Not Just a Plot Twist: Why Queer Gaming Matters

This past weekend, I attended GaymerX in San Francisco, CA, the first ever video game convention to focus on queer geek culture.  Crowds of excited gamers poured into meeting halls for panels and events, whose speakers sought to engage the audience in discussions of inclusivity, empowerment and fandom.  As in any convention, each of us waited in line, clutching portal guns, carefully rolled posters and the like in hopes of saying the right thing and gratitude to our favorite voice actors, artists, and startup moguls.

My lovely friends and I on Day 0. (Credit: druidicpotato)
My lovely friends and I on Day 0. (Credit: druidicpotato)

As a gamer, I felt safe to express my excitement like any other fan; as an “ambiguously labeled” female, however, I quickly realized exactly how safe this space was, and how silent the larger gamer community truly is on the following question:

Why are gender and sexual equity issues so invisible in the video game industry?

The video game world is rife with hidden controversy.  For a long time, it was assumed that LGBTQ presence wasn’t even a thing because “games were for kids”.  Even now, queer content is often “snuck in” as a choice or implication, as long there’s a business case made for it; it became a definitive emotional chokepoint for me when I realized non-heteronormative dynamics still had to be hidden in games in order for them to pass media acceptance.

Sims could be gay as long as it’s the player’s choice and they sought it out. Bill, a gun-happy recluse from The Last of Us, is a gay side character whose sexuality is unclear until you find his partner later on in the game. Cortez, a strong, burly crew member from Mass Effect 3, is a potential love interest for the male Commander Shepard.

Credit: BioWare, Inc.
Credit: BioWare, Inc.

The industry has moved beyond female side characters just wanting some male hero to save them, but still struggles to promote the idea that identity is fluid – that the main character can fall anywhere across the gender and sexuality spectrums and still save the day.  Why does homosexuality have to have a “point” in order to be accepted in games?  Why can’t the main characters just be queer without it being a spectacle or a symbol?  When we still live in a world where you have to fight tooth and nail for a female protagonist, how do we even begin to fight the resistance against a male homosexual protagonist?  Girl characters can be lesbian because it’s “sexy”, but the moment there’s a gay character all of the “dude-bros” freak out on Metacritic and other video game news sites.

I hope that someday a character can just be gay/lesbian/queer/questioning, and people don’t necessarily have to go out of their way to look for it like they do now.  Hope lies in the fact that there are industry professionals who are striving every single day to create inclusion beyond the binary male/female mindset.  David Gaider, the lead writer for BioWare’s prominent Dragon Age series, is known for his thoughts on the “increasingly toxic” nature of gaming forums, and how he avoids it because the ones who get the most heard are often the ones with the most hate.  In the panel regarding EA’s support of LGBTQ-inclusive games, he mentioned the difficulty that often comes with proposing storyline choices beyond heteronormative expectations, and excitement at the changing landscape: “I kind of get dovetailed into issues of exclusion.  It’s so strange.  It was unheard of to have this conversation…to have reached a place where gamers to come together.  We are becoming accepted as gamers.  It’s great that this is a conversation.”

It is so important to enable these conversations. For me, it’s because in a space where any individual has the capacity to escape from the real world and be whoever he/she/they want to be, sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are still human faces behind the screen.  The world of video games is important for so many individuals across the global spectrum, and for many of us it’s the only outlet we have to not only express ourselves, but interact.  By excluding LGBTQ-identified people from the narrative, game companies are trying to avoid controversy.  However, avoidance does not equal acceptance; users who identify as LGBTQ are still marginalized and unheard.  Just because I mute my mic in an online game full of male gamers does NOT mean I’m not there and bigotry doesn’t exist; my skills as a gamer are separate from my other characteristics, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me when I’m told the points I score mean less because I’m a female who “just needs a man to calm her down” – or much worse if I’m outed.

Credit: druidicpotato

Gamers game, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Game developers, community managers, and marketers have the capacity to exceed their bottom line through improvements in social capital.  By bringing inclusive language and game design to the forefront, the industry can increase its reach and value.  We as part of our fandoms have the power to support companies who are inclusive of all variations of identity through our wallets.  We have the power to be vocal in forums, where hate spam can quickly drown out the already unheard.  We need to move beyond the paradigm where the dominant voice belongs to those who shout hate the loudest and remain online the longest.

BioWare’s Community Manager, Jessica Merizan, said it succinctly and gracefully: “the internet is no longer for dude bros.”  We live in a diverse world, and it’s time for the video game industry to not only reflect upon its complexity, but give an open voice to it.


P.S. Interested in seeing the fabulously epic video of the two beautiful gamers who got engaged at GaymerX with the help of GlaDOS from Portal? Click here! 


Paula Angela (spinebreeder) is a microbrewery-loving, hardcore gamer with a cause. As a dual MPA/MBA candidate at Presidio Graduate School, she is focused on community resilience through emergency management and gameification. You can find her on Steam as spinebreeder or on Twitter as @TheEcolytic.

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