Welcome to another edition of GLBT History in Video Games. This feature aims to take a look at the way the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans communities have been represented in video games and eventually to make some suggestions on where these characters should fit into the gaming culture in the future. So far this month, we’ve covered trends in the 1980s and 1990s regarding the treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans characters. This week, we’ll be looking to see if the dawn of a new millennium inspired better treatment of an often misunderstood and misrepresented group of people. Because the 2000s had so many games to talk about, I’ve split this into two parts; one you’ll be able to read today, of course, and the second half will be published later this week.
In the United States, things really started to change around the time the 2000s hit. The early 2000s saw Vermont pass civil union legislation, and Rhode Island and Maryland passed anti-discrimination legislation for gender identity and sexual orientation, respectively. Alaska and New York, among others, followed suit with anti-discrimination legislation protecting sexual orientation, and in some cases, also gender identity. Gene Robinson became the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal church in 2003; and in 2004, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to issue same-sex marriage licenses and the sixth jurisdiction in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. That same year, however, five states banned same-sex marriage, and several other states also banned civil unions. In the next few years, some states even banned same-sex couple adoption. While more states added anti-discrimination laws, some states like Kentucky actually repealed them. Candis Cayne played a trans woman on Dirty Sexy Money in 2007, making her the first openly trans actress to play a recurring trans character on prime time. However, in 2008, Angie Zapata was murdered for being a trans woman, leading to the the first conviction of a hate crime involving a trans victim. That same year, Diego Sanchez became the first openly trans person to vote on Capitol Hill and the first trans person on the Democratic National Committee’s Platform Committee. As with every other decade so far, then, it seems that there were steps forward and back in each area. Whereas some states were willing to grant equal—or at least, more equal—rights to members of GLBT communities, others were not as supportive. We see the same trend in the gaming industry.
In previous Final Fantasy titles, homosexuality and trans status were treated as jokes, but we see a somewhat different story in Final Fantasy IX, released in 2000. One of the playable characters is Quina Quen, who is ungendered and is generally referred to as s/he throughout the game. This is particularly interesting because Quina isn’t just a likeable character, but actually breaks the gender binary by being ungendered. Some people in the game refer to Quina as male, but at the same time, s/he is able to equip female armor. Granted, Quina isn’t exactly a complicated character and seems to have only one interest—eating—but it’s important to note that the other characters actually seem to like her/him, as evidenced by Zidane being relieved that Quina survived what happened in Cleyra. Quina can even get married to Vivi, and even though this marriage is optional and doesn’t have any impact on anything, it does broach the idea of pansexuality, which is where a person is emotionally, erotically, and/or physically attracted to some individuals of any gender identity. All in all, though, Quina isn’t a deep character, but s/he is a character that people generally like. I remember Quina being my best friend’s favorite, in fact, and there’s quite a following for her/him on Tumblr, among other places.
Also in 2000, we saw Guilty Gear X, featuring Venom, who appears to have strong feelings for Zato-1, who had saved Venom’s life. Venom is a likeable enough character who, while being serious and somewhat anti-authoritarian, is also extremely loyal and kind at times. Arc System Works added Bridget in 2002′s Guilty Gear XX. Bridget’s assigned sex would’ve been male, but he was raised as a girl due to a weird superstition about same-gendered twins. He fights with a yo-yo and a gigantic stuffed teddy bear and is looking to prove his masculinity, all while dressing like a nun. He identifies as male even though his demeanor is feminine, and people often confuse him for a female. However, no one seems to actively hold it against him or treat it as a negative trait to appear feminine.
2000 also saw the release of Bust a Groove 2, which featured Kitty, who finds that the guy she’s interested in, Michael Doi, “enjoys the company of other men.” Michael is pretty much the standard gay character: he’s a flamboyant dance instructor. In fact, we’re not given much information on him at all other than this.
That same year, Capcom released Resident Evil Code: Veronica, where the main bad guy, Alfred Ashford, dresses as his sister. The reason I’m going to include Alfred on this list is not because he actually defines himself as female because he doesn’t; what really happened is that he went insane and made a sort of split personality based on his twin sister. It’s the reactions of Chris and Claire that are important here: instead of commenting on the horrid things he’d done, they focused on the fact he was in women’s clothing. Claire specifically says, “Alfred! Cross-dressing freak!” This is something I find both interesting and appalling about the media, specifically the horror genre. Had Alfred gone insane and thought he was, say, his father (though that wouldn’t have made as much sense in the story), Claire and Chris probably would’ve focused on the messed up things he was doing. But the fact that he dresses as female becomes an issue that needs to be commented on, and I find that a bit unsettling as that isn’t his offense against humanity. It also kind of ties together cross-dressing and insanity, which I’m not terribly comfortable with, either.
Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix came out in 2001 with an ad campaign that hinted that Rain and Hana were in a same-sex relationship. According to some, what was more controversial about the actual gameplay was when Rain is essentially raped by a robot octopus. Either way, the game didn’t seem to treat Hana and Rain as if they were in an actual relationship, but rather it was more like Eidos sat around a table and went, “Yes! Let’s make them lesbians! Gamers will love the innuendo surrounding two chicks making out!”
Also in 2001, Midway’s Shadow Hearts came out, with Shadow Hearts: Covenant following in 2004 and Shadow Hearts: From the New World later in 2006. All three games featured some pretty stereotypically gay characters: Meiyuan was a Chinese acupuncturist who was more enthusiastic about improving the weapons of male characters, and the flamboyant Magimel brothers were made up of a tailor and shop vendor. The game suggests that, when Meiyuan provides his acupuncture service to men, that’s not all he does. Pierre Magimel will only take payment in Stud Cards, cards with nearly-naked men on them; and Gerard has a biker-clad boyfriend, Buigen. On the one hand, these are all minor characters; Buigen doesn’t even get a full sentence on his page in the Shadow Hearts Wiki, a resource you’d expect to have a lot of information. On the other hand, at least most of them serve some kind of purpose in the game.
In PaRappa the Rapper 2, PaRappa gets rather intimate with PJ while working out his romance skills in “Romantic Love.” Initially, PJ looks a bit uncomfortable, but by the end of Lesson 2, hearts are floating between them. I include this in this list not because I think PaRappa or PJ are gay or bisexual, but because I think it’s an interesting portrayal of men being comfortable being close to one another. That’s something that gets lost in the often hypermasculinized portrayal of men in video games.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty features a bisexual male, Vamp, who’d had a relationship with bisexual Navy Commander Scott Dolph. 2004′s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater feature Volgin and Major Raikov, who are also bisexual. In-game, it’s not made to be a big deal that any of these men are bisexual. It’s interesting to note that these four people are bad guys, but their sexuality isn’t used against them. They’re just bad guys who happen to be bisexual, which is different than how we saw many of the bad guys from the last decade portrayed. It’s perfectly fine to have someone who identifies as part of a GLBT community be a bad guy, in my opinion, so long as their sexuality isn’t used against them unless there’s a specific point the game developers want to get across (e.g. showing someone grow from being homophobic to being more comfortable by the end of the game). However, it does kind of bring up an important point that there aren’t really any main protagonists who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans, or at least any that resemble actual human beings with adequate character development and whose sexuality or gender identification isn’t used as a selling point of the game or as the major/only defining feature of that character.
The Sims might be the series with the most interesting evolution of same-sex relationships I’ve seen. In 2001′s The Sims, same-sex couples could cohabit but not marry, which didn’t affect gameplay all that much but is still notable. In The Sims 2, which came out in 2004, same-sex couples could be involved in a “joined union,” but that union was not called a marriage. In 2009, The Sims 3 came out, allowing all characters to marry whoever they pleased. Interestingly enough, same-sex couples could always adopt children in the games (with the exception of The Sims Medieval), but neither parent can have a biological child. In The Sims 3, if you have the Generations expansion, two teens could go to the prom together regardless of gender identification.
An unfortunate portrayal of homosexuality comes from Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, released in 2002, which features construction workers dressed like one of the Village People and shout quotes from their songs (e.g. “YMCA,” “In the Navy”). In 2004, we saw Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas through the stereotypical statements the police (the “bad guys”) make, which range from, “Drop the soap, honey!” to, “I’m on your ass, Daisy!” Your character can also find a dildo in the police station’s shower room, though there aren’t any female police officers. There are some GLBT-friendly decorations in-game, like gay pride flags in San Fierro, though this might be more of an attempt to recreate San Francisco, which is known for its gay pride activities. There’s a gay bar called Gaydar Station, however, which is friendly toward straight patrons. A downloadable add-on to Grand Theft Auto IV that was released in 2009 featuring Gay Tony, who seems to have been a (relatively) positive influence on the main protagonist, Luis Fernando Lopez, who is straight but often made fun of as a “closeted homosexual,” probably because of who he works for.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a popular show in which one of the main characters, Willow, was a lesbian. The series spawned several video games, but it was in 2003 when Willow and her girlfriend, Tara, were first used as playable characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and XBox.
