I am a 22-year old college graduate, currently trying to figure out what the hell I'm going to do with an English Writing degree. So far, the answer seems to be "play a lot of video games, sleep, and slowly starve to death."
I said in the introduction to this blog series that this is a topic I’ve been meaning to cover for a while. In the interest of candor, I feel like it’s worth mentioning what it was that finally pushed me into doing it. See, I read a lot about GLBT issues. From contemporary social debates like gay marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, to more general sort of media critiques and discussion, I try to stay abreast of what’s being said about things like GaymerCon, Makeb, and the like – especially on sites that I generally respect, like Destructoid. And while doing so, I occasionally make the mistake of reading the comments section. And almost invariably, I’ll encounter someone (more often than not, a straight someone) asking the same old questions: “Why does this matter? Why do you care? Why is this something you feel like you need?” When it’s something like Gaymercon or Makeb, it’s a little irritating. When it’s something like gay marriage, it’s beyond infuriating.
Nobody likes the “p” word. But privilege is a very real thing, and it’s never really noticeable until it’s something you don’t have. It’s what causes straight people to say “Why do gay folks care about marriage so much? Marriage sucks, lol!” Because unlike me, they forget that marriage actually carries distinct legal benefits like hospital visitation rights, inheritance security, etc. They forget those things because they've never had to worry about not having them. So, in the interest of explaining why gay representation in video games, and geek culture in general, matters to me, let me provide a bit of background on my own experiences.
I knew that I was gay as soon as I knew what sex really was. It was at a friend’s 12th birthday party, and he had an unrestricted internet connection in his room. And while the seven other sweaty, desperate pubescents gathered around his monitor to get their first glances at naked women, I found my own eyes drifting somewhere else entirely. But if I’m being honest with myself, I knew that I was different before then. It started with Final Fantasy VII, a game I recieved at around age 9. Despite a translation that was basically indecipherable to my tiny child brain, I found Cloud’s misadventures in Wall Market, where the player is tasked with infiltrating a crime lord’s mansion, accomplished by collecting women’s clothing from places like a “Men’s Gym” and a brothel where one of the rooms is the “Group Room”, as something intensely confusing and weirdly electrifying. It was the first time I’d ever been exposed to these ideas, and I felt like I was seeing something forbidden. Something dangerous. It was also the game that introduced me to my first ever crush, even if I had no idea what that meant at the time.
Rude. No joke.
My second major experience came at 13, not too long after I had had my eyes opened to who I was, as far as sexuality was concerned. At the time, I was obsessed with anime. Like much of what I was interested in at that point in my life, it was something that my father had introduced me to. I devoured every bit of it that I could get my hands on – including whatever I could manage to download off of Limewire on a dial-up internet connection. I don’t remember how it happened, but at some point I was turned onto the existence of a little anime called Gravitation.
For those of you not in the know, Gravitation is part of a little genre of anime/manga referred to as shounen-ai, or “boy’s love”. It’s the story of an insufferable musician named Shuichi Shindo who falls in love with an insufferable author name Eiri Yuki after Yuki sees his lyrics and (justifiably) calls him a talentless hack. It’s . . . well, my opinion of it has changed radically from what it was nine years ago. But at the time, Gravitation was something that I clung to like a drowning man. I’d never seen a piece of work that concerned a gay man before, and basically took him seriously. The idea that a work could be primarily centered around the romance between two men was unthinkable. And I spent hours sitting in front of the computer, downloading 256 mgb files on a dial-up internet connection, watching them only late at night with headphones, after everyone else had gone to sleep. I was convinced that I was watching something dirty, wrong, something that I shouldn’t have been. I took the same precautions with my episodes of Gravitation that I later would with my pornography – hide it in the registry, in a folder ambiguously titled “Data.”
In retrospect, I'm more embarrassed about this than the porn.
And that was it, for a while. That was what I had. The closest thing to a gay role model that I had in the media that I consumed was a Japanese pop star with bubblegum-pink hair. In the next few years, I’d come out of the closet, and get my first boyfriend. He was too old for me – already in college when I was fifteen. He didn’t respect the things I liked. He didn’t really respect me. He said occasionally that gaming was a waste of time, that it was just something people do when they didn’t want to think. Once he mentioned explicitly that it was something he was just waiting for me to grow out of. We dated for eight months, before I ended things. Which was at least seven months after I realized that things absolutely wouldn’t work.
I know it’s scary for everybody, at that age, to end a relationship. It feels like this might be ‘the one’, your only real shot at happiness. But for a gay teen growing up in small town Texas, that feeling was magnified exponentially. I put up with the condescension because I was terrified that this was my only shot. That being gay meant that the only way I’d get to be happy with someone was if the universe decided to be generous. And he was my Eiri Yuki, for better or worse.
During this time, my father had been getting me more and more into American comics, largely by way of titles like Supermarket and DMZ. I had grown up with superhero cartoons, but always found superhero comics to be too inaccessible. The owner of the local comic book shop in a town near ours suggested I try the Ultimate Marvel line, a sort of “alternate universe” line of comics that took established Marvel characters and rebooted them in a Universe where the writers could be allowed to try new things with them, and not be bogged down by decades of continuity. It was ideal, I was told, for someone wanting to start trying to get into comics. So I picked up a copy of Ultimate X-men.
I wrote in my last post about heroes, and how the lack of gay heroes in games was damaging. I didn’t articulate it on this then; because it’s still something I’m wrapping my head around, almost seven years later, trying to figure out exactly on what level it has affected me as a person. What I can say is that after reading that book, I haven’t looked at media, entertainment, or my own career aspirations in quite the same way. And the character responsible for that is Piotr Rasputin, Colossus.
