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 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!