Gaying Up Our Gaming

Sam Parish
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Sonic Colours (available for the Nintendo Wii and DS – buy now it’s really good!) opens with a song. A bright and breezy piece of synth-pop fluff containing such lyrics as “I’m gonna reach for the stars, although they look pretty far, I’m gonna find my own way, and take a chance for today.” Delightful stuff; an upbeat little refrain that perfectly encapsulates the Blue Blur’s ongoing attempts in the face of some less-than-stellar output over the last few years. However, on a personal note it always resonated with me and, I’d like to think, many in the LGBTQ community and beyond struggling with feeling out of place, and a desire to keep moving forward and make things better for us all.

So, no prizes to anyone who realizes that I’m here to talk videogames as a gamer; not strictly a “Gaymer” as I’ve always felt that I identified more as a dude with a joystick rather than a dude into joysticks. I do love you guys though.

For me, one of the first suggestions that I was an orange to my school friends’ apples came about thanks to videogames. Growing up I found myself curiously un-phased by the idea of getting my hands on Lara Croft’s fabulous 90s polygonal pyramids. Nor did I ever feel all fluttery at the idea, breathlessly whispered on the playground, of the fabled Naked Lara cheat. Years later it was Tomb Raider again that helped me come to terms with myself, when in my early teens I found myself getting all rumbly in the tumbly over 3D modelled man candy, Kurtis Trent. Deuteragonist of 2003’s much maligned Angel of Darkness. Damn son, that game had ninety-nine problems but that body wasn’t one.

kurtis trent tomb raider

But that’s enough about me, let’s talk about videogames! Namely, something which I’ve found preying on my mind more and more these days as I straddle the gaming and LGBTQ communities.

For those unaware, the gaming world is never knowingly bereft of controversy. Be it over DLC, industry greed, or the hilariously anti-consumer policies enacted by major corporations. The hot button topic recently has been the treatment of women, both in games and in the community at large. It’s a vital issue and the Quick Reads version is that it isn’t good, and needs a lot of work. As someone who has felt marginalized because of who they are, it struck a chord with me and I’ve been a vocal proponent of working to improve the situation on all fronts.

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This whole mess got me thinking a lot about how the LGBTQ world fits into the whole gaming shebang. As with women, I think that there are a lot of problems with how we are represented and what can be done to improve the lot for everyone who ever felt that they were born under our special lil’ rainbow.

Quite frankly the situation (forgive me) sucks balls. LGBTQ folks are at best marginalized, mostly ignored and at worst denigrated. This problem has become more pronounced in recent years with boundaries between creators, publishers and consumers eroding and participants becoming more open and diverse.

People tell me when I say such things that I’m over-egging the pudding. That there is no problem with LGBTQ representation, that gaming has become more diverse than ever before and that there have always been examples of queer characters in games.

Y’know what? I agree. It is true that gaming has become much more of an inclusive and expressive place lately and yes, from Final Fight’s Poison to Fallout New Vegas’ Arcade Gannon, LGBTQ figures have been found in gaming. But I refuse to accept the idea that there is no problem at all with how we are represented. If you break every bone in your body, bandaging an arm won’t change the fact that the walk to A&E will be a tough one. Gaming is getting better, but it’s not done. Not even close.

I think that the main hurdle faced by gaming is the absence/reluctance to include a major LGBTQ protagonist. Yes there have been great strides made in the indie scene. New queer classics such as Demon Chic, the works of Anna Anthropy, and projects like Gaymer X have all helped LGBTQ audiences and developers gain traction. Yet these are almost entirely “art house” projects; outsiders using their talents to speak for themselves and their experiences. No less impressive or important but sadly unable to make the really impacting strides on the gaming landscape that the giant triple-A mega-franchise makers can.

Pundit Jim Sterling (himself a glorious, furious B in our delicious LGBTQ sandwich) wrote a piece about how Nathan Drake of Uncharted fame should be gay. I completely agree. When it comes to acts of social and cultural progression it is the mainstream that will always be the vanguard, making a real impact on our popular culture. Television seems to be finally getting it, so why can’t videogames? I want to see a gay Nathan Drake, or a bisexual Lara Croft. Don’t give us dogs in Call of Duty, give us transgender marines, proud to openly serve their country as equals in the eyes of their squad.

But do we get that? No. We get ignored or given token appearances: The friendly NPC; the mission giver; the supporting role. In the eyes of developers and publishers we are best found on the sidelines of the cis, macho bro-down.

