LGBT History Month is a good time to consider whether and, if so, how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are represented in popular media. While TV shows, films, and books are frequently analysed, one form of popular media that might get forgotten is video games. So how do video games depict LGBT people and why does this matter?
Video games are growing in popularity; we can see this in the widespread advertising campaigns that appear on bus stops, on TV and before film screenings at the cinema. Video game genres are as varied as those found in film and television, but games may be dismissed as low-brow or unimportant or as not of interest.
It may surprise some to know just how varied gamers can be, as there is often an assumption that video games are for heterosexual teenage males. Given the diversity of the gaming demographic, games should feature and be marketed towards a wide range of people.
With the increased interest in the games industry comes the responsibility to represent minorities respectfully. The inclusion of heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, and other queer characters in popular video games will help to reduce the invisibility of minorities. But ideally this would be done in a way that doesn't rely on stereotypes or negative views of LGBTQ people.
As Matt Kane, the Associate Director of Entertainment Media at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has said, "A lot of game makers are realizing that in order to create a believable universe it has to be a universe that is very diverse, and in some ways it sort of reflects the make-up of the culture we live in as well. I think it's very logical that you'll start to see more LGBTQ characters appearing in games."
So does this actually happen in video games today?
Unfortunately, in many video games, the gay characters tend to be villains. For example, the Metal Gear Solid series has a number of gay and bisexual characters (Volgin and Vamp) who are enemies of the main character. The fights against Vamp in particular have sexual undertones, and he is sadistic in nature.
Reaver from Fable II and III is a bisexual man (voiced by the openly gay Stephen Fry) who has orgies with people and monsters - again, he's quite an unpleasant character, and he betrays the player. His sexuality is used to emphasise his fickle nature, and his lifestyle is portrayed as both decadent and sordid.
In addition, the GTA game Ballad of Gay Tony has a gay main character, but he is not a positive role model either. He's a drug-addicted crime lord who murders quite a few people, and yes, that may relate to the genre of the game, but it still sends a rather strong negative message about LGBTQ people.
The sad fact is that there are few LGBTQ characters that are portrayed positively.
The closest thing to positive representation seems to be that there is representation at all. Some might question whether this state of affairs is any better than simply not having LGBTQ characters. In other words, is a negative portrayal truly better than an absence?
In some cases, video games might allow for a character to be gay or bisexual, but this requires that a player actively choose that. For example, if the player makes the hero court another male character while saving the universe in Mass Effect 3, then in a way the hero could be considered a positive gay role model because he does not adhere to negative stereotypes and his sexuality doesn't define his character. But since it depends on the individual player's decisions, the hero might not be gay in someone else's experience of the same game.
While some video games companies - a good example here is BioWare - actively support the LGBTQ community by speaking out against homophobia and including options for same-sex relationships in their games, this is rather rarer than one might like.
In short, video games appeal to a broad audience and ought to reflect the players and also the greater society. But often this does not happen. Instead we see villainous, sadistic, and decadent gay or bisexual men, and few other people on the LGBTQ spectrum, whether sadistic or not.
Perhaps LGBT History Month is a time to encourage game companies to finally get ahead of the game and to show greater diversity, which would likely appeal to a wider audience. Or else it might be game over for those old-fashioned, non-diverse, heteronormative companies.
This article was co-written by B.J. Epstein and Amy Griffiths