Tag Archives: sexual orientation

Wrath of the Gods: Teaching Intersectionality through Bastion

My class awash in the colors of Bastion.

My class awash in the colors of Bastion.

Special thanks to Greg Kasavin, creative director of Supergiant Games for supplying my classroom with educational copies of Bastion. Thanks as well to Damien Prystay who shared his save game data and to Christopher Sawula who graciously reprised his role as my classroom aide.

If you’re a Border House regular, you know that last semester I taught my students about the feminist theory of intersectionality using Halo. Intersectionality is the theory that systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia interact and overlap, compounding each other’s effects in unique ways. If you think about each of these systems separately, you’ll miss forms of oppression that folks experience at particular intersections of identity.

A few examples? Imagine being a gay, lesbian or bisexual person with a disability in the United States and not being able to marry your same-sex partner in order to receive essential health benefits. Imagine being fired for coming out as transgender (which is still legal in thirty-three states) and not having the resources to survive because you are working class. Imagine being an African-American woman shopping for a sharp business suit in order to counteract hiring prejudice and getting followed by security at the department store.

If you’re just thinking about any single system of oppression, you won’t be able to understand any of the above experiences. And you can’t just add systems like racism and sexism together, either. Intersectionality isn’t additive; it’s multiplicative. If you want to practice an intersectional politics, you have to focus on the ways in which all systems of oppression interact with each other.

Video games are uniquely equipped to teach students about oppression because they are likewise composed of interacting systems, systems that can often be challenging and unforgiving. As Ian Bogost notes in a recent blog post, games might be “the best medium for expressing certain things—say, the operation and experience of systems.” But most games don’t allow you to alter the behavior of individual game systems to a truly intersectional level of detail. Continue reading

All Skulls On: Teaching Intersectionality through Halo

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

“Let me just close the door so the other instructors don’t find out I’m letting you play Halo,” I joked to my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 100 class. I knew I was taking a risk on this teaching activity. I was worried that it would come across as a shameless, gimmicky attempt to glam up the difficult topic of intersectional oppression.

My friend and fellow WGSS 100 instructor Lauran planted the seed of the idea for this activity when she, citing my proclivity for video games, recommended that I read John Scalzi’s blog post “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” I liked it. The article was clear, accessible and completely on point. Scalzi’s argument is that being a straight white man is like playing a video game on easy mode: some challenges remain but the player is at an automatic advantage.

As I tried to think about how I would incorporate Scalzi’s article into a lesson on feminist theories of intersectionality, however, I realized that it couldn’t do as much work as I would need it to. Scalzi’s article is a fantastic thought experiment revolving around a brilliant metaphor. While I couldn’t fault it for its simplicity, then, I realized that I would need a more complex metaphor that could capture the way in which systems of oppression interlock and compound each other’s effects.

That’s when Halo came to mind. I wrote an article for First Person Scholar describing how the “skull system” in Halo virtually models the way in which systems of oppression, as Kimberlé Crenshaw observes,  “interact” and “overlap.” In a Halo game, skulls are elective difficulty modifiers that affect particular game systems. For example, activating one skull halves the player’s ammo while activating another removes the on-screen radar. As I wrote on First Person Scholar, “Activating multiple skulls in a Halo game effectively models intersectional forms of oppression. The individual effects of each of these skulls do not simply run in parallel; rather, they intersect, overlap and interlock, just like systems of oppression.” For example, one skull will make enemies throw grenades more frequently while another skull increases the explosion radius of those same grenades.

When we came to our unit on intersectionality, I assigned students to read both Scalzi’s article and my First Person Scholar essay alongside some foundational feminist texts on intersectionality and privilege. And, as they did their reading over the weekend, I was at home devising an elaborate activity with a staggering number of moving parts. Given the complexity of the activity, it’s understandable that I would try to hide the proceedings of my class. It could have gone horribly awry. But did it? Here’s what happened and what we learned from the activity. Continue reading

Why do you think you know that Taric is gay?

A skin that can be worn by League of Legends character Taric; it is very pink, features large gems and furry legwarmers, and is accessorised with a very poofy hairdo

This week, there has been discussion about whether League of Legends character Taric should come out of the closet as a gay man (by Todd Harper, Patricia Hernandez, and Kristin Bezio). It is argued that having a character be openly gay, rather than ‘wink and a nod, maybe’ gay, would represent a positive shift in the game’s diversity. From what I gather about League of Legends, I suppose it probably would; but the assumptions underlying this discussion are not at all welcoming of diverse forms of gender and sexual expression.

