WINGS 101: Gaymers: LGBTQ* Games and Communities

This article is intended to be a jumping off point for a discussion about LGBTQ* representations in games, and in game culture. The main goal of writing this blog post is to share thoughts, resources, and open a discussion. If in reading this, you would like to add to this conversation, or dispute a statement or resource, please do so in the comments below.

I want to start the discussion with the representation of LGBTQ* characters in games and the difference between “gay games” and games that incorporate LGBTQ content.

First of all, LGBTQ is a acronym that stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer. There are many different variations of this acronym, to be more inclusive of other marginalized sexualities such as two-spirited, intersexed, asexual, pansexual, and many others. In my opinion, all of these sexualities are valid, and none is greater than the other. People are all different and we should love and include them all! So even though the most popular version of the acronym is LGBTQ or LGBT, for the above reasons I will be using LGBTQ* for this blog post.

LGBTQ* people still struggle with acceptance into society, legal rights, and violence and discrimination. Some recent examples include a Vancouver man being denied housing for being gay in December 2013. Or the fact that it is illegal to distribute “propaganda” about alternative sexualities (eg. have gay pride parades) in Russia. Not to mention LGBTQ* people experience an increased rate of violence, abuse and murder.

Also this issue is not blanketed against all members of this community. People of colour experience elevated rates of violence, and trans women are targeted most. If your interested in learning more about this I would recommend starting with Laverne Cox’s speech at Creating Change 2014.

Thus acknowledging LGBTQ* people are marginalized in culture and experience a disproportional amount of violence, we can move on to how they are represented in games.


Stereotyping and “Gay Games”

As a jumping off point I want to discuss stereotypes. Via wikipedia, “stereotype is a thought that may be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things. These thoughts or beliefs may or may not accurately reflect reality” When these thoughts and beliefs don’t accurately represent reality and people consume them regularly, it may lead to discrimination.

Earlier in January 2014, the game Ultimate Gay Fighter was began popping up in various gaming new outlets, for example Polygon, Game Spot. These articles focus around if this all gay street fighter parody is “funny or offensive”.

Gamespot quoted creator Michael Patrick:

I started thinking about how gays are represented in the media. We are the sickly ones, your sassy best friends, the funny ones, the ones who sing, and the ones who decorate your house, style your clothes, and do your hair. We are never the kick-ass fighters, the bad-asses who rescue you and save the day. And if we are, we are washed with heterosexual personas and mannerisms.

Ultimate Gay Fighter Website

While I don’t agree with Patrick’s representations of LGBTQ* people, race, and gender in Ultimate Gay Fighter, he does have a point. LGBTQ* people are underrepresented in games and when they do appear they are typically supporting characters in cliche roles. However reenforcing stereotypes whether self assigned or not, is still propagating harmful assumptions.

So what is the difference between a “gay game” and a game with LGBTQ* content? I am not an expert in this field, but I found some of the ideas coming out of GaymerX, an annual queer gamer conference hosted in San Francisco. For example the kick-starter game ROM: Read Only Memories, and a tribute to 90s adventure games, was written and created to intentionally include LGBTQ* material. In their promotional video the designers directly address the difference between “gay games” and including queer characters.

I hope in the future to see many more projects like these that include representations of LGBTQ* while still focusing on the mechanic, story, art and design of the game.

Implicitly LGBTQ* and openly LGBTQ*

The next point I want to make is the difference between including characters who openly identify as LGBTQ* and characters that are suspected/implicitly LGBTQ* through non-normative gender characteristics. A classic example of this is the debate surrounding the League of Legends character, Taric.

I felt as though Zoya, author on the Border House blog stated this best. “by assuming that Taric is gay, people are contributing to heteronormative assumptions…” Zoya addresses something very crucial in our assumptions about Taric’s sexuality. Firstly, his gender representation has nothing to do with his sexuality, and secondly by assuming it does we are reinforcing patriarchal ideas of a gender binary where, if you are girly (eg. like pink, and pretty things) then your preferred sexuality is men. This marginalizes anyone who identifies as feminine or had feminine characteristics, and who’s preferred sexual partners are not men.

Therefore when we talk about LGBTQ* characters in games who have not implied or stated their sexual preferences, it is unfair to those identities and characteristics to assume sexuality from them. On the flip side, to acquire more diverse LGBTQ* representation in games, characters need to self identify as LGBTQ* through their actions, relationships or dialogue.

Hierarchies of oppression: Women in LGBTQ* gamer communities

So as mentioned earlier, not all parties experience discrimination equally. Largely this means that women are often marginalized within activist communities. The easiest way I can show this is an absence of representation. For example, most earlier references were initiatives or issues surrounding gay men. A quick search on the sub reddit /r/gaymers, and the tumblr tag gaymers are largely dominated by male issues and representation.

This is not to say that amazing LGBTQ* women gamers and developers don’t exist. For example one of my favourite queer voices in games is Anna Anthropy, a blogger and developer and author of the book “Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form.” Or Samantha Allen, a trans woman and games journalist who has been a brave defender of trans women in gaming in the past year. As well if you’re looking for a great game that features lesbian content, try out Gone Home, and exploratory game that tells the story of a budding relationship between two young women. Finally, if you are looking for even more female representation a documentary project exploring different LGBTQ* identities called Gaming in Colour, also features the experiences of many LGBTQ* gamers.

However hierarchies of oppression still exist within marginalized communities, and this can take multiple forms from lateral violence, to abuse, sexism, racism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. Gaming communities are not exempt from this sort of violence. A great book that explores intimate partner abuse in radical, queer and activist communities is The Revolution Starts at Home, and there is a full PDF copy online here. It is important to consciously keep women and other marginalized group’s representations in mind when discussing LGBTQ* issues. By representing more people of varying backgrounds, we provide accessible role models for young gamers, which can increase self esteem!

In conclusion, this is my short look at LGBTQ* games and communities. By continuing to support the inclusion of LGBTQ* gamers and character in games, we can dispute stereotypes and provide safe spaces and support networks for gamers who feel excluded. So support games with LGBTQ* content, and spaces that are LGBTQ* friendly!

  • SarahBeck
  • Currently works as a software developer of EA. She has a BSc in Computing Science and enjoys JRPGS, anime, and Ruby on Rails. You can find her on Twitter at @sarah_bytes. Opinions are my own.