I Have Complicated Feelings About the Xbox Pride Line

Microsoft is donating money to LGBTQIA+ causes, but not from its line of Pride products.

Xbox is making its Pride controller available as a part of its Xbox Design Lab service that lets you customize a controller with a unique design. The Pride controller was unveiled last year, and was sent to various queer content creators, but wasn’t made widely available to the public. That’s changing this year, and on June 9, you’ll be able to buy it yourself and play your PC and Xbox games with a controller adorned in over 34 community flags. The design is part of a larger initiative at Xbox to support queer Xbox fans across the globe. This includes a line of Pride merch based on characters and brands under Microsoft’s umbrella, and a donation of $170,000 to several LGBTQIA+ organizations. But as I look at that controller covered in queer community flags, I feel conflicted about it.

Despite all this merch covered in symbols of queerness, none of the proceeds from these sales are going to queer causes. Each store listing makes mention of the $170,000 donation, as well as that Microsoft has collectively donated $8 million to queer causes in the past year. But there’s nothing about the money received on these sales being used to help queer people in any monetary sense.

I Have Complicated Feelings About the Xbox Pride LineI reached out to Xbox to get some clarity on the situation. If I paid for the Pride controller, would a portion of that sale go to help queer youth who have been made homeless by unsupportive families, or to an organization that might help trans people get gender-affirming care?

The company’s response confirmed my initial fear: the Pride line is just a line of Xbox merchandise that has colors evocative of flags that symbolize ongoing struggles for communities who also happen to play games, and all the money spent on these pieces would be going straight to Microsoft.

“Our 2022 Pride gear and new Pride controller are intended to provide a way for gamers to show their pride and celebrate the vast array of people and identities that make up our vibrant Xbox LGBTQIA+ global gaming community,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Fanbyte in a statement.

Microsoft’s statement also made note of the $8 million it’s donated in the past year, as well as the $170,000 it’s donating this month. It ended its statement by saying it was “encouraging the community to donate to Mermaids, OutRight Action International, and National Center for Transgender Equality through Microsoft Rewards on console,” referring to its rewards program that allows users to earn points by using Microsoft products, which can be redeemed for donations to charities. But the Pride controller, the shirt with flags flowing through Master Chief’s helmet, and the tote bag with Xbox’s name over a backdrop of flags? All the money paid for those products goes into Microsoft’s pockets.

I Have Complicated Feelings About the Xbox Pride LineThis isn’t an Xbox-specific problem. Rainbow capitalism is an issue that always becomes blatantly obvious during Pride Month. Companies slap a rainbow on their social media logo and call it a day. Some might post obligatory social media posts to get engagement and create the appearance of allyship — all of which will disappear come June 30. Assuming it ever shows up to begin with, as some companies will change the logo in some territories, but not in ones where queer identity is criminalized.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has laid out the money it’s donating to the cause, and it’s framing this merchandise line as just another way for players to express themselves. I look around my office, and I’ve got plenty of games merch that is an expression of my love of series like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Overwatch. But within those, there are tacit acknowledgments of my identity as a gay man. These include art of Kaidan Alenko, my Mass Effect boyfriend, or a statue of Soldier: 76, a gay hero in Overwatch. But they aren’t as explicit as a Pride flag hanging from the wall.

My expression of my identity through games hasn’t often been in the context of queer iconography, but through experiencing queer stories in the games I play. The Mass Effect trilogy was a fraught experience for queer fans, but I found myself in the gay love story between the space shootouts and the decisions I made. Night in the Woods and Life is Strange felt like they most understood my life as a gay man who grew up in a small, conservative town. In a lot of ways, my most notable game experiences have been tied to my identity, and I’ve just not expressed how intrinsically tied those sides of my life have been with a rainbow flag. Apex Legends let me use the Pride flag as a badge, but more often than not, my queer game experiences have just been in being gay in whatever worlds the game has to offer.

Getting a controller with Pride flags feels like part of my gaming memorabilia catching up to what have been touchstone experiences for me as a gay man who likes games. But still, buying a controller covered in symbols of movements pushed forward by people who are still fighting, with none of that money going to their cause? It doesn’t sit well with me.

More on queerness in games:

I Have Complicated Feelings About the Xbox Pride Line

Compared to other companies, Microsoft has been actively promoting queer causes and games, and that has also been monetarily. But does a company’s acts of support earn them imaginary “points” for when they’re allowed to create rainbow-covered merchandise? How do we measure when it’s acceptable for a corporation to capitalize on people’s desire to be seen and accepted? Especially when that acceptance ultimately fills the pockets of people looking for profit, rather than helping the causes that fly those flags in the first place?

Is there a dollar amount you have to pass before you can sell Pride merch with none of the profit going to the cause? Is it in hiring queer employees? Creating queer characters? Or in making public statements advocating for human rights?

Xbox is donating $170,000 to queer nonprofits, but only the company knows how much money it collects for the collective Pride merchandise line. And the thought that Microsoft could make more money on queer fans buying merchandise than it lost in the donation gives me pause.

I Have Complicated Feelings About the Xbox Pride LineIf you’re looking for a final answer on what is right and wrong here, I’m sorry to disappoint. I have nothing but conflicting feelings on this situation, and Microsoft is hardly the most egregious example of a company profiting on queer people looking for the slightest acknowledgment that we’re here, and part of a community and culture like video games.

I see myself in queer characters I play more than I see myself in a shirt with Master Chief’s helmet covered in flags, but none of the money I spent on those games went to queer causes either. Plus, those characters persist long after the month of June. The rainbow merch will go into a box in some warehouse until next year.

The nihilist in me wants to say, “nothing matters. Just buy the controller.” Because, ultimately, capitalism comes for us all — our identities, struggles, and interests will all be swallowed by the gaping maw of corporations looking to make a buck. The idealist in me says, “no, spend that money on a donation to one of the charities instead.”

The realist in me says, “do both. Progress is measured in action and changes to legislation, but you can also take small joys in things like a controller covered in Pride flags. Even when its ultimate goal is to rake in money, if you want it, just buy the damn thing, but don’t let your action stop there.”

It’s not enough to have a line of Pride merch, but Microsoft has been making calculated moves to help queer causes where companies like EA had to be threatened with a walkout before it allowed its employees to publicly come out in support of trans people fighting for their rights to gender-affirming care. If there’s any grand lesson to be learned here, maybe it’s just to not count on companies or your hobbies to save you.

Even the best-intentioned move has to adhere to a bottom line, but you can enjoy these things as much as you enjoy buying a game with queer characters or buying any kind of Pride merchandise. Sometimes, it’s just about seeing which companies are causing the least damage as you desperately claw your way to real progress — and that’s the reality of capitalism. If a controller helps a queer Xbox player feel like they’re infusing their identity into their hobby, at least getting that merchandise from a company that is donating money is better than buying a sandwich at Chick-fil-A.