It’s claimed that by ‘remaining tight-lipped about his life outside of the league’, Taric as a character is furthering the idea that being gay is a hush-hush thing that should be kept out of public view and just whispered and giggled about behind closed doors. Todd Harper lists a few ways that Taric’s sexuality could be included in the game; maybe he has a boyfriend character, for example. This would, Kristin Bezio argues, positively reinforce sexual diversity, rather than simply using it as an in-joke.

I don’t disagree with the value of both fictional characters and real-life human beings coming out of the closet. I’ve benefited immensely from other people speaking and writing publicly about their identities and experiences. If there was someone like me on British TV, I would have a much easier time explaining my identity to my mother. But by assuming that Taric is gay, people are contributing to heteronormative assumptions from which I have only been able to escape in recent years, thanks to other people coming out and being public about their diverse gender identities.

Only because of other people coming out and speaking about their identities do I know that gender-variant people are not always defined by labels relating to sexual orientation. I’m not against coming out, but I am against the assumption that everybody will or should manage their social lives and personal identities in the same way. And even though I don’t play LoL, this call for an apparently feminine male character to come out as gay is deeply troubling to me as a genderqueer person.

Continue reading

Change to xbox live code of conduct

Members of the Xbox LIVE community received an open letter today. It read as follows:

A Letter from Marc Whitten: Update to Xbox LIVE Code of Conduct

Published March 5, 2010

Dear Xbox LIVE members,

Since the beginning, Microsoft has made an investment in the security and safety of Xbox LIVE and created tools and monitoring practices to ensure it is a fun and welcoming entertainment experience for people of all races, nationalities, religions and sexual orientations. And thanks to this investment and the enthusiasm of community members like you, we’re proud to be the strongest and most diverse online community of its kind at 23 million.

The Xbox LIVE Terms of Use and Code of Conduct are designed to create a place where people can safely enjoy all of the ways to interact on our service, be it online multiplayer gaming, photo sharing, Netflix parties, or social games such as 1 vs 100, without fear of discrimination or harassment. As the service evolves and our customers provide us with feedback, these rules evolve to incorporate new features or changes in how people wish to interact.

With that in mind, I’d like to announce an update to the Xbox LIVE Terms of Use and Code of Conduct which will allow our members to more freely express their race, nationality, religion and sexual orientation in Gamertags and profiles. Under our previous policy, some of these expressions of self-identification were not allowed in Gamertags or profiles to prevent the use of these terms as insults or slurs. However we have since heard feedback from our customers that while the spirit of this approach was genuine, it inadvertently excluded a part of our Xbox LIVE community. This update also comes hand-in-hand with increased stringency and enforcement to prevent the misuse of these terms.

I truly believe that our diversity is what makes us strong: diversity in gaming and entertainment options, and diversity in the people that make up this amazing community. I look forward to seeing you on LIVE soon.

Jump in,

Marc Whitten
Gamertag – Notwen

This change comes after many customer protests to the Xbox LIVE policy. Back in February of 2009 there was a story of a user being banned for stating that she was a lesbian in her profile. While she  experienced harassment at the hands of other Xbox LIVE users, she was then punished for declaring her truth and her life to the world.  While this was not the first instance of a user being banned for self-identifying as LGBTQ, this instance was widely publicized.  GLAAD and other blogs quickly took note of this incident and made their outrage known.

It is wonderful to see the Xbox LIVE finally allow people to include their sexual orientation in their profiles. Acceptance and understanding  begins with awareness. It is wonderful to see sexual orientation handled as just another facet of a person. It should not be treated as a negative thing that needs to be hidden. It is just one descriptor of the individual, such as height or eye color. This should have been how it worked at the very beginning, but it is still good to see them acknowledge the problem and fix the policy. Admitting a mistake is not always easy.

The question now becomes, how will Xbox LIVE handle new harassment cases of self identified LGBTQ players? Perhaps this letter signals a turning point for Xbox LIVE. I am hopeful that this means they will not look look away from harassment of LGBTQ players and the use of homophobic and transphobic slurs. I look forward to seeing what this will mean for the community over time.

iPhone Game Raises Awareness of Marriage Equality

A new iPhone game, Valet Hustler, aims to raise awareness about same-sex marriage.

