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In Search of True Tolerance: Queer Archetypes in Video Games - Destructoid




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Oh, hello. I didn't see you come in. I hail from the now-defunct 1UP and am looking for a new home/community for the grand reopening of my blog. Why I didn't think of Destructoid earlier is anyone's guess, but it seems like things will be a good fit here...or at least I hope they will. If you like esoteric ramblings on small, nitpicked issues in gaming, you've come to the right place. Maybe I take things a little too seriously, but I like to think of it as passion rather than pretention. Please to enjoy.
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By current predictions, from console reveals to new installments in venerated franchises, 2013 is looking to be a momentous year for video games. Outside of these developments from within the industry itself, however, stands something equally exciting upon the horizon, something both familiar yet foreign. At the outset of August, gaming will add yet another convention to its ever-growing roster of community-focused events. Called GaymerX, formerly GaymerCon, this new convention seeks to be the first of its kind in the gaming community, tailoring its content specifically for LGBTQ members.

As gamers all, we're no strangers to gaming conventions. Industry events such as E3 or GDC have attained an almost holiday-like status amongst the community, with consumer-focused events like PAX giving us the chance to experience the magic firsthand. By all accounts, the announcement of a new community-focused gaming convention should have been a fairly unremarkable affair, piquing the collective interest momentarily then quickly quieting back down. However, with the reveal of what would become GaymerX through Kickstarter last fall, the gaming community practically imploded in attempting to compute the very notion of a gaming convention which catered exclusively to LGBTQ members. The question most often asked on comment threads and message boards about the event was simply, “why?” Why did anyone feel such an event was necessary? Why would LGBTQ gamers want to splinter off from the community at large? Why wouldn't they wish to always operate within a larger community which implicitly champions both masculinity and heteronormativity simply by virtue of the content it consumes?

Indeed, for whatever reason, queerness in the gaming community has historically been treated as a non-issue. Let that not to be confused with respect and acceptance, however. Sexuality, much like race and gender, is often downplayed in its effect on the dynamics of the gaming community. The inexplicably intense desire for homogeneity under the unified identity of “gamers” often leads to the vilification of those who choose to embrace additional identities beyond that, as evidenced by the overwhelming reaction to the GaymerX convention. Furthermore, despite the slowly growing number of LGBTQ characters in games, more often than not, their inclusion only serves to reinforce this desire for similitude, however unintentionally. Even titles which strive to include LGTBQ characters and accommodate non-heterosexual players in their romantic options tend to gravitate towards the homogenous, as evidenced by their depictions of these characters' sexuality, as well as their statuses as queer individuals within their respective game worlds.


For more information on the event, check out http://gaymerconnect.com/

Given the trilogy's conclusion last year, Mass Effect 3 serves as one of the more contemporary examples of this trend. The first thing to note about the Mass Effect series as a whole in its handling of LGBTQ characters is that not one is poorly written or negatively portrayed. It exhibits no propensity to stereotype its gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters, and that's reason enough to applaud BioWare for its efforts in tackling non-heterosexuality. However, to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, it did take a full five years for the series to include homosexual characters in addition to its bisexual cast. Furthermore, one finds an unsettling quality about the portrayals of the series' only gay and lesbian characters, Steve Cortez and Samantha Traynor. For both, the sole manner in which they express their sexual orientation is through their use of same-sex pronouns.

Being a no-nonsense military man with classically masculine traits, Steve Cortez could easily have lost a wife in the Collector raid of his colony rather than a husband. Nothing intrinsic to his character would require revision in order to depict him as heterosexual. Similarly, the traditional femininity of Samantha Traynor lends itself extremely well to an alternate portrayal of her as heterosexual. The sexual identities of these non-heterosexual characters have been crafted to be as utterly underwhelming and unobtrusive as possible. Both characters stop at the barest minimum point away in their deviations from heteronormativity, subscribing even more strongly to traditional gender norms than some of their heterosexual counterparts. Consequently, while the inclusion of gay characters in its games ultimately represented a progressive and commendable step forward for BioWare, it's a timid one at best.

Reaching back further, another game which treats its LGBTQ characters in a nearly identical fashion is Fallout: New Vegas. There are two main characters with non-heterosexual identities in New Vegas: Veronica Santangelo, and Arcade Gannon. As with their Mass Effect 3 counterparts, neither character is poorly written or insensitively portrayed, and their sexual identities are similarly subdued. Despite Veronica’s desire for a pre-war dress, neither she nor Arcade subscribe as heavily to their respective gender identities as do Traynor and Cortez. Veronica wears an unflattering canvas hood and robe with a pneumatic gauntlet with which she pummels her enemies, and Arcade is a man of medicine, letters, and relative passivity. While Cortez and Traynor reigned in their sexual identities by adhering more strongly to the normative traits of their respective genders, Veronica and Arcade do so through their embodiment of traits likely desired by a large population of New Vegas’ demographic. Effectively, Veronica and Arcade are what are known as Mary Sue characters, characters which satisfy a sense of wish-fulfillment on behalf of their authors, or in this case their audiences, through which they insert themselves into their works in highly-idealized forms.

Veronica and Arcade both are strong-willed, quick-witted, and sharp-tongued. Every remark from the player is volleyed with an intelligent, often cynical retort. Though lacking in inherent physical prowess, their affinities for technology help ensure their survival and strength in combat. To the demographic of players who enjoy games like Fallout: New Vegas, who also likely list Nathan Fillion or David Tennant under their favorite actors, these characters hold those traits they themselves admire and strive to embody. Furthermore, by the nature of both characters’ personal quests, it’s also possible for the player to convince both Veronica and Arcade of their own personal allegiances and ideologies. The player can encourage or dissuade Veronica’s negative opinion on the isolationism of the Brotherhood of Steel, and can convince Arcade and the rest of the Remnants to fight either for the unbridled libertarian association of Mr. House or the expansive republican democracy of the NCR. In effect, these already idealized characters can be made that much more so at the player’s discretion; the fact that both characters are also gay is only auxiliary to their awesomeness in the minds of the game’s intended demographic.


