Braidon Schaufert

Braidon Schaufert is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta and has a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory from McMaster University. His research focuses on technologies of memory that maintain and counter homonationalism.

Contact information:
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Daddy’s Play: Subversion and Normativity in Dream Daddy’s Queer World

by Braidon Schaufert


The PC game Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator garnered attention and a fan community for centering queer fathers in a romance game. Dream Daddy’s appeal, I argue, comes from the slippage of meaning between the words “daddy” and “father” in a specifically queer context. Queer folks have constructed an image of the erotic “daddy figure” whose excessive sexuality exposes masculinity and fatherhood as performative. Dream Daddy shares elements with daddy erotica through the conventionally attractive fathers available to date; however, the game’s role- play replaces boundary-pushing depictions of sex and power with the positivity, joy, and optimism of the suburban upper-middle class. This normativity undermines the subversive potential of the queer daddy figure and constructs a game world that appears ahistorical and apolitical. While Dream Daddy does uphold a homonormativity fantasy, I offer ways of reading negative feelings produced through role-play that trouble the game’s own appeals to normativity. These negative feelings, or “bad dreams,” can wake players up to messier, kinkier, and queerer worlds.

Content note: This article contains discussions of homophobia and heterosexism, racism, child abuse, incest, adultery, BDSM, and pornography.


The PC game Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator (Game Grumps, 2017) spawned internet headlines and a fan community for being a game that centers queer characters and romance. The use of the word “daddy” in the title of a queer game might prepare players for a raunchy or pornographic game experience. The attractive men on display in the marketing for the game indicates that sexual desire is an integral element of the game’s appeal. However, Dream Daddy disappoints erotic expectations by spending as much time focused on raising a teenage daughter as it does on romance. I argue that the game’s popularity is the result of the “slippage of meaning” (Hall, 1997 p. 32) between the words “daddy” and “father.” The “constant production of new meanings [and] new interpretations” (1997, p. 32) of fatherhood is part of a queer practice that subverts normative family dynamics. A game titled “Fatherhood: A Dad Dating Simulator” would less surprisingly focus on the feelings and scenarios of raising a child, but it would arguably be less appealing and less marketable. Why does incorporating “daddy” in a game about fatherhood feel like a shock? What is responsible for elevating “daddy” into a figure with marketable appeal?

Dream Daddy is part of a trend in niche queer cultures to use the daddy figure to destabilize the knowledge bound up with identity, gender, sexuality, and family. I demonstrate that the meaning of “daddy” is constantly in flux by drawing from gender and sexuality scholars like Andrew Schopp (2000), bell hooks (2004), and Lee Edelman (2004), along with recently written articles for a popular audience. Queer folks in the twentieth century constructed an image of the daddy whose excessive sexuality exposes fatherhood and masculinity as a performance. This hypermasculine figure creates the possibility for roleplay that potentially revises problems created by patriarchal gender roles. The “daddy figure” is a play on the more commonly used “father figure,” which refers to older adult men whose authority and responsibility inspire an emotional connection given to fathers. Like father figures, the daddy figure does not refer to a real person but rather to a socially constructed and stereotyped image. Dream Daddy departs from representations of the daddy figure in queer contexts by its focus on positivity, joy, and optimism rather than sex, dominance, and power. To the disappointment of some players, queer sex in the game is secondary to normalization of alternative families. The game’s normativity lends itself to the question: does desexualizing the daddy figure create ahistorical and apolitical scenarios? Dream Daddy succumbs to the pitfalls of normalization by upholding upper-middle-class priorities. However, the excess of meanings the daddy figure brings troubles any easy dismissal of the game’s potential subversion.

After contextualizing the game within a recent history of the daddy figure, I offer a close playing of Dream Daddy to analyze how the game works with and against representational trends of daddy figures. I use a method of close playing in which I oscillate between observing the game as if from the perspective of a “naive gameplayer” “encountering the game as a fresh participant” (Bizzochi and Tanenbaum, 2011, p. 305) and as a “sleuth” who applies “analytical lenses” to observations for a “deeper understanding of the game” (2011, p. 307). I focus on the representation of the daddy figure by applying game scholarship from Katherine Isbister (2013), Adrienne Shaw (2014), and Edmond Y. Chang (2017) to avatar creation, game mechanics, and NPCs. The daddy figure’s fraught history allows Dream Daddy to play with contradictions between normalization and subversion, family-friendly values and kinky desires, and pain and pleasure. The game’s fantasy setting of Maple Bay invites a conversation about the daddy figure’s role in queer optimism, negativity, and worldmaking. Jose Esteban Muñoz defines queerness as a continued practice of desiring differently toward a better future (2009). While Dream Daddy imagines a world without homophobia and social inequality, the implicit upper-middle-class bias in the game creates an apolitical and ahistorical fantasy world. Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (2011) and Bonnie Ruberg’s “No Fun” (2015) allow me to read the affectual complexity of roleplaying fatherhood and dating, where the secrets and vices within Maple Bay undermine the game’s unhelpful optimism and expose “the true affective full complexity of play: its messiness, its painfulness, its kinkiness, its queerness” (Ruberg, 2015, p. 110). Play in this case has multiple meanings, including roleplaying as a dad in the game, roleplaying in daddy erotica, and the perpetual play of meanings.

