as much support as there is today. You can’t criticize them for being irresponsible for doing so 20 years ago.
Screenshots of scenes from ‘A Gay’s Life.’ Courtesy of Huang Gaole
While some cities today are gradually catching up with global standards and their residents become better educated, a lot of places like my hometown [in Shandong province] and other remote rural areas may still harbor the same intolerance they did 20 years ago.
It’s impractical to apply a single standard and demand everyone to come out. But there is one principle we should abide by, no matter what: In any equal-rights campaign, you can’t violate other people’s rights. We are opposed to scam marriages, because that harms women’s rights. As long as you don’t hurt others, it’s acceptable to remain in the closet, even though I personally advocate for coming out.
Sixth Tone: You’ve mentioned within the game that coming out to families is still the most difficult thing for many LGBT people in China. Does the game offer any advice for those considering coming out?
Huang Gaole: When [players] choose an answer that is seemingly logical and rational, [they] find that their self-acceptance points get reduced anyway. I intentionally designed it this way.
Many parents might not listen to logic and reason. When personal interests go against what’s best for the family, children may get lots of pressure from their relatives and society. There’s a generation gap in areas deeply influenced by Confucianism. Those who emphasize kinship tend to gain their family’s acceptance and understanding.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)