‘Gay-mer’: Where are the gay characters in video games?

Christopher J Browne investigates why LGBT characters should feature in modern day video games.

Cortez; the gay character from Mass Effect 3
Cortez; the gay character from Mass Effect 3

After a narrow escape from the Reaper invasion of Earth I inspect my now familiar ship, the Normandy. Much of the crew has changed since I was last on board and I introduce myself to my new shuttle pilot, Lieutenant Steve Cortez. After a briefing on ship logistics I ask Cortez about his family back home. Cortez tells me about the loss of his parents when he was young and the more recent loss of his husband during a Collectors attack — it is at this point that I temporarily lose my immersion in Mass Effect 3. Did Cortez just say husband?

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) characters have featured in video games since the 1980s, however their depictions have evolved due to changing classification schemes and perceived societal expectations. Early game developers like Nintendo censored LGBT characters such as Birdo from Super Mario Bros 2 (1988), who was originally depicted in the game’s instruction manual as considering itself to be female and wanting to be called “Birdetta”. Many games were similarly censored to remove or modify LGBT characters when games were imported from Asia into western markets. Such censorship is no longer as common, however some classification boards such as the Entertainment Software Ratings Board exhibit heterosexism in their classification schemes; expressions of LGBT identity often fall under higher ratings such as M (Mature), whereas similar expressions of heterosexual identity do not.

‘Gay-mers’ reaction

I turned to the Internet (yes, the entire Internet) to ask how gamers felt about portrayals of LGBT characters in games. Many LGBT gamers (some amusingly choosing to self-identify as ‘gaymers’) felt underrepresented, left with a desire to see LGBT protagonists and characters that were more than stereotypes or token inclusions. Perhaps the most well-known examples of LGBT characters in recent years are in role-playing games such as Dragon Age, Skyrim, and Mass Effect. In all of these games, relationships are available with companions within the game as optional side-quests that are not crucial to the main storyline. In all of these examples same-sex relationships are available to players, and this is no doubt a positive move on the part of the developers. However these inclusions are not beyond criticism. In many cases, the characters are completely pansexual — sexually attracted to all gender identities and sexes — and are available to the player whether they are male or female. While somewhat progressive and inclusive, portraying characters in this way risks focusing too much on sexual attraction rather than romance. A side-effect of this is that LGBT characters are not portrayed as stereotypical — feminine males for example — but this is more a function of poor writing than any attempt to actually be cognisant of LGBT issues. This is typical of many gamers’ attitudes to LGBT characters in games — as long as any romance is well-written and relevant to the plot, most would not have an issue with LGBT protagonists.

Issues with LGBT characters

For those who did have issues with LGBT characters, the primary concern was an inability to relate to the player character. This seems an unfair criticism, given that LGBT players sit through countless games featuring heterosexual love interests and hyper-sexualised female characters.

Game development however is expensive and time consuming, and developers are often reticent to do anything but pander to their perceived market — heterosexual adolescent males.

The case for diversity

While this is just good business, the perception is wrong. When Will Wright first approached Maxis to create The Sims, he encountered resistance on the grounds that it was a ‘girl’s game’, and that girls don’t play video games. The Sims is now the top-selling PC game of all time, and up to 60 per cent of players are female. The Entertainment Software Association in the US reports that the average age of a gamer is now 37, and that 42 per cent of all gamers are women. In fact, adult women are 37 per cent of all gamers, and boys aged less than 17 are only 13 per cent. These demographics suggest that perhaps the world is ready for some more diversity in our games.

Not all believe the characterisation of Cortez was positive and it has received some negative responses from gamers who believe he was completely defined by his sexuality. I disagree. While the romance writing in Mass Effect 3 leaves a lot to be desired, Cortez is a character that just happens to be gay, rather than a character defined by his sexuality, or included to be tokenistic. Cortez spends much of his time talking about his lost partner, but this is not done in order to push his sexuality into our faces — Cortez lost a lover, and he exists to give a human face to the ordeal that the galaxy is facing. It doesn’t matter whether you are gay or straight, human or Turian, this is something that anyone can relate to. The fact that he is gay is immaterial, and so it should be.