Defining “Daddy”

Dream Daddy is a product of, and participates in, ongoing renegotiations between what constitutes fathers and daddies. I trace the history of the “daddy” as a figure who destabilizes gender and sexuality norms in order to unpack what the game contributes to the figure’s evolution. The word “father” naturalizes the connection between raising children and performing gender through demonstrations of authority, responsibility, and physical power. Queer communities have separated the specific gender performance of fatherhood from the actual act of raising children through the construction of the daddy figure. Andrew Schopp explains that:

The Daddy challenge[s] dominant ideologies of masculinity by appropriating the icons of masculinity and male authority (jocks, leather, motorcycles, uniforms) and transporting them into the realm of gay male sexual experience. This appropriation effaces the boundary between ‘appropriate’ masculinity such as sports and war, and ‘inappropriate’ or ‘failed’ masculinity such as the gay male sexual experience. (2000, p. 23)

While daddies have long been subverting family dynamics through sadomasochistic and kinky sex, Dream Daddy’s characters suggests a softening of a figure previously associated with hardcore and potent queer sex. The game shares elements with gay daddy erotica, but exists at a time when “daddy” has also become a description of specific sexual preferences and an identity. Does Dream Daddy work against contemporary efforts made by queer subjects to push the boundaries of desire? I argue that Dream Daddy plays with potential meanings of “daddy” to both disrupt and limit possible queer worlds.

There is no stable definition of a daddy despite its influence in how popular culture understands sex and sexuality. Articles like “How Calling Guys ‘Daddy’ Became Mainstream” (2016), “No, Using ‘Daddy’ In Bed Is Not Appropriation” (2016), “Kinky Sex: Have We Become More Sexually Adventurous?” (2014), “Why People Are Calling Hot Guys Daddy” (2017) and “Six Pro Tips for Being the Best Daddy for Your Boy” (2015) attempt to account for the increasing interest in the daddy figure at a time when terms such as “dad body,” “dad jokes,” “sugar daddy,” “daddy issues,” “zaddy,” “dilf,” “son,” “boy,” and “boi” commonly circulate. In an article for The Advocate titled “29 Things You Should Look for in a Daddy” (2016), writer Alexander Cheves speaks to the difficulty of defining the daddy figure. He writes, “Nobody can agree on what a daddy exactly is -- Is he a kinky dominant, a trusted friend, a source of financial aid, a muscular body, a smaller body, a hairy body, a boy-chaser, a mentality, or all of the above?” (2016). These multiple dimensions make the daddy a postmodern figure with contested meanings. The work of Tom of Finland in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s offers a starting point for understanding the image of the daddy in his most stereotyped form. Tom of Finland depicts muscular, physically imposing men with facial and body hair wearing various fetish gear like leather pants, harnesses, or uniforms. This imagery provokes certain expectations, like “sexual dominance, established means, some know-how about the world, and hot, hard kinky sex,” but for Cheves, the “core requirement for the role [of the daddy]… is the willingness to be that idealized father figure: reliable, encouraging, safe” (2016). Daddies manifest through roleplay in which the care and responsibility of a parent is combined with the control and authority of a dominant sexual partner.

The daddy figure’s historic importance comes from anxieties regarding queer families in North America. After World War II, fatherhood “came to signify maturity, responsibility, and acceptance of appropriate gender and role structures” (Miller, 2001, p. 225). Fatherhood was modelled after figures in the media. As hooks writes, “The white fathers on shows like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and the Courtship of Eddie’s Father were kind protectors and providers who gave their children unconditional love… They were the fantasy white family” (hooks, 2004, p. 95). Feminism and queer theory disrupt family norms that consolidate power to men. The “emerging openness about sexuality and the Stonewall riots” led to “sweeping changes in both mores and political activism” (Miller, 2001, p. 223). Families previously defined as units organized by biological lineage were challenged by divorce, adoption, and surrogacy. These new forms of family offered ways that queer subjects could organize themselves in units that more or less resembled the safety and security of the idealized fantasy family. Upon meeting other gay fathers amidst an increase in queer parent activism, gay dad John C. Miller expressed relief “that these men were responsible, caring, concerned, and gay. They wanted to affirm their sexuality and their paternity” (2001, p. 227). Miller’s use of and emphasis on the conjunction “and” separates sexuality and paternity into two distinct but coexisting identity categories. While father figures and daddy figures have intertwined histories and legacies, a key difference between them is that daddies affirm their sexuality through roleplaying paternity.

