GLBT History in Video Games: Present Day and Beyond

GLBT History in Video Games IV

Welcome to the last installment of GLBT History in Video Games. This feature looks to make note of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans (GLBT) characters and the representation of GLBT communities in general. It’s been a long journey to this decade. We started in the 1980s, which had only four examples of GLBT characters. The 1990s exploded with more examples, but not as much as 2000-2004 and 2005-2009 did. Still, GLBT characters have been largely assigned unimportant or stereotypical roles, some of which are downright offensive. Now we’ve finally reached the 2010s, and I’d like to finish our journey by making a few suggestions on where we, the gaming community, could go from here.

This decade in the U.S. has seen some intense battles over the acceptance of GLBT communities. So far, Proposition 8 has been struck down; Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed; and more same-sex marriage and civil union laws have been put into effect in states such as New York, Delaware, and Hawaii. We’re also seeing an emergence of more possible GLBT role models. Amanda Simpson was the first openly trans presidential appointee when she was made senior technical adviser for the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, Kye Allums was the first openly trans athlete to play NCAA basketball, and Victoria Kolakowski was the first openly trans judge. Mary Albing was the first openly lesbian minister ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and Katie Ricks was the first openly lesbian minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church. These are but a few examples. Are we seeing the same thing from the gaming community, though?

In 2010, we saw the release of Glory of Heracles, which featured Leucos, a female character who attempts to pass as a male and fails terribly. TV Tropes lists her as a Sweet Polly Oliver, a female character who dresses up as a man to accomplish some sort of task. This doesn’t necessarily help us define Leucos as a GLBT character because we don’t know how Leucos identifies herself. We can’t assume to know how Leucos identifies as there isn’t one single way to identify as trans, so we’re placing her on this list tentatively with the knowledge that some people would argue against her being identified as trans. Some people have stated that Leucos is a lesbian, but I have found no indication of this, and just because someone cross-dresses doesn’t mean s/he isn’t heterosexual; gender identity and expression are independent of sexuality.

Red Dead Redemption, also released in 2010, gave us Quique Montemayor and Vincente de Santa, who are implied to be in a relationship. For example, Vincente and Quique leave a scene where they’d brought women to Allende with their arms around one another. De Santa’s sexuality in particular seems to be a source of much observation, however. Allende calls de Santa a Mariconcito, which roughly translates to “queer,” during a mission; and Espinoza describes him “a maid that Allende can’t fuck.” There are other snide comments mentioned in conversations about de Santa as well; for example, when a rebel says de Santa is a coward who will only attack when a man is on his knees, John responds, “He’ll do a lot of things when men are on their knees.” Finally, after de Santa dies, Reyes remarks that “a lot of young boys will sleep safe in their beds.”

If you’ve ever seen or read Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you’ll know that one of Ramona Flowers’s “Evil Exes” is Roxanne Richter. Ramona blows the relationship off by saying, “It was a phase” and that for a while she was bi-curious. You may also remember Wallace Wells, Scott’s gay roommate. Both characters show up in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, with Roxie being the boss of World 4 and Wallace being a shopkeeper. Additionally, we see a reference to Kim and Knives having made out; Kim’s ending puts her and Knives in a relationship, and Knives can assist Kim by kissing her, which restores health and stuns (read: “freaks out”) nearby enemies, excluding robots. This development is interesting because Knives is obsessed with Scott, so her relationship with Kim kind of comes off as an extension of that, seeing as how Knives tells Kim at the beginning of volume four, “I’ve kissed the lips that kissed you,” and the fact that she’s been with practically everyone in the band.

2010 also gave us NIER, which includes a half-human intersex swordsman who expresses herself as a female. Kainé experienced harassment both for being possessed by a Shade, who calls himself Tyrann, and also for being intersex. It’s suggested by the NIER Wiki that she took a liking to feminine clothing because of this harassment. Kainé is a complex character who goes from being extremely bitter to having a change of heart, even developing feelings for the main protagonist, Nier.

BioWare released Mass Effect 2, in which male and female Shepard are able to sleep with yeoman Kelly Chambers. Kelly isn’t romanceable in the sense that you can date her like you can with Garrus or Liara. However, if you save her from the Collectors at the end of the game, you can ask her up to your room, where you can cuddle or have her dance for you. What’s interesting here is that there isn’t an equivalent male option.

