The video game industry has been notably dominated by straight men for decades. This has caused the medium to lag behind in its representation of the LGBT+ community compared to other entertainment. That said, over time there have been titles to buck the norm, particularly indies, finally giving a voice to this community that even the loudest trolls on internet forums cannot suppress.
Looking back in history, the situation has been bleak. In the early days of gaming, when Mario was 16-bit and Sonic games were fun, LGBT+ characters were disappointingly reduced to jokes or a punchline, rather than fleshed-out individuals. In the most sinister of cases, games would engage in blatant homophobia or transphobia, with Final Fight developers Capcom deciding to re-market the character Poison as a trans woman, fearing that the audience might feel uncomfortable hitting a woman. Not only did this normalise violence against trans women, a demographic already suffering from high levels of domestic abuse, but it also legitimised the misgendering of trans women as not real women.
Indie developers have led the way for accurate LGBT+ representation
It was not until the late 1990s when same-sex relationships were openly portrayed in video games. Fear Effect’s prequel, Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix, featured a lesbian relationship between Hana Tsu-Vaschel, the game’s protagonist, and Rain Qin in an era of entertainment still uneasy to embrace progressive values. Unfortunately for Fear Effect and members of the LGBT+ community excited to be represented in gaming, Kronos Digital used this relationship to pander to the increased fetishization of lesbian relationships, commissioning a marketing campaign featuring the two women lying on top of each other dressed only in lingerie. LGBT+ representation still had a long way to go.
Thankfully, Indie developers have led the way for accurate LGBT+ representation that does not rely on offensive tropes or stereotypes, as AAA developers are traditionally cautious of including progressive ideas in their games in fear of any ‘controversy’. Nintendo rightly deserves criticism for implementing the ‘Nintendo code’, a form of censorship that prohibits the inclusion of “sexually suggestive” content amongst other themes. This restriction only serves to bolster backwards arguments that children should not be exposed to these ‘alternative’ lifestyles in fear of being influenced by them.
This does not mean, however, that all AAA developers will shy away from representing the LGBT+ community in their video games. The most well-known example of this is in NaughtyDog’s The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC, in which Ellie is revealed to be a lesbian, sharing an on-screen kiss with her friend Riley. Critics have described this as a breakthrough moment in gaming history, spurring on other large developers such as Ubisoft and Blizzard to include such relationships or characters in their new video games.
The Outer Worlds was praised by many for its inclusion of asexuality
There will always, however, be accusations that this representation is pure tokenism, as big developers still shy away from incorporating LGBT+-oriented issues into the storyline. As I mentioned earlier, indie games are leading the way for queer-focused gaming, and no games do this better than Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods.
Night in the Wood’s follows Mae, a pansexual college dropout trying to figure out what she wants to do in life. Through doing this, you explore Mae’s struggles to cope with depression and anger, which ultimately stem from her reluctance to accept herself for who she is. She eventually learns to embrace her sexuality. Night in the Woods perfectly encapsulates a problem that many members of the LGBT+ community struggle with this, offering solace in a medium that has previously disappointed this demographic.
More recently, Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds was praised by many for its inclusion of asexuality, which has hardly been represented in any form of entertainment, bar Todd in Bojack Horseman and Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. One of the first companions you meet, Parvati, admits to your player she has a crush on another female engineer, Junlei, although she is “not much interested in…physical stuff”. Parvati is fearful that Junlei may, like some of her previous partners, not be interested in her for this reason. The character’s asexuality does not, however, define her entirely. Players who have completed The Outer Worlds will know, she is a smart, charming, and likeable woman who has quickly become a fan favourite both inside and outside the LGBT+ community.
I am hopeful we will continue to see and share stories featuring a wider variety of characters
The Outer Worlds goes even further, allowing for the player to come out as ace, too. When the player tells Parvati this, she displays immense happiness at finding another person who she can relate to. She responds saying it is nice to not feel quite as alone and different, an attitude that many in the ace and LGBT+ can resonate with, a feeling unfortunately predicated by poor media practices and representation. Usually when video games allow players or their companions to come out or talk about their sexuality, it culminates in a sex scene or romantic encounter, and so it is refreshing to see The Outer Worlds focus on the friendship between two people bonding over their sexualities instead.
As the world is becoming more accepting and inclusive, LGBT+ representation is becoming crucial in all entertainment mediums, and LGBT+ developers are leading the way in portraying their issues in a personal and sensitive way. When I was thinking about how to write this article, I initially planned to focus entirely on the good LGBT+ representation in gaming, including that seen in Life is Strange, Dream Daddy, and Overwatch. Upon reflection, I decided against this, as any whitewashing of history would be a disservice to those who rightfully fought against homophobia in the industry and won. There is still more work to do, especially by AAA developers who often shy away from these topics, apprehensive of any backlash from a loud, but dwindling, minority of gamers. Though I am hopeful we will continue to see and share stories featuring a wider variety of characters, with sexualities and genders representing the brilliant diversity of the real world in our digital experiences.