With its origins as a subverted father, the daddy figure perpetually undermines normalized understanding of sex, sexuality, identity, and family. The daddy’s intentionally exaggerated masculinity undoes essentialized understanding of gender (Schopp, 2000). The performance of the daddy figure was limited to gay bars and erotica in the twentieth century. Today, however, “it seems like the gay daddies are moving beyond leather land, especially for a new generation of twentysomething gays” (Albo, 2013). Mike Albo’s article “Rise of the ‘Daddies’: A New (and Sexy) Gay Niche” details the ways in which the category of daddy is not reducible to a dominance, a certain age, a wealth bracket, or a mentality. Reminiscing on dating a younger man when he was 38, Albo explains that “this young man I was dating didn’t need me to fulfill all these stereotypes. I was a Daddy, like it or not.” In Albo’s case, “daddy” was a label given to him loosely based on his age and greying beard, acting as a projection of his partner’s fantasy. Daddy vaguely “suggest[s] a difference -- aesthetic and age wise,” but Albo points out that “the opposite of daddy isn’t necessarily young. (On mainstream hookup sites like Grindr or Tinder, you will see someone describing themselves as a ‘young daddy.’ Usually he has facial hair and meat on his bones).” The word is part of “the ongoing effort of gay taxonomy,” a method for queer people to reinscribe their own niche experiences onto a mainstream heteronormative vocabulary. This work of taxonomy is a method of perpetual play in which porn sites, hookup apps, internet think-pieces, click-bait articles, popular music, branding and video games mobilize the word “daddy” in multiple ways. Ablo, for example, embraces the use of “daddy” as a root word that can be inflected by an infinite number of variations, such as “sport daddy, nerd daddy, recycling daddy.” These variations are part of an infinite playful cycle that speaks to the humour, potential, and popularity of the daddy figure.

The subversion of fatherhood through the daddy figure not only produces humor and new desires, but also ascribes power to certain bodies. In Ablo’s article on “new daddies,” Anderson Cooper, Andy Cohen, and Elton John are offered as celebrity examples of the contemporary daddy figure. The articles does not comment on the way “daddy” works in certain contexts to limit potential desirability to white, wealthy, cisgender, gay men. This example of erasure is particularly problematic given the way “daddy” and “sugar daddy” have been used historically by working class black gay men and trans people to refer to recurring sexual figures in their lives. According to Vicki M. Mays et. al’s 1992 article “The Language of Black Gay Men’s Sexual Behavior,” daddies are a category of “sexual partners” in “black gay vernacular” referring to “someone who pays the way or takes charge” (1992, p. 431). The word’s important variation, “sugar daddy,” refers to “one who provides continuous financial support in exchange for sexual favors and/ or attention, often middle aged, sometimes thought of as physically unattractive, likely to have and attract potential sex partners based solely upon his superior financial means and ability to bestow favors” (1992, p. 431). The history of daddies being objects of black sexual desire is important given hooks’ explanation that “the absent man, the absent father, has been the constant sign folks point to when they want to critique black families” (2004, p. 96). While the patriarchal limits to masculine emotional intimacy are pervasive, absent black fathers and the fantasy of the white family grant the illusion of white moral authority in racist discourses. Roderick A. Ferguson argues that “white homonormative racial formations claim privileges to the detriment of those communities marginalized by normative regulations--regulations that are racialized, classed, and gendered” (2005, p. 53). The daddy figure acts as a discursive regulator whose history can be strategically hidden to determine who can be understood as powerful. The figure’s history of subversion means that daddies are part of the perpetual renegotiation of the terms of normativity.

The daddy figure comes from the discrepancy between the fantasy family and the reality of traditional families. In We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks notes that real fathers “yell, beat, shame, ignore, or wound their children” (2004, p. 95). These abusive realities were not represented in post-war media products and were repressed through the fantasy families shown on television (2004). Daddy/son erotica is one consequence of the failure of real families to live up to their fantasy counterparts. In “(De)constructing Daddy: The Absent Father, Revisionist Masculinity and/in Queer Cultural Representations,” Andrew Schopp explains that “the proliferation of fantasy depictions of Daddy/Son roleplays in gay erotica indicates an increased fascination with the Daddy figure” (2000, p.17). Schopp accounts for this proliferation and cultural obsession with daddies as a response to the “Absent Father,” a figure that stands in for the failures of masculinity. Schopp writes, “The Daddy provides a useful answer to the Absent Father. Most representations within erotic fiction, film and art reflect a desire for a ‘father’ who is emotionally and physically present, and thus the Daddy provides all that the actual fathers our culture cannot” (2000, p. 23). The “Absent Father” is the term that Schopp uses for men who are absent from their family due to society’s expectations of workplace achievement and the prohibition of emotional intimacy (2000). According to Schopp, “Men feel a great deal of loss and anxiety about fathers who were emotionally and/or physically absent” (2000, p. 18). Therefore “Daddy/Son roleplays promise an almost therapeutic repair of the wounds inflicted by literal or figurative Absent Fathers” (2000, p. 20). In hook’s words, a collective “father-hunger” (2004, p. 96) exists as a consequence of the physical and emotional absence of men in families that are held to the fantasy standard depicted in media.

Daddy/Son erotica is part of “perversion” and kink. In psychoanalytic terms, perversions are sexual “encounters that are experienced as transgressive in a way that destabilizes the subject’s psychic equilibrium” (2014, p. 257). Avgi Saketopoulou explains that “perverse sexual experiences that feed on shame, fear, pain, humiliation, and disgust… aspire to a shattering of the ego” (2014, p. 256). The daddy figure is a sexual partner who creates perverse sexual experiences by putting submissive bodies in pain and pleasure through aggressive sex and the shame of fantasy incest. The daddy fetish aligns with the tradition of anti-social/negativity in queer theory. In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Edelman argues that the image of the Child is “the emblem of futurity’s unquestioned valued” (2004, p. 4). The problem with the future is that it “is mere repetition and just as lethal as the past” (2004, p. 31). In response to the image of the Child, Edelman urges queers to “fuck the social order and the Child whose name we’re collectively terrorized” (2004, p. 29). The use of “fuck” serves a double function of disregarding the social order and evoking the accusations of perversion used by the right wing to justify homophobia. If the child is the emblem of futurity, then the traditional father is the child’s protector that maintains legacies and inheritances for that future. Daddy erotica, then, subverts the father’s role by making the child’s protector into the one who destroys the child. The daddy is an image not necessarily bound to any actual historical experiences. Rather, it signifies the collapse or suspension of time through the combination of pain and pleasure.

