Where are the Queer Video Game Characters?
There is some quality gay TV on the airwaves right now. According to GLAAD, about four percent of series regulars in the 2012-13 season were LGBT, many of them on massively popular shows like Glee. Similar things can be said of movies—recent films like The Kids Are All Right include queer love in their stories and receive Oscar nominations in return. The visibility of LGBT characters on TV and in film has had a stunning turnaround in the past 20 years, considering how taboo the subject of queerness has been historically. And, for me, it raises a question: where the heck are all the queer characters in video games?
While it doesn't get the same kind of coverage in pop culture as TV and films do, video games are a $66 billion media industry. Contrary to its perception as a dorky niche market, in America, 64 percent of households include someone who plays video games and 40 percent of gamers are women. Granted, there are some indie games that showcase and explore queer sexuality, but for the most part, LGBT characters and plotlines are totally absent from the industry's most popular games. In an industry where many stories revolve around male protagonists rescuing and avenging their female love interests, gay love is treated—at best—as a bonus feature.
One of the best aspects of video games as a medium is that many allow players to control aspects of the storyline and characters. In "sandbox games," players can wander around a world at their leisure, developing numerous relationships rather than following a straight-forward plot. Many other games allow players to explore side-stories that are unnecessary for the plot and main story of a game while still pursuing a set journey. What several mainstream video game creators have done is include LGBT characters in those subplots or allow players to choose for themselves whether they'd like to pursue queer relationships. Still, many more popular games (such as the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda franchises) stick to strictly linear plots that tackle queerness as a joke at best (see: protagonist Cloud wearing a dress in some scenes of Final Fantasy VII).
This "gay bonus feature" issue is exemplified by video game developer Bioware creating a "gay planet" in Star Wars game The Old Republic. The game allows players to pursue same-sex romances... but only on a special planet that characters have to pay to get to. Queer side-stories have cropped up in several other games. Two that stand out are Fallout 2, which (all the way back in 1998!) allowed players to choose to flirt with and marry a woman regardless of whether the gender of their own character was male or female. More than 10 years later, Dragon Age 2 allowed players develop queer romances. Dragon Age 2 developer Bioware notably told an incensed fan, "The romances in the game are not for 'the straight male gamer.' They're for everyone."
The Mass Effect franchise also provides an interesting example. In Mass Effect, you play as a character named Shepard, whose gender and general appearance is customized by the player. The player also chooses how to proceed with Shepard's romantic life. The romance plots are optional and have no influence on the game's mostly predetermined plot. For the first two games, your options for seduction were pretty limited depending on your Shepard's gender, but in Mass Effect 3, four characters (two women, one non-gendered female-bodied alien, and one man) were options for Shepards of either gender, plus the game had one female character that only female Shepards could pursue and one male character that only male Shepards could pursue. Impressively diverse options. But since romance is secondary in Mass Effect, so is queerness. Players didn't have to pursue these queer relationsips if they didn't want to, whereas hetero romances are forced on characters in other games all the time.
I'm not out to criticize Mass Effect for this—players' agency is key to how those games function. But it's sad that including even peripheral, totally optional queer subplots at all puts the Mass Effect franchise miles ahead of most popular games. Why has the video game industry been slower than film and TV to feature prominent queer characters?
One possible answer is that video game culture is perceived to be more socially conservative than other mainstream media. Despite statistics, many game publishers still perceive their core audience as being composed entirely of the "straight white male" gamers that Bioware so enraged, and fear what will happen if they alienate this demographic. The reaction to the (totally optional!) same-sex romance options in Mass Effect 3 shows there's some validity to these fears, with thousands of gamers expressing their displeasure in comment sections all over the Internet as well as bombing the game's reviews on MetaCritic. Not shockingly, the opposition was squarely focused on dude Shepard's gay love scene with Steve Cortez (the male character only male Shepards could pursue) rather than on lady Shepard's shower sex with Samantha Traynor. Many went so far as to object that the gay romance options ruined the whole game or allege that they were only included to be politically correct. As one commenter put it: "Damn homo propaganda couldn't just leave the games alone."
It's not news to say that gamer culture is often deeply homophobic and misogynist. But realistically, the misogynists and homophobes only make up a small (if very vocal) subset of customers, and there is a massive backlash happening against these forces in gaming culture right now.
So game studios: what gives? One needs look no further than their local TV listings to see that homosexuality is part of mainstream America. I'm reasonably certain that any loss in sales these companies might take for featuring a queer protagonist would be made up for by the publicity, acclaim, and support that would come with such a decision. Mass Effect is doing well enough.
Times are changing, and the classic model of heterosexual male-led video games is changing with them. Academic researchers have considered exactly this issue. A Singapore-MIT team designed a prototype game in 2011 called A Closed World that was built on the question: "How [do we] create digital games where queer content is both thoughtfully presented and procedurally and fictively relevant? Can a game be made where the sexuality of the characters has an impact on play, without it simply being a re-skinning or forced inclusion?"
For now, if the president of Nintendo can entertain a Zelda-led Zelda game, why can't we have a hero go off on a mission to rescue his husband?
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