I’ve had a long relationship with games. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the characters in them. Of all of the space aliens I’ve banged, of all the Bioware characters I’ve courted and successfully romanced, not one of them was gay. Some were bisexual, sure. Some had gay romance options. But none of them were…. gay. This was especially frustrating for me, a relatively closeted gay teen trying to find representation in the media I consumed But even when I found the obvious examples — The Honey Bees from Final Fantasy VII, The brothers of Cho Aniki, hell, Birdo and Yoshi from the Mario games — I found myself feeling uncomfortable with their representations. Sure, they were varying degrees of non-binary. But they weren’t like any of the LGBT people I’d ever met. They weren’t anything like me, either.
That’s when I realized that games have a really bad track record with LGBT characters.
According to a 2013 study, approximately 4.5% of Americans surveyed identified as Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual1. Despite this, there is a startling lack of LGBT characters in media – and even less so in games specifically. As of GLAAD’s 2015 study on representation in media only 17.5% of the films released by major studios featured LGBT characters2. Of those depicted, most were gay men. Not only were LGBT characters underrepresented in media, but many LGBT individuals were not even being depicted at all. This number also fails to differentiate between positive and negative depictions of LGBT characters. Similar studies have been done on games, but no concrete, curated statistics exist for games. Rather, the most one can find is a less-than-comprehensive Wikipedia article.
This does not mean that games have not been met with controversy in regards to homosexuality. Nintendo’s recent Tomodachi Life debacle – outright refusing to represent LGBT individuals who wished to play their game by actively removing the ability to marry Miis of the same sex – comes to mind when considering the more negative aspects of gaming that LGBT gamers have to deal with3. For many LGBT gamers games are a hostile environment due to pervasive homophobia and a culture known for being particularly toxic – especially on the internet, where only 7% of gamers claim to have never experienced homophobic antagonism4.
Games such as Kill The Faggot, released in May 2015 but quickly removed for sale from Steam, directly target LGBT gamers and create an environment where they are not welcome5. It, however, does not require actively anti-LGBT subject matter for a game’s portrayal of homosexual characters to be extremely negative.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 was originally released in 2008 as a swan song for the Playstation 2. Part Dungeon-Crawling turn-based RPG, part Otoge dating sim, the game was met with absolutely staggering critical reception for its complex characters, tight narrative, and streamlined mechanics in comparison to its predecessor, Persona 3. It was the perfect game for me, a combination of the nostalgia I had for quirky turn based games and Japanese flavortext. It also had two LGBT characters in Tatsumi Kanji and Shirogane Naoto.
While there’s been much said on the subject (but perhaps most eloquently in Carolyn Petit’s 2013 Gamespot article – seriously, give it a read) of Atlus’s ability to represent queer characters, it’s also important to examine the function of how these games directly create hostile environments for queer players whilst simultaneously normalizing hostility against queer characters in their given game worlds. Kanji’s sexuality is played largely for a joke by the rest of the cast, Naoto’s gender presentation itself becoming part of the gag, and never once is the player character given the ability to disagree with these notions despite the wealth of choice given in other, seemingly irrelevant social situations in the game’s narrative6. By forcing player compliance, not only does Persona 4 betray its own characters, it creates intense (brace yourself, Maggie) Ludonarrative dissonance and betrays its player. By brushing off the very aspects of the game that draw many LGBT gamers to play RPGS such as Persona 47, Atlus reinforced the notion that LGBT gamers don’t have an active space in the gaming community.
The true issue, however, is not that Persona 4 did not 100% stick the landing with its LGBT characters. The issue is that Atlus didn’t learn a thing from the controversy or its aftermath. In a later Shin Megami Tensei spinoff, titled Catherine, Atlus created a canon-transgender character in Erica, the waitress of the bar frequented by the main character and his friends. Erica is, for the most part, a well-realized character, portrayed as a woman who is not only successful in her job but also in her love life. At one point, she even sleeps with a member of the supporting cast who had been pining over her for the entirety of the game. Unfortunately, the other supporting characters play this for a joke as well, directly calling into question Erica’s gender and making fun of her for being “weird” in bed8. Once again, the game betrays player agency and never allows for disapproval despite the dialogue system allowing for such variation in similar social gameplay situations. The game never criticizes or makes a statement on its characters and their apparent transphobia, and forces the player to align with his character’s viewpoint or risk creating more ludonarrative dissonance.
Regardless of the mechanical processes behind Othering in games, my point is not necessarily that LGBT themes like Homophobia or Transphobia cannot be dealt with in games. Rather, I think that games desperately need to pay more attention to what they are saying both mechanically and overtly. LGBT representation is the first step, good representation is a completely different story.