I have outlined various manifestations of the daddy figure. Possible definitions range from an image of performed hypermasculinity that exposes fathers as socially constructed to an emblem for the family’s destruction and an end to the future. Daddy is an identity that traces to sugar daddies and is now used generally in gay male communities to signify someone who is of a particular age, body type, and/or class. In what follows, I will provide an overview of Dream Daddy and how it participates in the multiple trajectories of this figure. The game’s title combined with its attractive male characters brings to mind the subversive history of the daddy. However, these characters have more in common with traditional fathers. This creates feelings of frustration and disappointment for players with a specific type of queer representation in mind. I argue that the game blurs the line between fathers and daddies in ways not reducible to either figure. Deconstructing the binary between the two figures allows for both subversion and normalization.

Dream Daddy Overview

Dream Daddy uses digital media and the dating simulator genre to play with representations of the daddy figure. “Play” here refers both to limited movement with choice within a structured environment (Zimmerman, 2004) and to the practice of destabilizing meanings (Hall, 1997). The game adheres to the generic conventions of a dating sim in which, according to Katherine Isbister:

The player works to woo over an NPC (usually female) so that she and the player are ‘dating.’ The end result might be a light romance, true love, or maybe even sim sex, depending on the game subgenre (variations on dating games range from chaste to pornographic). Players try to improve their in-game personal qualities in order to attract their chosen one; meanwhile, they must choose the right things to say and do to court her and keep her love once she has admitted that she cares. (Isbister, 2016, p. 25-26)

While mostly following this formula in terms of goals and success, Dream Daddy stands out for its enticing datable daddies, its art direction that is both quirky and sexy, and its surprisingly emotional narratives. In “Dream Daddy, A Queer Dating Sim, Might Be The Gaming Miracle Of The Year,” Laura Hudson explains, “Not only did [Dream Daddy] replace beloved first-person shooter Overwatch as the most-discussed videogame on Tumblr for the first time in more than nine months, but it shot to the top of Steam’s global sales chart” (2017). I attribute the game’s popularity to the way it taps into, and makes accessible, trends of playing with male sexuality. Specifically, the game demonstrates the potential utopic world-building that results from unsettling assumed distinctions between normative fathers and subversive daddies.

Figure 1: The dads look welcoming and intriguing


Players begin the game by making a daddy avatar they will use to navigate through the visual novel. The player-character and his teenage daughter, Amanda, have recently moved into a new home in Maple Bay, where they will live together until Amanda moves out for college at the end of the summer. Humorous and caring dialogue between Amanda and the player-character immediately establishes the importance of the single-father/daughter relationship to the game. While discussing their quiet new neighborhood, Amanda jokes to her father, “So you won’t have to chase any rowdy teens off your lawn?” The player-character responds, “You are the very teen you mock when you say that, honey” (2017). This exchange is characteristic of how generational differences influence the parental relationship in the game in often humorous and ironic ways. The jokes are never mean-spirited, but are tongue-in-cheek references to popular stereotypes that parents and their children have of each other. The dad character loves ska music, sandwiches, and naps, while Amanda is sarcastic, in touch with popular culture, and moody. Amanda’s upcoming move positions the player-character in a temporal zone that both anticipates the future and looks to the past; the more the player-character comes to terms with his upcoming loneliness, the more he reminisces about his daughter’s childhood. The early stage of the game requires players to explore Maple Bay, where they meet each of the datable dads. Players interact with mostly static 2D images of NPCs by choosing responses to scenarios out of a pre-determined set of options.

Figure 2: Players spend much of their time role-playing as Amanda’s father


After briefly meeting each of the datable dads in the neighborhood, players reach a point in the game where they can access a fictional app called “DadBook,” a combination of FaceBook and Grindr that allows players to choose which dads to date. Players can choose between dating Brian “Rival Dad” Harding, Mat “Cool Dad” Sella, Robert “Bad Dad” Small, Joseph “Cool Youth Minister Dad” Christiansen, Hugo “Teacher Dad” Vega, Craig “Fitness Dad” Cahn and Damien “Goth Dad” Bloodmarch. Each dad represents “some element of modern masculinity” (Grayson, 2017), but all of the men relate to each other through their shared experiences of being a part of evolving and changing families. The player can go on a total of three dates with each dad. The success of the date is measured by a letter grade that relates to how many “correct” responses the player gave to narrative scenarios and dialogue. An “S” is the best possible grade. Players can unlock artwork of the dad styled as a photograph if they receive high enough grades. The dads emit hearts or eggplant emojis when the player chooses a compatible response; a dark aura radiates when the player chooses poorly. Dates involve learning more about the NPC dads and their families. Happy endings earned through high grades on dates might end with implied off-screen sexual intercourse. However, the third date always ends with an epilogue set at a neighbourhood party celebrating Amanda’s high school graduation where the player-character and the chosen dad have a final encounter. The nature of this last exchange is determined by how well the player scored on the three dates. Endings range from the two characters maintaining a friendship (at worst) to implied happiness together (at best). The impossibility of a long-term sexual and romantic relationship with any of the dads frees the player to date until the player-character has cycled through all of the men.