Summon Night and its 2006 sequel Summon Night: Swordcraft Story 2 feature some GLBT undertones. Summon Night alludes to a lesbian relationship if you choose a female character with Sugar as a summon beast and innuendo between a few of the girls. In Summon Night: Swordcraft Story 2, Lynn tries to kiss the main character regardless of the assigned gender. Also in 2003, BioWare gave us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which featured Juhani, a female character who happened to be a lesbian. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne features a Junk Shop Manikin who says, “Fabulous,” at every chance he gets and takes pride in his “alternative lifestyle.” If you ask if he’s gay, however, he gets upset.
Lastly, in 2003, Troika Games released The Temple of Elemental Evil, which has the main character rescue and a gay character who can be wed. Surprisingly, this game was only rated T. The game attracted some controversy, with some people like Matthew Barton bringing up that, on the whole, straight gamers tend to treat gay gamers like crap despite how gamers in general tend to be ridiculed themselves by those who don’t play video games. The idea that a main character could be gay upset some gamers even though that the storyline was optional. In an interview with producer Tom Decker, he defended the move on grounds of fairness:
Doing some of the writing for the game, I had a lot of fun with creating some of the characters and quests in Nulb. I particularly felt strongly that since we had several heterosexual marriages available in Hommlet, we should include at least one homosexual encounter in the game (although there were actually two, one was in the brothel that was removed) and not to make it a stereotyped, over the top situation, but on par with the other relationships available in the game. I felt strongly about keeping the character of Bertram in the game, and I am glad we were allowed to keep him, despite any controversy it might cause. It’s been entertaining reading the boards about Bertram and reactions to him.
Also from Troika Games, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was released in 2004. The game features Therese’s alternate personality, Jeanette, who will sleep with just about anyone presumably as a result of Therese’s rather traumatic childhood. The game also features a vampire named Pisha, who refuses to tell anyone her real name and instead uses the name “Pisha” in memory of her companion she had when she was alive. Additionally, if you play as a female vampire, you can seduce both male and female NPCs; but as a male vampire, you can seduce only females. On the whole, the game gives the impression that promiscuity and homosexuality are tied, particularly when conducted by women. It’s interesting that Troika Games would leave out male-male relationships, but not surprising when you think about it.
While the first Fable didn’t let you play as a female, it did allow you to romance men and/or women. If you chose to romance both, your character is actually labeled as bisexual. Homosexuality is treated as normal in the game. There is also a location in-game, the Darkwood Bordello, that allows the character to dress up as a woman and sleep with patrons and the owner, Grope, for money as part of a quest (and apparently an easy and quick way to make money). The creators weren’t looking to make any kind of statement with allowing same-sex marriage. “It was not so much a question of overt inclusion as a reluctance to remove something that occurred naturally in the course of creating our villagers’ artificial intelligence,” said creative director Dene Carter in an interview with Gamasutra. “Our villagers each had a simple concept of ‘attraction to the hero.’ We’d have had to write extra code to remove that in the case of same-sex interactions. This seemed like a ridiculous waste of time.”
While not everyone in the gaming industry is heterosexual, it was always a question: “Will this cause us problems?” We knew there were some parties—those who frequent the online boards in particular—who would be violently opposed to such content, and would make their personal bias known in the most vocal and negative way possible. We considered the impact of such reactions, and far from discouraging us, it made us realize that a positive decision could be seen as an important stance and support of tolerance. Microsoft said from the beginning that they’d countenance almost anything we saw fit to place in the world, as long as it fit into the world! They were true to their word.
Carter stated that the gaming community actually had a decently positive reaction to Fable, saying, “This seems entirely logical; in Fable, if you don’t agree with playing as a gay man, or gay weddings… you don’t play as a gay character. Simple, really. Fable doesn’t force you to confront these issues. It merely allows you a game-space to project your own personality into.” He finished with, “This isn’t a moral stance. We create games for everyone, and attempt to be as inclusive as possible. Fable was designed so that anyone could pick up a game-pad and have a good time.” This is an interesting change from the reaction to The Temple of Elemental Evil.