Ultimate Colossus is, in many ways, similar to his mainstream counterpart. He’s a big, powerful guy who’s imposing stature belies his good-natured, mild-mannered personality. He’s fiercely loyal to the people he cares about, and his powers and build make him the team’s de facto powerhouse. But he does differ in one fairly substantial way: in the Ultimate Universe, Piotr Rasputin is gay. To me as a teenager, and even to a degree me now, this was revolutionary. I’d never encountered a gay hero. Much less a gay badass. I’d never encountered a work that had one of the primary characters be gay, have a crush on another male character, and fight to defend him – all without a hint of ridicule.
Growing up gay, it’s hard to maintain a high self-esteem a lot of the time. Even if you’re not religious, or from a religious background, the overwhelming sense of ‘otherness’ can be suffocating. You’re told that your issues and experiences are lesser, that your hopes for yourself are inferior, that your whole existence is, in a lot of ways, laughable. You’re a punch line. You’re a cheap insult. “Faggot” is someone behaving stupidly, or in a way that doesn’t merit respect. And that’s what you feel like. Something stupid, not worthy of respect. It’s the same phenomenon that turns something like Brokeback Mountain, a tragic and heart-breaking tale about two people whose lives are destroyed by circumstances and societal pressures that they have no means to combat, into a cultural punch line. Because those two people happen to be men.
So I hope you, the reader, can understand what it’s like for a gay person to see something take them seriously, respect them, even lift up one of their own as something to be admired and aspired to. How incredibly, unbelievably freeing that is. I can’t really say whether I started changing myself, after I encountered that character and that feeling. But it did establish, in my mind, something that I needed to do – I needed to write, to craft characters and stories that will remind other GLBT folks that they’re not a joke, that their experiences do matter, and that they are worth taking seriously.
That’s why media portrayals matter so much to me. They affect not just how the world sees us, but how we see ourselves. But video games take that a step further. Video games let us do extraordinary things. They let us be heroes. They let us save nations, slay monsters, explore the universe. They let us be badass, nigh-indestructible killing machines or frightened, put-upon individuals that rise beyond their means to become extraordinary. They let us connect with characters in a way much more intimate and much more immediate than most other mediums. Games have the potential to give everyone the chance to feel empowered, by giving them player characters that they identify with and can embody. And to create in them new empathy, by exposing them to experiences and people that they might not have encountered or thought about. Interactivity has so much incredible potential. Which makes it all the more disappointing that, more often than not, our options are so limited to only being allowed to do things if we put on our “straight, white, male” masks first.
But I can’t be too mad about it. Like I said from the start, the times they are a’ changin’. Games are becoming more inclusive, slowly but surely. And that will only continue, as development becomes easier and cheaper and the hobby becomes more and more commonplace. But the point of this blog series, as I said, is to communicate honestly what the situation is and why it matters. Why some people get so worked up about it, and why it’s a topic that needs to be discussed. To give the best window that I can manage into my own thoughts and experiences as a gay gamer. And I hope that I’ve accomplished that.
I really appreciate those that have stuck with me thus far, and have been supportive of this effort. If any of you would like to see a blog post about a specific topic as an addendum, feel free to mention it or send me a message. Otherwise, it’s been a pleasure writing this series.
I want you to, off the top of your head, list off every gay or bisexual character from video games that you are comfortable calling a hero. The stipulations are that this character must have an established personality – no player surrogates – and must have at least ten minutes of screen time – so nobody mentioned off-handedly, or hinted at, or met in passing. The last stipulation is that this character must be gay or bisexual regardless of the player’s decisions. Meaning the characters from Dragon Age II are largely out, as well. If your experiences are anything like mine, you’re probably able to come up with around 10-15 or so, give or take. Now subtract characters from Bioware games. Your pool just got substantially smaller.
Kanji Tatsumi doesn’t count, as the game never quite figures that one out.
Of course, my experiences are fairly limited. There are countless indie games that I’ve never played, narrative mods for tons of different games, and plenty of big-title games that I’ve just never gotten around to playing. I’m sure that I’ve left some folks out, and I eagerly await hearing about them in the comment section below. But continuing on with my point – now that we’ve got our handful of gay heroes, I’d like for you to, again off the top of your head, list off every time you’ve encountered a gay or bisexual character in a game that was a comic-relief side character. Every time you’ve encountered a ‘comically’ effeminate villain whose femininity is played up as a joke to emphasize their status as an ineffectual bad guy. Or, even further, every time you’ve encountered a villain whose androgyny or non-heteronormativity is used as narrative shorthand to communicate just how far on the moral spectrum that character has fallen. Homo, Bi, or Pansexuality has a long history of being used as cheap indicators of debauched hedonism in film and literature, and it’s a habit that video games have yet to shake.
(Though films aren’t entirely blameless here, either.)
Gay characters, in those precious few works wherein they appear, are very rarely main characters. They’re certainly never focal or playable characters. A long-established means of judging a culture’s attitude towards a minority group is to see how it writes and portrays that group in its entertainment. Media Studies 101, here. So what does the overwhelming majority of homosexual comic relief and villains say about our culture’s attitude towards homo- and bisexuality? Well . . . nothing good. My next (and perhaps final) post will be about why this topic matters to me, and through that I'll try to talk about why this dearth of heroic gay characters is damaging. But I'll say now that the implications of this narrative marginalization of gay characters, not just in video games but in media in general, suggest a cultural landscape that doesn't believe gay people or their struggles are worth taking seriously. They're punchlines at best, irreparably damaged by a debilitating 'otherness' at worst.
Overweight, homicidal, effeminate sociopaths at extra-worst.
