CM Ralph: How the first queer video game found a new life In 1989, CM Ralph created "Caper in the Castro", the first LGBTQ+ video game. Nearly lost when diskettes became obsolete, this piece of gaming and queer history found new life in the Internet Archive.

How the first LGBTQ+ video game was given a second life

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And we are going to take you back to 1989 and to the first gay video game ever.

C M RALPH: (Laughter) Oh, yeah. It was a big deal.


RALPH: The sounds had to be kept very small.


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (As character) Hey. Hey.

RALPH: Everything had to fit on that 800-megabyte diskette.


RALPH: It was very limited.


JANET JACKSON: (Singing) Nasty, nasty. nasty boys.

RALPH: The basic premise of the game is that you assume the role of a lesbian detective named Tracker McDyke, and you are...


RALPH: You are searching for your friend who is a drag queen, and her name is Tessy LaFemme.

ZOMORODI: This is CM Ralph, the creator of Caper In The Castro.

RALPH: She's got some inside information about something that's going on in this little neighborhood of the game, which is the metaphor for Castro Street in San Francisco. But before she can get the information to you, the phone suddenly hangs up. And this is where you're left. You're left - oh, my God. Where's my friend?

ZOMORODI: In the late '80s, CM was working in Silicon Valley by day and, at night, making Caper In The Castro on their Mac Plus.

RALPH: Tessy, thankfully - if you finish the game, you free her. She's trapped down in a cellar with all these bio contaminants that - the secret plot is they're going to release this into the air or water or something (laughter). A lot of it's not clear to me still, but that's the threat, the annihilation, basically, of LGBTQ community. And I think that directly reflects how it felt back then.


RALPH: During that time, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic, and I had seen so many of my gay male friends just disappear. It felt at times like we were under annihilation, and nobody cared. No one was helping us. We had to help each other.


ZOMORODI: So when Caper In The Castro was complete, CM shared it with friends. Someone posted it on an online LGBTQ bulletin board, and the game took off.

RALPH: Yeah, you know? It just kind of spread.

ZOMORODI: So at its high point, about how many copies do you think were downloaded?

RALPH: The estimate I had been given, and this was after it had been out for about five years, somebody had estimated it was about 250,000 copies.


RALPH: Yeah. But we have no way of knowing.

ZOMORODI: So did you make any other games, or was that it?

RALPH: This was really the only game I made.


ZOMORODI: CM put the original diskette of Caper In The Castro in their bottom desk drawer, and for years, they didn't really think about it. They figured that that part of their life was over until someone got in touch in 2017.

ADRIENNE SHAW: I am Adrienne Shaw. I am a professor in media studies and production at Temple University.

ZOMORODI: Adrienne was researching old LGBTQ video games, and she'd heard about Caper In The Castro.

SHAW: And I wanted to know more about the person making the game. Like, why did you even start doing this? Like, how did you do it? So I reached out to CM and just said, hey. I'd love to talk to you more about this game.

RALPH: I was stunned. I'll be honest with you. My first reaction was, what? No, that can't be right.

ZOMORODI: CM pulled out that old diskette from their bottom drawer, but...

RALPH: The operating system for that game had died a long time ago. It no longer existed, so there was no way to actually play the game.

SHAW: And CM said, like, do you think there's a way to get these games playable again? And I was like, I don't know, but let me ask.

ZOMORODI: Adrienne ended up finding someone with the technology to extract Caper In The Castro off the diskette, and she got it uploaded to the Internet Archive, the online library of the internet.

RALPH: And that's where it is now. You can play the game online.


ZOMORODI: Well, how does that feel? - like, that your game is available for...

SHAW: Strange.

ZOMORODI: Does it?

RALPH: No, I don't think I'll ever be used to it. I do get mail from people - 10 to 15 emails a year, people just wanting to thank me. And I get a little teary.

ZOMORODI: What do they say? Can you read us one?

RALPH: Yeah. Dear CM, I had a wonderful time this evening playing Caper In The Castro. Thank you for this priceless contribution to both the history of computer gaming and the LGBTQIA+ community. And thank you for helping pave the way for the rest of us. And that, you know - when I get stuff like that, I'm like, oh, man.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, 'cause it's more than saving your game from being forgotten. It's really saving a piece of history.

RALPH: Yeah. It's my love letter to my community.


ZOMORODI: From filing cabinets to floppy disks, the way we store our information is always in danger of going obsolete, taking along with it entire chunks of our past. And it's not just our stories and data that are in jeopardy. Thanks to climate change, the world around us is morphing faster than ever too, quickly making maps outdated. So how can we keep our records up to date and safe? Is it even possible to truly save anything for all eternity? On this episode, we search the past, present and future for answers.

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