The Mario franchise makes another appearance on this list thanks to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, a 2004 GameCube title. In the Japanese version of the game, Vivian is a trans female, but all mention of this was removed in the English version. As noted on The Mushroom Kingdom, the discrepancy is as such:
Party member description:
カゲ三人組の一人だった オンナのコのようで ホントは オトコのコ
(Rough translation: “One of the shadow group, Vivian appears to be a girl but is really a boy.”)
One of the Shadow Sirens, Vivian suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex.
Excerpt from Goombella’s tattle:
『ビビアン』よ カゲ三人組の一人で いちばん下の妹 ・・・じゃなくて 弟ね
(Rough translation: “That’s Vivian. Of the shadow group, she’s the youngest sister… er, brother.”)
That’s Vivian. She’s the youngest of the three Shadow Sirens.
It appears, then, that Nintendo hadn’t given up entirely on its censorship of GLBT themes, even when those themes haven’t been sexualized, which is quite unfortunate.
Perhaps the most confusing character on this list so far is Jean Armstrong, the French cook from Capcom’s 2004 Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trials and Tribulations. Some people consider Jean to be a gender-ambiguous or trans character because he likes the color pink and is extremely effeminate. He even calling himself a “weak woman” at one point in the game, but this may also be the result of the stereotype about French men being extremely feminine. Jean is a popular name that is considered masculine in France, but it’s a name generally given to women in other countries, like the U.S. and England. So while it’s possible that Capcom intended to create a character who breaks gender boundaries or perhaps a trans character, it’s not shown that Jean identifies as anything other than male and there are too many overlaps with the French male stereotype to adequately say for certain. It’s interesting to note that Phoenix Wright thought Jean might be a woman because he felt Jean was flirting with him. This is a prime example of people conflating sexuality with gender identity.
Finally, Cavia and Square Enix released Drakengard in 2004, which, despite having been heavily changed on its arrival to the U.S., is pretty messed up in general. The game features Leonard, a pedophile who appears to be interested only in small boys. In the Japanese version, Leonard was absent from the massacre that killed his family because he was having sex with a young boy in the woods. The U.S. version makes absolutely no mention of this. If you really wanted to dig deep, you could maybe find some pretext in his relationship with Seele, who gave up his “time” in exchange for the ability to summon monsters, meaning his body will never mature past the age of six. I wasn’t really sure whether to include this game, actually, because pedophilia is not accepted within any GLBT community I’ve ever had contact with and generally isn’t accepted in Western society on the whole, but other people have listed the game in their own personal lists of GLBT characters. In light of that, I will cautiously advise people to make their own judgment as to whether this is a representation of someone who fits into a GLBT community because he is attracted to boys only, or if this just falls into the category of someone who represents deviant sexual behavior in general. I personally feel a lot more comfortable placing Leonard into the latter category, as I feel that’s a fairer and more accurate assessment.
I’m going to have to stop here, as we’ve reached over 3000 words and I still have over twenty games to talk about for the 2000s. Generally, we see a positive trend in these games, though sexuality and gender are still conflated and there’s a lot of oversimplification. Gay men are still generally shown as either hypermasculinized (see: Michael Doi) or effeminate/flamboyant (see: Magimel brothers), lesbians are used as sex appeal, and trans characters are often seen as horrifying (see: Alfred Ashford) or as something to cesnor out of games (see: Vivian). Some games, like Drakengard, are just plain weird and not representative of any kind of sexuality acceptable by today’s societal norms. We do see a few games showing some promise, like Final Fantasy IX and Metal Gear Solid, and more games have allowed us to choose how we want our main character to develop as a person a là The Sims and Fable. However, being able to choose your character’s sexuality is different than playing a character who’s designed as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or any number of other sexualities from the start. It’s also different playing a cisgendered individual than it would be to play a trans character; even if you could choose to play a trans person, it’s different than playing someone who has actually had time and effort put into their character development.
Will we see a game that truly allows for this? Join me later this week to look over the second half of the 2000s and on Tuesday to look at what’s happened since 2010. I’ll also have some thoughts on where I’d like representations of GLBT characters to go on Tuesday. Happy reading!