Why is that GLBT individuals have such a problem with representation in games? The most common argument that I hear on the topic is: “People want to sell games. Therefore they must appeal to the highest possible number of players. Having a major gay character might alienate some dumb shitheads and blahdy blahdy blahblah.” I usually stop listening about halfway through. Because this argument is bullshit – and it’s approaching the topic from an incredibly wrong-headed angle.
When was the last time you saw a triple-A action game that had the ostensibly straight main character macking on a lady on the front cover? Or even more unlikely, one of the non-playable main characters? How much of, say, Uncharted’s marketing was taken up by Nathan Drake romantic exploits as opposed to his hanging off of and/or shooting at shit? When the average person thinks of Gears of War, do they think of Marcus Phoenix’s love life, or of Marcus Phoenix curb-stomping a locust? This is the problem with the “it’s about marketing" argument. When you’re advertising a mainstream video game, you generally don’t focus on who the character wants to take to Make-Out Point. You focus on them being, y’know, kickass video game characters.
Not Pictured: Sexy time.
That’s what sells games. And that’s what people will remember. If you make a game with cool visuals and gameplay, something that gets people excited, with a marketing team that does their jobs right and emphasizes those particular elements, with a publisher that gives an adequate amount of support to the project, then that will determine whether it sells or not. And the number of people that will swear off of your product - once they realize, three hours in, that one of the gruff, no-nonsense members of Marine Squad Delta Bravo Badass (tasked with slaying the Volcano God Vesuvanor) likes someone with the same kind of bits - are definitely in the minority. The argument that inclusivity and financial success are somehow mutually exclusive strike me as incredibly false. Games like Fallout: New Vegas, Fable, and Mass Effect have proven that you can have a successful title that also features non-heterosexual content. Sales are not the issue. If game developers don’t want to include GLBT characters in their work, that’s up to them. But don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.
POINT OF CLARIFICATION: The use of the word "hero" or "heroic" within the post refers simply to "one who is heroic", rather than protagonist. Sorry for the confusion!
I wanted to take a break from writing “Ga(y)mer”, my totally-not-shit blog series about homosexual portrayals in video games, to talk to you about a subject that has been basically inescapable in the gaming press, as of late. About a week ago, Anita Sarkeesian posted the first in her long awaited/dreaded series of videos regarding “Tropes vs. Women” in video games. The video, entitled “Damsels In Distress: Part One”, has already received a wide amount of attention and response – some of it great, thoughtful stuff. Some of it . . . yeah, not so much.
That’s why I wanted to talk to you today, D-toid. I don’t want to name names, I don’t want to call anybody out here – there are plenty of people out there talking about this topic that do so with respect and level-headedness, that bring up great points and counter-points to arguments made in “Tropes vs Women.” But there are three arguments floating about the internet, pervasive ones at that, that not are not thoughtful, not great, and should really just go away (for now.)
Might as well just go down the list.
1. “Anita didn’t talk about (X).”
So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most of you are familiar with writing in an academic form. That at some point, you’ve had to write an essay that follows a basic Intro-> Background-> Point 1-> Point 2-> Point 3-> Conclusion format. I’m also going to assume, based on this, that you understand the idea behind content division – breaking a larger work up into smaller, more manageable chunks or points so that the whole work doesn’t end up feeling bloated or unfocused.
Now, whether or not you think Ms. Sarkeesian was successful in avoiding this bloated/unfocused feeling in her video, a topic well-worth talking about, you surely understand the fact that the “Tropes Vs. Women” series is being broken into smaller, more manageable chunks – divided first by individual tropes, then, if this video is anything to go by, into smaller pieces as the trope requires. It’s made overwhelmingly clear in the first video that it is, in large-part, background on the topic, with Sarkeesian saying at the end that the next posted video will follow the trope into modern gaming, and how it impacts us today.
So why, then, did a large number of people criticize her for only addressing games from the 80s and 90s? Why was it argued in several spots that she overlooked, say, Beyond Good and Evil as subversions of this trope? Why are so many people criticizing her for something she addresses within the actual video itself? Well, two big possibilities – either they are angry that Anita’s videos aren’t efficient enough to adequately address the topic in a single go, or they didn’t watch the whole video. Because the acknowledgement of a second part to this point comes at the very, very end.
It seems quite common to put something like “I’m not writing this because I’m a big smelly sexist but-“ at the beginning of your Anita Sarkeesian response. And I can understand why. This “Good Guy Greg”ing is an effort to distance oneself from the overwhelming vomit-wave that assaulted Anita when her Kickstarter was first announced. Nobody wants to associate with the shitheads that posted rape threats, or grotesque flash games. But all of the “not sexist” qualifications in the world won’t make you GGG if you’re so desperate to talk about why you don’t agree with Ms. Sarkeesian’s point that you don’t actually listen to all of Ms. Sarkeesian’s point. If you’re positively frothing at the mouth to tell the world about the shortcomings of this web series without even finishing the videos, then maybe you’ve got a few more personal issues with the material than you thought.
It’s like complaining about plot-holes before you’ve seen the whole movie. If you want to complain about it lacking certain content, maybe you should actually see the entire work first.
2. “Anita got way too much funding.” Or, alternatively. “Anita is just an attention hog.”
Let me ask you something. How many of you actually donated money to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter? I did. Five bucks, right in the kisser. I did so because I’m into seeing discussion on power minorities within the media that I consume. I didn’t have any massive expectations, I didn’t expect my world to be changed, I did so because it might help a kind-of cool thing get made.
