“Mainstream computer games — if they have any gay and lesbian characters, they’re always playing a minor part,” says developer Ryan Best in the new Netflix video game documentary series High Score. Back in 1992, Best decided to address this lack of representation by creating Gay Blade, the first LGBTQ-themed role-playing game, in which players fight corrupt ministers and homophobic rednecks using tiaras, condoms and press-on nails. It may sound frivolous, but this game was actually Best’s attempt to process his trauma at the height of the Aids epidemic. As imagined spaces, games had long offered a home to marginalised people, including LGBTQ communities. Maybe it was time for queer people to start seeing themselves in the games they loved.
Today in 2020, we have recently had the release of the first major game with a trans protagonist, Tell Me Why, while a few months ago The Last of Us Part II broke ground as the first blockbuster game with a gay lead. It has been a banner year for queer representation in games, but given that Gay Blade started us down the rainbow road almost 30 years ago, why has it taken so long? And why is it that even today, when developers dream up blisteringly imaginative alien worlds, they still struggle to leave behind the oppressive gender norms of our society?
The first known LGBTQ game was 1989’s Caper in the Castro, where you play lesbian detective Tracker McDyke searching for a kidnapped drag queen in San Francisco. It was distributed for charity via pre-internet bulletin boards, but when the creator later wanted to sell the game commercially, he had to create a new version stripped of the LGBTQ themes, renamed Murder on Mainstreet. Queer stories wouldn’t sell.
So over the next two decades, in-game romance remained strictly heterosexual. According to not-for-profit researcher Queerly Represent Me, fewer than 10 games a year from 1988 to 2004 featured an LGBTQ character. When they did appear, queer characters were jokes or villains, their deviant sexuality set in opposition to heroism. Early developers had a fixed idea of the “typical gamer” they were writing for: straight, white, cisgender males. Games sold the chance to live a fantasy and it was assumed that nobody’s fantasy was to be queer or marginalised.
When LGBTQ relationships first appeared in gaming, they were purely optional. In The Sims you can choose to have homosexual relationships if you want, but you might never realise that the option is there. In the later additions to Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, the player is surrounded by companions who can be romanced regardless of gender. Following the romantic logic of these games, sexual preference doesn’t exist — each character is simply “player-sexual”, interested in your protagonist no matter the gender. This unrealistic depiction of sexuality is slightly updated in Dragon Age: Inquisition, where companions have fixed sexual preferences. Yet time and again, sexuality is simply presented as a choice of who a character sleeps with, rather than a core part of their identity with an attendant culture and history.
Blockbuster horror The Last of Us is the biggest series to grapple meaningfully with sexuality and gender identity. Its first expansion, Left Behind, tells a heartwarming story of queer teenage romance, leading openly lesbian character Ellie to become the protagonist in this year’s sequel, which centres on her relationship with another woman, Dina. This game’s LGBTQ storylines are not hidden behind a player choice. There is no “gay button” to click. The characters are multi-faceted humans, and they are queer, and you cannot choose to look away. Ellie encounters homophobia but she is not defined by it. In fact, her relationship is shown as nuanced, joyful and stable, and we, as players, end up begging her not to walk away from it.
Another major character in the game is Lev, a trans boy who grew up in the puritanical cult known as the Seraphites. Unlike Ellie, Lev suffers profoundly for his transness, and several queer commentators have criticised how his gender identity is depicted only as a source of trauma and tragedy. As an antidote, adventure game Tell Me Why shows a trans male protagonist who is relatively untroubled by his gender. The game, developed by French studio Dontnod, which cultivated an LGBTQ-friendly pedigree with its Life Is Strange series, tells the story of Tyler and Alyson Ronan, twins who return to their childhood home to unravel a family mystery. In the narrative, Tyler, a trans man voiced by trans actor August Black, who also helped develop the character, reflects on his testosterone injections and his thoughts about medically transitioning. This helps to normalise trans issues, representing a firm step towards more nuanced representation. There are also the rare game series, such as Borderlands and Saints Row, which feature queer and gender nonconforming characters with gleeful abandon.
It is only when we go to the indie games scene, though, that we encounter LGBTQ engagement beyond simple representation, finding a language of game design that is queer in the academic sense, challenging the power structures of gaming, both on and off the screen. The work of Anna Anthropy addresses BDSM and gender dysphoria, while Robert Yang digs into sex and intimacy in queer history, with games exploring explicit photography or the gay mythology around public toilets. In mystery game Gone Home, a young woman follows a trail of clues telling the story of her sister’s queer awakening. Meanwhile Dream Daddy asks players to play a single father, choosing from a selection of other hot, single dads to date. This year’s artful If Found . . . tells the story of a trans woman in Ireland, asking players to navigate the story using an eraser. With the mouse you rub out entries in the protagonist’s journal to reveal the story — a lyrical metaphor for how queer awakenings take us back, rewriting our biographies.
The queer community does not speak with one voice. Some want to see happy queer characters in games, whose gender and sexual identity is blissfully unremarkable. Others urge writers not to avert their eyes from the real hardships and threats faced by queer people daily, instead spotlighting messy stories of coming out and homophobia. Both are valid positions, but games today with queer protagonists are so rare that each is held to an impossible standard. This is why we simply need more. We need games that play it safe with LGBTQ stories and games that take risks. We need more queer people making creative decisions in the gaming industry. The representation we’ve gained is something, but it’s not enough.
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