Angry Robot

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.

7 comments on "Straight By Default: Gaming's One Size Fits All Policy"

  1. emma says:

    I really appreciate your article, this is so true…there isnt enough ,variation, of the genders and sexualities and etc etc, video games are more and more becoming about choice and customization etc, we are supposed to pretend that we are all these different people, but so so so often it is pretend that this man character is you and that you only dig females, meh, there is so much more to experience, maybe if we could have some gay characters (and not totally stereotypical lame ass ones) it would be nice for a change!

    anyways, to be honest i had this wicked response – did it yesterday, but all my programs closed on me, and well … bawls, i was too angry to do it again.

    sorry to hear about the librarian lady glaring at you, i wonder if she still works there, describe her to me one day…maybe I know her.

    anyways peace and choice!

  2. smbm says:

    i wanna be a wolf running wild through the woods ripping limbs from bad mofos…fuck people characters!! i don’t care if i’m a she wolf or a he wolf, as long as my fangs are HUGE and i can doggy style anything that comes my way!

  3. smbm says:

    all that aside though…excellent post and good points!

  4. Kris Abel says:

    Now that is a how an article on this subject is supposed to be written. It resonates with me very deeply and I’m super-straight.

    In my nine years of covering the industry, I’ve thought about and experienced this kind of conflict in a number of ways and would like to share my travels down this road.

    Here’s a few things that were considered laughable in 1999:

    – female gamers. The wisdom at the time was that they didn’t exist.

    – older gamers. Dismissed as an emotionally-stunted minority. Not to be taken seriously. Video games are just for little kids, 14 yrs and under.

    – Gay gamers. You know those teen boys that would pretend to be girls so they could prank other boys into flirting with them so they could laugh at them? The wisdom at the time was that they were the gay gamers.

    – video game careers. Becoming a game designer was like joining the circus or being a stand-up comedian, it wasn’t thought to be a real job, wouldn’t last, wouldn’t pay well, and brought shame upon the family.

    – video game jocks. Although the tide was just starting to turn thanks to Madden and Tony Hawk, there still was a strong residual feeling that playing video games was a sure fire way to lose your jock status, girlfriend and transform you into a pasty-white D&D nerd.

    – non-white or non-asian game designers. If you were black for example, playing video games is okay, deciding to become a game designer on the other hand is like deciding to become white. You’d be treated like you were turning your back on your people. Why couldn’t you pursue something more ethnic like a rap career or basketball scholarship? See you do that first, and then you get the white/Japanese boys to make a game based on you and you get paid to endorse it.

    Now in the past nine years, we’ve come a looong way on most of those points, mainly because society has matured and perceptions have changed.

    Efforts to try to engineer the industry to change, such as forcing a wave of “female-oriented” game resulted, quite infamously, with “Barbie Horse Adventures”. Instead it has to come naturally and from other stimulants.

    The biggest factor for change on these issues came, I noticed, when video games began to eclipse movies and music in sales. Suddenly society began to take it seriously. Suddenly it was okay for young adults to pursue a career in the industry. Suddenly it was okay for girls and ethnic minorities to take an interest. Suddenly it didn’t seem so childish and it was okay for parents to admit they played games.

    Suddenly a wave of minority voices felt it was okay to join the industry and their ability to contribute inside has helped bring about the variety we do have. Yes we still need a lot more variety in the games being offered, but that will come when there’s a bigger variety of voices joining the industry, and sadly, based on my experience, there are very few applicants. The industry isn’t biased, a little challenged in the communications department, but always open to new voices with strong visions.

    Throughout my career I’ve come across a number of people, from a number of different minorities, who have shown interest in the industry, but even with my encouragement, chose not to pursue their interests, much to my disappointment.

    More often than not, when the industry feels a little tug on its sleeve and it hears a little voice say “please, I want to be a game designer” it’s a straight white male doing the tugging and that is what has to change.

    Based on my discussions with staff from BioWare, the gender variety with both Jade Empire and Mass Effect came about because there are individuals within BioWare who pursue it as a topic of discussion, who constructively initiate an exploration into allowing different romantic storylines. They pursue it as an artistic issue more than a political one.

    We need more voices like that.

    Your article illustrates perfectly that it takes someone with your kind of experience to create the kind of storylines and characters that can add value to a mixed gender video game.

    We need more voices like yours.

  5. Jordan says:

    Ever played Final Fantasy X-2? All three of the playable characters in that game are women. That was cool. However, they spend a lot of their time collecting dresses (technically “dress spheres”) that give them their abilities. The mechanic of collecting and using dresses was actually sort of fun, but it was frustrating that the first RPG with an all female cast of PCs was relegated to this stereotype.

  6. Mags says:

    Nice work Nadine. This kind of funnysmart stuff really raises the bar here at the ‘bot.

  7. Nadine says:

    @emma – no i think she is long gone, but you remember those days back in the day, the library was so not as cool as it is now that you are part of it!

    @smbm – there is that wolf game that let’s you run around and learn facts about wolves…made for educational purposes though…but you can imagine the humping action i’m sure.

    @Kris – man, thank you for all these shared thoughts! see, i never thought about it that way, the “tugging sleeve straight, white, male” way but of course it makes perfect sense. hopefully with time and industry expansion this can change, like i said though, hopefully sooner rather than later!

    @Jordan – I have not played a Final Fantasy since Mystic Quest (though my love affair with Lost Odyssey may change that soon) but I did hear that there was alot of singing in that one. Was that the singing one? Anyway, I agree it’s awesome to have an all female cast but ugh to the tired sterotypes. Another thing I kinda dislike with female characters is the split between super femme and uber butch but still they are both straight. My gaydar goes ow-pop when that happens. I’ve totally made Ming and Seth have a super steamy history in my mind in Lost Odyssey.

    @Mags – Indeed, sir! Thanks!

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