Now, of course I know that there are people who produce content like this for free. I’ve spent enough time on Blip.tv to enjoy some really great work from folks who don’t really make much money off of it, save for donations. But I’ve also donated to some of them, too. I don’t mind pitching in for content that I think is worthwhile – I don’t do it often, with the whole “I eat nothing but ramen and corndogs”-poverty thing – but when I do, I don’t feel like I’ve been swindled or like my money has been wasted.
So when I see the argument made, either directly or through snide “Anita Sarkeesian’s $160,000 project”, I find it a little irritating. It’s got this bizarre tone, like Anita personally came into people’s homes and shook them down for cash. Like she’s some sort of Power Rangers’ super-villain who feeds on money and attention, and has invented a machine to steal all of the west coast’s money and attention supplies. Whether you think what she’s got is deserved or not, don’t fault Anita herself for it – she has exactly as much as people are willing to give her. If you’re a backer, and you don’t feel like you’re getting your money’s worth, that is one thing. But if not, why do you care?
(I spent five bucks on Skittles and Pepsi yesterday; I don’t get to comment on good investments of my own money.)
3. “By blocking comments on her video, Anita isn’t fostering discussion.”
Psh, as if reasonable discussion has ever occurred in a Youtube comments board.
No, but seriously. This one is a point that I really don’t understand. It seems to argue that Anita Sarkeesian is personally responsible for responding to criticism leveled against her work. Directly. On a Youtube comment thread. Okay, maybe that’s a little reductivist. The real crux of the argument, such as I see it, is that Ms. Sarkeesian doesn’t seem involved enough in the community. That she is purposefully sequestering herself from criticism.
Two things about that. First: How is that a rational conclusion to draw from this situation? How does disabling the comment thread on her video suggest that she’s not, say, paying attention to Destructoid, Kotaku, The Penny Arcade Report, and assorted other gaming media and what it’s response is? How can you possibly know that she won’t, say, acknowledge criticisms in later videos? Or do what most creative types do and just shift her content based on criticism that she receives? The collective answers, in order, to all of this: it’s not, it doesn’t, you can’t, shut up. You’re not making a real point.
Second: Are you really surprised? After all the backlash, all the pointless hate and knee-jerk criticism levied against her work by folks that hadn’t, y’know, actually seen it – is it any surprise that Anita Sarkeesian is playing things a little safe, for now? Is that really something you can fault her for? If you think so, then fair enough. But I see things a little differently.
These three arguments as a whole shed light on the fact that, despite what they say, there are a fair amount of people within our community that don’t actually want to have a serious, mature conversation about this topic. They want to pounce upon any perceived weakness or flaw that they can find, and dissect it viciously until they “win the argument.” They don’t want to try to take Anita Sarkeesian seriously, to hear out her side of things. They are doing the exact same thing that Anita Sarkeesian is often accused of.
So I get why Anita might want to avoid direct discussion with large parts of this community. For the same reason that I get why someone might want to avoid feminist (or other social movement) rhetoricians that aren’t interested in discussion or education, so much as ‘winning.’ Because that kind of argumentation doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t change anything. And nobody ‘wins’.
If you want to offer criticism towards Anita Sarkeesian, I implore you to at least think about why you want to do so. Is it because you want to advance the discussion that she’s trying to start, or because you want to shut it down? Because you want to ‘win’. If it’s the former, then great! There is a lot worth talking about and, indeed, a lot worth criticizing about the “Tropes vs. Women” video series, such as it is. If it’s the latter, then tell me – what’s it like becoming the thing that you claim to despise?
I am a man with the surname Hawke, a badass knife-wielding rogue. A sarcastic, aloof jerk with a heart of gold- more than willing to screw around with folks, but unable to tolerate injustice. So when a new acquaintance named Anders, a mage, asks me to assist in liberating his friend from the Templars, a group basically dedicated towards oppressing mages and keeping them in-check, I agree. And not just because I want to have a look at some maps in his possession. Casually, I ask Anders about his friend, and their history. Anders mentions, off-handedly, that the two of them had . . . experimented. “Oh,” think I, “that’s interesting. Filing that information away. Anders is open to the idea of being with other men. Good. To. Know.” In a parallel timeline, I am a woman with the surname Hawke, a rogue mage, sweet and good-natured. When Anders asks me to rescue his friend, I agree without hesitation – inquiring about their relationship only to express my concern. Anders’ response? (paraphrased) “He’s a friend.” At this point I, the player, am left with a question: “who the fuck are you, Anders?”
"Whininess personified, basically."
I will readily admit that my first playthrough of most roleplaying games are usually spent playing as myself, or an idealized version thereof. But I certainly don’t limit myself to that. I love to go back through the game as someone else entirely, often as a girl, and see the game from a different perspective. And more than once, where the topic of sexuality is concerned, I encounter . . . interesting results, like the one above.
It’s not that I don’t understand the reasoning behind player-oriented sexuality in games. If players like a character but he/she doesn’t happen to swing for their chosen gender, it can be frustrating. (In no way like real life, wherein that never occurs ever.) And why bother being restrictive when you can avoid it? If any romance-able character is available to every gender, then the game is more inclusive, and that’s generally regarded as a good thing. But it’s not really that simple.
One of the most common problems that come up when discussing the idea of sexuality in video games is people approaching the topic from a reductive viewpoint. You’ll see these comments on sexuality-concerned posts quite frequently – “Why does this matter? It’s not like it’s a big part of most people’s personalities.” or “Why even have the topic in video games? Why does who a character wants to have sex with matter?” Or my very least favorite: “Stop being sad perverts. Sexual content in games is pointless, and basically exists solely to titillate desperate teenagers.”
Even if that last one does have some pretty decent ammunition.
