Straight By Default: Gaming's One Size Fits All Policy
Okay, I’ve been thinking. I’ve recently discovered that I’m filled with ire by the lack of variety of sexuality and gender in the gaming world.
In popular culture, well, in all culture gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/ two-spirited people get lost in the overwhelming difference in population percentage. Let’s be realistic (yes, some people are not what they seem though they may never act on it) and give all of the above around 15% of the total population. Books, television, movies, games are all made for the main goal of profit. You need to sell more cake, so make the kind of cake most people want and thus you sell more cake. Oh sure, you can have some other flavours, even pie sometimes, but mostly you’ll have the one cake that most people want and the rest can either go along with that choice, make their own damned cake, or find a smaller bakery to suit their needs. This analogy is making me hungry for sweet things, and I digress.
When I was just entering my teens I found myself yearning for something in my entertainment that I did not fully understand at the time. I was drawn to certain characters in tv and film that emanated a certain energy or had characteristics I found interesting because they had something slightly off about them, slightly out of sync with the rest of the characters and archetypes to which I had grown accustomed. I soon found out what I was picking up on was the fact that they were gay, or as close to it as they could be to fly under the censor radar. I also found out I was gay as well. Super gay.
I remember searching through the local library for anything I could find on the subject. I feel as if it was a rite of passage to take those books up to a very sour looking older woman as she scanned them quickly and offered me such a glare that to this day I’ve not forgotten it. I needed to seek out gay content to satisfy this fierce need within me to feel normal. I needed to read, hear, and see experiences that mirrored my own. If I couldn’t find that in the media around me, I just had to go digging for it. Glares be damned.
For any person who identifies as “not quite straight” the ability to see media through pink glasses is surprisingly easy and instinctual. I would see characters on tv and just automatically think of them as gay, even if series canon dictated otherwise. I would just click it in my head that they were and proceed enjoying the material. For games, however, being able to read between the lines and read subtle facial movements in different ways isn’t that easy. There are no pink gaming lenses as of yet.
When I play games I set myself up to explore a world and go on an adventure, much as I would when reading a book or watching a film. I accept that this is someone else’s vision and story and that I am merely the audience. I also accept that making a game is a complex beast and certain choices need to be made. Hero: male or female? For a long time the choice was almost always male. For many of the “hardcore” games this still rings true. Only recently have games like G.R.A.W 2 included the ability to make your character a female, for online play anyway. My beloved Halo 3 simply has a female voice feature for online multiplayer. Yippee.
It was only when I played Jade Empire years ago that the strange feeling I was so accustomed to, just like in my teens, lifted. Jade Empire was my Xena of gaming. In Jade Empire I played a female character, but another female character reacted to me in the same way she would if I had chosen a male lead. I was astonished. I would refer to her as “my girlfriend” when I was chatting with my cousin as he watched me play. And when he played as a male character I would tell him to “be nice to my girlfriend” even though he chose to be super evil and sell innocent people to slave traders, and also kill my gf at the end of the game. What a bastard.
Jade Empire showed me that I was lacking in the fulfilling experience part of my play. That the majority of games took a certain road in storytelling that I had taken as an unbreakable norm until Bioware showed me that was incorrect thinking. They came back again with the much talked about “lesbian” sex in Mass Effect only this time their approach was a little flawed. The fact that you could be female or male was terrific. And getting with an alien? Brilliant. The flaw was that the alien had so many “female” characteristics, complete with a lilting voice. This excluded the male/male alien sex perspective entirely. Oh Bioware said it was a sexless being, but our eyes and ears said “that’s a she-lady!”.
Yet this game was so close to the mark for what I want in every game from now on. Bioshock? That’s First Person, so why not make a female character too? Give me the choice! Halo? Samus was a fully loaded cybernetic warrior, I don’t need much and the extra voice work is nothing with the pithy amount of lines Master Chief delivers. He’s super big anyway, what difference would it make to have a female version?
Fable let me woo any gender, but I was still locked into being male from the get go.
Now you may be saying, “What the hell! You can’t choose the sex/gender of every protagonist in a book or a movie! Suck it up!” No, I can’t do that. But those are linear, and in some ways, limited experiences. A game is an interactive story with so many gameplay variables, why can I not play through the story with the gender and sexuality (when applicable) I choose? Why can’t I play Halo as a woman? Why can’t I play the way I want to? When Cortana talks to the Chief with such a special fondness, why can I not experience that as a male or a female?
Games are engineered, and in this rapidly evolving art form why is it that I am forced to play as a man and have all interactions under the assumption that I am straight and I enjoy straight content. Bioware has shown that with a little extra effort this assumption can be removed from the equation altogether. That the experience of the game can be varied with no damage to the overall feel or plot of the game. Jade Empire is sadly my only example of this. There may be others I am not aware of, I hope there are, but right now what I am seeing and feeling in my playing experience is a limitation. And limitations in an arena of unparalleled freedom to create experiences and new visions of storytelling are a sad thing.
I understand it takes a huge amount of effort to make a game. Character animations, cinematics, voice acting, I get it. I understand that not every story can be told in a genderless way. I want to play Conan as a male, I want that kind of game too. What I am talking about here is the option for more. That the default setting on storytelling does not always fall into the majority cake factor. I want to enjoy a variety in games. I think now is the time to be critical of this tradition in gaming. Bigger, better games are coming and they are coming fast. I’m not asking for equality in those games, no that’s not the issue, I’m asking for variety. Let the vast human experience have just a wee bit more room in the realm of gaming.
I sincerely hope that the future of gaming is not constrained by a begrudging and slow acceptance of that other 15% percent. In the past twenty years gay and lesbian content has soared in books, magazines, tv, and film. I just hope it doesn’t take that long for the world of gaming to do the same.