A brief history of egalitarianism in games, and why non-traditional depictions matter.Games take a lot of flak for being a fairly un-inclusive medium, made by young straight men for young straight men and mildly offensive to everyone else. Listen to much popular discourse on video games, and you'll come away with the impression that they (and their players) are overwhelmingly sexist, immature, and unwelcoming to anybody outside of that traditional demographic.
There's a small amount of truth in that, much as we'd all love to deny it. But this image belies the fact that many games are impressively egalitarian, and that gaming has a long history of positive depictions of lesbian, gay and queer characters. From the original Sims to Dragon Age, games haven't been afraid to show and enable gay relationships. Developers like BioWare have consistently stood up for gay players' rights to appropriate romances, just like everybody else. What follows is a brief history of queer visibility in gaming – and an explanation, should it be needed, of why these depictions matter.
It might surprise you that Nintendo had a history of censorship in the 80s and 90s that extended beyond turning blood blue and removing violent decapitations from Mortal Kombat and into depictions of sexuality. Super Mario's Birdo – probably gaming's most famous transsexual – was openly referred to as a transgender female in the Japanese manual, but all reference to her sexuality was removed for Western releases. Dragon Warrior III could only be released on the NES with its gay bar location censored out. It's a policy that had all but disappeared by the time Conker's Bad Fur Day came around in 1999, though, and not one that's had an effect on any game released on a Nintendo system for a long time. Sega's Streets of Rage 3, meanwhile, had a stereotypically hyper-camp sub-boss censored out for its Western release, though that's probably more because of the astonishing cringeworthiness of the character than anything else.
It's no great shock that MMOs and RPGs have the most impressive equality record in video games. These genres, by their very nature, let you be who you want to be – whether that's male or female, straight or gay, mage or dragon-puncher. Sexuality has never exactly been a checkbox on a character select screen, but try your luck with same-sex characters and you'll often find that gender boundaries aren't that big of a deal. Fallout 2 has the distinction of offering gaming's very first gay marriage – a shotgun wedding prompted by sleeping with a farmer's son, whose family are not at all happy about the situation. Playing as a female character, you'll find the post-apocalyptic world's hookers perfectly willing to take caps from women. (Presumably, after the world is brought to its knees by nuclear destruction, we'll have more important things to worry about than whom people are sleeping with.)
Japanese RPGs have never been afraid to throw a little cross-dressing or playful gay innuendo around (remember Chrono Trigger's Flea?), though Personas 2 and 4 are the only Japanese games I can think of that actually let you play a gay character. Kanji's Bad Bad Bathhouse in Persona 4 is an unforgettable scene where character Kanji struggles with his sexual identity by fighting a naked, man-loving version of himself in a bath-house. One of Persona 2's protagonists was Kuruso Jun, who could get himself mixed up in a relationship with main character Tatsuya. As is often the case with Japanese depictions of gay people, though, Kuruso is extremely effeminate, and hardly a model for fair representation. Generally, it's Western developers that have led by example. BioWare, for instance, has represented queer characters in its games for about as long as it has been making them.
Star Wars: The Old Republic's Juhani is unusual among BioWare's non-hetero characters in that she's exclusively lesbian, rather than swinging both ways according the player's gender and choices like Dragon Age II's many love interests. (In the original release of the game she could be a romantic interest for both male and female protagonists, but this was later altered in a patch). Generally, BioWare's love interests don't care much about your character's genitalia – though there was mild controversy over Mass Effect's girl-on-girl romantic scenes, it would be extremely difficult to argue that the affair between Liara and FemShep was designed for titillation. Sexuality isn't a big deal in BioWare's games, and in my opinion they've never tried to make a statement about it. It's just one more choice in a game full of choices designed to satisfy players' personal preferences, not much different from choosing your character's hair colour.
That's the response that developers themselves often produce when questioned on their games' gay characters. In Fable, a British-developed game, nobody really batted an eyelid when it was discovered that you could sleep with and marry whomever you wanted. When it was revealed that you could marry same-sex characters in Skyrim, Bethesda's response was an emphatic so what?. "Not hush hush, just not making a huge deal out of it. You can marry anyone," responded Bethesda's Pete Hines on Twitter, when asked why the issue had been "kept quiet".
BioWare made headlines when one player complained about gay characters in Dragon Age II, accusing the developer of "letting down their player base – the straight male gamer" by having support characters hit on the main character regardless of gender. To quote BioWare's rather heroic David Gaider, "the romances in the game are not for the 'straight male gamer'. They're for everyone." Gaider's full response – which you can read here - is a brilliantly balanced account of why catering for all types of players matters so much. "You can write it off as "political correctness" if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority," he writes. "They're so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance."
Outside of RPGs, meanwhile, gay representation has been less frequent and usually less prominent. There have been gay and bisexual secondary characters in everything from The Longest Journey to Metal Gear Solid to David Cage's utterly bonkers Indigo Prophecy, but action games and first-person shooters don't tend to bother much with characters' sexual identities (although a strong case could probably be made for Marcus Fenix). Personal relationships don't usually factor very prominently in stories like Modern Warfare 3's, so it's neither surprising nor objectionable that sexuality isn't a main theme.
You may think, so what? Why should sex in videogames matter any more for gay people than straight? But this visibility actually is important, for the same reason as having believable and relatable female characters is important: because by catering exclusively to straight men, you're excluding more than half the population, and limiting video games creatively and commercially to a restricted audience. (Plus, we'd look all backwards and narrow-minded in front of all the other, bigger art forms, and that's never good.)
It's also worth remembering that young gay and lesbian people need characters that they can relate to just as much as straight teenagers – if not more so, as they're more likely to face persecution in the real world. Games have long been a refuge for people who aren't quite like everyone else. Indeed, it's a depressing fact that gay people in the virtual world sometimes have more freedom than those in the actual world. The Sims 3 offers fully-fledged virtual gay marriage (a notable progression from the original Sims, which had no marriage, and the Sims 2, which offered only a "joining party"), a right still outwith the reach of same-sex couples living in most first-world countries. Fable and Skyrim do the same. If you're a gay character in Mass Effect, The Sims or Skyrim, nobody really cares; you don't face discrimination from other characters, or find yourself forced to justify your identity and choices to those around you. That, too, is a freedom that many gay, bisexual and transgender people in the real world still don't enjoy.
The next time you let out a sigh of resignation at gaming's lack of maturity, that's a good fact to remember. As the struggle for equality in the real world inches slowly forward, it's comforting to know that in virtual worlds, some of those battles have already been won.