Finally, an app more whitewashed than a “those are just preferences” Grindr profile
Over the past few years, LGBTQ representation in video games has skyrocketed. Whether this is a sign of the changing times or a simple marketing ploy, big-name developers and studios have sought to really capture the essence of genuine, queer characters in their games. But when I first saw Atari’s new mobile game Pridefest, I was more than a little weary. Sure, I’ve spent my fair share of hours killing thousands of people on playing Rollercoaster Tycoon, but would the publishers of Pong be able to bring interesting gameplay and positivity to something as controversial as modern-day Pride parades? Probably not.
To be fair, mobile games aren’t really renowned for their gameplay or storytelling. They’re meant to be consumed in small bursts; ideally, they’re something satisfying while waiting in line or pooping. So, it’s not like I was expecting something groundbreaking.
Pridefest starts out innocently enough. Walking through the tutorial is expectedly dry, and infuriatingly simple for anyone who’s picked up a smartphone before. The game positions you as the Mayor of a city that has fallen into gray, uncolorful times. Everything except the very center is dulled by a thick fog, which contrasts with your home, which is bright and colorful. First, you pick and buy floats for your parade. At the start I could only afford a pack of bikers, but I was instantly excited to eventually buy a Dia De Los Muertos float because nothing says gay pride like the appropriation of a completely unrelated tradition. Besides, sugar skulls are so fetch right now.
The selection of purchasable items for your town and parade is more than a little confusing. How is the Dia De Los Muertos float cheaper than the Gay Pride float? Shouldn’t all of the floats in the parade be Gay Pride floats by default? There is, at least, a realistic side of the game, giving you price tags on buying the acceptance of straight allies and the military. Browsing the city upgrades is just as disheartening—the most expensive stand in the game is the newspaper stand. In this version of the world, it is easier to distribute frozen yogurt and alcohol than actual news.
After recruiting your burly bikers, the game has you do other mayor-type duties—adding a couple trees and a cute candy stand. As you add these things, it adds “fun” and “value” to the surrounding buildings. And, this is where the game takes a weird turn. Your assistant informs you that the building next to your house is old and decrepit—as depicted by it’s sad, gray appearance—but, since you’ve added enough value to the surrounding area, you can upgrade it to something better! Your only option is a spa center, but you can look forward to replacing some of your other sad buildings with things like an organic food store, a record store, or a swanky gym. Is this starting to sound familiar yet?
To make things worse, after you add in the spa, your assistant turns to a residential property across the street. This apartment complex is also sad and gray, but you’ve seemingly run out of funds to add any value to the block. So, you should do the next best thing—host your first parade! And, better yet, just run the parade around the building until you can upgrade it
As a former resident of Savannah and of Midtown, I can attest that this form of terrorism-like parading is particularly effective. Nothing is worse than not being able to leave your house for hours on any given morning, because you live in a part of town that likes to celebrate its “communities” by shutting down every major thoroughfare in a fifteen-block radius. Even better, after converting the sad, gray apartment building into a colorful, single-residency house—it’s your inauguration day! And, what should your first order of business be but to throw another parade? I don’t know how the time is supposed to match up IRL, but is that a daily parade? Weekly? How many organic food stores do you have to open for that to be a sustainable government plan?
From there, the game falls into the same repetitive slump as most other mobile games in its category. You fall into a dark spiral of parading around your city, and reallocating current residencies to shiny, new Ponce City Markets. And it was then that I realized this was the most realistic narrative of affluent, gay culture I had ever seen, let alone played through. Atari has made a game that truly exemplifies and celebrates the problems many queer communities are trying to combat. The gentrification and reallocation of sad, gray buildings in the name of something more colorful and fun isn’t limited to this game, but a system that is admired from here to San Francisco.
In that realization, I felt guilty for swiping my parade down the streets of my city, and wished I could call the gray fog back to every building and block I had replaced. Then, in the regret, I found the one redeeming part of the game. In true Rollercoaster Tycoon fashion, I “accidentally” ran my parade floats into a road block—each float disappeared with a resounding, satisfying thud. In that, I found justice.