Are games getting better at representation?
WE SPEAK WITH THE GAME MAKERS AND FAN COMMUNITIES WHO ARE HELPING GIVE A VOICE TO LGBT+ GAMERS
We explore the changing face of LBGT+ depictions in gaming with the communities and gamemakers at the forefront of the evolving landscape
“As a gay gamer, words cannot describe what it is like to be able to pick an LGBT+ character that actually reflects you,” Curtis Free, co-founder of London Gaymers, a gay gaming group, tells us. This might not seem like much if you’ve grown up seeing characters you felt you could relate to on a cultural, ethnic or gender level, but anyone who hasn’t will tell you it is such a powerful thing. What’s more, it feels as if there’s a positive expansion of experiences coming from game makers, so we wanted to explore the depth and breadth of that progress with community figures and developers on the cutting edge.
Much like in other media, portrayals of LGBT+ characters have evolved over the decades. Back in the Eighties characters like Nintendo’s Birdo, described as ‘a male that believes he is female’, were typical of the time. Queer characters were there, but only to be laughed at for being LGBT+. This continued into the Nineties with characters like Chrono Trigger’s Flea, alluded to be genderqueer, being an enemy the player is encouraged to mock rather than fear. Around the turn of the millennium we saw a shift. In Metal Gear Solid 2 a bisexual character, Vamp, exists and is accepted as such with no jokes, but nor any depth.
Free believes there are two key changes that have emerged that capture the shift that we’ve seen in LGBT+ representation in videogames; first there is visibility. “In earlier games, LGBT+ characters’ sexual orientation or gender identity was always alluded to or implied, but never explicitly stated. Today we see characters like Tracer from Overwatch openly demonstrate she’s in a same-sex couple by kissing her girlfriend.” However, there is still an issue of representation on screen and not just in supporting media. “A big trend at the moment for videogame developers is to share this LGBT+ visibility through non-core gameplay content, such as comics, literature or downloadable content,” as was the case with Tracer.
The second key change is representative. “Earlier LGBT+ representation in videogames really harnessed and embraced a more stereotypical view of what the LGBT+ community was all about, almost to the extent of being seen as a joke,” Free continues. “From overly camp characters to leather harnesses, these characters never truly reflected the diversity within the LGBT+ community. Today we see a much wider array of representation, from different body shapes, ages, races and so on.”
So why it so important for characters to represent you in Free’s eyes? “It’s the best way that a videogame company can tell its LGBT+ customers that they’re wanted and accepted. At MCM Comic Con in London a few months ago one of the panellists explained that this was very useful to her as a way to gauge her family and friends’ response to an LGBT+ character in a videogame – if they were cool with the character it empowered her to come out to them herself.”
For Free it’s not just about empowerment, but also immersion in the experience. “Finding LGBT+ characters in the game that you could romance and build relationships with helps to normalise the behaviour, and for LGBT+ people really allows you to get immersed in the game. The Dragon Age and Mass Effect romances are, usually, very well written, and the variety of LGBT+ romance options means you don’t always have to ‘pick the gay one’.”
Certainly, Bioware has felt as if it is at the forefront of this discussion, at least in the triple-a space. As such, former creative director at Bioware Mike Laidlaw struck us as a good representative for the developer’s approach to depicting characters of different identities. Laidlaw oversaw the evolution of Bioware’s approach to representation and in our conversation was very passionate about the issues and ideas around it.
So, with everything Bioware has done, does he think games are getting any better at representation? “In general terms, I would have to describe the trend as ‘maturing’,” Laidlaw tells us. “There’s been a mix of negative, clumsy-but-earnest and brilliant attempts made, but compared to the start of the industry we have come a long way.”
While some games continued to use negative depictions of LGBT+ people for humour throughout the Nineties and early 21st century, other developers moved with the times. A turning point was the debut Sims game, which came out in 2000. From the very first game, any character could be lesbian, bisexual or gay. Depending on the player’s choices, players could create characters and families as they saw fit at a time when just about every other game dictated that characters were all heterosexual. RPG series like The Elder Scrolls and Fable have progressed from including LGBT+ characters in their early games to more fleshed-out and prominent characters as the last decade transitioned to this one. Where does Laidlaw think this stems from? “I would ascribe a lot of that to both an increase in the will to include LGBT+ content in games and a growing confidence that doing so creates a more interesting and diverse set of characters and stories to be told.”
Debuting in 2007 and 2009 respectively, the Mass Effect and Dragon Age titles led the pack in exploring LGBT+ characters and narratives in their respective science-fiction and fantasy worlds. Changes like allowing the player to make their character LGBT+, including LGBT+ storylines relevant to the plot and even romances have massively influenced other developers.
