Gay (But Not “Gay”) Characters in Video Games

by guest contributor Robert Yang, originally posted at Radiator Design Blog

Robert Yang is currently an MFA student studying “Design and Technology” at Parsons, The New School for Design. If he’s famous for anything, it’s probably for his artsy-fartsy Half-Life 2 mod series “Radiator” that’s still (slowly) being worked on. You should play it; episode 1-2 is about gay divorce.

Over on Filefront (when did they start posting articles? wha?) there’s a piece by Jim Sterling about a gay dude in Fallout: New Vegas. Read Sterling’s complete argument and give him some page views, or just look at this sentence that irritated me:

Jim Sterling: “Arcade Gannon’s sexuality isn’t a big deal, and that’s how videogames should play it.”

The argument that [all] gay video game characters should downplay their sexuality might be well intentioned, but is ultimately representative of the most dangerous kind of homophobia — a homophobia wrapped in intellectualism, appearing “tolerant.”

True, sexuality isn’t the only thing that defines a person — but for the vast majority of LGBT people, I would argue that it’s a crucial part of personal identity. To insist that effeminate gay men are “camping it up” and should just “be normal” is homophobia. That’s the same type of attitude that murdered Matthew Shepardhe would’ve been fine if only he didn’t act so damn gay around people!

Now, this thinking isn’t exclusive to homophobes; gay men discriminate against each other all the time. Some might brand me as “straight-acting” when (a) I’m not acting, and (b) straight men don’t have a monopoly on being more “masculine.” But then many gay men also discriminate against “feminine” men and imply they’re not “acting like real men” — whatever that means. So yes, everyone is guilty, there’s plenty of self-loathing to go around, blah blah blah.

But I digress. Perhaps my main point here is that the vast majority of adults on this planet have been known to care about sex. Sex is kind of a big deal — and thus, so is sexuality. Games aren’t exactly evolving as a medium if we always downplay this aspect of life — or worse, downplay it only for LGBT characters to make them seem more palatable for people who think gay sex is icky.

Not all video games have to engage meaningfully with sex (… although it helps) — but I would argue that there have to be some, at the very least, that do. Now, criticism without a solution is simply whining, so here I propose an alternate model for the portrayal of gay characters in media, a model that acknowledges — hey, some gay men like having teh gayz-zex:

In the animated show “The Venture Brothers”, the character Shore Leave is somewhat effeminate, unapologetically sexual… and hacks computers / is Brock’s slightly less blood-thirsty near-equal in terms of competence at killing people. (He’s amazing.) And in the Scott Pilgrim franchise, Scott’s roommate Wallace has absurd amounts of teh gaysecks but is still a supportive friend, mentor and accomplice. These gay characters are successful with their sexuality intact, while more or less circumventing the typical stereotypes.

Sex is a healthy, positive and important part of these characters’ lives. Prescribing some kind of “ideal gay” who doesn’t “broadcast it” is just as artificial, boring and negative as the stale stereotypes so often invoked in network sitcoms and those god awful reality shows on Bravo.

Insisting that difference along any lines, like sexuality (or race, in the case of Grace Holloway from BioShock 2) is “irrelevant” or “doesn’t matter” is a dangerous argument. I’m not sure what Western country you’re living in, but more often than not, being non-straight, non-male or non-white is going to affect your life in some profound way.

(Just off the top of my head in the US: gay marriage isn’t federally recognized, and so gay men don’t get spousal privilege in federal courts nor social security; the FDA thinks our blood is always permanently tainted with AIDS; we have to justify our fitness as parents more than anyone else, etc.)

You don’t ignore your difference; instead, you own it. Some might just keep to themselves unless asked — that’s fine. But to insist that everyone keeps it to themselves? Tyranny. For every silent shoegazer hipster gay who “you’d never think”, we also need a muscle queen dancing in a peacock speedo on top of a Ferrari. Because they’re gay too.

Again, I’m not saying every game has to be about sex (or am I?!), but here Sterling is proposing selective blindness and a glass closet for ALL gay characters in ALL games as a model to emulate. Yeah, stay invisible and don’t make a fuss! That always works.

So, to review:

1) All forms of media reflect back on some aspect of life.
2a) Video games are a form of media.
2b) Sex is a big deal in many peoples’ lives.
3) Some video games should address sex meaningfully.
4) LGBT people see sex differently than non-LGBT people.

4b) We should ignore that difference and only coyly imply that LGBT people might possibly maybe sometimes have sex lives, so as to avoid the mistake of portraying them as real people AND to avoid invoking a wildly exaggerated stereotype that has no currency today anyway. And thinking about gay sex is icky too.
5) ??? [...] hegemony! [...]
6) Thus, all video games should feature hardcore gay male pornography, though softcore will suffice if it’s a lower budget indie platformer. (Cactus, I’m looking at you.)

QED. Next blog post: I will broker world peace and prove whether P = NP.

