Are games get­ting bet­ter at rep­re­sen­ta­tion?

WE SPEAK WITH THE GAME MAK­ERS AND FAN COM­MU­NI­TIES WHO ARE HELP­ING GIVE A VOICE TO LGBT+ GAMERS

Games TM - - CONTENTS -

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.

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