The last decade has brought many changes to minority groups, notably to the Western LGBTQ community who started seeing a drastic difference on how our patriarch society perceives them. Sexuality and identity slowly became a more natural and recurrent topic, as did the discussion of black culture and how women are portrayed by the media. Yet, none of these groups managed to reach their desired utopias.
As a gay man, I see the change. I understand when people say we’re far better now than we were ten or fifteen years ago. But as many in the community, I don’t think it’s time to hang the hat and call it day just yet. Living in Northeastern Brazil, I’ve always had to be very careful when going out with guys. We could chat and look intimately at each other, but so much as holding hands would put our lives in danger. Although that’s changing, no one can say it’s completely safe to hold your partner’s hand in the middle of the street if they happen to be of the same sex as you.
Unfortunately, this reality is not exclusive to Northeastern Brazil and the struggle the LGBTQ community has with representation is not exclusive to movies, TV, and music. Video games are far more relevant now than they were ten years ago, but the industry is still plagued by many issues including its portrayal of minority groups.
“Why should I care?”
That’s usually the sort of question I see in discussions regarding minorities in video games. It’s far less common when the topic revolves around women and black people, yet alarmingly prominent when it involves gay people. Recently, we received a reality check with the news that Russia could ban FIFA 17 from the country should EA not remove the “gay propaganda” present as part of the Rainbow Laces campaign promoted by the Stonewall group. The general mainstream media sided with EA, a company known for its social inclusion. But scrolling down to the comments section of most articles and informative videos, we see different reactions.
Notes along the lines of “It seems Russia got more morals than our country. Homosexuality is wrong.” and “This is football, not a faggot propaganda.” aren’t difficult to find. Most people would say to ignore such behavior, to “stop feeding the troll”, but the fact it exists at all is part of the problem. Although the general public and the mainstream media are very supportive of the cause, discrimination is still a part of our lives. Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re being condescending when they say “we don’t care who you sleep with, but we find it sad that your identity revolves around sex.”, then using freedom of speech as an excuse for the offensive remark.
Everyone has problems no matter who they are or where they come from, but other complications may arise should the person not meet society’s standards. Black people are historically taken for granted because of their skin color and women are expected to behave a certain way due to their stigmatized social role. In the same manner, the LGBTQ community is supposed to hide their opinions and desires because they’re an insult to tradition. It’s important to stress that times are changing for those groups, that their situations are far better now than they were fifteen or twenty years ago, yet not everyone can say their problems are related to their skin color, their gender, or their sexuality.
We have seen a major change in how gay people are portrayed in the media with the aggressively flamboyant man and the extremely masculine woman being replaced by regular personalities and traits. That helps show how normal we are whilst being inclusive. However, not everyone welcomes the change of pace even when it’s meant to help others. Developers have been criticized for including emotional and intimate scenes between two men or by making an NPC be suggestive towards the player.
First released in 2013 exclusively for the PlayStation 3, The Last of Us is considered by many one of the most progressive games of its generation for how the character Ellie (Ashley Johnson) is presented. Players only came to know of her sexuality with the DLC ‘Left Behind’ in which she kisses her friend Riley (Yaani King), whereas in the base game that aspect is subjective. The bonding formed throughout The Last of Us and Ellie being such a regular teenager in both her personality and appearance triggered a very positive reaction in the DLC as players were already attached to her.
Ellie, much like Dorian Pavus (Ramon Tikaram) from 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, is a great solution for the struggles the LGBTQ community faces as a whole. Video games are the only fully interactive form of media, allowing players to experience realities they might never encounter in their regular lives, such as being close to a gay person. This sort of bond helps educate those who would otherwise never know what minorities go through, but it fails at explaining why they should be more conscious.
The good, the bad, the ugly
At one side we have developers and part of the community making a change by helping minorities. At the other, we have those who don’t accept any sort of change at the claim that it will affect their lives directly. In the middle the confused dwell, unsure of what to think or why any of this should be their problem. But what isn’t there to relate? Why is change so difficult to accept when it won’t take any of your privileges away? If we forget about skin color, gender, and sexuality for a moment, most gamers have a very similar story.
There once was a boy with an angelic name who always felt left out. His family had a strong opinion on who he should be and the friends he managed to make would sometimes suppress him. He struggled with grades and was always concerned with how he behaved around others lest they’d be offended by his mannerism. After he realized part of what made him so different, his family went on to fight against his nature. People he met along the way, while generally supportive, would still refuse him any moment of glory because of how irrelevant his situation was to them.
And then he found out he could be anyone. Not by watching a film or reading a book, but by taking control over someone else in a video game. All his doubts and struggles seemed like distant thoughts for those two or three hours he would spend in front of the computer, but in the back of his mind a voice would ask “where do you fit in this?” Finally, he had the chance to play The Sims 2. One of the first things his cousin mentioned was that he could be intimate and even marry people of the same gender. After being constantly reminded that he would always play a supportive role, it was time to be the lead of his own story.
Video games were very important for that boy as they helped him understand empathy whilst giving him the opportunity to lead the narrative. They helped him experiment with his social skills and discover the person behind the issues and taboos. Part of what that boy went through is exactly what most other gamers face, be they male or female, black or white, gay or straight. And yet, a large portion of the gaming community can’t relate to his story solely because of their choice of partner in The Sims 2.
The general public is perfectly fine with a black or a female protagonist. The inclusion of such characters in the leading role may sometimes cause a stir, but at the end of the day, they’re not as controversial as an exclusively gay character. Video game fans throughout the years have been praising the industry for including people of color and women in major parts, but just the thought of a gay character is enough to originate hurtful memes and offensive comments.
Despite Ellie being so well received after the reveal of her sexuality and the fact she’s the main protagonist of The Last of Us Part II, the general consensus is that gay characters other than her don’t deserve the spotlight. Dorian Pavus is a beloved asset, but some consider his sexuality to be forced upon players. Many fans of Rockstar’s Bully refuse to acknowledge that the ‘Scholarship Edition’ offers a relatively large selection of boys who protagonist Jimmy Hopkins (Gerry Rosenthal) can date. Yet, everyone seems on board with the idea that Overwatch‘s Zarya is lesbian given her nationality and manly build–despite the many pejorative jokes the latter triggers.
Developers are left at an impasse. Plenty of them wish to include the LGBTQ community just as much as they include other minorities, nevertheless that often results in a severe backlash and a possible impact on sales. Forcing ideas is not the solution, but forming a bond between player and character also doesn’t seem to do much for the long run. As the first triple-A title to feature an exclusively gay protagonist The Last of Us Part II could be a great help in addressing the issue, but its restricted release for the PlayStation 4 largely limits its transformative capability.
In the end, no one has all the answers. As much as companies try, they can’t reach or be understood by everyone. There are many ways to teach about empathy, respect, and why minorities matter, but that’s not only a developer’s duty. As long as players are open to discussing and understanding the stories they experience through video games, we should someday reach a point where arguments like this are no longer necessary.