What does the state of queer representation tells us about video games?

Representation in video games as been over the years a question starting a lot of debates and its fair share of controversies. More and more we discuss about the implementation, necessity and validity of representations in general, whether it be ethnicity, gender or sexuality, minorities are a sensitive subject in any medias, especially in video games. We are going to dive into the impact it has on the industry, the reasons that drives the decisions behind having representations or not in a game  and the different ways it has been used.

Queer representation in video games is a recent dilemma for creators, when video games were young the question wasn’t such an issue, stories and character weren’t as developed, it wasn’t about conveying messages and making statements. But as it grew up over the years, it was more and more considered to be art, and art is political, in its content and in its form but also in its context of production, so it was inevitable that queer representation was coming to fruition. It is however important to note that the topic of representation does not exist in a vacuum, it’s ultimately intersectional, we can’t take only queer representation into account when discussing this even if this will be our main approach to it. But let’s not forget that those issues affect people of color, people with disabilities both mental and physical, women or any other marginalized group. Even if we don’t dive as deep on those communities, there are still queer people who happens to be a part of those other communities and their voices must be heard and listened to. The standard main character in the past and even nowadays is a cis dyadic white heterosexual male with no disabilities, and many game stories in the past, when there was a story, were just about a man trying to save his girlfriend or even a princess, the old damsel in distress trope. It is a trope that is not bound to video games however, coming from literature and cinema, it is just an easy way to put together à story, or just an excuse for when stories aren’t the main goal. Even if this trope seems outdated by now for most people, the logic behind this normalisation seems natural today. For many gamers they don’t even acknowledge or question the dynamics behind this archetype that is always shown in a protagonist and how it affect the vision of other people playing games. Moreover the power dynamics in the industry can simply block out new protagonists with different identities to emerge. For example the fear of not pleasing the main crowd of gamer led to many studios rejecting the Dontnod plans for Life is Strange because a woman (and a bisexual one at that) as a protagonist wasn’t fitting their editorial lines and because of the profits at stakes. 

This is a serious issue affecting a lot of people around the world and delving on political problems, of course some countries don’t accept LGBTQIA rights, but even those who do have still political battles to win for protecting and adding rights that are important. It is often taken for granted that LGBTQIA issues are getting better over time and that we don’t have to do much anymore, but this is far from the truth and censorship, editorial pressure and simple biases are very much still real and still there.

But what is a queer representation exactly ? What is a queer game ?

How do we define this? It’s not all about some characters in a game , it can be more subtle than that. Another important point to address is the creative process and the people involved in it. Queer game workers exists and they have a different vision on life through their own experiences that influences their creative process and can be seen in their creation. It’s important to check how much of this vision is taken into account in the editorial line of the studio, how marketing and producers are willing to let those persons express themselves and how they are treated in their work environment. 

Something worth noting as well is what queerness mean, its origin, it is a slur that was used against LGBTQIA people for a long time and that have mostly been reclaimed by this community. It means odd, different, weird, strange, freakish it strays from the norm, and it is this part that is mostly reclaimed. The norms are something we are fighting against, we don’t want to fit neatly into them. In a sense I would argue that a queer game can be one that defy the rules, norms of the industry, one that is unusual in its way to approach game design, or any aspect of game making. For example Motion Twin, the indie french studio behind Dead Cells, have all their employees own an equal part of the society, with every employee getting an equal pay. And as we can see in Pride parades, there is a big anti-capitalist movement within queer communities, as the interests of a capitalist society often contradicts with our identities and needs, and an indie studio that tries a new mode of production could be debated as to be a queer characteristic. A game like Baba is you, which as a really odd game concept, and revolves around unusual mechanics while being a cute little game that does not make statement for queer people, can it be considered as something that would characterize it as something queer? This is something we see more in indie games and as we’ll see later, the link between indie games and queer games is significant. 