Just look at those glasses

In that sense, Veronica and Arcade’s sexualities are rather politicized. By creating these characters many players would find admirable and even enviable, Obsidian afforded themselves the opportunity to transitively associate any positive feelings felt towards Veronica and Arcade to homosexuality itself, to destigmatize it through its association with these infectiously likable characters. Though any effort to improve public perceptions of LGBTQ peoples has an inherent degree of merit to it, Obsidian’s handling of homosexual characters is just as underwhelming and pandering as BioWare’s. On one hand, they managed to create two strong, queer main characters who were received with relatively open arms by players, with one managing to attract a sizable fanbase in the process. On the other hand, this embrace was largely due to the concerted Mary Sue quality of these characters in accordance with the sensibilities of those within the game’s core demographic.

Though Fallout: New Vegas has queer characters who deviate further from heteronormativity than most, characters like Corporal Betsy for example, they’re relegated to minor, non-companion roles. Their existence alone is admittedly great, but there still looms the fact that only those gay and lesbian characters whose personalities inherently make them virtually impervious to disapproval from players made it into the game’s main cast. There is still a clear apprehension on behalf of the developer to fully embrace those characters who substantially challenge what players consider normative, opting instead for those who embody players’ homogeneous ideals in virtually every other respect besides their sexual orientation in order to better “sell” what little deviation there is.

While others may exist, there’s one game in particular from this generation whose gay main character is strongly and sensitively portrayed while simultaneously deviating significantly from heteronormativity and the homogeneous ideals of its playerbase. That game is Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony, and that character is the titular Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince. It’s surprising to see such a character born from a Rockstar game, let alone a Grand Theft Auto title. Even Grand Theft Auto IV, which Ballad acts as an extension of, has Bernie Crane, a gay character whose depiction is objectionable to say the least.

Whereas Bernie acted perhaps more as a caricature of a homosexual man than an honest portrayal, Tony outwardly presents his non-heteronormative traits tastefully by comparison. His sexuality is readily apparent throughout the game yet isn’t used to any sort of effect as was Bernie’s in Nico’s confrontation with Florian Cravic, Bernie’s former identity. Tony’s non-masculine traits are similarly laid bare before the player without resorting to the extremes of Bernie’s hyper-effeminacy. Rockstar makes no effort to eschew or obscure Tony’s queerness to players, and in the face of games which further the convention to do so, Tony is nevertheless a great character. He’s sarcastic and self-aware, yet lovelorn and tragically flawed; he’s likeable yet pitiable, and relatable yet individual. And that individuality rests at the heart of Tony’s strength as a queer video game character.


Queer without compromise

It isn’t Tony’s personality or his flaws which warrant admiration in this regard. They may make him an interesting character when divorced of any qualification, but they don’t inform his quality as a queer character. Nor should they. Anthony Prince doesn’t represent some pinnacle of gay representation in games by virtue of those extra-sexual traits he possesses, for indeed such an honor doesn’t exist. To exalt him and his traits to an enviable status would simply encourage a new homogenization of queer characters under an Anthony Prince archetype, a state little better than the one currently at hand. No, Tony’s strength as a queer character comes from his, or rather Rockstar’s, daring to be different in the establishment and presentation of his unequivocally non-heteronormative identity. Inherent within him is both an acknowledgement of the differences between persons and a celebration of the individuality begotten from them. He challenges players’ desires for homogeneity by reminding them that non-normative persons such as himself indeed exist in the world, no matter how many portrayals attempt to whitewash this fact, and that these persons are no lesser of beings by subscribing to traits and personalities which differ from those held or envied by players themselves.

Are there gay and lesbian peoples like Steve Cortez and Veronica Santangelo whose sexual identities aren’t easily identifiable by their outward presentations? Of course. Homosexuality isn’t inherently coupled with deviations from gender normativity, and for many queer individuals, sexual identity doesn’t inform other facets of their sense of self. Accordingly, developers need not avoid creating characters of this sort. But there are gay and lesbian peoples like Anthony Prince and Corporal Betsy, whose sexual identities are rather easily identifiable from the outset and are coupled with deviations from gender normativity. To insinuate otherwise by excluding such characters from casts of hundreds or by tucking them deep within those ranks is, at best, a dishonest attempt at mirroring contemporary demographics in a fictional world. At worst, it reaffirms the community’s intolerance towards those with significantly deviant traits from what it considers normative, the very same intolerance brandished in the reaction towards the announcement of GaymerX last fall.

While it could possibly be argued that the abstract concept of queerness is accepted by however slim a majority of the gaming community, if developers indeed feel pressure to obscure this quality when present in their characters as implied by the trend seen in games like Mass Effect 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, it’s clear that one cannot do the same for queerness in application. Ultimately, the onus for change will rest squarely upon the shoulders of the community itself, but developers too can help begin the process simply by refusing to pander to heteronormative audiences in their depictions of queer characters. Perhaps then the community won’t freak the hell out the next time an LGBTQ gaming event is announced.

This was my last post on 1UP before the site went bust and the community was all but dissolved. Reposts suck, so this will be my first and last, but I figured I'd offer a sample of what I'm all about before getting back into the swing of things here on Destructoid. Here's hoping you enjoyed it, despite the copypasta
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