LGBT+ Representation In Gaming: The Do’s and Don’ts
Dougie gives their recommendations for the do’s and don’ts of LGBT+ representation in games.
Summer is pretty cool, what with the long days, the sunshine, the holidays and the friends. Sure, it’s not so great if you’re a ginger shut-in like me, but it’s always nice to know other people are having fun. June also means one very important thing: Pride Month!
The Pride Parades are a symbol of how far the LGBT+ community has come, with equal marriage laws and anti-discrimination laws. But they’re also a symbol of how much more there is left to do. When we look at how the LGBT+ community is portrayed in video gaming today, it’s becoming an increasingly positive experience. More and more games offer the player the option of exploring same-sex relationships and some gay characters are very well written.
But how does one write a gay character well? When are LGBT+ themes positive and when are they negative? LGBT+ representation is a serious issue, but it also needs to be done with respect for the games universe and respect for the player. So here are some of the things that I think games have done well, with regards to the SAGA (sexuality and gender alliance) community. Along with the things that creators should really be avoiding.
LGBT+ Characters Across the Board
DO Give Them Flaws, Make Them Seem Believable
Positive LGBT+ representation, to generalise, can be spotted if you think about how different the character’s story would be if they were they straight. The fewer the differences the better! Of course, that’s not to say that games focusing on the difficulties and struggles of the LGBT+ community aren’t welcome. However, making a joke or comment about the character being gay every time they appear is tiring and gets boring quickly.
Positive examples include Chloe from Life is Strange or Ellie from The Last of Us. Both characters have other struggles and challenges that aren’t exclusive to their orientation. Were they straight their stories wouldn’t be any different, making them great examples of normalising same-sex attraction. They also have flaws- they’re believable as people and don’t feel forced. A great example of a trans character is Damien Bloodmarch from Dream Daddy. He mentions his trans-status very casually in the game and his gender isn’t an obstacle to his relationship path.
DON’T Shoehorn Them In and Hang a Big Flashing Rainbow Sign Above Their Heads
I don’t think anyone needs me or anyone else to tell you why “Birdo” and “Gay Tony” do nothing but cause intense eye-rolling. I couldn’t help but think that “Gay Tony,” was an attempt to distract the SAGA community from the blatant transphobia in the GTA franchise. Birdo also seems to appear on any list of LGBT+ video game characters, yet I’ve never seen why. She’s constantly referred to as “a man” and “Yoshi’s boyfriend.” I’ve just never seen any positivity in her representation. Characters like these push stereotypes and are clearly written by cishet people- for cishet people!
You can smell a mile off a game that was written by cishet writers for a cishet audience. More often than not an LGBT+ characters struggles will focus on them being LGBT+. Storylines featuring a gay character can include the same chequered past obstacles or parent issues that the straight characters have. It doesn’t always need to be about them being accepted for who they are.
The Ups and Downs of Fable
I often bring up the Fable franchise when discussing SAGA themes in games, since there a lot of good and bad points the games raise. In fact, any discussion of Fable I’ve been in leads to people complaining of its rubbishness, while simultaneously declaring that they’ve played all the games multiple times.
While I will talk specifically about Fable, these are issues with several games surrounding player choice. I used Fable as an example so that I can cite specific examples easily, but there are many games where you can technically be gay or lesbian yet the storylines still follow heteronormative paths.
DO Allow Same-Sex Relationships in All Player Choice Games
Denying players the ability to pursue same-sex relationships is akin to denying that they exist in reality. Or assuming that only heterosexual players want to play your game. Obviously, this just isn’t the case. Since the first Fable game in 2004, the hero character could fall in love with most of the villagers and marry them regardless of their gender. Allegedly same-sex marriage in the first game was an error. But the player was free to flirt with and woo whoever they pleased.
In later games, NPC’s were given sexualities, such as gay, lesbian, straight or bisexual and could only fall in love with your character if their sexuality corresponded with their gender. In the third game, same-sex couples could also adopt children from the orphanage to extend their family.
This produced a normalisation of same-sex relationships, which wasn’t diminished by a demand for “historical accuracy.” (As the first few games have a fantasy medieval settings and the third game gives off Victorian vibes.)
That being said, it was the third game when Fable really began to fall apart.
DON’T Make All Romance Quests Heterosexual
Here is a little LGBT+ tip for game writers: Don’t spend two games setting yourself up as an inclusive game and supportive of same-sex relationships, then spend the third game writing in silly “gay jokes.”