We can notice that on projects that have a majority of queer creator, even outside of video games, there are recurring themes that are closely linked to queer culture without necessarily being character representation, the recent cartoons She-ra and the princesses of power and Steven universe both have queer showrunners and have a lot of important themes in common that are themes you see when you go in LGBTQIA places. Themes such as relationships (in many forms not only romances but various forms of friendships, toxic relationships,  relationships struggles) that are often treated with a very compassionate eye, Self discovery, self doubt and self care, acceptance and respect of differences, the emphasis on empathy and openness about feelings and distress and the deconstruction of roles in societies (especially gender roles), diversity (and not only in gender or sexual orientations, in ethnicity, body shapes, experiences etc…) all of those are frequent themes in LGBTQIA medias. This doesn’t mean that those themes inherently make a game queer, however it contributes to it. Even in mechanics, we could argue that the base of Undertale’s gameplay is queer in the way it was thought out; for example, sparing and helping creatures to understand them in alternative to fighting/killing them. It’s very queer thematically, this determination to help other that are different to accept and respect them despite those differences. To stay on the Undertale example it comes from a very queer place in its roots, inspirations from Earthbound which had a gay character that for many adults nowadays was there first encounter with the existence and representation of a gay person, the mark of Homestuck that is a really queer webcomic, and webcomics themselves being very indie queer places as well. The queer representations that are present in Undertale are not the only thing we can perceive as queer in the game, even though it’s the most obvious to see.

Also the queerness can come from the world building itself, a place of acceptance, that have no cis-heteronormativity to it, the world can be very queer friendly without having precise depictions of queer characters in the story. And even beyond queer acceptance just global inclusivity and care for people’s differences, cultures, origins, handicaps etc… And even with character representation, depending on how they are portrayed, the intent behind the implementation of said character, there is not always a clear way to define the game as queer, for example old games had trans representations that were transphobic or at least clumsy a lot of the time such as Birdo’s description in the first steps of Mario series. This is why the involvement of queer staff in a game is important, to have a different perspective and a more accurate way to show queerness.

What is a good representation ?

It is hard to pin down what makes or makes not a good representation. There are various aspects to take into account, the intentions behind it, the documentation/research on the subject that have been made, the context etc… That being said as the experiences of queer people are unique there is a lot of different way to depict queerness. There is debates within the community in the way to represent LGBTQIA people, does it have to be subtle, clear, does it have to be a main theme or just a normal thing that happens in the background, does it have to be extravagant ? But ultimately if one of the goals is to show queer folks around the world that queerness is normal, acceptable and that we support them and we want stories to be relatable to them, we need as many different ways to write and show those experiences as we can. 

There is this vision of ‘the good gay’ character trope, the one that don’t talk too much about it, the one that is conforming to cisnormativity, and even sometimes heteronormativity sometimes, in their actions or behavior, and this is a fine depiction of it, but not all gay people are like that, we need diversity in representation and not only those who fit the normes, because not everyone does. There should be no shame to be feminine for a gay man for example, some gay men are, as the opposite should not be a source shame either, if we want to fight the norms we need to show that we exist on a spectrum and that anywhere we fall on this spectrum is a valid way of existing, queerness is about inclusivity in the end. But even while working on a spectrum, we must be careful, depicting terrible people as being queer can depict reality, there are horrible people everywhere, but if it is the only queer character in the game this can really damage LGBTQIA players. You need to show multiple side if you are going for a bad person with a queer identity, show other character to let the audience now that it’s not because of this identity that they are like that, that other can be cool people. For example a writer from Kotaku explained that Street Fighter characters kept her from coming out, the shame of the stereotypes of predatory bisexuals, the hypersexualization done for a bad purpose, a lot of people before coming out struggle with internalized discrimination of their own identity, seeing it as vile or disgusting, and when you play à game that just confirms those thoughts it can be really damaging, lets not forget the really high suicide rate of queer children. The most important part is to make it clear that it’s not the representation of an label as whole like an unmovable block, it’s not absolute. So the more identities and ways to express them we put in a game the more we can go wild in the various ways that are in our grasp to represent them. And that’s often the issue, especially in AAA, when there are representations, it’s often a single character, that is more or less fitting a lot of norms and it doesn’t really shows how they experience this part of their identity. Some may claim that LGBTQIA are a small percentage of the population and should be represented as such in medias, but even if that allegation was a valid point in terms of the necessity of representation it still wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of real life, because in the end queer people often have a lot of queer friends, they reach for communities and often try to make friends that can understand this things they experience, to share these experiences and feel understood. Isolated queer people are often (not always of course) in the closet, or in harmful environment toward LGBTQIA people. So if the goal was to be accurate, there should be more representation of diversity in a single game when the games try to represent a community. Of course not all game have to tackle deeply queer themes, not all games have to depict queer experiences as a main plot point, there is a need for just normalization of queerness with just simple depictions that doesn’t affect stories too, the thing is we need both, we need every kind of representation it’s not one or the other if we want to make improvement to this aspect of video games.