The great flaw in all of these ways of thinking, and what makes them reductive, is that they equate sexuality with sexual behavior. This is problematic. Sexuality far exceeds simple behavior, and it’s a major part of self-identification and experience – whether people like to admit that, or not. I’ll address each of these sentiments individually, to attempt to articulate this point.
Going down the list:
1) While it’s true that a personality cannot be built from sexuality alone, a personality can be heavily influenced by and shaped by experiences which, you guessed it, can be heavily influenced by sexuality. For the heterosexual folks reading this presently, I’d like for you to think about every single instance in your life where your heterosexuality has played a part, however minor, in your life. Obviously, this is impossible. These tiny moments are uncountable – from the big stuff like flirting with a crush or going on a date, to the little moments like seeing a heterosexual couple on TV and feeling a sense of identification. You can meet a person of your preferred gender at a bar, and chances are overwhelming likely that they, at the very least, would prefer a partner with bits like yours. Without these tiny, constant moments, a life would feel exceedingly different – and a personality might well be affected by that, even if only in small ways.
2) So if sexuality affects experience, and experience can affect personality, then isn’t it somewhat problematic to equate sexuality exclusively with sexual behavior? Sexuality isn’t just about who you want to rub your bits with. It’s about who you want to spend your life with. What you want to work towards. Who you want to rescue from the Dark Lord’s castle, and who you want to be rescued by. It changes the stories that you write about yourself. And that’s why it has such power over us.
I, personally, want to be rescued by this guy - while he's riding a speeder bike and covered in chocolate.
3) Sex is not the only way to explore sexuality. In fact, it’s not even the best way. Lots of people’s sexuality tends to be a bit more flexible where sexual behavior is concerned – spend ten minutes on Craigslist, and you’ll pick that up pretty quickly. (Don’t actually do that.) Dumb sex mini-games in God of War or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are by no means the same thing as slowly working through and understanding Morrigan’s complex understanding and aversions to sexual relationships in Dragon Age. Sexuality, both hetero and non, is a topic worth exploring and discussing. It’s something that the vast majority of us feel, and that profoundly impacts us.
This is why I find games that treat sexuality as a simple binary division problematic. Take, for instance, my experiences with Skyrim. We’re given no real indication that sexuality in Cyrodil is a non-issue. Yet two characters of different genders can romance the same character without even an acknowledgement of difference. Setting aside the fact that marriage is less complex or difficult in Skyrim than, say, building a suit of armor, isn’t it a bit strange that neither my tough-as-nails, broken-nosed Redguard woman or willowy, pouty-lipped Elf mage had a hard time bedding Argis the Bulwark? If sexuality is such a non-issue in these worlds, shouldn’t that be explored rather than tacitly acknowledged (while still keeping the overwhelming majority of actually scripted romances in the game strictly hetero-normative)?
Dragon Age: Origins did a phenomenal job of having characters with defined sexualities that were actually explored and justified in-game, largely because it bothered to actually justify their attitudes as largely the result of different cultural expectations. It assisted in building a more complex world, and it gave sexuality the maturity and depth that it deserved. It did so by having strong writing. It recognized that who a character loved and why is just as important a part of them as who they killed and why. But it also had the benefit of established content. There are games with primarily optional content that have handled the topic well. Take, for example, the Fable series – where characters had established romantic leanings and specific lines for both genders, with even gender-incompatible characters subject to what I like to call “the Batman paradox.”
Because NOBODY is too straight for Batman.
Even in a fairly shallow romantic system like Skyrim, a few personalized lines would go a long way towards making that world feel more alive and believable. And that, to me, feels like the only real answer to making optional content more meaningful or less problematic. Don’t treat alternative sexualities like an after-thought, or sexuality as an incidental aspect of life. Either put the work in to address the topic adequately, or leave the content out entirely. But don’t expect brownie points for a half-assed acknowledgement.
Thanks for your time, folks. I hope you enjoyed, and that you'll check out next week's post, about established content and the relative dearth of gay heroes in games. If you have any questions, comments, criticisms, or death threats, please feel free to shoot me a message or leave a comment. If you have any other topics you want me to address in this series, let me know!
This is something that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but have consistently found reasons to put off. Either because I did not feel like I could adequately address the topic, I felt like my own personal window was too limited, or I just felt insecure in my own viewpoint. But after the recent controversies surrounding SWTOR and Makeb’s “gay ghetto”, I felt like it was something I could no longer put off. So let me introduce myself – Hi, I’m Azudarko, and I’m a gay gamer, geek, and general nerd enthusiast. Obviously this is not how I introduce myself in everyday conversation – but it is relevant information for the topic at hand. Because I want to talk to you about homosexuality in gaming, and general nerd culture.
I’m aware that I probably lost a fair amount of readers with that sentence alone. This topic is, I’m aware, something that many are probably sick and tired of hearing about. I’ve talked to many great, enlightened, tolerant gaming enthusiasts that are getting pretty tired of hearing about how their hobby is single-handedly propping up sexism, racism, and homophobia within mainstream culture. People that are tired of having to defend their hobby on two fronts – from “asshole politicians and news-mongers bemoaning how games are spurring otherwise innocent, cherub-cheeked individuals to do horrific acts of violence”, and from “overly-PC obnoxious jerks who claim to love the medium but spend almost all of their time and energy bemoaning how it hates all non-white, non-male, non-straight people.”
So I want to clear something up from the get-go. I am not writing this in order to point fingers, or to make sweeping categorical statements on the industry. This is not meant as scholarly analysis, or as a grand thesis on homosexuality and media in general. This is only meant to grant clarity, to document and summarize some of the experiences and thoughts from someone who finds the topic personally affecting. My greatest hope is that someone might read this and find something within it to be enlightening, find something that might widen their perspective. So with that said, let me provide a brief overview of what I wish to cover with this series of essays:
1) Introduction: What you’re reading now. An introduction to myself, what I wish to accomplish, and a general overview of the current state of things, as far as my own experiences go.