The company is pitching the game (App Store link) as Tetris meets Diner Dash, offering 3D arcade puzzles around a virtual car valet business.

However, the two central characters – Ren and Akira – are both gay, with their sexuality central to the storyline as players progress through the game.

“We set out to not only create a game that is an absolute blast to play with incredible visuals and top notch audio, but we also wanted to make a social statement that gays and lesbians should have the same marital rights as heterosexuals,” says CEO Andrew Littlefield.

I think it is awesome to create a game to raise awareness for marriage equality. While the back story seems incidental and unimportant to the actual game play, this decision plays an important role in helping to show people that same-sex relationships are just as normal as opposite-sex relationships.


Two dark-haired men on a city street looking at each other. One man (race is not apparent; possibly Asian, inferred from characters' names) in a white shirt and glasses is sitting and facing away from the viewer, looking at a standing white man who swears a white long-sleeve shirt and black waist coat.

Two dark-haired men on a city street looking at each other. One man (race is not apparent; possibly Asian, inferred from characters' names) in a white shirt and glasses is sitting and facing away from the viewer, looking at a standing white man who swears a white long-sleeve shirt and black waist coat.

My criticism is that the studio’s CEO equates same-sex marriage with specifically gays and lesbians. Gays and lesbians are not the only groups that need marriage equality. The language used in their description excludes bisexual, trans gender, pansexual, and genderqueer identities and orientations. By singling out gays and lesbians, the statement continues to support the assumption that one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is defined by the sex of the person one is in a relationship with, and that’s just not the case. For example, a bisexual woman remains a bisexual woman whether her partner is male or female. No matter the sex of her partner, her sexual orientation is still bisexual.

One additional note is that a portion of the revenue generated by this game will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT advocacy organisation in the United States. It’s admirable that the developers want the game to have tangible, financial impact on LGBT rights, however, the HRC doesn’t have the best track record in terms of trans gender inclusivity or racial and ethnic diversity.

[CasualGaming.biz via Wonderland]

Dragon Age: Origins, Sexual Orientation, and Player Choice

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

This post was originally published at my personal blog, Acid for Blood.

I started playing Dragon Age: Origins a few weeks ago. I chose to play a female elf mage, Thurkear. I have heard a lot about the relationship and romance aspect of Dragon Age from friends who are playing it and a few bits and pieces in the media. Having heard about their enjoyment and engagement with this aspect of the game, I was looking forward to playing through it myself.

There are mild spoilers about non-player-character sexual orientation in this post.

At this point in the story, there are three NPCs in my party who I know Thurkear can try to romance. However, Thurkear is attracted to the only person she can’t have: Morrigan. This is frustrating, as Morrigan represents the most natural and ideal NPC my character would be attracted to, given the background I’ve thought up for Thurkear. As a player, I really like Morrigan. I was gutted when I discovered that Thurkear’s affections would go unrequited.

There are four NPCs available as romantic partners for your player-character: Morrigan, Leliana, Zevran, and Alistair. Both Leliana and Zevran are bisexual. Both Morrigan and Alistair are heterosexual.

  • If you have a heterosexual female player-character, you have two romantic options: Alistair and Zevran.
  • If you have a heterosexual male player-character, you have two romantic options: Morrigan and Leliana.
  • If you have a bisexual female player-character, you have three romantic options: Alistair, Leliana, and Zevran. Morrigan will never return romantic affection to a female player-character.
  • If you have a bisexual male player-character, you have three romantic options: Morrigan, Leliana, and Zevran. Alistair will never return romantic affection to a male player-character.
  • If you have a homosexual female player-character, you have one romantic option: Leliana. Morrigan will never return romantic affection to a female player-character.
  • If you have a homosexual male player-character, you have one romantic option: Zevran. Alistair will never return romantic affection to a male player-character.

It’s worthwhile to note that the heterosexual player-character is the only one that has unlimited potential romantic options, within the scope of heterosexual attraction. What does this mean? Let’s first re-state the obvious: a heterosexual player-character will always go for a romance with an NPC of the opposite sex. If you have a male player-character, your two options, Morrigan and Leliana, are always available to you as choices. If you have a female player-character, your two options, Alistair and Zevran, are always available to you as choices. In both of these cases, provided your player-character does the right things to win over the NPC, they will always be able to do so. Heterosexual player-characters are never denied a choice because all of the romantic options they would choose are always available.

