Over the past 40+ years, larger development teams, bigger budgets and numerous technological advancements have served to drastically increase the scope of video games, ever enhancing the immersion of their players in a virtual world. In 2020, a time where video games are bigger, better and more complicated than they’ve ever been, my question is this: why the hell can’t people seem to write interesting and credible LGBT+ characters in video games?
For generations, stereotypical depictions of social groups have permeated popular culture, painting unrealistic, inaccurate and fundamentally damaging pictures of people in our society purely for their existing outside of the hegemonic majority. Historically victimised groups include women, ethnic minorities and members of the LGBT+ community. Representation has been problematic in video games for decades, with stereotypes we’re all too familiar with: the notion of the ‘foreign enemy’ airlifted from propaganda and film is as prevalent as ever, while the presentation of many female characters as large breasted, one dimensional sex objects is representative of a self-reinforcing, culture-wide misogyny that is only beginning to change for the better.
Both aforementioned issues have garnered an abundance of attention in the gaming community in recent years, yet the issue of LGBT+ representation in video games remains relatively undiscussed. Perhaps this is because the issue is not simply one issue, but several; because the LGBT+ community is in essence a bundling together of many smaller communities, to discuss LGBT+ representation is to discuss the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and other individuals under a singular umbrella term. This is problematic when considering that all of these groups are represented differently in popular culture, with different stereotypes dominating each group. Perhaps the multifaceted nature of the community is a key reason that many game developers choose not to represent LGBT+ characters in their games at all, but what many fail to understand is that ‘doing representation right’ isn’t difficult. In fact, it’s pretty easy.
Many games sell themselves on the appeal of being interactive stories, with believable, sensitive and emotional human characters. Although placed into fantastical situations, these characters are forced to tackle fundamentally ‘real world’ issues. 2018’s God of War explores themes of grief, remorse and regret. The Witcher 3, released in 2015, forces players to make morally grey ethical decisions that can positively or adversely affect its cast of main and side characters. Through outstanding performances and exquisite writing, the resulting experience is one that players can emotionally invest themselves in. No suspension of disbelief is required; what we see are seemingly the stories and struggles of real life humans, serving as unequivocal proof that video gaming has the power to represent real people as real people. There is therefore no excuse for hamfisted representation in video games.
The character Hainly Abrams from Mass Effect: Andromeda is just one example of recent hamfisted LGBT+ representation in video games. The first time the player meets her in-game, they have the option to ask why she came to Andromeda. No more than 13 seconds after starting the conversation, Hainly will then proudly announce that she is transgender, and tell the player her dead name. There are several problems with this, the smallest of which being that this is simply not how you ‘do’ realistic characterisation or dialogue. Mass Effect: Andromeda certainly isn’t a game that’s praised for its writing, but it doesn’t take a good writer, let alone a great one, to accurately write a transgender character. The biggest issue here is the fact that Hainly’s gender identity is clumsily shoved into the player’s face with no degree of subtlety, and more importantly no thought for how these kinds of representations damage perceptions of the LGBT+ community; the notion that trans people actively seek to approach strangers, essentially introducing themselves by saying “Hi, I’m trans” is frustratingly pervasive in modern society, and fundamentally a gross oversimplification of a person based on one aspect of their personality. Please, by all means, write an LGBT+ character in your video game, but don’t make them ‘the trans character’ or ‘the guy that’s gay’. Don’t make them a token. Make them interesting, make them complicated, but most importantly of all, make them human.
Many people play video games to relax, unwind and ‘take a break’ from the stresses and worries of day-to-day life; with the sheer amount of hate and discrimination sadly still rampant in society today, to many, putting the real world on hold for a while and escaping to somewhere is a prospect that proves all the more appealing. Members of the LGBT+ community are no strangers to confrontation, often being asked downright invasive questions regarding their sexuality or their gender identity. With this in mind, Pokémon’s infamous “are you a boy? Or are you a girl?” is exactly the kind of confrontation that many non-binary people try to get away from by playing video games, especially when many see video games as a means of expressing the way they truly identify through a virtual avatar. By contrast, Temtem, an MMO spiritual successor to Pokémon gets it right by introducing two key changes: the ability for a player to select he/him, she/her or crucially, they/them pronouns, and the means of selecting a preferred body type.
Representation of trans people and the wider LGBT+ community in video games certainly leaves a lot to be desired, often relying on tired stereotypes and token characters; yet the ability to pick your own pronouns in games like Temtem is a promising start towards an inclusive, industry-wide recognition that the LGBT+ community, though made up of minorities, is by no means a ‘minor’ demographic to simply be ignored.