GLBT History in Video Games: 1980s

GLBT in Video Games I

Including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans (GLBT) characters and themes in any type of media have always been controversial. Lately, however, it seems to have been a hot topic, what with the Family Research Council getting upset over BioWare’s announcement that same-sex relationships will be an eventual reality in Star Wars: The Old Republic; and with Jim Sterling’s suggestion that Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake be gay. Among the discussions that have been occurring are what place people who identify as GLBT have in video games and to what extent they’re represented.

People say that there are very few characters in video games that can be argued as identifying as GLBT. Initially, I agreed with this assessment. However, after doing some research, I’ve found that there are numerous examples dating back to the mid-1980s. The problem doesn’t appear to be the quantity of GLBT characters available but the quality of characters who are in contexts that are realistic. In the past, GLBT characters in video games often serve as the butt of a joke in which heterosexism is accepted, but thankfully, the trend has been a positive one over all. I’ve compiled a timeline for anyone interested in seeing these trends. The timeline is mostly restricted to North American releases, though if I’ve stumbled across a notable game released elsewhere, I’ve attempted to include it here as well.

In the 1980s, the American GLBT communities were fighting for recognition. The early 1980s saw the first openly gay mayor; the first openly gay Congressman, who was re-elected despite having outed himself on the House floor; the first Gay Games; and the first couple of states to ban discrimination against homosexuals. However, AIDS had started to take hold, increasing the amount of discrimination directed towards GLBT communities, especially in the area of health care, thanks to a guy named Jerry Falwell, who called it a “gay plague.” Nonetheless, we see cities slowly adopting domestic partnership health benefits for city employees. We also begin to see some religious movements—namely within Reconstructionist Judaism and Restoration Church of Jesus Christ—to accept and support the communities. All of this happened just before we saw the first known references to members of GLBT communities in video games, the majority of which came out of Japan.

During the 1980s, Nintendo had a strict set of quality control guidelines that they followed. These guidelines included rules that said no releases on a Nintendo system could include references or displays of any kind of illegal or non-medicinal drug, blood and graphic violence, stereotypical language, religious symbols, profanity, political references, or “sexually suggestive or explicit content.” The last guideline included everything from nudity to suggesting sex. This limited the extent to which GLBT themes or characters could be included in their games, since anything that might suggest that a character is gay, lesbian, or bisexual would have to make reference to who they’re attracted to. The oft misunderstood trans communities are lumped into sexuality as well, but as we’ll see, including them would bring up separate issues. Nevertheless, due to these guidelines, some games were simply not released in North America due to their “questionable” content.

Despite this, the 1980s saw four video game characters that could be labeled as belonging to GLBT communities. In 1986, Infocom released a game called Moonmist for their Z-machine, which made it possible to play on multiple platforms including the Atari ST, Commodore 64, and computers. In the game, the player is a detective who’s been asked to look into a friend’s ghost sightings, which she thinks might be a disguise to cover up an attempt on her life. One of the suspects, Vivien Pentreath, was incredibly jealous of your friend’s fiancé because he’d once been engaged to a woman she felt “intensely attached” to. When you arrest her, this is what the authors said happened:

Vivien was intensely attached to Deirdre, and she jealously hated Lord Jack for coming between them. When Deirdre accidentally fell down the well, Vivien was convinced that she had committed suicide because she felt abandoned by Jack.

So Vivien began her vengeful ghostly masquerade — to find proof that Jack was responsible for Deirdre’s death; to prick his guilty conscience and make him confess; and to terrorize Tamara, who replaced Deirdre in Jack’s affections.

While it’s not expressedly stated that Vivien is a lesbian or that she and Deirdre had any kind of relationship beyond being good friends, it’s generally accepted that they’d been girlfriends. The diary that the main character finds is “tear-stained” and states, “O Deirdre, sweet Deirdre! Jack will pay dearly for your cruel death by losing his new sweetheart…” It seems like this is the closest that Infocom might have been able to get to portraying a lesbian relationship at that time.