Figure 3: Craig is happy to be your “bro”


The Dreamy Dads

The mode “Build That Dad” invites players to construct a proxy “dad bod” specifically designed to navigate the game world. Avatar facial features, skin color, hair, body type, and clothing are all customizable. There are no gender options since the premise of the game is romance between men. However, players can choose between “athletic, thick and slim” bodies. They can also give their avatar a tank-top or a binder as an undergarment. Many trans men and gender nonconforming folks wear binders to flatten chest tissue. The choice between binder or the tank-top does not change gameplay. This allows for the optional inclusion of more queer bodies in the game’s version of a “dad bod.” Customization options like the binder and skin colour partly enact Edmond Chang’s notion of “queergaming” as a “refusal of the idea that digital games and gaming communities are the provenance of adolescent, straight, white, cisgender, masculine, able, male, and ‘hardcore’ bodies and desires and the articulation of an investment in alternative modes of play and ways of being” (2017, p. 15). Dream Daddy makes fathers the center of a non-straight narrative, and player choices can incorporate racialized and trans bodies. These choices, however, can be limited in their capacity to provoke social change since customization “makes the ‘problem’ of representation an issue only for those players willing to design their own avatar” (Shaw, 2014, p.143). Players can avoid racialized and trans bodies just as easily as they can include them. Given the game’s options and few limits, an insensitive player could combine racialized features, like dreadlocks, onto a white body to create a problematic avatar. The game places the responsibility to queergame onto the player who may or may not be attuned to the task, rather than on the game itself.

Figure 4: Customization options


Dream Daddy’s customization options make it possible to create disparate but connected images of the daddy figure. However, the reliance on choice in the avatar creation system also hinders the game’s queergaming potential. Isbister explains that avatars are proxies of players with “specific capabilities and tendencies” that allow for that body to “become a vehicle for action” (2013, p. 12). The proxies in Dream Daddy are suited for the action of dating and parenting. While the game does not include options like harnesses, chokers and leather caps, certain face shapes, facial hair, piercings and eyebrows can create an avatar that evokes the kinky history of the daddy figure by appearing sexually dominant. Such avatars fit cultural stereotypes associated with men who cruise other men for sexual gratification. Yet the game’s unavoidable parental roleplaying makes this body capable of both sex and queer parenting. Likewise, an avatar that looks like it was taken from a sitcom aligns traditional fatherhood with the game’s parenting in normative ways. At the same time, the unavoidable same-gender romance and sexual innuendos queer this stereotype. In both cases, the weak binary between the daddy and father bodies are eroded by making parenting and sexual activity not mutually exclusive. Players are most likely to end up with a “silly” avatar with no real-world referent. This comedic daddy still navigates parenting and dating with ease, but his humorous appearance contrasts with both the game’s serious and intimate moments. This tonal conflict illustrates the game’s tenuous and wavering relationship to reality.

The play between “daddy” and “father” provokes mixed reactions from players whose expectations, formed in response to the game’s marketing, do not align with the game. Tim Mulkerin, author of the article “’Dream Daddy,’ The Gayest Game of the Year, Never Uses the Word ‘Gay.’ Let’s Talk About That,” writes that “Dream Daddy, though earnest, well-written and endearing, isn’t actually about being gay. Yes, the man-on-man romance is inescapable, but Dream Daddy is first and foremost about being a single dad with kids. The words ‘gay,’ ‘bi’ and ‘trans’ are never used” (2017). Mulkerin critiques the game for not including moments that would specify if its characters are gay, bisexual, pansexual, or trans gender. The ambiguity at the level of identity is a frustration for Mulkerin, who goes on to argue that “Dream Daddy’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t feel like a game made for or by gay people. It doesn’t capture the experience of what it feels like to be a gay man and fails to engage with or evoke gay culture in a meaningful way” (2017). While there is no singular way to represent gay culture meaningfully, the game’s failure to depict how queer identities impact parenting in realistic ways speaks to its superficial representation of queerness. Dream Daddy co-writer Leighton Gray explains that “a big goal for [the game] was normalizing a lot of this stuff and just treating it like it’s not a big deal” (Grayson, 2017). This appeal to normativity accounts for why the game does not prioritize “daddies: the gay kind” that Mulkerin had expected (2017). Maple Bay’s normativity puts the game at odds with queer theory for which it is “important that queer lives do not follow the scripts of heteronormative culture” (Ahmed, 2014, p. 149). Sara Ahmed explains that queer lives “would not desire access to comfort; they would maintain their discomfort with all aspects of normative culture in how they live” (149). The focus on family unity, raising children, and suburban communities make Dream Daddy a problematically “comfortable” game.

