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!