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.
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.”