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But, people say, what about Skyrim? Or Mass Effect? Or even The Sims? What about the countless big name games available where you can choose whatever you want your avatar to be? Again, I concede that, yes, it is true that you can make your protagonists gay, bisexual whatever you want. Hell, Saints Row Two allows you to tweak exactly how much of each gender you want to be. This is all fantastic; it’s great to see players across the globe being able to make their experiences exactly as queer as they wish. But with the ability to blur gender and sexuality becoming more prevalent why doesn’t someone just take the plunge and give us an openly gay lead?

People tell me I should be grateful for being able to make my characters gay if I wish, and that this is the best result as it means that everyone can be happy without causing a fuss. My problem with this is two-fold. Firstly, it perpetuates the idea that being anything other than straight causes a “fuss” for people, and secondly whenever I get told that I can “choose” to be gay I’m reminded, a tad uncomfortably, of those in the real world telling me that being gay is a choice.  Bit of a leap perhaps, but I can’t help that. It just frustrates me that if I want to feel included in this culture I have to put in the leg work, I have to go to the game and hope it lets me. Plus, it restricts me pretty much to only role-playing games if I want to indulge in any kind of queer “triple A” excursions.

One of the main arguments against featuring an LGBTQ protagonist is that it might make the game “inaccessible”, or that it could only be done if it fitted the story being told, and that one section of the audience shouldn’t be the only ones “catered to”.  Well I’m sorry if including anything other than what might appeal to heterosexual thirteen year old boys makes you feel alienated; or that in your adventures as an undead, vengeful Spartan Warrior-God the idea of someone not conforming to strict gender binaries breaks immersion, but we do exist and inclusion does not require the entire industry to tie itself in knots to see that ONE and ONLY ONE audience’s needs are met.

To this idea that LGBTQ themes are only worth exploring if the story fits, I’d like to remind creators that you create the story. You are the architects of your virtual worlds. From the mysterious origins of our amnesiac hero to the curliness of the villain’s mustache if you want to include something you can just put it in. You’re allowed to, honest.

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And no, making your hero gay doesn’t mean that the entire game has to be them exploring the confusion and details of their sexuality. It can just be a fun action romp free of maudlin childhood flashbacks or sleepless nights grappling with the horrors of same-sex attraction.

Now I know that the industry has problems. It’s at a crossroads with bloated development costs and publisher greed strangling anything other than that which is guaranteed to be a blockbuster hit. I understand. I can’t respect it, but I’m not so naïve as to see the reality of what I’m suggesting. The videogame industry is a cowardly place and it just frustrates me that it’s left to smaller developers and creators to pick up the slack for those who publicly champion equality yet fear too much for their portfolios to ever embrace it.

In a world where bishonen cyborg-ninjas can kill cow mooing weapons of mass destruction with super break-dancing skills, why can’t my prince be in another castle? I’m not kicking down the door of an exclusive clubhouse and demanding attention. I’m just saying that there has to be room in the single largest entertainment industry on the planet for more than just the same old “heterosexual white guy does things solely designed for other heterosexual white guys” routine. Just look toward some of the breakout hit of the last few years! Today our most cherished gaming icons include a little girl and her adopted father figure, a limbless adolescent thingamajig and a genderless, scarf-wearing nomad. Gaming and its community are ready to embrace diversity. It’s up to the industry to start catching up.

Looking back, this article comes across as aggressive and angry. I suppose it is. But it’s an anger born of a deep love of gaming. It breaks my heart whenever someone is pushed away from this wonderful hobby because they feel that it isn’t “for them”. Gaming takes us to worlds of unimaginable fantasy and adventure. Where people can escape from the world and feel connected and a little less alone. Those holding up road-signs saying “No Girls” or “No Gays” who shut down anyone who is made to feel like an “other” by them do nothing but destroy something that can show the best and last of us.

Then again, with a new generation dawning and the meteoric rise of the indie developer maybe we’re seeing last of the bad old days. Maybe soon I’ll boot up the latest installment of Call of Duty: Modern Genocide and, after a long day of shooting brown people, return to barracks and kiss my virtual husband. Because I’m tired of feeling ignored and feeling that in the entirety of this grand gaming world if I want to try something made one hundred percent with gay audiences in mind I have to settle for things like this.

I sincerely hope that the world of gaming and its people can find their own way, and take a chance on today.

But until that happens, I guess I’ll just keep on running.

About Sam Parish

Sam Parish is a sometimes writer, cartoonist and soon-to-be teacher (God help us all). He has a penchant for pop/geek culture, expensive teas and empty hammocks. He was hoping to end this bio with a joke. He failed. Tell him what you think of him @SamOfAllThings

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