Press A To Wed: Gay Marriage In Video Games
This is the year 2013. By Buck Rogers standards, we should be colonizing Venus, fighting intelligent, evil sentient gases, wearing stylish V-neck leotards, and consuming human corpses in delicious green wafer form. Or, we could be delivering the mail. Nope, we’re arguing about who people can marry in the highest court in our great land. And everyone wonders why I have a continual “tired look” on my face.
While the rest of society seems to be collectively losing its mind over this, and Facebook is turning into a sea of red squares, there’s one segment of our culture that never really had an issue with LGBT characters or the concept of same-sex couples: video games. Since the 1980’s, when characters stopped being squares and dots, sexual identities of a lot of different types started to emerge almost immediately, sometimes in the most unexpected places. The actual first depiction of a LGBT character in a commercially released game was in 1986, with Infocom’s MOONMIST. Or the most famous instance, Birdo in SUPER MARIO 2, who in the Japanese game manual was originally a male-to-female transsexual who wanted to be called “Birdetta”. So that pretty much makes SUPER MARIO 2 the Stonewall Riots of video games, right?
Nope. No uproar, no protest. SUPER MARIO 2 sold millions in Japan, but Nintendo did quietly retcon Birdo in the US release to being exclusively female, though. And they’ve never had an openly queer character in a first party developed game, either. Rare, in their golden days, did create a gay bartender named Jolly Roger in BANJO-TOOIE, whose obviously male “partner” you have to save. His bar, “Jolly’s” (a British pun for testicles) also has some sly hints to the bar’s clientele, with menu items like “Seaman’s Surprise”, “Toad in the Hole” and “Grab a Sailor Night”. Perhaps Rare was resurrecting the gay bar exorcised from DRAGON WARRIOR III.
Video games, especially in the 2000’s, have this strange dichotomy: when you don’t have a choice of your character (like Mario, Bayonetta, or Solid Snake), gender roles and hetero-normal relationships reign supreme. Mario always saves the Princess, Bayonetta will always have a freakishly long neck, Solid Snake always gets hit on (even when he’s old as shit). But when you do have a choice, the sexual politics of characters radically changes, even in such a way that may contradict the game world’s culture. Even though I complained SKYRIM was a tad dull, sacrificing game complexity for volume, you could still have a same sex marriage in the Temple of Mara. None of the other NPC’s ever really comment on this, and I never met a same-sex couple in the game. Maybe SKYRIM has a surprisingly progressive culture, even though Nords are slightly xenophobes against Elves and Orcs.
Bethesda, EA, Big Blue Box and BioWare have lead an almost invisible civil rights campaign in the US their open world games and RPG’s. Almost all of Bethesda’s Havok Engine games (FALLOUT 3, NEW VEGAS, SKYRIM) either have openly gay characters who describe their relationships with same sex NPC’s clearly, or in the case of SKYRIM, you can get gay married yourself. EA very brazenly stated in their SIMS franchise that same-sex relationships were a natural part of, you know, life, and for all their recent DRM dickishness, the last thing they were going to do is arise the discontent of the “gaymer” community, a growing percentage of the game-buying public. EA’s pet studio BioWare very openly stated you could have GayShep in MASS EFFECT 3 and took a LOT of flak for it.
The RPG and the open-world game, by their very nature, allow for role-play and different choices of character. These are games that can openly explore different sexual identities in a way that can be presented as both natural and common, without preference or judgment on the player themselves. I’m not going to get into the idea that homosexuality is not really a choice in the same way armor is, but when you’re building a character from the ground up, you make ALL the choices for that character. Gay marriage in video games became such a common occurrence in RPG’s, I actually started using this as a personal review metric: if you can get married as a game mechanic, can I get gay married if I wanted to?