Why is it important ?

As a transgender person I rarely saw any representation of transgender identity in any media growing up, I didn’t even know the thing existed until it was brought up to me by a friend at a later point in my life. Up until this point I had no idea why I was feeling the way I was or even that I could start transitioning, and this is a common story among LGBTQIA folks. Representation in any media brings awareness, it brings attention to issues we otherwise wouldn’t discuss or even realize existed in the first place, it helps people feel like they are not abnormal if their heroes are the same as them. And video game as a media is touching a lot of young people questioning themselves on various topics and sexuality and gender can be a part of this searching phase. There is a lot of people telling their stories about how certain characters helped them discover and accept themselves. Some people use video game as escapism from difficulties in real life, and when those issues may include fear of coming out, discriminations or uncertainty about one’s identity, it can be a relief that at least there, there is hope, or comfort in the fact that they are not alone. But also information can save lives, for intersex people, knowing about their condition, that they are not alone and sometimes just knowing why medical staff makes them undergo treatments, and with that information knowing they have choice over that and most importantly can shed some light into the very abusive ways that a lot of intersex people are treated by medical staff.

It is also very important to bring up this subjects for non queer people, indeed video games as a medium can be used as a lense to see a world through another characters eyes, seeing their own struggles and how they face them, how it impact them and their point of view on the world surrounding us. It can be a tool for empathy, understanding and awareness even for people that are not directly living those experiences. Representation also can help normalization, the more common it is to see queer representation the more it will be normal to expect it and accept it, both in games and in real life, because violences against LGBTQIA people are still real on various levels, and one of the purpose of art is to show those things and fight to change them. If we are to consider video games as art we must admit that they are bound to get political, to convey meaning and that in this context everything we put in as well as the way we put it in can be a message in itself and we should put some thoughts into it. Especially in a world where those themes and identities have been marginalized and used in every medias at some point, and to some extent even now, as a comical element or jokes.

Also Censorship is still a very real thing in many countries to various degrees, even in US and europe. Not only in Video Games, in any media, for example Steven Universe, one of the queerest show for children, as been censored in russia, in UK, and even recently in my own country : France, and sometimes those censorship can seem like they are nothing, but they show a clear political agenda. In France Intersex rights are in danger and doctors perform surgeries or hormonal treatments on children without their consent and in opposition with european standards, trying to let families uninformed of what intersex means and forcing them to fit in the norms dictated by society. And strangely when an official video of a character from Steven Universe comes out as intersex, the mention of this fact is removed entirely, leaving other identities intact, just removing this one. Some countries just flat out changing character or erasing them to fit political agendas. A few examples : Vivian in Paper Mario which is transgender in the japanese version but was changed to be a cis woman in the english version, erasing any dialog that mentioned her identity, but even recently Tracer being a lesbian in Overwatch is currently censored in Russia, Beaty Nova in Pokemon X&Y is hinted to be a transgender woman in the japanese version and the english localisation completely removed this part, and there are a lot more examples. This proves that this is still a touchy subject and that queer themes are not accessible for all in the world of today, and most importantly that companies are willing to censor it. It is important to raise those issues to make a better place for queer folks around the world.

The state of the video game industry

In the past we had a tendency to put queer characters as villains in media, because queer coded characters (as in characters that have behaviors or looks that reference queer culture without explicitly being queer) where an easy option for an enemy, consciously or not this was a mind set for many medias not so long ago. Most of the Disney villains for example are heavily queer coded, saying implicitly that the way they act (and i am not talking about the evil things they can commit, but the gestures, the way they talk and dress etc…) is evil and not normal. Video games weren’t as touched by this trend but still many queer coded or simply queer villains have been seen in video games such as Birdo in Super Mario Bros 2, gay men as a standard enemy in Vendetta, a lot of antagonist from the Final Fantasy series are queer coded in the same ways as Disney villains are (which is not inherently bad but is worth noticing). Then with more and more acceptation of queer themes as something less vile, we went from queer coding to queer baiting. Queer baiting is the process of promising or making unclear statement or announcements around the queerness of a character to attract a more progressive/LGBTQIA audience when in the end there is no canon presence of said queer characters in the final product. It is a tactic often used in series and movie trailers or marketing communication to profit off the lack of representation in media without offending the more conservative audience. We see less of that in video games than in other medias and this is a positive thing to observe.