But Bioware, like any developer, has been on a journey that started with a complete absence of LGBT+ narratives in their early games to where they are now. The gradual growth we have seen in gaming is mirrored in Bioware, and Laidlaw feels its brand
IN MANY WAYS, THE CRITIQUE, LIKE IT ALWAYS DOES, CAUSED US TO STEP BACK AND RE-EVALUATE WHAT OUR PLANS WERE FOR DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION MIKE LAIDLAW, FORMER CREATIVE DIRECTOR, BIOWARE
of games has grown increasingly more varied in the stories they tell. “From Star Wars’ Juhani’s subtle implication that she was attracted to a female Revan to Dragon Age’s Iron Bull’s much more open and accepting pansexuality, there’s been a steady move towards including LGBT+ content. These days we strive for natural and interesting representation in our characters and consider sexuality as much a part of their stories as their history, politics and motivations.”
In Dragon Age, for example, Bioware went from having straight and bisexual characters in the first instalment to all romance options being bisexual in the second to finally having gay and lesbian characters in the third. The ‘everyone is bisexual’ moment was criticised for lacking believability and depth in the characters.
“As to the specific question about Dragon Age 2’s romances, I consider them more a stepping-stone than a mistake,” Laidlaw says. “If we take the goal of ‘having a wider array of romance options and types available to players’ I would consider them a success, but also feel that people were right to call them out as being unrealistic. In many ways the critique, like it always does, caused us to step back and re-evaluate what our plans were for Dragon Age: Inquisition, but I can point to as many people who feel the Dragon
Age 2 answer was the right one as who stridently disagree. What’s important to me, though, is that we move with the answer we feel is right, and for Dragon Age: Inquisition the right answer was to have a wider array of romantic characters of differing sexualities, because we felt that more closely mirrored real life.”
Yusif Ali is one of the co-founders of Gaymers INC, another London-based LGBT+ gamer group. He tells us that: “For a lot of gaymers who grew up in the Nineties, their first experience of LGBT+ gaming was probably making their Sims kiss each other. It is great to see more games introduce same-sex relationships, especially as an option alongside heterosexual relationships so that everybody can experience the game the way they wish. Playing Dragon Age: Inquisition was the first time I had ever played a game where I had the option to be gay. I was surprised to see the community represented so well through well-rounded characters like Sera (lesbian), Iron Bull (pansexual), Krem (trans) and of course Dorian (gay) and explore their stories. I found Dorian’s backstory especially heartfelt, as his father had attempted to cure his homosexuality with blood magic, a nod to the camps around the world that try and ‘fix’ young LGBT+ teens. Playing a game where you can choose to be anyone and love anyone is incredibly liberating.”
Playing games is such a singular kind of entertainment in allowing for active participation and expression in the artform, and now we’re seeing even more focused attempts to be more inclusive in depictions of LBGT+ groups. “One of the greatest things about gaming is that it allows you to play with identity, to experience worlds and characters and situations beyond what you’d experience in your own life,” says Free. “There are many dating sims, but a gay daddy one? That sounds a bit different and grabs your attention. Coupled with the fact that there’s also an element of the gay community being represented here that traditionally hasn’t had as much representation in the wider media, let alone games. There are such a huge number of games now in any genre, especially on Steam, that I think diversity can actually help a game stand apart from the crowd. While we’re all for highlighting the reality behind the entire breadth of the LGBT+ community through videogames, I think games like Dream Daddy are also critical to demonstrate that we are also here to have fun.”
In the summer of 2017 we saw the release of Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator, a visual-novel game where players help a single father romance other single fathers. It was a huge hit, taking many critics by surprise. Dream Daddy was of course popular with groups like Gaymers INC. Ali says: “The dating-sim genre is hugely popular, so it was cool to see an Lgbt-focused sim gain such a big following. Even people who downloaded it because they found the concept of dating hot dads funny will have found it’s a game full of heart and humour where gay characters are the focus, not the punchline. The creators Vernon [Shaw] and Leighton [Gray] set out to tell a light-hearted story that was respectful of LGBT+ issues and the game does that pretty well. The jokes don’t ‘punch down’.”
We spoke to co-creator, co-writer and art director of Dream Daddy, Gray. She wore many hats through the course of the Dream Daddy project, but initially came up with the original concept and designed the characters (final character art in the game is by Shanen Pae). “We had figured that Dream Daddy would at least be popular within a small subset of people,
ONE OF THE GREATEST THINGS ABOUT GAMING IS THAT IT ALLOWS YOU TO PLAY WITH IDENTITY CURTIS FREE, CO-FOUNDER OF LONDON GAYMERS
but we really had no idea that it would blow up the way it did. It’s been out for [a year] and it blows my mind every day that we’ve been able to share our hot dads with so many people. I’m extremely grateful for everyone who played the game and all of the ridiculously talented fan artists, fan-fic writers and cosplayers.”
