Where Are All the Gay Video Game Protagonists?
Not a question, but rather, I want to post an excellent, mature comment made by someone in the comments section to a rather thought-provoking article on Gamasutra questioning the lack of homosexual game protagonists in mainstream gaming today:
Reading through some of the comments here has made me wonder which specific problem we’re talking about solving. The obvious one seems to be “get games to depict a more accurate sample of reality,” but that seems like a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
This is just my 2 cents, but even if have a game with a realistically portrayed gay protagonist, that game won’t necessarily be inclusive to all gay people. People are so much more than a gender, a sexual preference or a nationality. As a woman, I’ve played many games with male protagonists, and I’ve identified with some of them more than I’ve identified with some female protagonists based on their values or attitudes. The point where I started to feel excluded was when a game made incorrect assumptions about my own attitude towards women.
This is why I think variety alone will not solve the inclusiveness problem. We have to think bigger than that and remember that we’re all, first and foremost, people. If we reduce a character to the label “gay” of course there will be many players who think “I can’t relate to that.” That’s why we have to write characters that are deep, multi-dimensional and can be empathized with (or at least understood) on many levels. If “gay” just happens to be one of those levels, there should be plenty more to like or dislike about a that character. After all, that’s how reality works.
I get the impression that when a lot of game writers try to tackle characters unlike themselves, they tend to fixate on what’s different, even though there’s a lot more that’s the same. As a result, we end up with caricatures.
I think this comment sums up perfectly the thoughts I’ve always had with self-insert demands for more diversity in gaming. I’ve always held that games need more diversity, but said diversity needs to come from a confident place. Shoehorning a gay lead into a game is not justice or representation; it’s a patronizing concession that moves the goalposts forward with all the force and bluntness of an apathetic half-shrug.
For all the laudatory comments Saints Row IV received as being an example of “progressive” representation in video games, a crucial point that I feel lots of people missed was that all of the homosexual/minority content in the game was filtered through a morass of absolute irreverence. In that particular context, this swirling orgy of references and gonzo humor made everything “okay.” This bothered me a lot, because while, yes, it’s nice to see these kinds of customization options in this kind of game, I felt people were trying to interpret some subtext hidden beneath something that had no filter to begin with.
Anecdotally, as a straight Asian male, I can name three story-driven games I’ve completed that featured Asian male protagonists: True Crime: LA, Sleeping Dogs, and recently, Shadow Warrior. Of these three, I can relate to precisely none of these male leads. That didn’t make any of these games any less fun to play, aside from the well-intentioned but clearly wrong, wrong, WRONG stereotypes that were used to further “humanize” these characters. The issue is, and has always been, good writing. I still stand by the notion that a game must be mechanically sound before anything else, but if we’re still insisting that a game’s artistic and mechanical merit is primarily defined by the content created by mo-cap actors and outsourced cinematic production houses, then we need to give developers a wide berth in creating as mature content as possible.
Diversity is good. Hackneyed, lazy writing, regardless of which way it swings on the gender/sexual preference/minority spectrum, is hackneyed, lazy writing.
There is some truth here, and I understand some of the basic ideas and motivations of the two commenters above. So I hope it’s understood that I’m not dismissing these opinions out of hand. But there are also some big, nasty assumptions on display here that aren’t necessarily reflective of reality and which bear examination. This gets a little long, so I’m going to put a page break here, and also encourage you to skip to the last paragraph for a TL; DR if you’re feeling squeamish.
This is very much the same issue as “arbitrary diversity.” While we definitely do need deeper characters in games, it’s also true that these attributes don’t have to be as defining as people seem to think they must be. Nowhere in the game does there need to be mention of the fact that the protagonist is [pick label]. Hell, plenty of protagonists technically have an ambiguous/unknown sexual preference (like early Samus and Mega Man).
Beyond lead characters you can also just make your roster of NPCs all over the place, and let male/female/trans/whatever characters share the same potential dialogues about relationships (thus both men and women can refer to having wives and such). This sort of dialogue is part of what helps bring open-world games like Elder Scrolls or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to life, and is one of the best places to add a lot of diversity to a game.
Diversity doesn’t have to be a big thing when it’s developed. I would actually argue that we should steer clear of, “This character is [insert POC or sexual orientation label] and that is their defining attribute.” unless that is in fact what the game is about or is something that legitimately comes up in the story. Portal does this amazingly well.
Diversifying representation isn’t hard and doesn’t need an excuse. It just needs to happen.