Games have a sexuality problem. This is something I feel like we’ve agreed upon, as a culture. Some people in particular — loud, whiny voices I’m sure you’ve seen on various dens of internet villainy — like to deny this viciously, but for the most part I feel like as a community gamers have come to understand the issues games have had representing sexual minorities. But that’s looking to change, and that’s a good thing. EA has been working harder to provide LGBT representation — better LGBT representation — in their games. They were even given a 100% corporate equality ranking for non-binary employees just last year. Dorian, Sera, and Krem stand out as particularly impressive depictions of non-binary characters. Hell, even Ellie from The Last of Us was given a strong, emotional, LGBT backstory in Left Behind. Things are looking up. According to Rockwood’s study, 23.4% of polled gamers identify as “Completely Homosexual”, with a total of 72% of surveyed participants indentifying as various degrees of queer. For the most part, people still don’t quite know where they stand on LGBT representation in games9, but it is clear that for the most part people are largely open to the possibility of more LGBT representation. This manifests itself in the various methods with which fans and fandoms, often comprised by groups of mixed sexualities and backgrounds, portray characters in fan and derivative works. In fact, fan theater (such as Cosplay and LARPing) and fiction often provide necessary outlets for LGBT expression in otherwise heteronormative mediums such as games10.
Jason Rockwood’s survey on “gaymers” – that is gay gamers – was the first of its kind, and set trends for later gaymer studies. When asked what he hoped would be done with the data in an interview with Joystiq, Rockwood responded that he hoped it would “spark continued conversation between and among gamers and developers on the topic of gay and bi people in gaming”11. And for the most part, it has. The amount of gay characters in games are rising as companies follow EA’s example. The ways with which controversies are being handled are changing.
It just took a lot of time, and a lot of sacrifice to get here.
So while I’ve never banged a gay alien in Mass Effect (well, at least not when playing Male Shepard), or found that perfect dating-sim fantasy man for me, I can see things changing. No longer do I go to gaming tournaments worried that I’m going to be told “don’t be gay” every time I play Chun in Third Strike, and no longer do I worry about being forced to romance yet another generic Fantasy Babe™. Just recently, as I was replaying Final Fantasy VII, I became quite nostalgic during the Honey Bee segment of the game. “Funny”, I found myself thinking, “how far we’ve come”. According to Adrienne Shaw, author of Gaming at the Edge, that’s a pretty big deal12.
And it’s true, we’ve come a long way since the days of Cho Aniki. Even Poison, who was originally conceived as a means to avoid prohibitive ratings due to hitting female character models in the original Final Fight, received a redesign that canonized her transgender identity. Mortal Kombat X just recently debuted the series first canonically gay character in Kung Jin. I can pick a gay dude to horrifically brutalize opponents with the same degree of prowess as any of the other, heteronormative characters, and that is awesome. Even if I haven’t yet found a character that directly speaks to me, at least I can find some that speak about me.
1. CDC, 2013
2. GLAAD, 2015
3. Schrier, 2014
4. Rockwood, 2007
5. Visser, 2015
6. Hoshino, 2008 & 2012
7. Rockwood, 2007
8. Hoshino, 2011
9. Rockwood, 2007
10. Shaw, 2015, chap. 2 & 3
11. Sliwinski, 2007
12. Shaw, 2015 p. 147-148
CDC. “Share of adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or straight in the United States as of 2013, by gender.” Statista – The Statistics Portal. . Web. 03 May 2015.
Gaming in Color. Dir. Philip Jones. Perf. George Skeleres, Matthew Michael Brown, Naomi Clark. Devolver Digital, 2015.
GLAAD, 2015 Studio Responsibility Index, GLAAD, 2015. Web.
Hoshino, Katsura. Catherine. Tokyo: Atlus, 2011. Computer software.
Hoshino, Katsura. Persona 4. Tokyo: Atlus, 2008. Computer software.
Hoshino, Katsura. Persona 4 Golden. Tokyo: Atlus, 2012. Computer software.
Rockwood, Jason. Gaymer Survey, Urbana-Champaign: U of Illinois, 2007. Web. 29 April 2015
Saito, Kumiko. “Desire in Subtext: Gender, Fandom, and Women’s Male-Male Homoerotic Parodies in Contemporary Japan.” Mechademia 6.1 (2011): 171-91. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
Schrier, Jason. “Nintendo Apologizes For Not Putting Gay Marriage In Tomodachi Life.” Kotaku. Gawker Media, 9 May 2014. Web. 04 May 2015.
Schwartz, Leigh. “Othering across Time and Place in the Suikoden Video Game Series.” GeoJournal 74.3, New Directions in Media Geography (2009): 265-74. JSTOR. Web. 05 May 2015.
Shaw, Adrienne. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2015. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 01 May 2015.
Sliwinski, Alexander. “Joystiq Interviews Gay Gamer Survey’s Creator Jason Rockwood.” Engadget. Engadget, 26 Feb. 2007. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
Visser, Nick. “‘Kill The Faggot’ Game Briefly Uploaded To Steam.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 05 May 2015. Web. 05 May 2015.