Kenneth Shepard critiques the game along the same lines as Mulkerin, but identifies what is absent: “stories of self-acceptance, overcoming social adversity and ultimately being willing to share those experiences with each other” (2017). Both Mulkerin’s and Shepard’s critiques are responding to the game’s unexpected depiction of normative social life. Dream Daddy succumbs to the pitfalls of homonormativity. It “does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions” and therefore risks “promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Duggan, 2003, p. 50). Using the daddy figure in a homonormative script threatens to sanitize and commercialize a figure that has historically and queerly troubled heteronormativity and the social problems it upholds. Producing normativity by avoiding representations of adversity and negative realities is a type of “queer or gay optimism” that is “untethered from historical consciousness” and serves an “elite homosexual evasion of politics” (Muñoz, 2009, p. 3). Optimism, in the context of queer lives, serves those who are privileged by homonormativity, because they can disengage from the realities of social problems and avoid negativity. Shepard’s critique that the game is “wholesome and somehow devoid of social politics that plague the lives of queer people” (2017) speaks to how the game’s optimism renders it ahistorical and apolitical in the service of normativity. Gameplay is mostly consequence free; even in the most negative narrative paths, the player-character still maintains his friendship with his chosen dad. Normalization in the game “equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation,” which Jack Halberstam attributes to heteronormative and homonormative societies (2011, p. 2). The optimism in the game flattens differences and ignores social realities that inflect the lives of queer, racialized, or trans gender people. Addressing how the game upholds homonormativity is important. In the following section, I offer ways of reading how the gameplay and the daddy figure create uncomfortable moments, undesirable feelings, and “bad dreams” that can wake players up to anti-normative potentials and queerer worlds.

Utopias and Bad Dreams

Maple Bay, a name that immediately evokes the sweetness of the game’s world, is a fantasy place where attractive fathers are waiting to be dated and alternative families are not marginalized. In expecting more realism in the game, however, Shepard explains that Dream Daddy is “a paradise where I was free to pursue hot dads without fear of prosecution and hostility directed at who I am. It’s the world we should live in, but it’s not the one we live in now” (2017). This paradise, according to Shepard, comes at the expense of politics; the ephemeral dreams erode concrete communities. “Concrete utopias,” according to Muñoz, “are relational to historically situated struggles, a collectivity that is actualized or potential” (2009, p. 3). Speaking to the absence of cultural narratives in the game, Gray explains, “I just want to fast-forward to the part where we can have stories about queer characters that are not explicitly about them being queer” (Mulkerin, 2017). Does subscribing to the fantasy of progress by “fast-forwarding” time erase the contextual ties that a concrete utopia must have to queer people? Does depicting a place without social problems like homophobia, transphobia, racism, body shaming, poverty, and abuse do enough to realize the “the hopes of a collective, an emergent group, or even the solitary oddball who is the one who dreams for many”? (Muñoz, 2009, p. 3). One response to these questions is to say that Dream Daddy brings attention to social problems by excluding them and telegraphing the unreality of its paradise through ironic and tongue-in-cheek humour. Making the happiness of other worlds absurd exposes the problems in reality.

Dream Daddy is an unhelpful, abstract, and optimistic game if Maple Bay is a problem-free paradise. Yet Maple Bay is not entirely devoid of troubles. Roleplaying fatherhood means helping Amanda through rejections from colleges, listening to her convoluted social life, and witnessing her first heartbreak. The player-character feels sadness about Amanda’s upcoming move and worries when she acts troubled. When Amanda becomes so upset that she refuses to communicate, the player-character reflects to himself, “I haven’t seen her act like this in a long time. It’s usually short-lived, but… it always hurts” (2017). These feelings of hurt, worry, stress, and sadness create concrete ties to real-life parenting that allow the game to revise representations of fathers typically found in media. In an ideal world without homophobia and other social problems, fathers can be queer and form alternative families (however, these families still have attachments to the couple form). The player-character becomes an ideal father who is egalitarian, fallible, communicative, and vulnerable rather than an authoritarian patriarch. In addressing his upset daughter, the player-character explains to her, “I’m just worried about you, kiddo. I get scared when I know something’s wrong and I get even more scared when I feel like I can’t do anything about it” (2017). Openly communicating about problems and hurt feelings is an important part of the game’s utopic vision, at least when it comes to parenting. Patriarchal standards of masculine hierarchy, authority, and emotional unavailability do not exist in Maple Bay, so neither, it seems, does the daddy figure.

Dating the NPCs makes the imperfection of the game’s world clearer. As Mary, the wife of one of the available dads, explains, “If you want an idyllic little life with white picket fences, this is the place to do it. But every town has its secrets, you know” (2017). The dates typically involve fun activities like brunch, camping, or bowling, but emotional intimacy between the characters intensifies as the player learns more about the dads’ pain, insecurities, and problems. For example, “Fitness Dad” Craig occupies the masculine archetype of a fraternity “bro,” but explains to the player-character that “there’s always that voice in the back of my head telling me that I need to do more. It’s like it’s never enough for me. Every time I try to relax, that voice keeps telling me I don’t deserve it. To be honest, I even feel guilty about being out here” (2017). While Craig seems like a superficial “bro” at first, his feelings of being nearly broken down become clear by the end of the third date. All of the characters occupy the same upper-middle-class position in life, however the “disappointment, disillusionment, and despair” that each dad communicates starts to “poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life” (Halberstam, 2011, p. 3). The juxtaposition of Dream Daddy’s sugary-sweet packaging with the characters’ unhappiness undoes the game’s “banal optimism” that makes the game seem untethered to reality. Disappointment bleeds from Maple Bay to the player’s world as “successful” dates only imply future happiness with the chosen dad and sex is never explicitly depicted.