Two years later, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES, which featured Birdo, who believed he was in fact female and preferred to be known as Birdetta. The manual was quickly censored, however, with the sentence taken out. Eventually, Birdetta simply became a character whose gender was “indeterminate” until Mario Tennis, when it was shown in the manual that Birdetta and Yoshi were dating. However, Captain Rainbow portrays Birdo as male and Super Smash Bros. Brawl doesn’t address the issue at all. Further, the Spanish site for Mario Smash Football has Birdo listed as indeterminate, while the European web site for Mario Strikers Charged Football refers to Birdetta as a male. As such, many have speculated over Birdetta’s “real” gender and the character herself has received mixed reviews, with some lauding her as a character whose popularity rivals that of Yoshi. In fact, in 2009, Official Nintendo Magazine held a poll for best female characters ever, and Birdetta won 8th, tied with Tetra (The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker) and Kazooie (Banjo and Kazooie). The magazine editors apparently found her inclusion confusing, however:

Birdo is called Catherine in Japan yet is described as a man. We’re confused already! So why do people think Birdo may be a woman? Well, it might have something to do with the pink bow. However, in Mario sports games Birdo is listed as a female while Nintendo’s second best pink character is described as “of indeterminate gender” in Smash Bros. We’ll go with the latter option and put him/her in there because you voted for him/her. Still confused?

The fan quote used was, “This cross-dressing dinosaur is awesome,” indicating that perhaps the editors were simply being light-hearted about her inclusion.

The next year saw two games: Capcom’s arcade game Final Fight and Westwood Studios’s Circuit’s Edge for DOS. Final Fight featured two transvestite [their term, which is now outdated and inappropriate] characters named Poison and Roxy, Poison’s palette swap; and Circuit’s Edge featured several GLBT characters. Capcom’s inclusion of Poison as a transvestite in Final Fight seems to have been more of an attempt to get around Nintendo’s censorship codes that didn’t allow violence against women in any of their video games, so if they were newhalfs—which usually refers to intersexed people, androgynous people, or trans women—or at the very least men dressed as women, that was okay. I’m sure you can see where people might take issue with this. However, the later SNES version of the game removes Poison/Roxy entirely, replacing her with Billy/Sid. These weren’t the only changes made due to censorship, however: one character screams, “Oh, my car!” instead of, “Oh, my God!” after his car is destroyed, and two characters named Sodom and Damned were renamed Katana and Thrasher for reasons that I hope are obvious. Poison/Roxy has subsequently been left out of every English Nintendo port. The release for the Sega CD was also censored, but not in the same way: most of the edits revolved around what Poison/Roxy were wearing, e.g. longer skirts, the removal of under-cleavage, etc.

Poison quickly shot to popularity and is arguably one of the most well-known fighting game characters in history. IGN has listed her as one of the most memorable “traps” [their word, which is problematic] in video games, Gamest listed her as one of the top fifty characters of 1990, and UGO has her in their “Top 50 Hottest Video Game Girls” list. Wataru Maruyama, formerly of Tips & Tricks, wrote that “almost immediately, she stood out. To use a phrase I don’t particularly like to use, she totally worked it.” Poison remains a fan favorite to this day.

Finally, we get to Circuit’s Edge. The game was based on a cyberpunk novel by George Alec Effinger called When Gravity Fails. The game is a science-fiction-meets-mystery where you play an investigator looking into the a murder that you’ve been framed for. The game featured a lot of what would’ve been described as “questionable content,” including drugs, strippers, and trans characters. Marid, the main character, has to deal with things like people trying to mug and kill him. To put it as simply as possible, if Nintendo would’ve had to censor this game, there wouldn’t have been much left.

What’s notable about these examples is that they appear relatively early in video gaming history. Video games had only reached mainstream popularity in the early 1970s, and yet not twenty years later, they already featured GLBT characters. While none of these characters is exactly fleshed out, there aren’t very many characters—regardless of GLBT status—from this time period who are. However, we need to take a look at the context in which these characters existed.

It might be easy to demonize some earlier video games as being insensitive to GLBT communities, and certainly this is the case, but context is also necessary here. Until the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, many thought something was legitimately wrong with those who liked people of the same sex. If we want to be completely honest, there are still people out there today who believe that. As far as trans communities are concerned, while the APA is generally supportive of trans issues, there’s a lot of controversy over the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder, or GID. The fact that the worst thing to come out of the 1980s is that one character is “confused” and another character had to be redesigned to be a transvestite in order to avoid censorship issues is a lot better than what it could’ve been. Still, there were only four notable cases during this decade, whereas, as we’ll see next week, the 90s has exponentially more and shows a stronger trend of misunderstanding GLBT communities.

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