Monday, 1 November 2010

Womengamers and the winds of change

Hi everyone. I know it's supposed to be one blog per day, but I couldn't let this one go.

The wonderful is on the move. I'll let them explain:

In 11 years, we have watched this industry grow immensely.  The atmosphere for the next generation is notably very different today than it was back then.  It’s no longer a matter of whether women play, but what they are playing that is now in question.  Gamer shame is dwindling, and the world is changing.  We too must change with it.  This is not a good-bye letter.  We are not leaving the gaming industry, but rather are adapting into more of a development role.

So there you go. If you've linked to womengamers from your site, it might be a good idea to amend your links accordingly.

It's good to know they're still going, albeit in a different form. They've always been a valuable industry resource, arguably more so than a journalism one. They've done a lot of good, and I'm sure they will continue to do so.
On a personal note, some of you might remember that I wrote an article for the site back in August. You can't view it from the site any more, so I will reproduce it here. I know it's not well formatted for a blog right now, but it's late and I have a cold.

I just didn't want to lose it.

Where are all the gay video game characters? I know you can create your own in Fable, The Sims and the varied oeuvre of Bioware (Jade Empire, Mass Effect), but that’s not enough. Wonderful, complex and inclusive though those games are, sexuality within them is an optional extra, another avenue for the player to explore alongside improving your character’s aim or working on their abs.

A character which the player creates will never have the kind of cultural resonance as a “fixed” game protagonist. Such characters don’t appear on the front of the box, they’re not on the posters and you can’t buy die-cast pewter models of them from Forbidden Planet. It’s the fixed characters who make the leap from the gaming world into the outside world, whether it’s by appearing in films, starring in a cartoon series or advertising soft drinks. Debatable though the worth of these ventures are, one thing is for certain, and that is that they are responsible for raising awareness of gaming in people who may otherwise not have noticed. Lara Croft, Mario and various Pok√©mon have been leading the video game parade for a good few years, but it would be nice to see the odd rainbow flag hovering over the proceedings.

Before I explain why developers and publishers everywhere need to fill this gap, it’s worth acknowledging that it exists due to an understandable industry fear of risk. Consequently, the gay characters that do exist are either non-playable or deeply unsatisfactory.

Enchanted Arms’ Makoto is a camp, bitchy stereotype and Fear Effect’s Hana and Rain are lipstick lesbians whose underwear shots are examples of the cheapest kind of marketing. And although Fiona (April’s progressive landlady in The Longest Journey) and Gay Tony (in Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony) are both are complex characters whose sexualities inform their personalities rather than define them, the player is unable to control either one.

This is because even though video games have made great strides over the last few years in appealing to people who aren’t 18 to 34 year old white males, innovations have been largely technological rather than artistic or inclusive. Motion capture and the stylus have seen Wii Fit and Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training introduce games to an older demographic whilst Bejeweled and Farmville have garnered a huge online following, most of which is female.

But if you know games (and I am assuming you do because you are on, you know that these games represent sub-genres which have applications outside gaming. They are used to kill time and liven up unrelated activities such as social networking and self-improvement. It’s not that they are any less worthwhile than games with a narrative, just that they are rarely played as video games for their own sake. Although the video game landscape may be shifting, most people who play “casual” browser games do not in fact progress to playing narrative-focused games on the XBOX, for example. Popular though Farmville may be, it’s not a gateway drug.

Game designers and publishers are aware of this. Consequently, the majority of “hardcore” games, with their exciting narratives, complex control systems and well-rounded characters are aimed at the established “hardcore” audience of young men. And the characters on the front of video game boxes are depressing proof of this. As anyone reading this post will know, the protagonists of these games are almost always straight men or attractive women designed to appeal to (you’ve guessed it) straight men. Although alternatives may include children, animals, monsters and robots, we almost never see gay men, lesbians (who are not merely designed to titillate), bisexual or transgender characters.

Although this is not a pleasant state of affairs, I’m confident in saying that the reasons behind it are economic rather than ideological. Homosexual protagonists are kept off the covers of big-budget games for the same reason that black video game characters are scarce outside the realms of licenced titles, namely that they would pose a financial risk. (The issue of race in games deserves more attention than I can give it here). Why risk alienating gaming’s core audience in the abstract pursuit of artistic or ideological fulfillment?

I’ll tell you.

Firstly, a gay video game protagonist isn’t actually as much of a risk as it first seems. Video games arguably have more artistic freedom than the blockbuster movies to which they are so frequently compared. You only have to look at the fact that the film adaptations of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Last Airbender starred white actors to play parts of characters that were Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian in the original video games to realise quite how much more conservative Hollywood is than the games industry.

This is simply because however important plot and character are becoming in video games, they must be delivered alongside solid gameplay if they are to be successful. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was an outstanding game which effortlessly blended time-manipulation and action. Its commercial success on the back of its gameplay mechanics meant that players were treated to a rich story about a love affair between two characters whose races are almost never seen in big-budget Hollywood films. Devoid of the game’s innovative interactive aspect, the corresponding film was merely another action blockbuster which couldn’t take the risk of starring Asian actors.