Robert and Joseph are two dads in particular who have narratives that emphasize the importance of failure, disappointment, and hurt in the game. Robert “Bad Dad” Small appears to most clearly evoke the sexually aggressive image of the erotic daddy figure. His stubble, shaggy hair, leather jacket, and scowl make Robert stand out from the other dads. Robert immediately propositions the player-character for sex upon first meeting him at the bar. Players who choose to sleep with Robert at this early stage will be “kicked” out of his bed the next morning and will not be able to achieve a score higher than a C on each date afterward, making it impossible to unlock his photograph. Each date in this path is simply a choice to hook-up or not, as the player-character becomes increasingly bothered that he is being used for sex. Robert’s family never comes up in this path and social interactions with him are limited. If the player refrains from sleeping with Robert early on, the dates are more dynamic and interesting as the two characters get to know each other while drinking, sharing ghost stores in the woods, and crashing a ghost tour of Maple Bay on the third date. The player learns that Robert’s wife was killed in a car accident and he has been estranged from his daughter for being emotionally neglectful. This “successful” path, defined as the one in which the player can be rewarded with the photograph, ends with Robert telling the player-character, “As I get older I feel more and more that I’m just… drowning in a sea of regret” (2017). The two characters kiss, but do not sleep together as the game emphasizes emotional intimacy through Robert’s unlikely tears. Despite achieving an “S” on each date, Robert explains to the player-character that he needs to work on himself before he can be in a relationship with anyone.

Figure 5: “That’s no fun.”


Robert stands out in the game for his sexual aggression and anti-social attitude. The daddy figure does not have a place in the world if fathers are not hierarchical, authoritative, and emotionally unavailable. Robert’s obsession with ghosts is more than a character quirk; he is the daddy figure out of place and time in the game, haunting its world. Robert embodies the “haunting excess” of queerness that for Edelman “pierces the fantasy screen of futurity, shattering narrative temporality with irony’s always explosive force” (2004, p. 31). In what seems to be an attempt to exorcise the daddy figure, players are punished by having their options later in the game taken away if they sleep with Robert. The player-character’s disappointment in being used for sex sends messages that unattached sex between men, especially fathers, is problematic and emotional intimacy must be earned before physical intimacy. This is a surprisingly sex-negative position to take in a queer dating sim. Robert actively resists the self-destruction of queer anti-sociality. On the third date, Robert tells the player-character that “every day for me is a battle against my own self-destructive habits” (2017). Dating Robert becomes a process of healing the “damaged” daddy figure by reuniting him with his daughter and policing his role as a father. Dream Daddy’s moralistic stance against cruising for sex seems antithetical to the history of the daddy figure and exemplifies the tensions that result from shifting meanings and cultural interpretations of daddies and fathers. The daddy figure’s haunting excess remains in the game, however, since players can still choose to sacrifice a positive ending and sleep with Robert over and over.

Joseph “Cool Youth Minister Dad” is another NPC associated with negativity. He embodies the archetype of Christian masculinity and evokes priesthood. He is married to Mary, who, like Robert, stands out for her unhappiness (the two characters are drinking friends). The player-character meets Mary at the same bar as Robert as she approaches him in a similarly sexually aggressive manner as Robert does. The player later finds out that she is married to Joseph and her infidelity is implied. Dates with Joseph are coded as friends “hanging out,” but the moral dilemma of an affair weighs on the player-character. His guilt intensifies as Mary becomes more suspicious and antagonistic. Dates with Joseph reveal that he is unhappy with his family and fantasizes about escaping to “Margaritaville,” a fantasy tropical paradise free from responsibility. Each date more intensely manifests Margaritaville, starting out as a thought experiment in the first date, to a decorated office named the “Margarita Zone” in the second date, and finally to a trip on a yacht in the third date. On the yacht, Joseph informs the player-character that he is leaving Mary and the game implies that the two characters sleep together. At the epilogue party, however, Joseph explains that he is going to keep working on his marriage. He says, “I didn’t mean to hurt you. And I’m really sorry you got caught up in all of this. I’ve just felt so alone lately and I’m not even sure I’m doing the right thing here” (2017). There are no paths that keep Joseph and the player-character together. The player-character is inevitably left feeling surprised and rejected.

