Michael Othen

We sat down for a chat with Michael Othen, creative director of Fusebox Games.

QRM: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do in the games industry?

Michael: I'm the co-founder and Creative Director of Fusebox Games, a narrative games studio in London. My previous startup, Digicub, made mobile games for an LGBT audience. Prior to that, I worked at EA as a designer.

QRM: How long have you been involved in the game industry, and what projects have you worked on? What are you working on currently?

Michael: I've been working in the industry for about 12 years now. I started at EA as a designer on a game called Black. I worked briefly on Burnout, before moving to Stockholm, where I spent 3 years working on a number of Battlefield games. I taught myself programming and left EA to make my first iPhone games, Mini Gay Boyfriend and Mini Gay Girlfriend. My startup, Digicub, released titles with over 4 million downloads, including online multiplayer dating simulator, Meet Play Love. I went on to co-found Fusebox Games, where we make interactive narrative games based on licensed IP. Recent games include The X Factor Life and Love Island: The Game, which was a top 10 grossing game in 10 countries. Both games feature LGBT storylines, a matter close to my heart. As Creative Director of the studio, I strive to put diversity and inclusion into everything we do.

QRM: What inspired you to get started in the games industry?

Michael: I love games, simple as that. It was always my dream to build them, and even more so, to bring LGBT representation to the front.

QRM: In what ways do you feel your experiences as a queer person manifest in the games you work on, and influence the work you do?

Michael: The title of my first game speaks for itself: Mini Gay Boyfriend was a gay dating sim that I simply wanted to exist. There were no other gay games on the App Store, and it seemed daft not to make something. It was the driver behind me learning to code, and eventually running my own business. It's basic by today's standards, but at the time, it was unique and well received.

The games I make now are played by millions, and so I think it's all the more important to include LGBT content, especially where people don't necessarily expect it. Games are still catching up with other forms of media in terms of representation and narrative games have an opportunity to drive an agenda of inclusion because their primary gameplay mechanic is to tell a story. We make sure to always present an unbiased, same-sex romance option in our games because otherwise we're sending a message that it's not okay.

QRM: Do you have a favourite queer character—in games or media more generally? If so, what is it about them that makes them your favourite?
Question asked by @kamienw.

Michael: I had to do a google search to find some, which goes to show how few mainstream queer characters there are. I do remember hounding a pilot on the flight deck of the Normandy in Mass Effect 2. He mentioned 'his husband' (who had died in some war), so naturally I went back to him between every mission, trying to advance a romance. In the end, I must have made a critical mistake because Liara showed up for my 'final scene'. I was devastated when she walked through the door. I actually felt like I'd been dumped, and spent days feeling gutted. He'll always be the one that got away!

QRM: Have you ever encountered roadblocks in trying to include queer characters in games? What do you think is preventing greater diversity within games?
Question asked by @dustinalex91.

Michael: It was a challenge to include same-sex romance in Love Island: The Game, since the format is so inherently heterosexual. In the end, if players chose a female partner, we had to bring in an entirely new character to balance the numbers. A romance between two of the men is hinted at (and one of them is openly bisexual) but it would have been very off-brand to go for a full-on romance, and at the end of the day, we have to be faithful to that.

QRM: Why do you think it is important that queer audiences are able to see themselves represented in the games they play, and in the developers who make the games they see? What can we do to improve the industry for queer audiences and devs?

Michael: It's important to normalise the idea of same-sex relationships at all levels of society, and for all ages. When I realised I could make a male/male couple in The Sims, I felt comforted during a challenging time. Seeing elements of yourself reflected positively in a creative medium you enjoy is a huge comfort. It's like being officially told that you're okay and there's nothing wrong with you. Games should be as diverse as the people who play them. On top of that, no industry should pigeonhole itself to just one demographic, or it will never grow creatively.

QRM: Have you ever mentored somebody in your role in games, or been mentored? If so, what made these experiences worthwhile for you?
Question asked by @pepelanova.

Michael: I wouldn't say I've ever had a mentor. I've certainly worked for people whom I've looked up to, but no one that has directly helped me grow. I actually don't know many other LGBTQ people within the industry. I'm always eager to help people if they're looking for advice, and sometimes even a job.

QRM: In what ways can non-queer folk increase and support queer diversity present within games, as well as in the industry more broadly? How can we all work to support intersectional approaches to diversity, and why is this important?

Michael: Can I come back to this one? It's a big question!

QRM: Is there a message that you would like to share with the queer game players, game studies researchers, and other interested folks who comprise the Queerly Represent Me community?

Michael: Don't be afraid to be yourself in the workplace.