2) Gay as Gameplay (It’s Not About Sex): A discussion of gaming’s attempts to address homosexuality in game mechanics – from “player-oriented sexuality” to “universal bi-sexuality.” Why I find flexible sexuality, such as it is handled presently in gaming, problematic.
3) There Are No Gay Heroes (Marketing Is No Excuse): A discussion of established gay characters, their roles in our storytelling, and why the current argument of “appealing to demographics” strikes me as false.
4) Personal History (Why It Matters to Me): A totally masturbatory attempt to track my own experiences dealing with and understanding homosexuality through media during my development, and an exercise in explaining why this topic matters so profoundly to me.
By the time I reach essay four, I hope to have provided you with a fairly decent picture of my experiences and viewpoint in regards to this admittedly touchy issue. I can’t promise that it will always be professional (in fact, I can basically promise the opposite), but I can promise utter candor and emotional honesty. The whole exercise would fall apart without it. If you find that anything I’ve written whiffs of bullshit, than I absolutely encourage you calling me out. Discussion is kind of the point here. That said, let’s get into it.
Homosexual portrayals within gaming, geek culture, and even mainstream culture are better than they have even been. That’s faint praise, certainly, but it’s not really something that is arguable. In the last decade, we’ve had games like Dragon Age, Fallout: New Vegas, and Persona 4. We’ve had shows like The Wire, Modern Family, Glee, and Pretty Little Liars. Openly gay, bi, or transgender characters are becoming more and more common and that is an amazing, uplifting thing. We are making progress, however slow that might be. The conversation then becomes – what can we do to make this process as painless as possible?
Hint: Not this.
So, about those homosexual portrayals. Generally speaking, in gaming, they come in two flavors: that of “optional”, choices given to the player about what they personally prefer, and “established”, content that exists within the world, unchanging by player actions or preferences. The first is most heavily visible in games like Fable or Skyrim, where players can choose which gender (or both, or neither) that their particular character prefers, and then act upon that. For a heterosexual player, with no particular desire to explore non-heterosexual content, this content might never be seen. That’s fine, of course, but it’s also easy. And cheap. Sometimes little more is required for it than changing some gender pronouns. The second is far rarer, and far more intensive. It’s represented by characters like Arcade Gannon, Private Cortez, or Zevran. It’s characters that are gay or bi regardless of how the player feels about it – they exist within the world, they are who they are, and they don’t change based on player preference. They also require genuine effort and thought on the part of the writing team.
And effort means a lot. I think Bioware has done an amazing job of promoting gender and sexual diversity within their games. They strike me as a company who genuinely believes that this is something worth doing. And I think that despite the very legitimate criticism they’ve earned in cases like Dragon Age II’s awkward handling of sexual identity or Makeb’s too-little-too-late-too-segregated introduction, I think they get far more criticism than they’ve earned, all things considered. Companies likes Bioware and Obsidian, while not above criticism, should at least be acknowledged and praised for trying, for being anomalies within a gaming industry that largely seems content to ignore the issue entirely. I think it is telling that it is largely roleplaying-oriented developers that see the importance of inclusivity – not just in optional content, but in established content as well. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve encountered a gay or bisexual character in a non-roleplaying game – because, by and large, those games rely entirely on established content.
So why do developers so rarely include this content? I can think of plenty of reasons, not one of them being “they just hate gay people.” They may think it’s not relevant to their plot – which might be entirely reasonable. Spec Ops: The Line is so small and so focused that any branching content would feel awkward. They might fear it will hurt game sales – a slightly less reasonable fear, that I will address in a later part of this series. They might fear that including that sort of content will offend someone – again, slightly less reasonable, given that the same sorts of people likely to be offended by encountering a gay character are likely going to be offended by plenty of other content in your game. Or they might feel that they couldn’t adequately write for a character whose sexuality didn’t align with theirs – an argument that rings a little false if they’re, say, writing a story prominently featuring cyborgs, aliens, demons, dragons, or any number of things that they’re not. Writing is ultimately about empathy and connection - If something like sexual orientation is enough to throw you for a loop, you may be in the wrong profession. Or, hell, they might not be writing gay characters because they simply don’t think about them. Sure, I’m guessing that there are some legitimately homophobic people working in the industry, purposefully not writing about homosexual character because they think they’re gross or immoral, but I’m willing to wager that they’re the minority.
So that’s the state of things, such as I see them. We’ve got a larger push towards optional content, something that requires very little from the developer or writing team, but a massive dearth in established content for any number of reasons. We’ve got some people that are trying very hard to help with the situation, but maybe trip over themselves a few times, and a massive number of people that simply don’t think about the subject. We’ve got people who are angry about the state of things, but are terrible at articulating why, and people who are so defensive of their hobby that they reject the conversation before it’s started. I hope the following series will be entertaining, semi-insightful, and thoroughly read-able. But more than anything, I hope it starts that conversation. Our industry is not homophobic. It’s just trying to find its footing, where the topic is concerned.
I hope you'll check out next week's post about "Optional" content, and the challenges of adequately addressing sexual orientation in game mechanics. Thanks, all!
(The following post is full of SPOILERS for the recently released Far Cry 3. If you are the kind of person who is bothered by such, please don’t proceed.)
