When people think about social progression and equal rights, the video game industry is certainly not the first place considered to be a forefront of change — if it is even considered at all. Look to the fringes, however, and it becomes apparent that smaller gaming studios and a progressive fan base are pushing the envelope to make game narratives more inclusive.
“Art normalizes a part of society that people are currently afraid or unsure of,” YouTube Gaming personality Andrew Eisen told SFGN, “Video games and media helps to normalize things that should already be normal.”
According to Eisen, the evolution of gay characters on Television — from the inclusion of ‘token,’ almost satirical characters to narratives completely centered around LGBT individuals — has served as a precedent for social change.
Eisen pointed out that while TV is a bit ahead of video games in terms of queer representation, there is still an increasing push for LGBT media representation in games as well as the establishment of an LGBT presence in gaming conventions.
In early September, PAX West — a large game and media convention — held a panel discussion titled “Queering up Misconceptions: LGBT Game Industry Life,” and answered questions facing the industry such as the state of queer content in games, and the struggle of balancing identity and fitting in.
Another gaming convention, GaymerX, held in November, is geared fully toward LGBT inclusion and advocates for a more accurate representation of diversity in video games.
“Video games and media helps to normalize things that should already be normal.” — Andrew Eison, YouTuber
“We focus on creating a fun and safe space for gamers and gaymers of all identities to have fun and hang out with like-minded folks. GaymerX is a ‘queer space,’ but is made for everyone,” reads the description on the GaymerX website. We stand side-by-side with any communities who have been left out of or discriminated in mainstream gaming culture, and we are dedicated to providing a unique, safe, harassment-free space for all marginalized people.”
The push for more representation in video games has gained momentum, but much of the LGBT community and its allies remain disappointed in how diversity — or lack thereof — is presented in mainstream games.
Professor Adrienne Shaw of Temple University is in charge of the world’s largest and constantly expanding archive of LGBT content in games. Shaw has seen the progression of LGBT inclusion in video games and has pointed out the obvious disparity between the diversity of the gaming community and the heteronormative tendency of the gaming industry.
“Most games are focused on mainstream heterosexual audiences,” Shaw said. “There is a lack of queer world-building in games, usually there are only rare LGBT characters in a primarily heterosexual world … there seems to be more queer representations in video games offered as side content. Same-sex relationships options and LGBT content has been pushed as optional content.”
Most consider the gaming audience to be largely heterosexual, and thus releasing games that don’t primarily cater to a straight audience can be seen as financially dangerous. However, contrary to popular belief, gaymers make up a significant portion of the gaming community.
A 2006 “Gaymer Survey” from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with over 10,000 respondents, measured the sexual orientation of gamers based on the Kinsey Scale — a measurement of sexual orientation as a spectrum. The results showed that only 28 percent of respondents were completely heterosexual, 23.4 percent completely homosexual — the remaining 48.6 percent fell somewhere in between.
As the survey shows, LGBT players are very common — and they are pining for more representation and mainstream queer content in games and storylines. However, it is ultimately the job of game developers to incorporate more gay, bi and transgender representation in their projects.
The majority of big-studio game developers are straight white males, according to Eisen. And while it may not be on purpose, they tend to design games with character representation skewed heavily toward their own heteronormative demographic.
“Straight white males don’t deal with issues of ‘erasure’ or ‘othering;’ we’ve always been there,” Eisen said. “[They] are so used to things revolving around them [and] are not used to, or scared of, something new being introduced.”
Game developers may also have some reservation in creating inclusive context because of marketing, according to Luke Karmali, writer for video game news source IGN.
Openly gay game writer Lucien Soulban told Karmali in a 2014 IGN article that, “fears of damaging sales would be the main stumbling point block in securing support for a homosexual protagonist, asserting that unless publishers were convinced otherwise, a gay lead is likely to remain a pipe dream.”
Developers want to play it safe and avoid financial pitfalls that “controversial” LGBT content may lead to. But small-scale studios and community “modders” have created content that has been widely appreciated, meeting with much more encouragement than dissent.
The PrideParade mod for Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 5 was a collaboration between Stockholm Pride and some of the game’s community members and was very well received by fans of the game.
“The Grand Theft Auto games have the largest amount of LGBTQ content in video games, and it isn’t all offensive,” Shaw said. This content includes vanilla content as well as mods from a thriving community of LGBT modders.
If player-created LGBT content has been so widely received and accepted, then why is it such a long shot for larger publishers to start doling out more inclusive plots and content? TV and movies have already begun exploring queer stories much to the appreciation of their diverse audiences — it is time for video games to do the same.
“Gaming is one of the youngest entertainment mediums but it threatens to stunt its growth without acknowledging that there are many people who play games,” Karmali wrote. “Our world and other entertainment forms are more inclusive than ever, and it’s time games caught up.”