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9 Responses to Gay (But Not “Gay”) Characters in Video Games

  1. theanorak says:

    As ever, balance is the key.

    Making *all* gay characters “muscle queen[s] dancing in a peacock speedo on top of a Ferrari” is not helpful. Making *all* gay characters downplay their sexuality is not helpful either.

    Allowing different characters to exist at different points on this notional spectrum makes a world more believable, more complete. The way forward?

  2. Ohma says:

    While I agree that having all gay characters handled the same way Arcade and Veronica are in Fo:NV would be crappy, I do think that the way New Vegas handled gender and sexuality is better than the way the majority of games do. (granted I haven’t even really gotten through half the game yet, but so far I’ve had significantly fewer moments that iffed me out than Fallout 2, for example, and near as I can tell, sex and sexuality isn’t all that much less of a factor in NV, but it isn’t handled in that cringe inducing HRRNG GRIMREALDARKGRITSWHORESWHORESWHORES way that 2 did)

    Also I love Shoreleave, and Hunter Gathers and the Order of the Triad and well…pretty much everyone in The Venture Brothers who aren’t the moppets, even Colonel Gentleman, who is horrible but AMAZING!

    Uh…anyway I think that while Jim Sterling is being dumb when he implies that sexuality should be a non-issue (re: rarely brought up) in games, I do think that Obsidian should get some credit for having sexuality *and* gender be a non-issue in the good way (again with the disclaimer that I haven’t finished the game yet and my opinion can easily change as I progress).

    well at least it’s a non-issue pretty much everywhere that isn’t in Legion territory, but they’re evil so I tend to not give that as much weight as I would if suddenly someone were to give my character (or any NPCs in the game) crap for being female or gay anywhere else

  3. Sam says:

    The part about all gay characters being portrayed as such aside…

    I liked the article. It highlighted that a gay character can be lovable in a mainstream title for a medium where homosexuals are typically laughed at or villains. The character was a breath of fresh air for games in my opinion. Not that you don’t have a good point but I wanted to give some credit to Jim Sterling for at least highlighting a gay character that he loves and showing that they don’t have to be ridiculed.

  4. Ah, well, yes, I agree. :) The problem isn’t gay people dressing themselves up for parade time, it’s the homophobia among gays and straight who believe that gays are flaunting shit/destroying the precious political normalization of the others. Characters can be, like, tooootally gay and have other traits when represented upon the screen.

  5. Thank your for pointing this out as Sterling’s article, while well intentioned and pointing out something that is, in the context of games (which we know have troubling cultural politics) fairly progressive, was circulating as if this was the only way LGBT characters should be shown. As you argue, this is a dangerous path because it’s a new permutation of the “I don’t have a problem with gay people, as long as they don’t flaunt it in front of me!” An article like Sterling’s fits precisely into the interests of the game industry which wants to ostensibly include, but functionally exclude, alternatives to the dominance of white heterosexual male characters.

    I wrote about this same issue on my own blog, but in relation to race and the frequency of ambiguously raced characters that side-step race. Check it out if you’re all so inclined: http://www.tannerhiggin.com/2010/10/colorblind-character-design-in-videogames/

    I’d love more feedback on it from Border House readers!

  6. z says:

    I don’t think that’s the point the article is trying to make. I think it’s more that in-game there shouldn’t have to be a big song and dance about a person because they may have had a different sexual or romantic history, they just *have*, and in the case of New Vegas; Veronica just tells you upfront about her past relationship with another woman, and that’s that. She doesn’t try to hide it, or obscure it, or ignore it. Maybe the case was different with Arcade, I haven’t used him as a companion in New Vegas.

  7. Curley says:

    I found Arcade to be an interesting character in that his homosexuality was constantly present throughout the game in his interactions with NPCs. It was also indicative in his evasiveness in regards to his past, even drawing parallels with communism and the cold war attack on gays. Fallout dealt with many social issues, but as a gay man I felt that for perhaps the first time in my many years of gaming, people could experience an authentic environment that includes homosexuals in negative, positive, and completely neutral lights. From Caesar’s Legion and it’s classically inspired male bonding, (complete with sexism) to the NCRs don’t ask, don’t tell policy. To the Brotherhood’s treatment of Veronica, and Manny and Boone’s strained relationship. It’s an eerie reflection of modern America.

  8. Jonah Falcon says:

    There is a heroic flamboyant character in videogames: Zevran from Dragon Age. While it’s more attributable to his being pampered constantly, and he’s omnivorous when it comes to sex, he’s still effeminate and coy, despite being an unrepentant murderer (oh, excuse me, ASSASSIN. As if there a difference.)

    As such, he’s also one of most popular characters in the game. Coincidence? I think not.

  9. Jonah: Bisexual is not gay! Do you think there is some truth to the notion that bisexual men are more gayish than bisexual women when potrayed?

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