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April 1
2013

GDC ’13: Sex in Games

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If you’re not familiar with the name David Gaider, you should remedy that. As a head writer for BioWare, he has been responsible for the expanded options in their romance side plots, including adding same-sex storylines for the player to explore. Because of his work he hosted a talk at this year’s GDC provocatively titled “Sex in Games” and discussed BioWare’s need to address sex, sexism and sexuality beyond “male player, female love interest.”

BioWare’s history with romance subplots goes as far back as Baldur’s Gate 2, where players could strike up a romance with one of a few NPCs. Though there were male and female options, they were heterosexual-only and the female player-base was left with only a single option compared to the three offered to the males. The writers didn’t initially understand why this was a problem; the number of men who played the game vastly outnumbered the women, so of course there would be more romance options.

The way this was presented was that the decision was less misogyny and more of an adorkable incorrect conflation of statistics with human behavior. When Neverwinter Nights was released, they received honest and open responses from the female player-base about the NPC romances and used this feedback when constructing the romance stories for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Thus Carth Onasi was fleshed out and was a well-received romance option by female players.

KOTOR is also known for being one of the early games to introduce a same-sex storyline in the form of the jedi Juhani who was a lesbian. As her lesbianness (lesbiosity?) was something that was never explicitly stated, but more alluded to David felt that they dropped the ball a bit with her, particularly since when you broach the topics of sex and romance you enter the arena of declaring what is normal and acceptable.

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BioWare progressed from this, and in successive releases same-sex romance options became explicit. Though some of the player-base responded poorly, and there was a notable outcry to Dragon Age 2‘s universal bisexuality in the form of angsty teenage “OMG I JUST CAN’T EVEN!!”, the inclusion of sex and same-sex romances had no impact on sales. As a bonus fun fact, David compared the generous estimate of a 10% gay population to the 24% of players of DA who explored the gay romance options, so make of that what you will.

Even though sex sells, regardless of the genders involved, the perception of gamers being young boys persists within the industry and affects decisions based around the inclusion of sexual content. The reality is that the average age is around 30, and 47% of them are female. This means that a large portion of the consumer base is still playing despite not being actively appealed to, so the industry needs to start maturing with its audience and actively appealing to a broader spectrum.

David clarified that this was not a call for every game to have a rainbow coalition of genders, colors, and creeds, a common reductio ad absurdum attack when the privilege of “straight white male” is challenged. Rather, when designing stories and characters you should focus not so much on whether everyone is invited, but instead avoid disinviting anyone. For example, does your game lack a romantic option for gay players, or is homosexuality handled in such a hostile manner as to actively drive away gay players?

He finished up the talk by discussing the time he spent writing the Dragon Age comic which included a transgender character. David was unsure how to handle writing a such a character as a cisgendered male himself. So, he asked a trans dev for input and adjusted the character accordingly, illustrating that all you need to do to avoid disinviting players and reaching out to a broader audience is to talk to them, hire them, and just listen.

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About Christian Walters

(Writer) Christian lives in El Cerrito, CA which is close enough to San Francisco to count. When not busy being unimpressed by press releases and AAA hype, he spends his time singing, finding heavy things to pick up and put down, and occasionally going out on the town in naught but cowhide. He has worked in the industry with companies like Sega of America and Trion Worlds, and one day hopes to design a game of his very own.

2 Responses

  1. avatar Anth says:

    Please correct the last paragraph. The term “transgendered” is generally frowned upon for numerous reasons. Men and women are not “gendered.” They simply have a gender. Thus, people can be transgender but they can never be transgendered. Grammar and such :D

  2. avatar Time Sage says:

    My only complaint with their games is that there’s no M/M pairing in Mass Effect 1 and 2. It was clearly intended but cut based on the amount unused dialogue that can be activated with hacks for a MShep/Kaiden pairing (Which can be carried over to 2′s data a bit, no idea what happens if you try to carry said hacked save data to 3) but was cut. It’s the main reason I haven’t picked up the game. I normally don’t mind LGBT relationships getting overlooked in games, but to cater to the Lesbians and then cut the Male/Male pairing, when your fantasy franchise includes both, is just plain insulting.

    I heard a rumor that MShep’s VA said he if it happened, he wouldn’t do anymore games, which is why it only happens in the last game, but I have no idea if that’s true.

    (Also, on a side note, In 3 FemShep only has 2 male options, both of whom can be dead, leaving her only with the lesbian (and discount lesbian) choices)

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