The bisexual or homosexual player-character will always be denied choice in at least one instance. In those instances, no matter how highly the NPC of the same sex approves of them, that NPC will never engage in a romantic relationship with that player-character. Thurkear could give loads of presents to Morrigan (and she has), but Morrigan will never, ever return her feelings, no matter how much Morrigan likes Thurkear.

As we outlined before, a heterosexual player-character has all options available to them. Despite being denied a romance in at least one instance, the bisexual player-character has the most potential romantic options in absolute numbers terms. A homosexual player-character is the most constrained, with only one romantic option available to them.



This brings us to another point. There are no homosexual NPCs that your player-character can romance. What about Leliana and Zevran? Well, no. They’re bisexual. They aren’t gay. Bisexuality and homosexuality are separate and distinct sexual orientations, just as heterosexuality is distinct from the former two. One cannot equate two bisexual romance options with having homosexual romance options.

I am a supporter of more bisexual visibility in the media. I often feel as if bisexuality is portrayed and regarded negatively in entertainment media, in mainstream society, and frustratingly, even within the queer community. Biphobia is common. Whether it’s the ridiculous assertion that bisexual people can’t decide on which sex to be attracted to, that bisexual people are confused about their sexual orientation, that bisexual people will sleep with “anything that moves”, or whether it’s the mythical stereotype that bisexual people are untrustworthy or more likely to cheat on partners than heterosexual people or homosexual people. Having more three-dimensional bisexual characters in whatever media is a positive thing. Even though so many of those representations of bisexuality are likely to be flawed, negative, or stereotyped, there’s more of a chance that positive and non-stereotypical portrayals of bisexuality will emerge. Having said that, Zevran may not, at least on the surface, be the most non-stereotypical portrayal of bisexuality in the media.

I think it’s great that BioWare has two bisexual characters as romantic options in Dragon Age. I applaud BioWare for providing players with more choices. However, I feel that BioWare’s decision to have two bisexual romance options has far less to do with BioWare being advocates for bisexual visibility and more to do with the fact that the two bisexual romantic options provide more choices for heterosexual player-characters, while throwing a bone to queer player-characters. I think they wanted to provide at least one same-sex option for player-characters of both sexes and more romantic options for heterosexual player-characters.

Perhaps they felt that having a homosexual romance option would be a “waste” because it would deny heterosexual player-characters of the opposite sex from romancing a homosexual NPC. This, however, begs the following question: Why was it okay to deny choice to queer player-characters by making Morrigan and Alistair heterosexual, yet not create a homosexual NPC as a romantic option, which would deny choice to straight player-characters? If BioWare were truly advocates of player choice, then why the decision to make Morrigan and Alistair heterosexual? Surely the same standards hold for Morrigan and Alistair. Surely, by making Morrigan and Alistair heterosexual, it is a developmental “waste” because it limits player choice.

One of the most common defenses of the lack of diversity in videogames and the denial of player choice (a common example: not providing female playable characters), is raising the issue of the creative process. Morrigan and Alistair are heterosexual because that’s just the way those characters are are. Let’s not forget that this is a videogame we’re talking about. Every single detail and every single aspect of the game and its characters were designed and created, right down to the sexual orientation of NPCs a player-character can romance. If it wasn’t an arbitrary decision to make Morrigan and Alistair straight, if the creative process dictated Morrigan’s and Alistair’s sexual orientations, and by extension the denial of player choice, then why wouldn’t it make sense to create a homosexual NPC that only a player-character of the same sex can romance? Having homosexual NPCs as romance options would deny players romantic choices to the same degree that heterosexual NPC romance options do.

If BioWare wanted to provide the maximum amount of player choice in terms of romantic options for a player-character, making the maximum number of players happy, every single NPC that player-characters could romance would be bisexual. However, even if BioWare had done this, it would render homosexuality invisible. Heterosexuality already permeates every single aspect of society, so it’s highly unlikely that heterosexuality could ever be rendered invisible.

Given the existing romantic options in the game and the respective sexual orientations of the NPCs one is able to romance, it appears that it’s okay to provide more choices for straight player-characters than for queer player-characters. And it’s this disappointing situation that gamers find themselves in if they play a character that is not straight.

Additional Thoughts

I had a few more thoughts after having posted this on my personal blog, discussing with commenters, and thinking more about it.

