I Exist: Improving the Representation of Queer Perspectives in Videogames
Presented at the Digital Games Research Association of Australia's 2016 'Tensions' conference by Alayna Cole.
Paper available soon
Alayna Cole | University of the Sunshine Coast
Diverse representation of all types is important in the media that we consume for two key reasons: it helps validate and solidify the self-identity of those being portrayed, and helps to increase understanding of differing perspectives and experiences for those who are not being portrayed.
Queer representation is a particularly important area of academic research because queer representation and the discussion of it are uncommon. Videogames have been traditionally heteronormative and it is vital that we draw attention to this heternormativity, as well as attempts to challenge it. A survey conducted by a Swedish researcher showed that members of the queer community feel as though they 'don't exist' in games.
This isn't to say that there is no queer content in games currently. There have been more deliberate attempts recently to actively include queer perspectives in games. In particular, there are steps being taken within indie games and experiences. There are several factors that this can be attributed to, but increased accessibility in game development tools has been instrumental as this has allowed minority groups to begin telling their own stories.
While queer representation in games is becoming more common, it is certainly not prevalent and is therefore worth talking about. Research game studies is yet to focus on queer representation in games the same way it has considered aspects such as gender and race representation, and the studies of queer representation that do exist are primarily qualitiative close reading of specific games or larger scale quantitative analysis of all queer representation.
Research into the big picture of queer representation has tangible impacts for researchers, game developers, and game audiences (both queer and non-queer). This research can guide researchers in new directions, highlight representation gaps for developers, and help audiences understand patterns and tropes in the games that they are playing. But perhaps more importantly, by looking at the big picture qualitatively, the personal experiences of the queer community can also be considered and used to guide future research and development. There is a gap in qualitative research around the big picture of queer representation in games, and this is a gap I am seeking to fill.
My qualitative analysis into this area started as uncertain curiosity. Initially, I went to social media and hoped to establish a foundation upon which to commence further research. I created a survey filled with open ended questions about favourite and least favourite forms of representation and thought maybe 10 people from my own network would think to fill it in for me. To my surprise, in the two weeks the survey was open, 158 respondents provided me with detailed and insightful responses. I would have kept the survey open longer, but some "joke" responses began trickling in faster and deleting them was creating more work than I wanted, so I called it quits. I had a lot more to work with than I'd ever been expecting.
The responses not only provided a foundation for further research, as I'd hoped, but they also became the catalyst that led to the formation of Queerly Represent Me, a database that (at the time of this presentation) features 700 games with some form of queer representation. Work on the database is ongoing and research outputs are only in the early stages, but I'm excited for its potential for both myself and other researchers.
In addition to providing valuable personal opinions and directing me towards a number of games for further analysis, the survey conducted in May 2016 revealed a few important trends worth discussing. Three of these trends form the sections of the paper upon which this presentation is based. The first is that, while all queer representation is lacking in games, there is an oversaturation of same-gender relationships. However, these representations are also less than ideal: gay men are presented as stereotypically effeminate, which lesbian relationships are presented primarily to appeal to a woman-attracted audience. There is limited representation of asexuality, as well as diverse genders (transgender, non-binary, etc.) and non-monogamous relationship structures. Survey respondents expressed a desire for more positive representation of these sexualities, genders, and relationship structures.
Questions regarding representation of gender through pronoun selection and character creation led to a general consensus that games typically rely on binary gender selection, even without it being pertinent to the narrative or game mechanics. Games that do allow players to experiment with player-character gender and see themselves represented through diverse pronouns and unrestricted gender options were praised. Queer respondents began to highlight aspects of character creation that are meaningful to them, which is an area of research I begin to explore in the paper related to this presentation and intend to investigate further.
'Optional' queer content and playersexuality were also often mentioned as negative attempts to appease the queer community without truly committing to explicit representations. This particular area of investigation is the one I have explored further within this presentation.
Optional queer content is queer content that is inconsequential to the game in terms of narrative, game mechanics, and progression. A player is able to experience a game without experiencing queer themes when optional queer content is the primary form of representation used. Therefore, if a player wishes to have a heteronormative experience, they are permitted to do so. This is a step taken by developers in an attempt to please both the queer community and homophobic or transphobic players, and without exposing ignorant players to new perspectives. This minimal level of representation is often pursued by developers who do not wish to choose a stance; however, by fence-sitting, developers are making a choice.
The Dragon Age series was typically praised by respondents in the survey I conducted, but it is worthwhile noting that even Dragon Age has its faults, with David Gaider actively permitting players to turn Dragon Age: Origins into a heteronormative experience if they choose, thus erasing queer perspectives.
Playersexuality is what occurs when all romanceable NPCs can be attracted to the player-character regardless of that character's gender. These playersexual characters do not self-identify as having any particular sexuality, generally do not have a sexual history (and if they do, it is typically a heteronormative one), and exist in worlds where most surrounding relationships are also heteronormative. By using playersexual mechanics rather than making characters explicitly bisexual, a game allows a player to choose to have a heteronormative experience, if they wish.
Key examples of playersexuality provided by respondents to my survey were Fallout 4, Dragon Age 2, and Stardew Valley. A respondent said that they disliked games that 'only really show gayness through "playersexuality"'; however, another respondent mentioned some hidden dialogue for Isabela (Dragon Age 2) and Piper (Fallout 4) that reveals some previous same-gender attraction.
In conclusion, it is important to remember that explicit spotlighting of queer perspectives in games is just as necessary as implicit normalising of queer identities. Simply by adding more games and more representations, we are able to help people to see themselves or new perspectives in the games they play, and this is valuable. However, by relying on optional queer content and playersexuality—as well as stereotypes and assumptions—developers obscure queer themes and can perpetuate negative representations.
When asked what they would like to see more of, respondents to my survey were not pushy and did not have unrealistic expectations or desires. Mostly, respondents simply asked to exist in the games they play. It can be difficult to make changes to the way we approach game research or game development, but when people see value in representing these important perspectives, these challenges become manageable and meaningful.