But currently big companies can’t afford to be homophobic or transphobic out loud, for their own brand identity that could be damaging because the issue is heavily politicised. But that doesn’t mean they actively fight for LGBTQIA rights or representation, a big part of the gaming community is reluctant to the idea of having those progressive themes pushed into their games. Whether because of conservative ideology or just because they somehow think it’s not worth it and damadging creative process even when the same thing pushed for cisheteronormative content isn’t questioned as a creative and/or political decision; it still creates a lot of dissention inside the gaming community with reactions to any stance from a company on this issue flourishing all around the internet. Even if we would love to close our eyes to the world around us and think that homophobia is over, it’s very easy to go under any game reviews on steam from games including gay characters to see that in the end, a lot of gamers are not happy to see this type of content in their games. this puts a lot of pressure for any studio because losing money over a character can be seen at not worth it. Status quo is political and thinking of that in queer terms, going against that norm and changing it is in itself queer.

Even simple mentions of character’s gender identity or sexuality, with no depth or the explorations of those themes at all can spark fierce debates all over the web, for example Apex Legends had many player annoyed, confused or downright angry for the simple mention of characters being LGBTQIA, some arguing that it shouldn’t be part of a character’s bio, some that it is propaganda. Even a lesbian kiss (which is a safer bet of representation to put in a video game for big studios because female homosexuality is seen as less problematic by conservatives and is often fetishisied by men, which is rooted in another forms of homophobia and misoginy) has seen the emergence polemical debates from the Last of us Part 2 trailer, with people saying that the games was being ruined by lesbians or that the games where being too politicized, but any piece of art in any media of any form is politicized, as it shows a vision of the world through an artists, or an artistic team’s eyes. Everything is political and video games have already been for a long time, but this old vision of the medium as “entertainment for kids” is somehow latent even in those who defend it, simultaneously saying that games are not to be taken seriously and therefore not considered political while saying that video games are art, which is deeply contradictory. But sometimes it’s the other side that voice their disagreement, when characters are seen as poor representations of queer experiences it also can lead to issues for the sales or reputation of a game, the transgender representation in Mass Effect Andromeda has been under fire after it’s release, people saying that it was poorly implemented. 

But often queer people are just glad to take any representation they can and are not too picky because we can’t afford it because of the general lack of it. In this climate it can be difficult even for writers that are willing to put queer representation, because they could endanger their studio or their career over a misstep or a backlash from both sides. Rhianna Pratchett, writer for Tomb Raider stated that she intended Lara Croft to be gay, but at the release of the game she thought that Crystal Dynamics wasn’t ready. It shows how the state of things is toxic to the point where even writers can get scared of expressing themself as they want because of the reactions it creates in the community and the impact it can have. This is an interesting factor and it makes us realize what the people who buys those games can have a significant impact on the industry on many levels, and this can be seen as a  dangerous problem, because it can lead to people deciding for creators what they should and shouldn’t put in their games, destroying a part of creativity and decision making on the creative process. But sometimes it’s the staff itself that outside of the projects talks about how they experience those things and how they see their own characters, for example Ashly Burch, the voice actress of Chloe Price from Life is Strange said that she considers Chloe to be genderfluid as the person who plays her, even though it is never specified in the game. Though Life is Strange is a very queer game with really good representation of female lead characters and LGBTQIA experiences, it is interesting to see how the staff gets involved and goes even beyond. 

