Video game industry should invest in becoming more socially aware and inclusive, David Edison writes
Most gamers and non-gamers alike still look at me quizzically when I explain my interest in gay video-game content. But for its own self-interest, if nothing else, the game industry should invest in becoming more socially aware and inclusive.
David Edison is an editor at GayGamer.net and a science fiction and fantasy writer. He lives in New York City.
Gay characters in video games have been receiving more attention these past few years. The site I help run, GayGamer.net, has been promoting the visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) gamers and game characters for more than four years now, and just this August Edge magazine ran a terrific feature examining the issue from all sides.
The LGBT demographic remains highly viable even in a terrible economy, and in 2010 is estimated to wield a massive $743 billion in the U.S. alone. Video game publishers would be wise to target that potential income. Even if only a fraction of the LGBT community are ardent gamers, those numbers are hard to ignore.
But this is more than a simple issue of boosting revenue. Now that the gaming industry makes more money than the music industry and the box office, it will be held to similar standards of artistic and cultural merit, not to mention responsibility for its content.
The latter is a conflict we see everywhere, mostly in the political arena, always concerning sex or violence or both: the banning of Rockstar’s Manhunt 2 in Britain, the teacup-tempest FOX News made of Mass Effect’s lesbian romance scene in the U.S., or the controversy in Japan and the international community over the non-mainstream Japanese video game RapeLay. Examples abound, drawing into the fray Las Vegan mayors and Mancunian bishops alike.
Including LGBT characters and storylines — and greater inclusivity in general, especially of persons of colour and women — would lend a cultural credibility to the industry that it currently lacks, and which cannot be won merely by vaster income.
That's not to say things aren't evolving.
The most obvious space in gaming to watch for LGBT content is the role playing game, or RPG, genre. They're the type of games that hearken back to the dice-rolling Dungeons & Dragons era and gamers who enjoy taking on the role of an imaginary hero and playing out a story that they can mould to their own preferences. One can fight as a swashbuckling warrior of great strength and limited intelligence, or a physically weak wizard with great big bushy eyebrows and even bigger fireball spells. These games are built around choice, and it is when game developers present gamers with the option to choose that the inclusivity of those developers becomes apparent, or not.
Take, for instance, two role playing games released last year from the same developer, Edmonton-based BioWare: Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. Released within months of each other, these games share design philosophies, sensibilities and even some of the same high-profile voice actors. But they differ enormously in their treatment of gay and lesbian characters and players.
In Dragon Age: Origins, a traditional fantasy RPG in which the player chooses the race, gender and class of their protagonist (a female elf mage, perhaps, or a male human warrior), you’ll build a party of adventurers each with their own motivations and ethics – and your choices will engender respect and even romantic interest (or not) depending on how well you learn to play to your allies’ preferences.
Notably, a male character can have a well-realized relationship with a male party member – the roguish elf assassin Zevran. This is not something forced upon players, and only gamers who pursue the relevant dialogue options with Zevran can earn his forbidden elven kisses. (Watch the build-up dialog and initial scenes here.)
The element of choice is so strong in the hearts of RPG players that there are many mods (player-scripted modifications to the retail game) that add the ability to enter into LGBT romances with additional party members – and also add same-sex marriage. (Read about the experience of marrying a king while playing a man in Dragon Age: Origins.)
What’s special about the Dragon Age love scene is that it’s done with respect and understanding of both the way gay love stories should be told and what gay gamers – or gamers who choose to play gay – want to see when they’ve made that choice. The sci-fi RPG Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, plays to lower-brow stereotypes: There are no gay male romance options, and while the game does include a same-sex female romance option, it’s more akin to the kind of stripper-on-stripper action that straight men want to see than anything authentic.
Mass Effect 2 aims to be a mature, intense, adult story of epic proportions, and in many ways it succeeds. But it fails to meet its own standards for maturity in other ways than cutting out choices. If you choose a male protagonist, for example, the game will eventually throw at the player a repetitive scene in which the player fist-bumps another character of colour. For a game set in the far future, it’s a small but awkward example of some of the painfully stupid social interactions the gaming world has yet to mature beyond. It’s like watching a white frat boy call a black colleague "dawg" — only an order of magnitude worse because it’s space and, again, the future.
This illustrates how a lack of social awareness can have a negative impact on the experience of a game in many, many ways.
Game publishers need to stop shying away from LGBT content (they specialize in interactive violence; how much more nervous can two men kissing make them feel?), and game developers need to recognize the benefits of adding different flavours of social awareness to their artistic palettes.
The game industry has more to wake up to than just treating gay and lesbian characters with a modicum of social awareness. Issues of race and gender abound, with few positive examples to uphold.
As a counterexample to Mass Effect 2’s fist-bump awkwardness, the latest iteration of the zombie apocalypse shooter Left4Dead2 features as one of its four playable characters a female of colour. It's a refreshing alternative to the hours most gamers have spent as a white man wielding a gun.
Meanwhile, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony leverages a well-developed gay personality in a different way. Rather than putting players into the shoes of a character who can choose to be gay, you find yourself working for the jaded "Gay Tony" – aka Tony Prince, a nightclub impresario who just happens to be gay. It’s another way designers can incorporate a sense of social awareness into their games without feeling like they might alienate their core audience of straight males.
Simply pretending that the LGBT community doesn’t exist isn’t a viable long-term design choice for creators of games with content that is intended to conform to the choices and inclinations of the player. LGBT visibility isn’t going away; rather, it is increasing as issues of LGBT equality become more mainstream. As places like Mexico City and Portugal legalize gay marriage, it’s time to rethink our stale demographics.
When it comes right down to it, developers need to decide who they want to be. Making a game that’s as much about choice as it is about story presents an opportunity either to show the game industry in the mature light it so desperately wants to be seen by the rest of our culture, or to retread the same stereotyped ground that has kept the gaming world in its ghetto for so long.
The real world is much richer and deeper than the virtual worlds in which we game, but it doesn’t have to remain that way. Do designers want to be mature artists of the 21st century, or do they want to come across as boorish, ignorant, uncultured and unconcerned?
As within the games themselves, it boils down to choice.