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and play through the entirety of the newest entry into the Far Cry games – a series which had, for the most part, eluded me up until this point. The most that I knew about the series as a whole was how highly touted the game’s graphics and presentation were, especially given that the first game was the premier for Crytek Studio’s new engine. Eight years’ worth of new developers, engines, and graphical updates later, and very little has changed. Far Cry 3 is a visually stunning game bursting with minor details that more than once left me breathless. It’s a gorgeous rush of ultra-violence and open-ending gameplay that is ultimately quite fun and engaging. All of this is enhanced by a thematically rich plot that merits a great deal of discussion regarding its themes, ideas, moral stance, and place within the medium of gaming as a whole.
Within this article, I mean to address an aspect of the game that I’ve found to be rather lacking in coverage, as well as its relation to another big title being discussed this year. That’s right – I want to address the Lara Croft-shaped elephant in the room.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one
“Our young protagonist is out traveling, when unfortunate circumstances lead to them being stranded on a tropical island inhabited by bloodthirsty, rapacious pirate/slave-traders. Their friends are taken captive by said rogues, and now our protagonist must summon up inner-strength and survival instinct if they want to rescue them and return home alive.” If you haven’t caught the joke yet, it’s that I could be talking about either Far Cry 3 or the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, published by Square Enix and developed by Crystal Dynamics. They do sound rather similar, don’t they? Now, at the time of this writing, Tomb Raider is still several months from release. What the final product could look like is anyone’s guess, and I eagerly await my own opportunity to find out. That said, I will be using what has been shown and said by the developers thus far, as well as assorted internet ‘talking heads’ that have addressed the truckloads of controversy surrounding the title, to inform upon this discussion.
And boy, does this game have a lot of controversy surrounding it. People are angry about Lara being reinvented. People are angry about Lara being weaker. People are angry about tasteless comments made by members of the development team. And I’m sure some people are angry that Lara is no longer proportioned like the lady from Heavy Metal 2000. The number of people ready to throw the Tomb Raider reboot under a bus seem to heavily outweigh those with a more “wait and see” mindset, though that may well be due to the nature of internet discussion and the former group being by far the louder. And amidst all this cacophony, the strongest theme for these dissenters that I can find is this “why take one of gaming’s strong female heroines, and make her weak?”
I will admit, I find the question a bit perplexing. I certainly knew about the Tomb Raider games growing up, I played through two of them entirely before completely losing my taste for them come 2003’s Angel of Darkness. But I never really regarded Lara as a “strong female heroine.” My vision for what that meant growing up was a lady who stood up for what she believed in, who kicked ass with a complete lack of self-consciousness. I was enamored of the Agrias Oakeses, the Freya Cresents, the Jill Valentines. Lara always just seemed like she was trying too hard to impress me. Now that I’m older, my feelings largely haven’t changed – Lara basically has built a career of breaking into dead people’s homes and stealing their things, shooting every last endangered animal and breaking every piece of ancient pottery she can find. And she does this for what seems like no reason other than boredom. This is a woman who, when accused of murder, spends the next six hours of the game shooting security personal in the face while trying to clear her name. (Angel of Darkness spoilers, I guess.) A great thinker, she is not. And she is certainly nobody’s role-model. She’s static – the idea of a heroine, nothing actually resembling one.
"Fuck you nature, I'm too sassy for your bullshit."
So that brings us to Crystal Dynamic’s new Lara. She’s young, inexperienced, vulnerable. In way over her head, and only through gut instinct and sheer force of will can she overcome the seemingly-crushing challenge presented before her. She feels fear. She feels pain. Oh lord, does she feel pain. A common criticism that I’ve found of the game thus far is that the amount of pain that Lara must endure borders on the fetishistic. I’ve never been shipwrecked and had to rescue my friends from rapacious pirates before, so I can’t speak to whether the amount of suffering depicted is realistic, but I can say that in pre-release footage alone we’ve seen Lara be beaten, impaled, shot at, burned, nearly-drowned, and yes, sexually-assaulted. Whether or not she’s electrocuted, frozen, paralyzed, drugged, stung by hornets, or launched into orbit within the game proper is anyone’s guess. Lara’s tale, we’ve been led to believe, is one of empowerment – of trial by fire. We will see Lara brought to her lowest point, only to learn the self-reliance and skills to become the heroine that we know she can be. She is made weak, torn down, so that she may be built back up, stronger and better than what she was. At least, that is Crystal Dynamic’s spin.
She and Jason Brody, the protagonist of Far Cry 3, might just end up in the same post-island support group. See, Jason knows something about suffering. Like Lara, he is beaten, impaled, shot, burned, nearly-drowned, faced with sexual assault, drugged, forced to watch his brother die right in front of him, repeatedly attacked by vicious local wildlife, and brutally removed of one of his fingers. Like Lara, he is forced to go through hell and rise, stronger and more capable than he was before, as a warrior and a hero. Or, maybe he just descends into insanity, becoming a complete psychopath as a result of all that he is forced to endure.
When this isn't the worst part of your day, you know you're in a bad place.
There is a point, about a third of the way through the game, where Jason has finally located the fourth of his kidnapped friends, one Keith Ramsay, in the home of a villainous professional killer named Buck Rogers – a bearded Aussie who had purchased Keith from the pirates that captured him, and who forces Jason to locate a particular artifact for him if he ever wants to see his friend alive again. Throughout this entire quest-line, Buck makes repeated oblique references to his activities with his new possession, but never anything concrete. We don’t get the full picture until afterwards, when the artifact has been delivered to Buck and Jason goes into his basement, where he is told he will find Keith. And find him he does – hunched over on a dirty mattress, pleading that he can’t take anymore. Buck appears behind Jason and offers to thank him “like a man should”, gripping his groin and thrusting it lewdly. He tells Jason that neither of them would be leaving. This is the point where there is no doubt left. Buck has raped his captive multiples times, and if Jason is not able to defend himself, the same will happen to him.