Another fact that we can analyze is that the further we drift away from AAAs and big productions, the smoother it gets for queer creators and queer content, with a rise of indie queer games. Queer culture has always been linked to underground/countercultures as it comes from a marginalized group, in cinema to, queer films are often indie movies, it is not surprising to see that mirrored with video games. As often big production are about fighting, war, themes that even if they can include queer themes are not the kind of stories that are the most used or suited for queer culture. Most titles that are overtly queer are story based games such as Life is Strange, Night In The Woods, Undertale, Dream Daddy, Gone Home, these are essentially interesting because of their stories and relationships between characters, the gameplay does not revolve around fighting for the sake of it, and indie games tends to try new things, to stray from those norms we created for video games about killing monsters and people etc… Which mirrors a lot of the queer theories of getting away from the norm and question it. Also big companies can be very discriminatory in the way they treat queer employees, more and more developers speak out about their experiences of harassment in companies and working conditions. This can scare queer people from working with big studios and go into indie productions where they feel safer and can express themselves. Which in turns allows those same persons to create queer content that was repressed by direction or by fear of repercussion in the AAA industry

What are queer gaming & game communities?

What characterize queerness around games, queer gamers seem to be interested in certain games more than others. From the point of view of a queer person playing games, choosing one that offers them the opportunity to experiment with clothes, styles or gender can be quite attractive of course, allowing them to be more familiar with things that they wouldn’t want to try in public. It can also allow escapism or soul searching through representation of gender identities & sexual orientation we might not have thought about, or that to help with questioning our identity, even maybe finding answers. But that’s not all there is to it, I don’t think that those aspects of a video games are the only ones that attract big queer audiences and make them create communities even if obviously it plays a big role. There is also a certain fascination from queer folks for games that gives an opportunity to be in a world that feels safe, even without explicit representation. For example games such as Animal Crossing that is a big case of chill game where you feel safe had a big impact on the queer community, a lot of LGBTQI+ people fell in love with the game. Many queer people created communities to talk and shar about their in game experience on social media. A reason for that could be that having a game that has a really cute aesthetic while somewhat depicting life and routine in a simple fashion, and at the same time not having the presence of the omnipresent discrimination that we face everyday. Not only that but queer people are on average more likely to be kicked out of their homes, being paid less etc… so having a haven that gives room to escape from this daily reality is a great opportunity to relax. We feel constantly unsafe in this society and games that create a space that feels safe are an important factor in our decision to play a game. A bit like a utopia, answering the question of what would it feel like if we weren’t facing oppressions constantly, this dream we all have to be in a society that doesn’t exclude us. By making a world where we dismiss those problems can be really helpful, in order to relieve all the stress that this condition can produce, but it can be also a way to avoid addressing the topic which can be an issue in certain cases. But games that address this situation exists, for example the games of Robert Yang depicts explicitly gay situation and how it can be dangerous at times to be gay, the impact of the police on gay culture in certain places etc… And I think those games are important to, because we need to talk about the subjects that hurts us, to vent, to shock, to raise awareness, to fight back, to get closer to equality. Video games are entering more and more in everyone’s life, and it is a battlefield where conservative people don’t want to hear about problems that are not affecting them, and where a lot of people don’t even know what those problems are, and video games are a platform to express ourselves and get people to talk about what we face. There is a lot of debates on whether we have to make ‘haven’ games that shelters us, creating a fake world and giving people that are not aware of social issues no space to think about them. And activist games that can be triggering for people that are directly impacted by those issues, and that could be hurt by the content, and could be handled poorly. But the truth is that I think we don’t need either one or the other, we need both, desperately, we need variety, because people might need different types of game to help them at different stages of their life. There is no better way to make a queer game, we should just improve their quality and have more of them, because if we had a large choice of various games that tackle those issues in ways that changes from one game to another, everyone could pick what they need. 