The following US-released games allow, as a choice, player-NPC or player-player same sex marriages or relationships as a vanilla, un-modded part of gameplay:
- .HACK//G.U. (2006)
- ARCANUM: OF STEAMWORKS & MAGICK OBSCURA (2001)
- BAHAMUT LAGOON (1996)
- BALDUR’S GATE II: SHADOWS OF AMN (2000)
- BULLY (2006)
- DIVINE DIVINITY (2002)
- DRAGON AGE II (2011)
- DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS (2009)
- ECHO BAZAAR (2009)
- FABLE (2004)
- FABLE II (2008)
- FABLE III (2010)
- FALLOUT 2 (1998)
- FALLOUT 3 (2008)
- FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS (2010)
- FRONTIERVILLE (2010)
- GAIA ONLINE (2004)
- LEISURE SUIT LARRY 6: SHAPE UP OR SLIP OUT! (1993)
- LUMINOUS ARC 3: EYE (2007)
- MASS EFFECT 2 (2010)
- MASS EFFECT 3 (2012)
- NEVERWINTER NIGHTS 2 (2006)
- NEVERWINTER NIGHTS: KINGMAKER (2005)
- PERSONA 2: INNOCENT SIN (1999)
- PIRATES OF THE BURNING SEA (2008)
- PLANET STRONGHOLD (2011)
- POKEMON: BLACK AND WHITE (2010)
- STAR TREK: ELITE FORCE (2000)
- STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC (2003)
- SUMMON NIGHT: SWORDCRAFT STORY (2003)
- TALES OF SYMPHONIA (2003)
- TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL (2004)
- THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM (2011)
- THE GAME OF LIFE (2009)
- THE SIMS Series (2000 – current)
- TRADEWINDS: LEGENDS (2006)
- ULTIMA VII: THE BLACK GATE (1992)
- VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE – BLOODLINES (2004)
- WORLD OF WARCRAFT: CATACLYSM (2010)
Of these 39 games, almost all of them are open-world or RPG’s of some sort, with an emphasis on the wide variety of what the player can do. Since sexuality is such an enormous part of our lives, reflecting this in the video game space is expected, but its specificity to the RPG genre is surprising. 33 of them were made in the last decade, and with the average age of a gamer being 31 or so, these games were being developed during gamers’ 20’s, about the time a person starts to have thoughts about their romantic future. As of 2010, the average age of someone coming out was 16 years old, a nine year drop from when ULTIMA VII was released. The vast majority of these games were also released in the 2000’s, when the idea of legalizing gay marriage became a national hot button issue.
What’s missing are the action, sports, and shooter genres, the three highest selling categories of games. Why do these games lack a variety of sexual identities? Maybe because those genres aren’t geared towards player customization or choices of this nature. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s because those genres sell the best on consoles. 60% of all gamers are men, with the three best selling games of 2012 being CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS 2, MADDEN NFL 13, and HALO 4 on consoles: sales speak for themselves. Men predominantly play console games, and since the majority of them are heterosexual, it’s a fair argument to say the games industry may just be simply responding to what they want. I’m not saying console players are homophobes (even though a half hour on XBox Live would probably convince you otherwise). I’m curious as to how a grim, realistic, console action shooter starring an openly gay man would be received. Since dudes tend to mack on girl-on-girl action, a lipstick lesbian main character is not exactly a revolutionary or earth-shattering concept. I’m talking about a gay action hero, not played for comedic effect, but just a part of his personality. Imagine CALL OF DUTY starring John Barrowman or Winston Cruz. That would be a hoot.
Let me throws some stats at you. 1 out of every 5 PC games sold are RPG’s and more and more of them have openly gay characters and these new gameplay choices. This progressive attitude towards games is most likely due to the interconnectivity of the Internet and the PC space. PC gamers also tend to be obsessively internet based, and with the preponderance of social networks and multiplayer, we’re more open to differing and challenging opinions. Unfortunately, sometimes this can boil down to homophobic name-calling, but with this increased interaction comes exposure. Over a third of people who changed their minds on the subject did so because they knew someone who was gay. A new net-native generation is also supporting this new trend, with a whopping 8 out of 10 people under 30 supporting same-sex marriage. Homophobic behavior on the Internet, specifically social networks, often gets a harsh indictment and public scolding. Not so much on the console multiplayer, where gay gamers still experience constant harassment. XBox Live gets the most vitriolic coverage, mainly due to its popularity and voice chat capacity.
Games reflect culture. Sure, there’s too much testosterone war-glorification going on, but with the rise of social games, mobile platforms, the resurgence of PC-led design innovation, and a whole new demographic of gamers themselves, we’re going to see a drastic change in the heroes we see on box art. Game publishers, always careful of changing trends, are becoming more vigilant about making sure a larger variety of lifestyles are represented. These are game aimed at gaymers at only 1% of the population, but the 80% of the gamers that approve of same-sex marriage. This is a smart business decisions, and due to public pressure to include these aspects of life, positive portrayals of same-sex couples are common and accepted now. The inclusion of legitimate same-sex relationships and gay marriage in video games is a welcome, albeit quiet, development that sort of snuck up on us. It was so naturally and casually placed in these games that we almost didn’t even notice. And when we did notice, like in MASS EFFECT 3 and SKYRIM, we said “Of course that should be in there. Duh.”
This week, the Supreme Court of the USA is going to decide on two landmark cases: the constitutionality of California’s Prop 8, and the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Read up on them. This article’s featured image is a take on the Human Rights Campaign’s symbol of equality. Yet with all this outpouring of support, both of those cases could lose. It’s nice to see, that in a certain part of the virtual world, this is already a win-win.