This list wouldn’t be complete without Fable III. While not as involved with GLBT issues as Fable II was, you’re still able to have a gay, lesbian, or bisexual hero and there are even more GLB townspeople. Also, Reaver invites the hero, regardless of gender, to have a “private party” in his bedchamber.

We’d also need a Fallout entry, so it’s probably a good idea to add Fallout: New Vegas to the list. Fallout: New Vegas also allows the player to choose the gender of his/her playable character, and there are at least two confirmed GLB joinable non-playable characters. If your character is male, you can choose the perk “Confirmed Bachelor,” which is described as such in the game files:

In combat, you do +10% damage against male opponents. Outside of combat, you’ll sometimes have access to unique dialogue options when dealing with the same sex.

What kind of unique dialogue options do you get? For example, you can ask Major Knight if you want to be “friends,” to which he will respond favorably but also say that such “friendships” aren’t looked on too fondly at the Mojave Outpost. You can also flirt with the openly gay Arcade Gannon and convince him to join you as a companion. When speaking to Cass, she mentions she likes tough men. You can use this perk to make it clear you’re not interested in her in any romantic way. Also, I guess because you’re somehow more perceptive and understanding due to this perk, you understand that your companion, Christine Royce, is trying to tell you that she loved Veronica Santangelo, but their relationship didn’t work out because Christine’s parents didn’t approve. I think you might get the idea.

There’s a female equivalent “Cherchez La Femme” if you’ve chosen a female character. With this perk, you can do things like sleep with the prostitute Joana for free in Gomorrah, seduce Light Switch 02 in the Old World Blues add-on, and flirt with Corporal Betsy inCampMcCarran if you also have high Charisma. Also, if your character is male and has the Confirmed Bachelor perk, Rose of Sharon Cassidy will mention that the Legion of Caesar is mainly staffed by homosexual soldiers. If your player is female and has the Cherchez la Femme perk, she’ll just say that if she gets drunk enough she doesn’t care about who she sleeps with and drops the conversation.

Blaze Union's Eater, showcasing her female (left) and male (right) personalitiesOur last entry of 2010 is Atlus’s Blaze Union, which features Eater, a woman with two personalities, one female and one male, which alternate control over her. The female personality is flirty, while the male personality is feisty and thuggish. Both personalities identify as Eater, though when the male side is in control, Eater is referred to as male.

TV Tropes also mentions that Blaze Union utilizes two tropes both in this game and in the 2009 game Yggdra Unison, Hide Your Lesbians and Bury Your Gays. Hide Your Lesbians refers to how homosexuality is usually limited to subtext—that is, you usually don’t see two women kissing on screen, but characters might make comments that the two women are “awfully close.” There’s quite a bit of subtext between Zilva and Elena but the former dies, so that doesn’t really go very far. This ties into the Bury Your Gays trope, wherein at least one half of a gay couple dies. There are other tropes, like Ship Tease, that imply relationships between Gulcasa and Nessiah, among others.

The 2011 title Gloria Union features Kyra, the last survivor of Euforia. Kyra also happens to be intersex, though it’s also possible that she is female-assigned. Since the Union matrix is based on gender identity rather than assigned sex, it really doesn’t matter as far as the game goes, and Kyra seems to identify as female. 2011 also brought us Dragon Age II, the sequel to Dragon Age: Origins. BioWare allows us to choose Hawke’s gender. Isabella, Anders, Fenris, and Merrill can be romanced by someone of any sex; Sebastian, however, can only be romanced by a female Hawke. The player can also sleep with male or female prostitutes regardless of Hawke’s gender.

Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim allows your player to marry any gender. Marriage generally doesn’t mean anything in the game, though, so I can’t really count that as a huge win.

Lastly, at least as far as this list goes, Mass Effect 3 allows Kaiden, Liara, and Diana Allers to romance a Shepard of either gender. Steve Cortez is only available to male Shepard and talks about his husband dying in conflict, which is treated as perfectly normal. Samantha Traynor is only available to female Shepard. About halfway through the game, a discussion can be heard in the background in the Citadel between an unnamed female human soldier and an asari clerk about trying to get the human’s human-asari daughter to stay with her asari family. When asked why she doesn’t send her daughter to be with her family, she states that they had disowned her for her relationship with Neeota and that they’d rather see Cerberus show up than her. We aren’t told whether this disownment is due to homophobia or xenophobia; the soldier simply asks the asari to “guess why.”

