THE GENDER SLIDER – LGBT+ REPRESENTATION IN GAMING

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by Rob Harding

TW: Homophobia, transphobia.

On June 2nd, the latest in the life-simulating retail behemoth Sims franchise, The Sims 4, was patched to allow players to create non-binary and transgender characters. As IBTimes reported, the free update ‘unlocks over 700 items of clothing’ for either of the game’s binary genders, allowing ‘Female sims [to] wear suits like Ellen [DeGeneres], and male Sims [to] wear heels like Prince.’ This update has apparently been a year in the making in conjunction with GLAAD, but it was launched with little fanfare (most major gaming sites haven’t picked up the story, and there’s been comparatively little buzz online) and provided completely free of charge.

That last part was the most surprising for those versed in the gaming zeitgeist. EA, which owns The Sims’ publisher Maxis, is famous for its brutally exploitative commercial tactics and complete lack of corporate ethics, but they do have a surprisingly positive reputation for LGBT equality, at least amongst their workers. While it’s depressing that it took four massive games, sixteen years, 114 (and counting) editions and expansions and billions of gamer-hours of deleting the ladders leading into swimming pools to finally realise the dream of letting people put boy clothes on their girl Sims, it is encouraging that even a product like The Sims is finally starting to include people who aren’t just cisgender and straight.

it is encouraging that even a product like The Sims is finally starting to include people who aren’t just cisgender and straight.

Perhaps other recent events forced their hand. 2014’s Tomodachi Life by Nintendo received flak for ‘deleting gay marriage’ – on release, players could have their characters engage in homosexual relationships, a bug which was subsequently patched out (it caused a host of other issues with the game and wasn’t an intended feature). In response to the outrage that stemmed from the bug fix, Nintendo subsequently stated that they ‘didn’t intend to provide social commentary.’ As the attached article and the video below note, it’s becoming increasingly politically difficult for gaming as a medium to exclude minorities of any kind, and Nintendo’s attempt to avoid ‘social commentary’ inadvertently ended up highlighting plenty of issues all on its own. Nintendo has subsequently apologised and promised that homosexual relationships will be included in future games.

 

There are more than a few obstacles in the way of even a small change like the Sims 4 patch or Fallout 4’s bisexual, polyamorous relationship mechanics, however. The mainstream industry is even lairy of female protagonists, particularly at the publishing and executive levels, with the developers of the acclaimed The Last of Us having to fight tooth and nail to keep co-protagonist Ellie on the cover of the game, and Bioshock Infinite, a game dominated by damsel-in-distress-subversion Olivia, featured a large scowly man holding a gun against an American Flag on its cover for depressing reasons.

While usually not outright homophobic or transphobic, few mainstream or even indie games allow players any more option in character creation than male or female, and you can usually forget about well-written LGBT+ characters, either player-controlled or NPCs. From such gems as Poison, (a generic ‘sexy female fighter’ character made into a trans woman because ‘‘Hitting women was considered rude’ in America’, according to Capcom) to rampant tokenism and depressing stereotypes, the gaming industry has exhibited all the most problematic character tropes of the pop culture of the last three decades at some point or other. It’s not just LGBT+ characters – gaming culture and storytelling is very much a white, straight, cis-male space.

the gaming industry has exhibited all the most problematic character tropes of the pop culture of the last three decades at some point or other

This needs to change. The gaming community is famously dismissive and outright abusive towards people who suggest this sort of change, and a horribly toxic and (dare I say it) entitled attitude dominates the sub-cultural discourse and makes this sort of change difficult to push, but it is necessary. The potential exists in gaming for people of all orientations and gender identities to express themselves in a less-stressful environment, and for people to explore identities and orientations other than their own. Look at Gearbox’s Borderlands, which has plenty of quietly, openly bisexual and gay characters who simply exist, devoid of stereotyping or problematic tropes. Look at Rust, an open world survival game where your avatar is randomly generated and cannot be changed, including ethnicity and gender. The game’s creator, Garry Newman, has defended this as a design choice rather than a political one, but although criticism from across the spectrum (interestingly, transgender players were among those complaining that they’d been misgendered) predictably rolled in, the update increased the number of people playing Rust by 74%.

While perhaps not intended as a social experiment, the Rust team’s design choice has nonetheless produced heartening results – as Newman himself says in the Kotaku interview, ‘In another couple of months it will just exist without acknowledgement just as the skin colour stuff.’ Who knows, perhaps some of the more vehement misogynists and racists complaining about playing as a woman of colour might mellow out a bit when they’ve walked a mile in those simulated shoes. Even the otherwise gleefully… unsubtle Saint’s Row series has allowed gay, straight, and transgender characters to wield its signature giant purple sex toy and cockney accent, with Saint’s Row 2 even putting gender on a slider from male to female rather than a binary.

( Silent Storm character creation via Plus10Damage )

Even disregarding passive or deliberate attempts to change hearts and minds with good representation, the continued exclusion of female, non-Caucasian, and LGBT+ characters can only ultimately be a bad thing for storytelling in the medium.  Look at Atlas’ Persona 4 (2008). The game features a convincing, well-written gay male character whose homosexuality is a major plot point. His story arc is heavily tied into his attempts to reconcile a brash, masculine personality with the perceived femininity of his orientation. The Mass Effect games must be mentioned, although their presentation of relationships and sexual orientation is problematic as all hell (Short version: Sex is the set reward for consistently picking the ‘nice’ dialogue options with your chosen target, and ‘Dude, it’s okay, they’re not lesbians, the blue chick’s an alien.’) Still, by the third game they’ve finally included subplots for gay male and female characters.

Oh, and Failbetter. Failbetter. Developers of the wonderful (and free) Fallen London, which presents players with the choice of male, female or ‘My dear sir, there are individuals roaming the streets of Fallen London at this very moment with the faces of squid! Squid! Do you ask them their gender? And yet you waste our time asking me trifling and impertinent questions about mine? It is my own business sir, and I bid you good day.’ Failbetter is only an indie studio, but it’s a successful one, and their games are deliberately (and beautifully) written to accommodate any player, LGBT+ or otherwise.

As a medium, as an industry, as a way of expressing ideas, games have come a long way from two rectangles pinging a circle back and forth on a screen.

As a medium, as an industry, as a way of expressing ideas, games have come a long way from two rectangles pinging a circle back and forth on a screen. There’s a lot further to go in many areas, and there are those who are blindly and furiously determined to resist this change, as always, but the world’s youngest art form is coming along slowly. How can you help? Support (and buy) games that include positive characters if you like the look of them, do what you can to fight toxicity and prejudice online and keep an open mind. Oh, and go play Fallen London. It’s free, and it’s well worth your time.

Featured image © The Arcade

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