One insight that a commenter raised on my blog post was the fact that there is no way to obtain all the achievements for romancing the four romance-able NPCs without playing a straight character. However, if you choose to exclusively player homosexual characters, you will not be able to get all of those PlayStation Trophies. In other words, people playing straight player-characters can completely avoid OMG TEH GAY and get all the Trophies, but people playing homosexual player-characters cannot avoid playing straight to get the same.

Another commenter asked me what ratio of queer vs. straight NPCs would be ideal for me, given a limit of four NPCs one could romance. I didn’t delve deeply into what I would perceive as “solutions” because I have absolutely no insight into BioWare’s development process or the resources they had to hand, and I’m uncomfortable with proposing solutions in ignorance. However, I was asked to think of a solution, and this is what I thought: if budgetary concerns were the factor, and they could only provide four romantic options, I would have made all of them bisexual. This option would have excluded those who play characters that are homosexual and those who play characters that are heterosexual to exactly the same degree, without completely excluding those who play characters that are bisexual. Another commenter came up with an imaginative solution, which I completely did not think about, and which I think is pretty cool, and that is to have the sexual orientation of two characters change, depending on the sex of your character:

Here’s what I think BioWare could have done with the “four NPC options” restraint. Make one female NPC and one male NPC bisexual (as they did with Leliana and Zevran), then make the other woman and the other man flexible so that (in this case) Morrigan and Alistair can be either heterosexual or homosexual depending on the gender of your player character. If you are playing a female player character, Morrigan will be homosexual and Alistair will be heterosexual; if you’re playing a male character, Morrigan will be heterosexual and Alistair will be homosexual. This would maximize player choice and allow for fairly equal representation of all three sexualities in any given play through. It would ensure that no play through (regardless of the gender of your player character or their sexuality) would be without a bisexual, heterosexual or homosexual character to, at the very least, interact with. If you have a heterosexual male player character, Alistair will be homosexual even though your player character doesn’t pursue him. At all times, homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual player characters would have the maximum number of romantic options available to them in any given play through.

I was also asked about the in-character angle, and whether Zevran and Leliana were written as bisexual, or whether bisexuality was a matter of mechanics, more than character. I can’t speak too much about Zevran, as I have yet to encounter him in-game. I can talk about Leliana, though, and compare her to Morrigan. The only difference between Morrigan and Leliana is that Morrigan no longer offers additional dialogue options when you try to talk to her on a one-to-one basis, and Leliana does. And the content of Leliana’s dialogue and attraction, so far, has been natural and not forced. Meaning, BioWare wrote Leliana’s attraction for female player-characters fairly naturally, at least to me, and being bisexual seems (so far) as much a part of her personality as being heterosexual is for Morrigan.

My post prompted an extremely heated discussion on a mailing list for women in the videogame industry. One of the common comments, which was brought up in different ways on several occasions, is that I should be grateful for BioWare’s efforts and should not complain, because at least there are options to have same-sex pairings in Dragon Age. First, I noted in my post that I fully support BioWare’s efforts. I am in no way ungrateful for the options they’ve provided. I applaud them for that. Dragon Age represents great progress.

Secondly, one can critique a game and still enjoy it. Again and again, many of us find that when we point out problematic issues in games, people say things like, “Vote with your wallet” as if not buying a game will stop those problematic issues from appearing again. Critique is valid. Critique is useful. The reason I write about games and analyse them is because I love them. Games are also my livelihood.

Thirdly, critiquing a game does not mean that one is necessarily ignorant of the realities of game development. Now, many people are ignorant of the constraints that game development studios face. I work in the games industry, so I have a little bit of insight into it, though I fully admit that I am ignorant of BioWare’s processes. However, on a mailing list full of videogame industry professionals, I was a little surprised to see this criticism leveled at me. Furthermore, just because there are resource issues involved, does not mean that the end result is beyond analysis and beyond critique from its audience and consumers.

Fourthly, and this is slightly tangential, I felt rather sad that many women on this mailing list were so resistant to critiques raised about the marginalisation of queer gamers, but who would 100% support critiques about games that marginalise women. Intersectionality: they’re doing it wrong. It makes me very sad, as a person who’s daily, lived experience exists at an intersection of different marginalisations and oppressions, that many who are also marginalised are unable to empathise with others who are marginalised, but in other ways. Even amongst people who probably perceive themselves to be progressive, there’s still a lot of consciousness raising to do.