The 2010s haven’t been terribly impressive, to be honest. Red Dead Redemption gave us some problematic situations, though I guess it could be argued that you’re not exactly supposed to like any of those characters. Other series, like FalloutFable, and Mass Effect, had no noticeable improvements. The only really interesting character on this list, for me at least, would have to be Kainé because she actually develops as a character throughout the game.

So where would I go from here? Before I get into that, I feel the need to qualify my suggestions. I am a cisgendered* heterosexual female. I am not a spokesperson of any GLBT community (protip: no one should be made a spokesperson for any group they belong to) and my suggestions should not be taken as, “This is what gay people want!” This shouldn’t even be taken as, “This is what Gaming Bus wants!” This is what I want, and I am speaking for myself and myself only. Of course, this doesn’t mean that my suggestions aren’t open to discussion; I just don’t want anyone to interpret what I’m about to say as being part of an agenda or to try and accuse me of speaking for groups of people that don’t need to be spoken for, seeing as how people in general should be allowed to speak for themselves. Get it? Good.

Anyway, down to business. First, there really should’ve been more characters on this list. Once all this is said and done, I’ll have written nearly 16,000 words on this issue. If I were to write about cisgendered and heterosexual characters, even only protagonists that we, the players, play as, I’d be writing until my fingers fell off. 16,000 words would cover, what, the 1980s? Maybe part of the 1990s? The entire history of GLBT characters in video games should not be limited to a measly five articles. But if we’re going to add more characters, we need to make sure they’re actual people and not caricatures of how the media portrays people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or trans. In general, I think a lot of the problems with the actual representation of GLBT communities could be solved with better writing. I feel that a lot of video game characters in general are based off of tropes and stereotypes, and this needs to be phased out. It’s not interesting to watch the same characters play the same games over and over again. Yes, we’ve seen the gay fireman. We’ve seen the seductive bisexual. We’ve seen the demented trans villain. And it’s not interesting anymore. In fact, most of these stereotypes weren’t particularly interesting in the first place. So let’s move away from those stereotypes and toward more well-developed characters. We need to allow for more flexibility in gender identity and expression as well as with sexuality. There aren’t just males and females in the world, nor is everyone limited to being heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Let’s explore those options and do so in a sensitive manner. And damn it, stop censoring our games. We deserve to have these characters.

Conflation is also an issue. I was most offended with linking a trans identity with Dissociative Identity Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, or whatever disorder the developers decided sounded most “crazy.” That’s offensive on a number of levels. One, identifying as a trans individual doesn’t make that person “crazy.” Two, trans identification doesn’t have anything to do with these disorders. Lastly, these disorders aren’t being accurately represented, but that’s another topic entirely. But even beyond that, sexuality and gender identity are not the same thing and shouldn’t be treated as such. We need to start recognizing that people have different layers to their identities, and it’s extremely rare to find an aspect of someone’s identity that fits neatly into a binary like male/female or straight/gay. We need writers who are better able to design characters in a fashion such that we don’t conflate aspects, and that’s admittedly hard to do. I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility, though, and we need to start asking developers to make games featuring better developed characters whose personalities aren’t built on tropes or stereotypes.

I’d also like to see more playable GLBT characters who have been designed that way as opposed to allowing the player to decide whether their character is male or female (note the gender binary) or straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, though that’s better than the alternative. We have countless cisgendered heterosexual characters who have been designed that way. We need more Kainés, more Liaras, more Quina Quens (though arguably with more character development), and more Guillos, and we need them to be playable characters, important supporting characters, and lead characters. Sure, some gamers are going to complain; gamers always find a reason to complain about something. But we’ve seen that saying, “You aren’t the only audience that needs to be catered to” won’t kill a company. BioWare did it. EA’s done it. People still buy their games, and if they don’t, it’s for other reasons. It’s not like there isn’t outside support for this idea; for example, Jim Sterling of Destructoid put forth a pretty good argument for why Uncharted’s Nathan Drake might make a good gay lead. We need more characters that are designed as GLBT characters, and like I keep emphasizing, they don’t just need to be there. They need to be designed well.