Dating Joseph means rejecting the heteronormative social order and the nuclear family by intentionally participating in an affair with a married man. Mary’s own unfaithfulness might assuage the player’s guilt for contributing to her unhappiness. However, other cracks in Joseph’s Christian morality begin to show. If the player goes on two dates with Robert, but chooses Joseph, the player-character will be confronted by Robert who sees the choice as a betrayal and warns you that Joseph is untrustworthy. After the player-character confronts Joseph about this encounter, the player learns that Robert and Joseph hooked up once before. Joseph, Mary, Robert, and the player-character are caught up in secrets, hurt, and betrayal. While Robert initially seems to be rebelling against normative sexual relationship structures like monogamy, the player-character’s date with Joseph reveals that he is the one who puts normativity most at risk. Joseph’s fantasy of Margaritaville is more than just an escape from daily life; it is an escape from family and normativity. Margaritaville is a meta-commentary on Dream Daddy’s own utopic status. It constructs a line between the abstract optimism of Margaritaville and the concrete utopia of Maple Bay. If Maple Bay is an escapist fantasy, then Margaritaville is another step removed from reality. After the player-character is rejected, he wonders, “Did I do something wrong? Was there another way this could’ve ended if I had done things differently?” (2017). Players might ask the same question as they retrace their steps in an effort to unlock an ending where Joseph stays with the player-character. But this option does not exist and choosing Joseph always results in guilt and disappointment.

Figure 6: “Greetings from… Margarita Zone”


Dream Daddy is a “disappointing game,” defined by Bonnie Ruberg as “games that seem to promise excitement yet fail to live up to expectations” (2015, p. 118). The game’s apolitical world, sex-negativity, and upper-middle-class values are examples of how it has disappointed queer players by upholding homonormativity. Dream Daddy seems to promise erotic fantasies, only to make sex implicit and, in the case of Robert and Joseph, attach negative feelings to sex. Gay male players like Mulkerin and Shepard are disappointed that their experiences are not depicted in a game about their identity. It is important to be conscious of how normativity limits the potential of queerness to imagine differently; we must attend to both the norms that the game upholds and what the game fails to do. According to Jack Halberstam, “Failing is something queers do an have always done exceptionally well” (2011, p. 2-3). Ruberg builds on Halberstam’s imperative to be creative and queer by failing to uphold dangerous neoliberal norms by arguing for the importance of “no fun experiences” (Ruberg, 2015, p. 113) that are born out of failures. For Ruberg, no-fun “is a call to queer worldmaking, a call to build alternate spaces both personal and cultural, a call to think about masochistic play as a site of potential rather than pathology” (2015, p. 122). No-fun aligns with queer-negativity and anti-futurity. However, Ruberg’s use of no-fun as a practice of “queer worldmaking” resonates with Muñoz’s argument that queerness is only useful for imagining “other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds” (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1). Rather than Muñoz’s focus on “new and better pleasures” (2009, p. 1), Ruberg accounts for worldmaking born out “feeling otherly or ‘badly’ during play” (2015, p. 110). The history of the daddy figure is bound up with “feeling otherly” and daddy kink incorporates feeling bad into the play of sex. This hybridity between queer pessimisms and optimism in no-fun play resonates with the hybridity between the daddy and father figures in the game.

Relevant to the daddy figure, Ruberg aligns no-fun play with kink as “systems of counter-normative desires that… reject standard understandings of pleasure that create new possibility spaces for queer experiences” (2015, p. 114). Daddy erotica and kink manifests as “the sexualization of pain” (Saketopoulou, 2014, p. 261) where the daddy inflicts physical and emotional pleasure and pain. Dream Daddy avoids explicit depictions of kink and sex, but the economy of sadomasochistic feelings bound up in the history of the daddy figure persists. Halberstam describes the radically passive masochistic subject: “She refuses to cohere, refuses to fortify herself against the knowledge of death and dying, and seeks instead to be out of time altogether, a body suspended in time, space, and desire” (2011, p. 145). Like the masochistic subject, the player-character in Dream Daddy is suspended in time, space, and desire as he dates over and over again, repeating the same time periods in search of different paths, always teased but never satisfied. The third date with each dad must be forgotten in order to free the player to pursue more dads in a cycle of multiple partners that must repeat itself for the game to function. Despite the game’s family friendly veneer, Dream Daddy invites kinky play and no-fun experiences. Repeatedly sleeping with Robert despite the player-character’s shame is a kinky way to play the game. Reveling in the destruction of Joseph’s marriage despite the player-character’s guilt is a kinky way to play the game. These negotiations of different desires formulate the player and the game into a masochist/daddy dynamic in which the game itself inflicts both pleasure and pain.


I have positioned Dream Daddy within the context of the shifting and contested meanings bound up with the daddy figure. I have also analyzed the game for aligning with and departing from contemporary trends in queer discourses of family, kink, and identity. Dream Daddy emphasizes the humor and irony bound up with the daddy figure’s antagonistic but reciprocal relationship to fatherhood, but forgoes the exaggerated subversion of the family through kinky sex. The game’s inclusion of negative affects like disappointment and guilt, as well as its control over how, when, and if a player is satisfied, gives Dream Daddy a power to inflict emotional hurt and fulfill desire while experimenting with different representations of daddies, fathers, and queer men. The analysis here has been focused on the cultural significance of the daddy figure and its importance to queer theory through close playing Dream Daddy. There is still much more scholarly work that could be done on the game, such as a close playing of dates with the other dads, an exploration of the game’s character archetypes, a focused reading of race in Maple Bay, attention to the discourses of “post-racism” and “post-feminism” that influence the game, an analysis of the relationship between fans and games, and a closer consideration of the game’s writers through interviews. Perhaps most intriguingly, Mary, the game’s only representation of a Mother figure, deserves to be reckoned with.


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