The other big platform that gathers people around games is streaming and content creators in general when they talk about video games, YouTube and Twitch are the first sites that comes to mind, but forums can also be a favorable place to meet and communicate with people thus making communities. But let’s face it, successful content creator are mostly non queer men, and the streaming community at large is not exactly safe all the time. The twitch culture has it’s fair share of problematic behaviors and memes, and sometimes streams and especially chats can feel dismissive at best of queer identities and marginalized groups. And those behaviors reflect a significant part of the default gamer mentality that can be, even if feeling like it’s ironic or slightly edgy but not harmful, detrimental to a lot of people. But despite this abundance of spaces that could be deemed unsafe or at least capable of making queer people uncomfortable in a lot of cases, there is a portion of streamers that are queer, and even if they are usually not as successful gaming channels as others, there is usually some interesting stuff to note. A lot of queer streamers create room for positivity and self care in their broadcast and in their chats, trying to make everyone at ease and feeling welcome. It is common in queer streams to see this emphasis on helping others, compassion and empathy, sometimes it can also lead streamers to help viewers that question their identities in the same they do, or just tell them that they are valid to feel the way they feel about themselves. Yet often those streamers are targeted by bigoted people that come in their chat to ask personal or harmful questions in bad face, even sometimes straight up harassing them that can result in moderators being really vigilant about chat people write in the chat. Ultimately those platform can feel like a family for isolated queer people, a room to talk about themselves and see others feeling the same, and streams can sometimes stray away from video game, at least in discussions. Though the lack of visibility of those content creators often lead them to be really small on twitch, despite some attempts by some video game companies and website to give them some visibility. One example that comes to my mind and has a very special place in my heart is FerociouslySteph, a trans streamer that I found a few years ago as she was promoted by Blizzard for Heroes of the storm, at this point I never encountered any trans content creator, and I wasn’t even thinking that we could be streaming. It was at the early stages of my transition and finding this really positive space helped me a lot to grow and accept my self, and recently even trying to stream on twitch. And that would have never happened if not for her streams. This is my personal example of how queer communities in gaming can have a positive impact, but this is not the only one. A bigger event on twitch that happened somewhat recently is the Donkey Kong charity stream of HBomberGuy a bi man coming from YouTube that decided to raise money through streaming after a controversy in the UK regarding transgender youth. The stream was a massive hit, and raised overs $340,000 over 57 hours, more than just that, many famous personalities of gaming, the trans community and even political figures came to the stream to express their support for trans rights : Chelsea Manning, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, John Romero, Abigail Thorn, Natalie Wynn even Grant Kirkhope that voiced Donkey Kong came to say “trans rights” in character. Obviously this had a big impacting in raising awareness and money for a queer cause, and the fact that celebrities went out of their way to express their support was a big deal for a lot of viewers. But even as a stream, people were discussing queer issues in the chat, sharing experiences, learning and listening to each other. To me that is a pillar of queer communities in gaming, this respect and love toward each other that we share between us because everywhere else we are not sure if we are allowed or accepted.

How we got here

Why did we end up in this current state ? Well geek culture in its roots comes from comics, tabletop rpgs and early video games, activities and communities that historically have not been kind with women and where mostly male culture. On a discussion about inclusivity in tabletop games on geek and sundry, Adam Koebel, creator of Dungeon World and a trans man, explains that in his early years, tabletop games were almost exclusively white male, and often reticent to women participating. During this conversation, Satine Phoenix states that when she got to be a GM, women felt allowed in those spaces that they otherwise wouldn’t feel welcomed to. This culture closed on itself during its growth and the vast majority of those niches were straight white males. And it’s interesting to see that in the kingdom of tabletop RPG communities nowadays things evolved, indeed the biggest online regular tabletop stream is Critical Role, and Matthew Mercer is taking his role seriously as a DM to create room for queer characters both in the NPC and the players, but also caring for queer viewers. Critical Role is followed by a lot of queer folks, and as we saw earlier streaming successfully and being queer friendly is not usual. So the roots of the problem could be both, the origins of gaming communities, and the society’s norms that influences game creators, and a need to come back to these roots as they were, a nostalgia of sort, refusing to notice the progress that has been made in other branches of games. It’s not a great time to place obvious statement on controversies in big games, because a lot of gamers are very vocal about their beliefs, more than years ago, with internet and social medias, debates can be very loud and overwhelming, and this has an impact never seen before on the industry.

There is also a point to be made on the fact that criticism of these issues are often silences or mocked. A very good example of this is Anita Sarkeesian, a loud feminist representative on the internet, and although she is not a gaming expert at all, she is often taken out of context and ridiculed by gamers that are missing points she makes about the state of representations in the media, often because they don’t listen. A lot of people don’t want to see those problems and it’s understandable, video games can be a safe haven for people to escape to, taking a break from the problems they face daily. And having this safe place criticize can seem like an attack on their favorite medium rather than a commentary on what is problematic and can be improved. There is a sort of refusal to try and realize that some elements in video games are not perfect especially in the representation of minorities. We can also think about GamerGate that shows exactly the mindset of a big part of gaming communities, hiding behind critics of ethics in journalism as an excuse to harass and target women and queer people in the video game industry such as Zoë Quinn, as they were the main victim of the event, but also targeting directly queer games. Or just the term Fake Gamer Girl, illustrating the gatekeeping of the community from people other than those that are like them, preventing people from gaming spaces because of lists of things they have to do to prove they are gamers, norms ultimately, things as queer people we don’t really like. And this culture of being cis heterosexual guys only playing with other  cis heterosexual guys, there is a lot of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia that grew like a plague in those places. Just go on a voice chat as a girl, and see how often you’ll encounter players telling you they are going to rape you, or just be less inclined to listened to when there is team play involved, or just go into a text chat in popular games and count how many gay slurs floating around.