My last real desire is that, if someone who identifies as GLBT is going to be a villain, we don’t vilify their sexuality or gender identity/expression. If you want us to dislike a character, make us dislike that character because of his/her actions, not his/her identity. Writers need to say, “Being gay doesn’t make this guy a villain. Neither does his dressing up in women’s clothing. You know what would make this guy really hate-inducing? Let’s make him kill babies.” You get the idea. I’m perfectly fine with having a bisexual henchman or a trans final boss, but we need to make sure that this is not why the person is put into that position. My player character and I should dislike Alfred Ashford because he’s a dick and is trying to kill me, not because he dressed up like his sister. We need to make sure our player characters make that distinction in dialogue as well unless we’re trying to say something unfavorable about those player characters.

The onus isn’t just on developers, though. The gaming industry also includes those who write and talk about video games in addition to gamers themselves. Not only do we need to cover these issues more often and speak out against organizations who try to censor developers, but journalists should be careful in the terminology that they use. Words like transvestite and trap are inappropriate and derogatory, so let’s stop using them. It’s also important that if we’re going to write and talk about particular issues, we need to educate ourselves. We need to encourage those who identify as GLBT to add their voices to ours as well. The gaming community is often accused of being full of white straight male gamer privilege, and sometimes, this seems to be the case. We’ve seen this a lot lately, too, via E3 coverage and certain Kickstarter campaigns that have gotten smeared just for trying to talk about a topic. We can fight that as journalists by speaking out when subsets of the overarching gaming community behave in manners that are not acceptable to most decent human beings and bring to light all the good things we do as gamers as well.

Gamers themselves have a responsibility in building a more GLBT-friendly community as well. The biggest thing we can do other than educate ourselves on GLBT issues is to make sure that gaming is a safe space for everyone. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 62% of all gamers play online. We should do a better job of policing ourselves, especially when around the younger crowd. I’m not saying be PG all the time, but it’s important that we do things like call out people who use derogatory language. There are a number of ways that you can address people who use terms like fag or dyke in online play. You can play dumb, for instance. “I’m not really sure what you mean when you say this security system is ‘gay’ and that’s why we can’t get past it,” or even try to add some humor into it by saying things like, “I didn’t know that security systems could be attracted to other security systems of the same gender.” You could also let people know it offends you and explain why without being preachy. Show some sympathy as well and assume the best of people. “I know you don’t mean to sound hateful when you call him a queer, but it’s kind of coming off that way.” If you don’t feel comfortable making a comment in front of other people, there’s often an option of sending someone a private message and explaining the situation. If all else fails, report players who are being abusive.

I urge this because many people—people—play video games to get away from problems they’re facing in every day life. When people act like assholes, it becomes a lot harder to feel like one belongs in a community and it breaks the enjoyment of playing the game. If you’re with friends and want to be assholes to each other and there’s an understanding of mutual respect there, fine. I don’t care. But I’m tired of logging into MMOs and seeing people call complete strangers fags because someone asked a question or seeing people getting offended that a girl beat them in a game and calling her a transsexual as an insult. These kinds of behaviors are unacceptable, and we need to create communities in which everyone knows they’re unacceptable. We need to let players know that this kind of behavior is going to get you ostracized. And we could listen to gamers when they voice their concerns about these issues. We could try to understand where they’re coming from. Someone should be able to identify as a gamer and be accepted regardless of anything. Period.

And if you get called out, it might be a bit awkward but it’s okay. I got called out a few times while writing this. Even if you study these issues, you can’t know everything, and sometimes even the best intentions get misunderstood. The best thing you can do in that situation is acknowledge that you’ve been called out. It’s important to realize that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s not the end of the world. Don’t deflect blame or trivialize the other person’s feelings; if it didn’t bother him/her, s/he wouldn’t have said anything. If you don’t understand why something you said or did was inappropriate, ask. Apologize, commit yourself to not making that mistake again, and continue playing. Generally after that, people will let you go on with your day, and if they don’t, you can have another discussion where you talk about the importance of forgiving people for their mistakes and letting them move on with their lives.

All of us have a part to play in the greater acceptance of GLBT communities. We can urge developers to create games with more and better written characters, ask them to normalize different populations who have otherwise been ostracized, support those games with our wallets, talk about the issues more, invite people to share their experiences, and speak out against hateful language and actions. If I revisit this decade around 2020 or so, I want this to be the best decade we’ve had for those in GLBT communities, both in and out of the gaming industry. I want to be able to look back and say, “Yes, this is the decade when we finally began to understand. This is the decade we really saw some improvements in the way these issues are handled.”

I guess only time will tell.

* Cisgender is an adjective referring to individuals who identify with or express a gender that is the same as one’s assigned sex at birth.


About Crystal