Representation of LGBTQ+ identities in video games is nothing new, but recent years have seen an increased presence in high-profile titles than ever before. In the same way that diverse identities are demanded in other entertainment media, videogame developers have sought to diversify their casts and subject matter, moving away from (or placing these characters into) the action-oriented hetero-normative male fantasies which we often associate with the medium.
The mere presence of queer identities does not preclude a meaningful interaction, however. These identities can still be marginalized or normalized through the act of inclusion.
So what makes representation meaningful, and what kind of meaningful representation have we seen, and can we expect, from video games?
In role-playing games like Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 or the Dragon Age series, we may come into contact with queer characters or construct ones ourselves. Mass Effect 3 has been lauded for its inclusion of the first exclusively gay and lesbian characters. While traveling the galaxy gathering assets and allies to save it from a menacing foe, pilot Esteban “Steve” Cortez and specialist Samantha Traynor keep the player company on their ship, doing their relative jobs, and revealing more about themselves through dialogue and, if the player chooses, romance. In the futuristic world of Mass Effect, their identities as queer is a given and accepted.
Queer is normal, there’s nothing outstanding about it, and their inclusion as queer characters is simply presence. Their sexual preference does not characterize them in any other way; it doesn’t color their backstory. They are, quite simply, dedicated military assets that are happy to offer their efforts and bodies to the war in a type of homonationalism. Their presence is meaningful in that we have a utopic view of acceptance — we can appreciate the equality and freedom they experience — but otherwise their queer identities are normalized and apolitical.
Compare these experiences to Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator and the experience is far more focused. As the name implies, Dream Daddy is a dating simulator in which players create their own single dad and date a number of other single dads while simultaneously navigating the perils of fathering a teenage daughter. By selecting particular dialogue choices, players learn about Amanda, their virtual daughter, and all the prospective datable dads, connecting to them through their shared experience of evolving fatherhood. When customizing their dad, players can choose body styles, faces, hair, clothing, and even whether or not they are wearing a binder as an undergarment, allowing for a detailed expression of queer bodies.
At the 2017 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, director Tyler Hutchison explained that the entire game, including the character creation, was motivated by inclusion and positivity. Dream Daddy’s world and art shows, with its bright colors and cartoonish still animation, exists within a space that depoliticizes the queer identity and doesn’t discriminate, a space where each dad lives a free upper-middle-class lifestyle. Hutchison went on to explain the powerful feedback he’d received from a player that was moved by the game, having never experienced one that allowed them to make a character that truly represented them within such a safe and positive space.
What Dream Daddy says through its utopic, escapist optimism is that queer men, or those that identify as male, can be good fathers — and does that by fitting the queer identity into the sterility of heteronormative expectations for adult life: the white picket fence, parenting, and the type of love one can settle down with.
This, however, can be problematic.
The issue that Mass Effect 3 and Dream Daddy ignores in their positive representations is that queer identities are political. Characters in both games exist in a time and space in which the queer identity has been accepted and normalized… which is great. Acceptance, respect, and equal opportunity is a win, after all, and we continue to fight for that on a daily basis — but the reality is that our society has much to work on when it comes to equal rights and compassion for our LGBTQ+ friends.
We can value these games and characters for the inclusion, safe spaces, and utopic views they offer, but we can’t let them bury today’s issues that often characterize queer experiences.
That’s not to say all queer characters in popular games represent rays of sunshine. The aforementioned Dragon Age series, also by Bioware, features many queer characters, but Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition is a great example of a politicized, more complex representation. Dorian is one of several characters the player can recruit in their quest to save the world, but unlike those discussed in Mass Effect 3, Dorian isn’t a simple asset happy to do what the war machine wills; he has his own issues, and the player makes decisions that directly influence how Dorian handles them. As a gay man, he is ostracized from his country, his culture, and his father, who all demand that a man of his high stature marry well and have kids. If players befriend him enough or romance him if they play as a male, eventually they can help Dorian make peace with his father and his past, or choose to deny them entirely.
Dorian is a meaningful representation because we are witness to his extremely personal struggles that separate him from the country and family that he loves, and, as players, we can help him heal that schism or leave it behind entirely. It’s a story that’s been told before, but it’s a touching narrative that hits closer to home, straying from the heteronormative gaze.
Obviously there’s still some work to be done. The queer experience is complex, and we continue to experience the struggle for equality as the fight for transexual inclusion in the US military and marriage rights around the world repeatedy show. As creators and consumers, we owe it to demand more from our interactive entertainment and storytelling, whether we’re queer or straight.
Jeremiah French spends most of his time dissecting and consuming human-built worlds in multimedia, from written fiction to simulated spaces. When he isn’t submersed in that world, he’s making his own in podcast and print. Occasionally he remembers that he’s a musician, so he’ll do that too. Check out his musings on interactive entertainment at drunkenmarmoset.com, and his primary action-fantasy podcast Gafgarn: The Eternally Unfurnished, anywhere podcasts are available.