Queer Representation in Videogames

A Crash Course

This guest lecture was given at the University of the Sunshine Coast in September, 2017, to SGD202 Video Game Analysis.

Slides and content were written by Alayna Cole. These slides were based on a paper currently under consideration for publication. Do not reuse slides without permission.

(Pictured: The Genderbread Person, explained below.)

Sexuality: Our sexual orientation, which is denoted by who we are attracted to sexually, romantically, etc. in terms of their gender identity and expression.

Gender: Our gender identity and our gender expression, which may not be congruent. This is the gender/s we identify with and the way we show that to society.

The Genderbread Person shows the relationship between sexuality, sex, gender identity, and gender expression, and how each of these aspects of a person's identity exists on multiple scales. It also shows how a person can fall on each scale in different places, giving endless possibilities for how people can identify.

The first reading made available to students for the purposes of this lecture was Adrienne Shaw's 2011 paper, 'He could be a bunny rabbit for all I care: Identification with video game characters and arguments for diversity in representation'. This paper looks at the common arguments made in favour of representation, and questions these assumptions based on qualitative data gathered through interviews. This paper discusses the difference between diversity and pluralism, highlighting the idea that allowing players to recreate themselves in character creators is not truly 'diversity'.

However, character creation allows people to create an image of themselves to play within a game. This image could be an accurate image of their current self, or an idealised image of who they would like to be. In The Sims 4 players can now select a gender identity, and then be more specific regarding the frame of the character, their clothing choices, whether they can get pregnant, and whether they can use the toilet standing up. This shows how gender identity can be explored through the ludology of a game, not just narratology. Pictured is a character created by Elissa Harris, a trans woman who was excited to see a body she could relate to represented in a game.

Also pictured is Read Only Memories, where the character creation system allows players to select their preferred pronouns. It also allows players to input custom pronouns if the several options do not suit. This game was designed as a way of proving that introducing diverse pronouns for player-characters (as well as other customisation options, such as dietary preferences) is not impossible.

More reflections on character creation are available here.

You can also learn more about making character creators / user interfaces gender accessible here.

The second paper I encouraged students to read for this lecture was one I wrote based on a framework I developed for my guest lecture in 2016. This paper encourages people to avoid using words like 'positive' and 'negative' representation, and instead describe representations in nuanced ways.

Representation of diverse sexualities and genders can be integral to a narrative, or can be incidental. It can be explicitly stated, or simply implied. There are many types of representations—both in terms of queer representation and more broadly—and although there is no objectively 'right' or 'wrong' way to represent, each of these options does carry connotations that need to be considered.

The key types of representation explored in this lecture are explicit / implicit, central / incidental, and fixed / player-centric. There are other categories of representation that are also worth considering, and there are subcategories within these areas that we will also explore.

Explicit / implicit representation is about how overt the representation is in the game. In the above example, Janey explicitly tells another character that Athena is her girlfriend, making it overt that she is attracted to and dating a woman (although we cannot definitively say what her own sexuality is). In contrast, there are implications and homoerotic undertones around the relationship between Sorey and Mikleo, but it is never confirmed whether this relationship is romantic or platonic.

Consider: Do we need all or any representations of diverse sexualities to be explicit? Why / why not?

Tracer was revealed to be queer in a canon comic released just before Christmas 2016 through her behaviour; in a gift-giving exchange, she and her girlfriend share a kiss. Immediately, news sources began calling Tracer gay or a lesbian, despite this behaviour potentially revealing her to have a different queer identity—for example, a woman kissing another woman could also indicate that she is bisexual.

However, a few days later, it became canon that Tracer is indeed a lesbian, making this label more accurate now. It's important to understand the difference between our assumptions (made based on the behaviours we see) and a person's identity (established based on who they say they are).

One of the key differences between explicit and implicit representation is often where the focus lies. With explicit representation, it generally lies in identification, with characters giving themselves labels (whether these are to do with sexuality, such as 'lesbian' or 'bisexual', or to do with relationships, such as 'girlfriend' or 'partner'). These give us a clear indication of who the character is attracted to without needing to guess.

Implicit relationships often rely on behaviour and, as such, can fall victim to player assumptions. For instance, a woman who only has relationships with men could be assumed to be heterosexual, but in fact be bisexual or any other plurisexual (multiple-gender attracted) sexuality. This assumption is born from heteronormativity and a tendency to rely on binary understandings of sexuality and gender.

(Lara and Sam fanart ref: DeviantArt)

While it can be acceptable to let representations be implicit, it is important to consider some possible negative factors. Leaving representations ambiguous can lead to hurting an audience if those representations change. Based on dialogue in Dragon Age: Inquisiton, Cole was considered potentially asexual, which is a rare representation of sexuality that members of the asexual community found very important. Later, DLC tarnished this representation: although Cole's asexuality was never confirmed, people had already identified with the character, so making a definitive statement at a later date did more harm than not implying that he was asexual would have.

Allowing for implied representations can open games, and the characters within them, up to more of your audience. If representations are not explicit, more players may be able to identify with and project themselves onto a character. However, this becomes an issue when representations are deliberately left ambiguous to ensure homophobic players are not made uncomfortable by the game. 'Optional' queer content can be seen as an easy way to make queer players happy while not ostracising homophobic players, and this motivation is incredibly problematic.

Overall, implied representations allow for players to create 'headcanons', which are extensions of the story that are not canonised in the game or the lore surrounding the game. These headcanons can be excellent forms of self-expression, but they can lead to players becoming hurt if and when the developer definitively announces that they are untrue.

Some games are directly about sexuality or gender identity, while other games have passing mentions to these diverse aspects of their world without it being directly related to the narrative. Games like Dys4ia—which has a narrative that is about the experiences of a transgender character—have central representation, while The Witcher 3 has subtle references to sexuality and gender throughout, which do not have a lasting, significant impact on the overall narrative. Both approaches have merit and suit different games.

Some games contain characters with identities that are fixed and that do not alter dependent on the player-character's identity. For example, Dorian will tell you that he prefers the company of men regardless of the gender you have chosen as a player-character, and will not have a romance with a player-character who is a woman. In contrast, all romanceable characters in Fable III could be attracted to the player-character regardless of their gender.

Characters who are attracted to the player-character regardless of their gender are referred to as 'playersexual'. These characters are distinct from bisexual / pansexual / other plurisexual identities as they do not have an identity of their own and might not have a romantic history. Playersexuality often occurs in games where every romanceable character is attracted to the player (so no romanceable characters have their own sexuality) and / or where other relationships within the game are typically heteronormative.

Stardew Valley allows the player-character to romance an equal number of men and women, regardless of the player-character's gender, but there are no other same-gender relationships in the town. This makes the attempt to include queer representation seem disingenuous or lazy.

In Fallout 4, as well as many other Bethesda games, players are also able to romance any of the romanceable characters regardless of the player-character's gender.

Consider: Bethesda's open-world games are designed to be about player freedom and exploration. As such, is it acceptable for all companions to be romanceable to any player-character? If the player experience goal that Bethesda had in mind is for players to be able to 'do anything', does that not include being able to do anyone?

This argument falls down when gender normativity in Fallout 4 is considered, but I have already ranted about that topic elsewhere.

To delve deeper into the topic of queer representation in games, the organisation I founded—Queerly Represent Me—features plenty of resources, research, and information!