We asked Gray how she feels about LGBT+ inclusion in gaming. “If you compare triple-a games that have come out in the past year or so to the games that were coming out ten years ago, it’s pretty awesome to see so many recent games try to tackle or incorporate LGBT+ themes and characters, even if they’re doing it imperfectly. At their best, LGBT+ characters actually exist without being stereotyped or their entire personality revolving around their sexuality and there are more options for romantic relationships in-game with characters who are men who like men or women who like women, as opposed to being stuck with exclusively straight romances.”
Speaking to Laidlaw, he is surprised people were amazed by Dream Daddy’s success. “It’s a really wellexecuted visual novel with a light tone that seemed like it would do fantastically from the moment I heard of it. I’m delighted it has.” We asked if he feels it will have any impact on how Bioware makes games. “I don’t think its success will cause specific changes to how Bioware approaches storytelling, except to continue the vector I think we’ve already established. We feel characters should be deep and fully realised regardless of their sexuality and I take games like Dream Daddy as just affirmation that we’re on the right track.”
Gray feels there’s a lot of stuff Bioware is doing right, but also points out where it’s stumbled, such as the trans character in Mass Effect Andromeda who deadnames herself (refers to her masculine birth name) upon introduction and the awkward line of questioning that comes up when you interact with Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition. “Having media that makes mistakes in its attempts to be diverse and inclusive is, while often disappointing, also extremely important to furthering the dialogue about what works and what doesn’t. These imperfect representations help us learn to craft better and more diverse gaming experiences. There’s no such thing as perfect representation, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be striving for it!”
Gray thinks that the most exciting part about games right now is that the increased access to the tools needed to make a videogame is breaking down a lot of the industry gatekeeping for creators who aren’t straight cisgender white men. “This is leading us towards a greater diversity of creators and content and there’s a lot of enthusiasm, especially in indie spaces, for games that explore non-traditional themes. And based on the success of Dream Daddy and games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, which have such a strong emphasis on exploring character and sexuality, I think that the future of games with LGBT+ themes is looking bright. There’s clearly a huge seemingly untapped demographic of gamers like us who want to consume content that represents them and I’m really looking forward to watching how this shift towards inclusiveness in games evolves further.”
In future, however, will we see more LGBT+ characters in videogames in leading roles?
“We’ve already seen that trend start,” Laidlaw says.
“The story between Riley and Ellie in The Last Of Us: Left Behind tells a story with an LGBT+ character as the lead, and I expect we will see more over time. As to whether a game like Dragon Age would have a fixed LGBT+ character as the lead? I’d consider it unlikely, but that’s due to our focus on character creation being in the player’s hands. The player’s ability to make anyone he, she or they wants as the lead character is central to the experience of playing a Dragon Age game. I fully expect the franchise to continue featuring LGBT+ characters prominently, but I think it would be a disservice to our players’ expectations to lock their main character into a specific role for a core game in the franchise. Now, in a different offering it might absolutely be possible and has been done. In the Leliana’s Song DLC for Dragon Age: Origins you played as a young Leliana, who is bisexual and was put at odds with her girlfriend at the time, Marjolaine.”
So are games becoming more inclusive? Laidlaw thinks that the industry at large is becoming more welcoming and more thoughtful, “which is always a good sign. This can range from the larger ‘there are romances for gay characters here’ kinds of investment to subtle-yet-thoughtful nods to inclusion, such as the recently launched Dauntless where they let you pick from two body types, but explicitly do not refer to them using gendered language.”
Ali is optimistic. “I hope the future for the LGBT+ gaming community is bright. We’re starting to see more studios use LGBT+ characters that break the mould and don’t pander to stereotypes, and gamers are being given more romance options in blockbuster titles.
Young gamers will grow up seeing LGBT+ characters and relationships, which is something my generation did not get to experience as much. There are still homophobic comments made in online gaming and one way to tackle it is to put LGBT characters front and centre - such as Tracer in Overwatch. Their value to the community cannot be understated.”
It may not be perfect or offer everything we want, but there’s no denying the videogames industry has come a long way in the past three or four decades. Women remain under-represented and racial diversity continues to be a challenge, but for young LGBT+ gamers, growing up in a culture that represents characters like them can have a lasting positive impact by reducing feelings of isolation. And for young straight gamers, playing the new wave of games with more diverse casts of characters might help to build a more inclusive state of mind. That can only be good for all of us.
IT’S PRETTY AWESOME TO SEE SO MANY RECENT GAMES TRY TO TACKLE OR INCORPORATE LGBT+ THEMES AND CHARACTERS, EVEN IF THEY’RE DOING IT IMPERFECTLY LEIGHTON GRAY, CO-CREATOR, CO-WRITER AND ART DIRECTOR, DREAM DADDY
Bioware has explored the sexuality of its characters largely through the lens of allowing player expression to drive who they start relationships with and why, but that’s also been evolving to include more clearly defined identities among NPCS.
Dream Daddy was a massive success that proved that LGBT+ content is not niche by any means, especially when it handles its subject matter with as much heart and good humour as Game Grumps did.