Brian’s gnomes – which by the way is one of the most annoying side quests I’ve ever experienced in a game – are talking gnomes that scatter all over the game world, leaving it to the hero to catch them. When the hero is close, the gnome will start to insult you. Some of the insults are homophobic, transphobic and sexist, showing a lack of creativity on the writers’ part. Another homophobic instance in Fable III is during the quest The Game. Implied to be gay character Ben is portrayed as overly feminine and weak and is often made the butt of the jokes because of this.
The most irritating aspect of the game is the public’s attitude to the character wearing clothes designed for the opposite gender. NPCs will make lewd comments to you and ask what’s wrong with you. And despite having homosexual NPCs, quest characters are all heterosexual, with the exception of Reaver, any romance quests the player undertakes follow heterosexual relationships. If you’re a Prince in Fable III, for example, your love interest will be Lady Elise and in Brightwall you will be tasked with seducing Veronica.
If you’re going to create a life simulator game, it needs to include LGBT+ aspects, because, you know, LGBT+ people exist in reality. It’s a sad fact that not all life sims follow this rule. Even the most popular life sim of all The Sims, is a mixed bag.
DO Acknowledge the Existence of Same-sex Couples and Evolve With Gay Rights
From the very first The Sims, released in February 2000, same-sex relationships were part of the game. Adult Sims could engage in romantic relationships. They could even adopt a baby if they got to the phone on time! Same-sex marriage wasn’t a feature, but considering how little marriage affected the game, it wasn’t a big loss. Later in The Sims 2 gay couples could throw weddings and “join in union.”
Finally, in the third version same-sex marriage was finally a reality (as it was in The Sims Medieval, so you wonder what happened in their world to ban it in the first place!) Even when gay marriage didn’t exist, the game world was free of homophobia.
The Sims first came out in February 2000, and there have been plenty of life sims released after then that don’t even allow the option of same-sex romance, let along marriage. For that, you do have to offer The Sims at least some level of admiration.
DON’T Ignore the ‘T’ and ‘+’ in LGBT+
Despite acknowledging same-sex relationships since the very beginning, The Sims has, for most of its run, ignored the existence of trans people. It wasn’t until a patch was released in June 2016 that you could create Sims that were transgender. You could select a series of gender characteristics and tailor them depending on how far your sim was in transition, along with transitioning existing sims.
While the patch is great, it’s disappointing that it took sixteen years. The patch also doesn’t take into account genderfluid or non-binary people.
It could be argued that the player could decide if a character is trans or not without it being mechanically incorporated, but given how much it means to people to have that detail in a game, it’ something that creators really need to consider.
Speaking Up For Small Voices
It’s not really a coincidence that the games I’ve been talking about have been triple AAA games. It’s both joyous and disappointing that, generally, Indie Games have their stuff together when it comes to including the SAGA community.
Games such as last years Dream Daddy, as I already mentioned, allowed characters to be trans. It also included a trans character and showed a great diversity of characters. Pyre is one of the few games that allows characters to use they/them pronouns, instead of binary pronouns. Other LGBT+ themed games such as Genderwrecked, Butterfly Soup and Your Royal Gayness, prove how easy it is to create games with these themes and to do so in a respectful manner.
Unfortunately, like with any Indie Game, some just don’t get the attention they deserve. An example of this was a start-up for a phycological horror game, Pink, White or Blue, which centred around the struggles of gender dysphoria. Despite having a unique idea and a chilling trailer, the game only received a small amount of it’s Kickstarter goal.
It would be great if one-day triple AAA games will make the same effort Indie Games do to make people feel included. It’s amazing and to the eternal credit of the Indie Games community that creators with much smaller budgets and development time can successfully do what bigger brands are still struggling with.
Moving Past Pride Month
Any games studio who pats themselves on the back too much for adding in SAGA representation is probably doing it wrong. Although that could be said for a creator of anything in media. These guidelines shouldn’t be viewed as linear paths to follow. Merely suggestions on how to improve the representation of the transgender and queer community.
At the end of the day, it’s not hard to incorporate LGBT+ or SAGA paths for games. Allowing a character to use gender-neutral pronouns isn’t harder than adding in both he/him or she/her. And allowing characters to date any other characters is easier than reducing dating systems to heterosexual relationships. If you don’t want these elements in your game- then don’t play these paths. That’s not hard to do, but everyone has the right to feel included when playing their favourite video games.
The above are examples of things that have been done poorly- but more importantly things that have been done well! Thankfully increased representation in video games is becoming more frequent and has really improved in the last few years.
So, why not just chill out inside and celebrate Pride Month by playing a few of these games. And if your favourite game doesn’t have any representation, just decide who is LGBT+. No-one can prove your headcanon wrong!
Make sure to read our other features for Pride Month, Five Influential LGBT+ Indie Games & Gender Inclusiveness: It Costs a Little To Do a Lot .