That being said many people begin to talk about those things, with platforms like YouTube, Twitter or even forums, we can now have feedback from a lot of diverse places, from developers to gamers etc… And there is a slow but still steady growth of the realization that this need to be dealt with if we want video games to be better, but with those roots it’s difficult to make big steps toward a better industry and community around games without making some people freak out.

Statistics

Those statistics were made by myself on april 2019, with the data contained in the website Queerly represent me that has a database of every game with queer representation, listing the types of representations and many other criterias. The study and the analysis I will extract from those statistics is subjective, as they are open to interpretations and these are my own opinions. Although it is impossible to find an exhaustive list of every game ever created so the stats are only on queer game and there is no relative comparison to the entirety of the video game industry, the number of games in general are far superior to those we have here we can conclude that the percentage of queer games overall is pretty small.

 

First of all, we can see how among other numbers that the AAA industry is a very small portion of queer games, around 5%, this is even lower if we check for playable character representation, it falls down to around 3% of queer games. And this does not account for the quality of the representation and even may include implicit or hinted representation. Also it is very important to notice the absence of any intersex stats in this database, sadly this forces this analysis to be blind of another side of the issues at stake, one that is highly made invisible for the public as a lot of people don’t even know the meaning of what being intersex is.

Then we can see the highest stat across the board for LGBTQIA representation, lesbians, female homosexuality is often seen as less problematic for conservatives and therefore for studios, it’s a safe bet and they are often fetishised by men so it can even be a selling point to some extent. This can lead to really bad representations or even overtly sexualized characters targeted at male audience. It’s no surprise to see that it’s such a prevailing stat. Then we have gay men, which is more of a struggle to put in a game without alarming homophobes, also many straight male gamers feel attacked on their own sexuality when they are forced to play a gay man, because of the way society depicts and looks at gay men, it is often seen as lesser or as an insult. This leads companies to try and hide it, make it secondary or optional. Bisexuality is even lower, and is often more placed on female characters are they are a fetich for a lot of men too, male bisexuality is seen as something dirty by many conservatives, sometimes even worse than homosexuality. Also Bisexuality can be hidden with heterosexual relationship and not be canon in a game, just in the mind of creators. Then asexuals and aromantic people can be hard to represent, because a lack of attraction is difficult to describe, but dialogs about their feelings is not that impossible to put in a game, and sadly they got the short end of the stick, being  represented in nearly no games, even worse, their identity is often put on mystical creature, monsters, because this is the easy way for many people to “explain” a lack of desire/attraction, often villains, this can be very dehumanizing, in a society and an industry where already romance and sex are omnipresent themes, it is sad to see how nobody accepts to understand those people because of how much all of this is normalized. Playersexuality is a a safe bet for producers, as it lets the players decide what they see and interact with, it is fairly common nowadays (becoming even a standard in games such as Dragon Age) especially in games where you create you character and have a lot of impact on the world. It is a great way to put queer themes and normalizing them, but it doesn’t help people that don’t want to see it to understand those issues and it can feel like a compromise to please non queer folks.

