Wherein I discuss optional content.
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!