Moreover, the commitment that gamers must make to gaming is above and beyond what a film goer must make to films. Whereas it is possible to spend less than an hour’s wage on a film that lasts for only two hours, gamers not only have to make a large investment in a gaming platform (not to mention making an informed choice between them) but spend upwards of ten hours on every game they purchase. Consequently, video game purchases are more considered than film tickets, and gamers will generally take gameplay and reviews into account before handing over their hard-earned cash. The character on the box may grab their attention, but it’s the game’s substance which makes the sale.

I am therefore confident that with an innovative and polished game behind him or her, a gay video game character need not be a hindrance to game sales, just as (if you’ll forgive my flippancy) a Middle-Eastern hero was no hindrance to Prince of Persia’s success. But shouldn’t they be more than just “not a hindrance”?

Well of course.

The gaming world needs a gay protagonist, sooner rather than later. This is for several reasons. Firstly, there are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender gamers whose complete lack of representation in the medium they love is a travesty. Straight women were largely in the same boat until, love her or loathe her, Lara Croft proved that female protagonists could sell. She paved the way for more cerebral and complex heroines such as April Ryan and Beyond Good and Evil’s Jade and arguably beckoned more women into an industry which is slowly beginning to take them into account. Isn’t it possible that a gay video game character could do the same thing for the gay gaming community?

Secondly, the publicity surrounding the first major gay video game protagonist would truly be a sight to behold. Experience has shown us that notoriety over sexual (or violent) content tends to improve game sales rather than harm them. But more importantly, it might just mobilise a generation of LGBT would-be gamers into picking up a controller. To assume that if they’d wanted to game, they would already be doing so is a cop-out. Walking into a games shop where you feel completely unrepresented is alienating, and a feeling that I’m sure most female gamers have experienced at some point.

Most importantly of all, openly addressing the issue of sexuality and inclusion by creating a gay protagonist would do more to cement gaming's validity as a relevant art form than motion-capture and 3D graphics are ever going to. Unlike books and films, video games have a reputation outside their devoted fan base as a shallow and disposable medium. Whilst everyone here knows they aren’t, games don’t always do a lot to convince the outside world of their merit. Consequently, thoughtful, talented and imaginative people who might have something to contribute to the industry often dismiss it without a second thought.

To diversify, the industry must have diversity within it. Although it’s unclear whether straight white men populate the industry because games have historically been aimed at them or whether games are aimed at straight white men because they populate the industry, it is clear which one developers have the power to change.

The reasons why a certain demographic flocks to the industry whilst several others hold back are complex and have roots in a number of socio-economic factors. But these are never going to be addressed with any urgency until developers and publishers make a serious effort to make games more inclusive. Of course there are numerous ways of doing this and great inroads have already been made in some areas. The Sims brought a whole generation of teenage girls into gaming and titles such as Little Big Planet (narrated by Stephen Fry) continue to entice people into a medium they may once have thought of as violent.

But as I have said before, an open-ended game will never explore a character as fully as a game which places a single controllable character at the centre of the narrative. The sheer bravery exhibited by the developer that finally puts a gay character on the front of a big-budget title will not only give a public voice to a silent gaming audience but open up new avenues of discussion between gamers and non-gamers.

Most importantly of all however, is the fact that video games offer new methods of storytelling that simply do not exist elsewhere. Games like Heavy Rain, Call of Duty and Uncharted are just beginning to explore the possibilities that become available within an interactive medium once the player is implicated in the action. With such a vast scope, it seems strange to me that sexuality is largely passed by in video game narratives when it is so important in shaping human identity.

To adhere as strongly as mainstream game characters do to heterosexuality is to neglect thousands of untold stories that explore the shifting complexity of sexual identity. And even if the developer in question isn’t trying to recreate Silent Hill 2’s bleak portrait of human sexuality, why can’t we just have a gay action hero? As I’ve said before, the curious and experimental attitude of gamers mean that game studios actually have a creative freedom above and beyond that of film studios on comparable budgets.

Game developers have yet to embrace the liberty afforded to them by their medium, and I think it’s a shame. There are many great stories out there waiting to be told, and countless wonderful characters waiting to be brought to life, but if game developers automatically reject the ones that are just a little to pink for comfort, the world of gaming will be all the poorer for it.


  1. The words "gay action hero" seems so amazingly out of place to me, haha. I know plenty of active hetero and lesbian girls that are into things like sword fighting and martial arts, but I know zero gay men that are into anything of the sort. Could just be my limited experience however.

    1. It could just be, SFLiminality. Or, those words could seem so out of place to you because such characters don't tend to crop up much in pop culture/films/games/comics etc? Maybe if those media featured more dudes into sword fighting and... *sword* fighting, the words wouldn't seem so strange.

      Do you think characters in games should be limited to those we are likely to meet in real life? To be honest, I don't actually know any action heroes, let alone any gay ones. You know, if I met an armoured vigilante who fought evil with a combination of martial arts and magic, my first thought would not be "I wonder if he's gay".

      Thanks for the comment!