As for gender identities, sadly Non-binary identities and GNC(Gender non conforming) people are put on the same stat, meaning it is a bit misleading. Because a lot of things enter in GNC, such as masculine women like Samus from the Metroid saga, with her gender being even a twist in the first game, or feminine men, or even androgynous people. Even though those representations too need to be seen in games, they tackle gender expression not gender identity, thus it is hard to see how much of non-binary representation there is. And those representation are sometimes not understood by people, seen as “the character is the gender I think they are” instead of seeing them as non-binary, for example Frisk, main character of Undertale uses They/Them pronouns and the ambiguity led many people to identify them as either male or female depending on their perception of the character, when They/Them are non-binary pronouns. This confusions makes it hard to state anything on non-binary representation, but seeing what they go through in real life in terms of how they are perceived, clear representation for them is rarely seen in video games, and often in alien or fantasy races, it is rarely treated as it is experienced in real life. This can be damaging, reflecting them as not normal people and just fantasy creatures, playing make believe. Transgender people see little to no representation in general, as it a very political topic nowadays. It is dangerous to upset both sides for big studios, either with bad depictions of trans experiences, or just the fact that they put a trans person in a game can be devastating for their reputation. Sensitive subjects are rarely treated in video games especially in mainstream entertainment, but more and more games developers and designers are more engaged and in smaller studios can make games that shows those faces of the world. There is a big gap between trans men and trans women representation. This can be explained by the invisibility that faces trans men, in  a society where feminity is seen as lesser than masculinity, often trans men are seen has masculine women, it is more accepted for women to wear and act masculine. But trans women are more “flashy”, because femininity in men is seen as disgusting or abnormal by a lot of people. This is one of the reason trans women are more mediatized and this leads to more people acknowledging their existence whether they like it or not. And since there is a lot of latent transphobia people see often trans people as their assigned gender, and women are less listened and taken into account than men, so for trans men it can be hard to be acknowledged and respected. But in both cases this kind of representations demands a lot of research and consulting of people that are trans to avoid mistakes.

Conclusion

What does all of this tells us about video games ? Well a lot of things, first the influence that we, the consumers of video games, can have a significant impact on how companies work, controversies can influence even writers and developers before any editorial line comes into play. Mind sets on the question have changed over the years but it’s still subjected to criticism. Big companies have a lot to learn from indie studios and queer workers. The industry overall is still shy, under a capitalist society it is hard to not take in account all the sales and how differents audiences may have varied reactions, boycotts can happen and bad reputation can be detrimental, but there is improvement, even with optional representation such as playersexuality (the opportunity for the character to choose the relationships they have for their character such as in Mass Effect or Dragon Age) which is a growing standard and allows a sweet compromise for both queer and conservative audience. Though it has a long way to go before we see a world in which representation is normalized and accepted across the board, some types of representations are still taboo and very controversial, like asexual/aromantic or transgender identities. There is still a gap between different identities that are more or less acceptable for the industry to implement in their games. In the end we are still fighting to get decent representation, if any representation at all because as a minority we are not a huge profit source and it gets political quickly, it’s up to big studios to take a stand on those issues and speak up. But societies standards and expectations weight heavily on those companies and in a climate where there is a lot of tensions around LGBTQIA rights, it’s not hard to see why they wouldn’t. Even further we can ask ourselves if queer themes are even compatible with what AAA’s usually are, violent games, sometimes very elitist and hard to access, maybe that is why queer themes are so present in indie productions and not in big games. And there is an avenue for games of new genres, new mechanics that stray away from the standard and the norm, and maybe there is a special place to adapt queerness as gameplay  mechanics or to the core of a game, maybe this room that is yet to be built holds many interesting aspects of game design that we avoid or are not used to. And we have a lot to learn from this medium, queerness as definitely not yet reach it’s full expression through video games and I think this is quite exciting, because it’s up to us to find ways to design new interpretation and new forms of the video games that could embrace queerness on a whole new level. Maybe it’s at the core of what video games are, what we made them to be over time, that the conflict resides. And maybe this is why there will always be this conflict and those tensions when it comes to queer representations in video games.

References

I advise you to read and watch if you are interested in learning more about this :

Queerly Represent Me for statistics and interviews

This article from Games Radar

This article from Kotaku

This video from Geek & Sundry, debate on inclusivity in tabletop RPG

This video (in french but subtitles are available) from Game Spectrum

The work of Anita Sarkeesian

Also books from Bonnie Ruberg as their work on the matter is interesting : Queer Games Avant-Garde, Games Have Always Been Queer and Queer Game Studies

And last advice, read, listen and watch content from queer people from everywhere, we are diverse and the experiences of queer people of color, disabled people no matter their jobs, their religion, their gender identity, sexual orientation or their age are mandatory to understand the scope of those issues, and how they affect people.

Remember to be kind to each other, love to you all !

“Always try to be nice but never fail to be kind” – Twelfth Doctor

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