Why queer visibility matters in video games

BY COLIN CAMPBELL

June is Pride Month. Many organizations use this time as an opportunity to look at the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in their respective sectors. For example, Jake Daniels recently became the first ever active English Premier League player to come out, prompting the football world to consider its own sluggish progress.

Gaming, like football, has a history of homophobia. Up until perhaps a decade ago, queer portrayals in games were often objectionable, relying on negative stereotypes like preening gay villains, or crudely drawn camp men. But that kind of nonsense is slowly being replaced by a celebration of diversity.

In the last ten years, games have begun to embrace LGBTQ+ characters in ways that are sympathetic, and that do not center the character’s personality traits around their sexual orientation. After all, 10% of gamers identify as LGBTQ+, according to a Nielson report.

The gaming industry itself is diversifying. Game creators are hiring more LGBTQ+ contributors. In its 2021 industry survey, the International Game Developer Association found that 68% of respondents identified as straight, 6% as gay or lesbian, 21% as bisexual, pansexual or demisexual, 3% as asexual, and 2% as queer.

Gayming Magazine is a comprehensive online resource that celebrates LGBTQ+ gaming, and serves as a crucial guide for games that portray gay characters and themes. Its annual list of LGBTQ+ games for 2021 listed more than 100 games that “you can be gay in, or are LGBTQ+ friendly in terms of narrative and representation.” The 2022 list currently features more than 20 games for each of the first four months of the year.

Some of these games embrace queerness as central themes, while others set a more interpretive tone, that allows LGBTQ+ players to enjoy stories that, by design, aren’t explicitly straight. Many games give players a choice between pursuing straight or gay relationships (known as “playersexual” options) while also allowing for a wide range of player-character gender choices. Some simply acknowledge LGBTQ+ players with character creation options that embrace diversity.

Queer portrayals

The Sims 4: My Wedding Stories is a major 2022 update for the popular social simulator, that was marketed in queer-friendly hues. In the trailer, two women fall in love and tie the knot. In their review for Gayming Magazine, Aimee Hart said that the game “allowed me to plan my dream, queer wedding… and it was definitely as queer as I could possibly make it.”

Still, publisher Electronic Arts initially declined to sell the game in Russia, claiming that the game’s LGBTQ+ content would contravene local laws. Following a severe social media pushback, particularly from Russian gamers, the game’s sale in Russia went forward. (EA stopped trading in Russia soon after, following that country’s invasion of Ukraine).

Not only can you choose same-sex relationships, but you can also customize your Sims’ pronouns now. In a recent update to the English version of The Sims 4, players have the option to select their Sim’s pronouns from a dropdown menu, which includes They/Them.

The Last of Us Part 2 was one of the biggest hits of  2020. Its central romantic relationship is a heartwarming love story between two young women, Ellie and Dina.

The Last of Us Part II (2004) [From Sony]

Unpacking is a game about a young woman moving house at various stages of her life. It’s a puzzle about literally unpacking one’s life into new spaces. During the course of the game’s story, the main character comes to re-evaluate her assumptions about herself. Widely acclaimed as one of the best games of last year, Unpacking won two BAFTAs for Best Narrative Game and the publicly voted Game Of The Year.

Microsoft’s Forza Horizon 5, released in November 2021, is a racing game with only a minor focus on player-characters. But the game goes the extra mile in its suite of character creation tools by allowing for a wide array of looks and styles, as well as multiple pronoun options.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a game about fighting demons, and dating a variety of people include same-sex, and non-binary options. It celebrates love in many different representations including straight, queer, poly, and asexual. Various dating options open up stories about wider issues like depression, social anxiety, emotional manipulation, and stalking.

Some of the most highly rated games of the last year allow players to play as gay. Playstation’s Lake is a beautiful story about a professional woman in her mid-30s who returns to her hometown to take on a job delivering mail. As she gets to know the locals, she can choose to engage in a variety of non-romantic, or romantic relationships.

Similarly, Life is Strange: True Colors is about a bisexual young woman called Alex Chen, who tries to solve the small town mystery of her brother’s accidental death. As she meets more characters, she is able to choose between a relationship with a man or a woman.

Noting Alex’s sexuality, Stacey Henley wrote in The Gamer: “She’s bi, whether she chooses to kiss Steph, Ryan, or nobody.” Alex’s sexuality is not determined by the sex of her partner. Henley adds that “it’s refreshing to see a character written from the ground up in this way, with all of the dorky shyness, raised guard, and ‘I Am Extremely Online’ energy that comes with being a 20-something bisexual in the 21st century.”

Life Is strange: True Colors (2010) [From square enix]

Bisexuality is still a rarity in games, as are relationships between gay men. Gay relationships between women dominate among LGBTQ+ in-game narratives.

“The normalisation of lesbian relationships over gay male ones in gaming does lend itself to another age old issue in video games: the fetishisation of female characters. It’s well and good to have lesbian romance and queer female characters, but if their inclusion is to pander to male audiences and be a source of titillation then the meaning and importance is completely lost.”

Eleni Thomas, Stevivor

Psychonauts 2 is a rare example. It features a warm-hearted story about two married men, Helmut Fullbear and Bob Zanatto, but narrative romance between men remains far less common than between women, and the suspicion must remain that titillation is often as much a contributing factor among some developers, as inclusion. 

Is The Gaming industry diversifying?

But progress is being made among community boosters. Since its introduction in 2021, the Gayming Awards has become a regular fixture in the gaming calendar. Last year’s event was watched by more than 320,000 viewers across Twitch and IGN, with sponsors including Electronic Arts, Xbox, Facebook, and PlayStation.

In early June, the second annual Queer Games Bundle went on sale, offering hundreds of independent LGBTQ+ games for $60, roughly the price of a single big budget game. (There is also a cheaper pay-what-you-want option). Last year’s inaugural bundle raised more than $112,000. One of the many games on offer is the acclaimed Later Daters, in which older people explore a variety of dating relationships on their own terms. Another is Do I Pass? In which a young transgender woman finds a magical artifact that allows her to see how others view her.

The biggest and most welcome change in how games are addressing LGBTQ+ characters and stories was neatly summed up by journalist Natalie Clayton, who wrote in PC Gamer about how gay people are mainly interested in simple representation and recognition, without always wanting to see big narratives about the struggle against prejudice and oppression.

“There are enough tropes out there of queer-coded villains or tragic gay couples that many queer players just want to see themselves represented in safer, more uplifting stories. There’s value in seeing stories where we just get to exist, without reliving very personal pains over and over again.”

Natalie Clayton, PC Gamer

Gaming’s push towards greater diversity – and away from its historical reputation for intolerant monoculture – is partly being powered by greater representation of LGBTQ+ characters and stories in games. This trend is likely to be bolstered as the struggle to increase real diversity in executive positions at big games companies begins to yield results.

While the gaming industry is taking steps to become more inclusive and represent positive LGBTQ+ characters and storylines, online gamers are still subject to harassment. Of 74% of online multiplayer gamers who experience harassment, 38% of women and 35% of LGBTQ+ players believe they are targeted on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation, respectively. Despite progress, gaming companies can still do more to create safer spaces online for all gamers.