If there has ever been another point within a video game wherein a male protagonist is threatened with rape, I don’t know of it. I’m sure commenters will be happy to point it out, if it exists. But for the most part, games as a whole sail around the issue of sexual assault by a fairly wide margin, often editing it entirely out of the game’s reality. Of all the Very Bad Men most heroines fight, almost none of them display any intent outside of ending their life, regardless of whether they’re coarse bandits or corrupt paramilitary members. And as rarely as the subject is broached, it’s no wonder that most heroes never have to even think about such a possibility.
And for the most part, I’m fine with that. Most game writing borders on the atrocious already, and the developer that could factor something like that into their game’s world without it feeling creepy, exploitative, or just simply misplaced, are few and far between. It’s a subject that carries weight, weight that we as a society are not conditioned to ignore in our media in the same way that we are, say, murder. But Far Cry 3 is a gritty little number, and it has no interest in sugar-coating any facit of the misery and terror that Jason or his friends are forced to endure by their circumstances, largely identical ones to what Lara and her friends are placed in.
But what strikes me as odd is the fact that so few people are chomping at the bit to condemn Far Cry 3 for any of this. Tomb Raider 2013 has been called exploitative, overly-graphic, creepily fetishistic, or worse since its debut, while the same material within Far Cry 3 has largely gone un-discussed. My best theory for this is that Far Cry 3 is working with an original protagonist, while Tomb Raider is working with one of gaming’s own poster-girls. People think they know who Lara Croft is, and how she should be portrayed, and this certainly isn’t it. But then, Crystal Dynamics has never said that this was the same Lara – in fact, they’ve been upfront that this is a continuity reboot, and that their Lara is a completely different girl. Perhaps it’s a matter of framing – Far Cry 3 is entirely first-person, while Tomb Raider 2013 is third, allowing us to see every bad thing that happens to Lara in excruciating, unpleasant detail.
Or maybe it’s simply that we in the gaming community have enough frightened, helpless female characters. Sure, all the things that happen to Jason Brody are terrible, but they aren’t costing our medium one of its few strong, confident lady warriors. Why would anyone want to take such a character and purposefully make them weak and vulnerable? But something I loved about Far Cry 3 is that, like Spec Ops: The Line before it, it’s willing to ask whether or not the alternative is any better.
Jason Brody is a monster. A psychopath. He is exactly what the island shaped him to be – a remorseless, pitiless murderer with a body count well into the hundreds, perhaps even into the thousands. And he’ll tell you as much himself. In the “Save Friends” ending of the game, his narration tells us “I’ve killed so many people I’ve lost count. I can’t come back from this.” In the “Join Citra” ending, he doesn’t tell us anything. After killing his friends, his girlfriend, his younger brother, he is murdered post-coitus by the woman who helped shape him into a warrior. Or a killer. Neither option presents us with a Jason who is anything but fundamentally damaged. All the blood on his hands has stained his soul, and he is fully aware of that. Even if he started out scared, weak, frightened – what he has become may be much, much worse.
This, I think, may well be my great concern with the Tomb Raider reboot, and my biggest problem with those claiming some sort of assassination of Lara’s character. For my money, Lara has always been an unpleasant, violent person. (Did I mention that she murders dozens of people while trying to clear herself of murder? Because that was a thing.) She kills without hesitation, throwing herself into situations wherein it will likely occur, often without any greater motivation than the thrill of the search, the hunt. Lara Croft may be strong, but she is only nominally a heroine. I’m very much in favor of Crystal Dynamics’ efforts to reshape Lara into a more three-dimensional, nuanced person, as well as push towards more realistically-tinged, emotive story-telling. But that push also carries with it an expectation/obligation, towards more mature handling of complex themes and ideas. And I worry that Crystal Dynamics may not be up to the task.
"Accuse me of murder, will they? Someone is asking for a murderin'."
Now, again, this all purely speculation. The game isn’t even out yet, and it may well surprise me. But based on Crystal Dynamic’s own words about the game, this is supposed to be the story of Lara coming into her own, of her becoming strong. After this, she is supposed to emerge a heroine. But as Far Cry 3 demonstrates, it’s not really that simple a question. It can be, if all you want to tell is a light and entertaining adventure story, ala Uncharted. No one ever truly questions the immense number of lives that Nathan Drake seems to take every single day of his life (Drake, by the by, is much like Lara in the sense that I’m hesitant to call him a ‘hero’. At least he’s witty, though). But then again, Nathan Drake is also never threatened with sexual assault, or made to watch any of his own digits be chopped off. There is a point wherein the content of your story (based on how graphic, shocking, or controversial it is) must be justified by something more thematically deep and impactful. Otherwise, you’re writing smut. And at that point the arguments that call your content exploitative are, ultimately, correct.
I hope that I like Tomb Raider (2013). I really do. It does not bother me to see this new version of Lara Croft placed in all of these terrible, unpleasant situations. In my lifetime, I’ve seen plenty of movies, TV shows, and games place their characters in far worse situations. I hope that the game lives up to its new, darker tone with maturity and narrative quality, and that it follows games like Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line by providing gamers with gritty, thematically deep material. And I really, truly hope that Crystal Dynamics is able to prove so many of its detractors wrong and deliver a complex, nuanced study of its leading lady that will justify all the mud she’s dragged through. But to do so, they must realize that they themselves have changed the rules. And that having a different Lara isn’t going to be enough –their world and all its complexities must change as well if they are going to produce a work that lives up to its own promises.