September, 2013 / Author:

The emergence of GLBTQ* characters is a small step toward inclusivity

Of all the contemporary entertainment mediums popular enough to generate multi-billion dollar industries, video games—and the gamers who enjoy them—have arguably carved out a more specific niche in our cultural imaginations than any other. And even though any credence given to the concept of an exclusive gamer-archetype has long since evaporated, the ingrained assumption that all controller-jockeys are white, male and straight has proven difficult to push aside.

For GLBTQ* players like Karmelle Spence-Sing, who identifies as bisexual, the experience of enjoying games often explicitly designed for the above subject is particularly unique. Spence-Sing, who lives in Winnipeg and has been playing video games since before she reached double digits, says the hotly debated inclusion of player-chosen same-sex romantic relationships in last year’s sci-fi blockbuster Mass Effect 3 was loaded with positive significance for GLBTQ* gamers. “That was kind of ground-breaking for the gaming scene,” she recalls, also noting she was impressed that Electronic Arts defended said inclusion amidst a backlash of criticism following the title’s release. It’s a big step in the right direction, says Spence-Sing, but there’s a long road ahead before GLBTQ* players can engage with the medium in the same ways as their non-GLBTQ* peers. “Beyond [Mass Effect], I don’t really feel like I ever got to know or connect to a character that was clearly or questionably gay in a video game,” Spence-Sing admits.

According to Winnipeg-based gay game designer Mickey Blumental, mainstream video games’ relationships with GLBTQ* issues and individuals aren’t just defined by their depictions (or lack thereof) of GLBTQ* in-game characters, but also by how virtual avatars—regardless of gender and orientation—are presented to the player. “[In most games] the females are very obviously sexualized, whereas the males are presented as these stereotypically masculine power fantasies for straight guys,” says Blumental, keeping in mind the target demographic pursued by the majority of developers. “But they (male characters) are not really ‘sexy’,” he adds. “They may carry big guns and have six-packs, but, for example, the groin area is going to be de-emphasized, like with Superman.” Blumental also points out how in many third-person games, the “camera”—the virtual lens through which players view the game world—tends to behave differently depending on the sex of the controlled character. With female avatars, camera angles will often shift to provide a greater focus on her posterior region, for example. 

To Blumental, the issue isn’t necessarily the presence of sexualization in games, but its discriminatory application. “I’d actually like to see a more sexualized male character show up sometimes, but developers are often afraid of ‘grossing out’ straight males,” he says. 

According to Jeremy Ritchot, another long-time Winnipeg gamer who, in addition to identifying as gay, interacts with said potentially-grossed-out players on a regular basis through online matches, gaming culture on the consumer end is a mixed bag in terms of its treatment of GLBTQ* issues and individuals. “I think it really depends on the games you’re playing,” he says, noting that games with greater complexity tend to attract more mature, respectful players, whereas mass-appeal titles can sometimes draw in the opposite. “Largely it’s been very positive for me, but there are also games that come to mind where I’ve encountered a lot of overt homophobia— lots of pejoratives and anti-gay slurs [from other players over in-game chat]. With a lot of online community-based stuff you find a lot of [homophobia], but at the same time you can find a great deal of acceptance as well.”

As for what the future holds, “I think audience expectations are changing, and will continue to change,” says Blumental, pointing out the recent ubiquity of GLBTQ* characters in other popular entertainment media. “Sooner or later, we’ll see that manifested in gaming more and more, even if it does seem to be lagging behind as a medium at the moment.” 


– Carson Hammond is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer


SIDEBAR:

More from the world of glbtq* video games 

Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, a 19-year-old transgender gamer hailing from Ontario, was crowned Canada’s top StarCraft II player in 2012. The popular realtime strategy game, first released in 1998, has been considered as South Korea’s national e-sport.

Other recent games besides Mass Effect 3 that allow for player chosen same-sex relationships include The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fable 3, and Dragon Age II.

 

One of gaming’s earliest depictions of an GLBTQ* character comes in the form of Super Mario Bros. 2 “Birdo”, described in the original Nintendo Entertainment System game’s manual as a male who “thinks he is a girl.”

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