Video Games Still Have a Queerness Problem

Despite a groundswell of representation and support at E3 this year, queerness in games remains interchangeable, scarce, and distinctly gendered.

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Since 2007, Bioware games have allowed players to engage in romances and more prominently than their peers, queer romances. Over the years, they’ve listened to feedback on how attraction and identity should function in those relationships and have made changes in order to more realistically convey the highs and lows of navigating them. While the relationships and representation in Bioware games are nowhere near perfect, they have become a staple of what little queer representation we do get in the AAA space. Now though, Bioware has announced that its upcoming title, Anthem, will not feature any of their characteristic companion characters or romance options. Unsurprisingly, this was very upsetting to many players, as their franchises have grown popular because of these relationships, and the reactions online were incredibly mixed.

Some players who’ve loved their previous efforts completely backed out of the idea of Anthem. Some courteously, others as you can imagine, not. Others find the idea of their new game too appealing to pass up and understand the sacrifices, even if Bioware hasn’t done much to justify them. On this end of the spectrum are the folks saying things such as “Anthem won’t have queer romances, but Assassin’s Creed does, so everything’s fine!” That’s right, in light of the vacancy Bioware left, Ubisoft almost immediately leapt onto the fact that the latest Assassin’s Creed game, Odyssey, would allow players to not only pick between two distinct, gendered characters, but that the game would also support dialogue choices and yes, romances both queer and not.

Alongside the very prominent lesbian kiss featured in the new E3 trailer for The Last of Us 2, it would seem there’s plenty for queer gamers to be excited about, but these announcements have really done more to reinforce that the AAA space has a very real queerness issue.

With Bioware romances out of the picture, the landscape for queer representation within upcoming AAA games immediately became vacant. Bioware games have been doing most of the heavy-lifting there for years, and without them, things began to look a lot more sparse and dire. The fact that the Assassin’s Creed romance options announcement was met with such excitement is telling of the state of queer representation in these big games. As long as someone is doing it, we’re all good right? This attitude perfectly exemplifies the fact that queer gamers have been begging for scraps from the AAA table for as long as it’s existed. Things have certainly improved over the years, but ultimately, we’re still a fringe demographic  Even when we are represented, it’s not often catered to or even crafted by us, which should raise questions as to the purpose and origins of queer narratives in games.

Outside of Bioware and evidently Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the main queer people we see in AAA games are lesbians. Specifically white lesbians. Gay men, and queer women of color, if they’re shown at all, are killed, as was the case for the other queer folks depicted in The Last of Us. Trans folks usually aren’t on screen long enough to be killed off, and if they are shown, their arcs tend to be cringey and tone deaf, as was the case with Mass Effect: Andromeda’s Hainely Abrams. Depictions of queerness are geared towards men in this space, because they are still perceived to be the target audience, which is why having two men kissing in a Naughty Dog trailer would likely bring horror instead of excitement, despite the actual body-horror that immediately followed in the case of this most recent trailer. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be lesbians in games or that this kind of representation isn’t important. However, when there’s consistently only one kind of queer person in games who gets to live and be a relatively well-developed character, it becomes a definite, unavoidable problem.

We also need to be more discerning with where queer narratives are coming from within AAA spaces. Yes, having two women kiss on the E3 stage was exciting and felt like a big moment in the event’s history, but I’m not sure I want that moment coming from a studio who has dealt with sexual misconduct allegations so poorly. As a queer woman who’s had her share of teenage love, seeing that reflected in Life is Strange: Before the Storm, was deeply impactful. But that doesn’t negate the fact that that game was made by undermining unions and using scab labor instead. There are plenty of indie devs out there who are making incredible queer games, but because they don’t have the budget Naughty Dog does, their work won’t be seen by the same audience. Which is why AAA spaces need to do better, and bring in people who can actually do better, instead of relying on their old guard to make attempts.

That’s not to say that these big budget studios aren’t a key part of queer representation. AAA games like Dragon Age & The Last of Us tend to scratch a different itch than a lot of the indie games out there, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I loved Brianna Lei’s Butterfly Soup, but not in the same way or for the same reasons I loved Dragon Age 2. These bigger budget titles tend to be more accessible to the average gamer. Before last year, I had no idea what itch.io, an indie game marketplace, was, and many people currently don’t. Even if folks do know what it is, they may be hesitant to have to parse through a marketplace that, while more curated than Steam, is still fairly large. As a younger queer gamer, Bioware games were my first exposure to queerness in games, and that’s not a solitary experience. I know plenty of other queer people who first saw themselves in something like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, and that experience is important. Giving queer folks, no matter their age, the chance to see themselves represented in a way that’s both explicit, and relatively easy to access, is necessary for those who are newer to gaming or who tend to be “casual” because of the games industry’s history of toxicity towards queer people. Ensuring that both the people and the companies that are making these games can bring well done queer representation to the table is vital to making this space more accessible and welcoming to queer folks.

Seeing queer folks represented in AAA games, especially on something like the E3 stage will always make part of me excited. It’s hard to not give into the hype of being included in a realm that has always been resistant at best, downright violent at worst to your existence. But part of our problem is that exact desire, and until this landscape is deeply altered, girls kissing on screen just won’t be enough. These companies want to profit off the image of progress, while remaining firmly conservative in their actual actions. Until these actions are widely called-out by all of us, not just those in the margins, gaming will continue to have a glaring queerness problem.


Follow all of OK Beast’s E3 2018 coverage here.

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