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August 1
2013

Queer Mechanic #1: “Identify As…”

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Queer Mechanics is a new regular feature here on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanics is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

Character customisation is present in some form in the vast majority of games, but it’s only recently that we’ve seen an explosion of games where you can design the lead protagonist from top-to-toe, such as Mass Effect, The Secret World, Dragon’s Dogma, or Skyrim. Sometimes, we get the option to have the characters have romance options with a character of the same sex, but as of yet, we never get the option to explicitly state that our character is gay, or bisexual, or trans*, or any other terms of identity. We often have to read these identities into the characters, come up with personal “headcanon” where we decide, in our own heads, what our character is “really” like (even though there’s no way to represent that in game, and it often contradicts what actually happens in-game as well).

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach – it means your character isn’t necessarily shackled to their sexuality because you ticked the “gay” or “lesbian” box. For example, Oscar Amell, one of my characters from Bioware’s Dragon Age, started a relationship with Leliana (a woman), and then, when the relationship came to an end, he and Zevran (a man) got together. That was only possible because of the “laissez-faire” approach to sexuality in the game, where I wasn’t choosing what Oscar was (e.g., homosexual), I chose what Oscar did (i.e., had sex with a person of the same sex as himself). Any character trait I read into that – that Oscar was homosexual, or bisexual, or pansexual, or situationally homosexual, or heteroflexible – would only ever exist in my own head. In the world of videogames, our characters are only ever WSW, MSM, WSM or MSW.

Many folk interpret that as a perfect world that we’re striving for in reality, where we’ve moved beyond the need for restrictive labels, where gay folk don’t need to define themselves as gay, where trans* people don’t talk about being trans*, where queer folk are Just People like the rest of us. But I don’t think bigotry suddenly disappears if we just stop labeling ourselves – I’m pretty sure a bigot will still understand the significance of two men kissing one another and that it is A Thing That They Hate.

Besides, identity is important – it literally informs who were are as people, and its importance, significance and ubiquitousness is immediately apparent if you start noticing every time you use the verb “to be”, or count the number of times you refer to yourself in speech. Identity influences everything from our daily lives all the way up to the peaks of human culture and society – and it’s a system that’s rife for exploring in games. And, with that in mind, let’s present the very first of GayGamer’s Queer Mechanics – the “Identify As…” Mechanic.

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The Identify As… mechanic would function in much the same way that choosing a Race, Class or Male/Female gender during character customisation. The player selects a gender and sexual identity (or identities) from a list including terms like “gay”, “lesbian”, “trans*”, “genderqueer”, “pansexual” or “intersex”. Certain terms, like “trans*” and “gay”, are not mutually exclusive, and allow the player to customise their character that much more precisely. From there, the game provides a number of pre-scripted options that strongly reflects your character’s identity – female romance options for female characters identifying as “lesbian” or “queer” for example. For added complexity, the game also provides you with the option to go against how your character identified – such as allowing straight-identifying characters to pursue a homosexual relationship – and to change how they identify – such as allowing a character to move from identifying as homosexual, to identifying as pansexual, or from cisgender to transgender. At the player’s behest, these decisions may come with story-based or mechanical consequences for that character – a story quest/mission for that character could appear that lets them begin transitioning from one sex to another, for example, relationships with other characters in the game may change, or the character themselves may even experience status/attribute changes to reflect the changes to someone’s physical and mental state when undergoing a change of identity.

There is, however, the paradox of inclusivity – when you try to cater for a variety of people by including as many different, discrete terms, inevitably, there will be some that are left out, either deliberately or accidentally. And, if you’re claiming that your system is inclusive, but you’ve left people out, what does that actually say about those people who were left out? They weren’t good enough to make the cut? That in a situation where all similar terms had to be ranked, their term was near the bottom?

And what if one person’s understanding and experience of a gender or sexual identity is vastly different from others? A good example of this that’s already unfolding is the “equal marriage” debate, where marriage is seen as the ideal to strive for, the litmus test that would prove gay people are finally accepted and assimilated – but poor and working class gay folk, especially poor and working class People of Color, have much bigger problems to deal with; such as the fact that 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, and are often homeless BECAUSE they’re LGBTQ. They, and others, are not in a position where they can reasonably begin to think about or benefit from the privileges and affordances that come with being able to marry. It would be a slap in the face to be yet another creator of media that propagates the message that equal marriage is the most important political issue facing queer folk; as in all things, the identities and experiences of queer individuals are informed, modified and manipulated by the intersections of other types of experiences and identities, such as race, ethnicity, class, and education, among many others.

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A good way around these issues would be to allow a “Custom Identify As…”, where the player wouldn’t just passively choose an identity (such as ticking the “gay” or “lesbian” box) and then simply accepting the markers that came with that (such as the game assuming you’re a monogamous white man who’s really into fashion, partying, and musicals). Instead, the player could define a gender/sexual identity for themselves; first of all, they can choose a name for it (either making one up, or just using a term that already exists in the real world but was absent from the game, like “queer”, “banjee”, “hijra” or “boi”); then, they can choose a number of “traits” that determine what they think that identity’s all about, such as “has penis”, “has XX chromosomes”, “has matching gender and sex”. Gender and sexual identities have a lot of variation, and one person’s understanding or experiences of being, say, intersex, will not necessarily be the same as another person’s. For that reason, perhaps there could be two types of templates – a General template, for specifying how that identity commonly manifests (which could be handy for randomly generating queer NPCs), and a Personal template, for specifying how that identity specifically manifests for a given character, which lets you alter, add, or remove traits based on the General template.

This “Custom Identify As…” approach would require the development team to categorise as many different, relevant traits of identity as possible and find the many-and-varied ways that they intersect with one another, and inevitably, we run into the paradox of inclusivity. There will undoubtedly be traits that are unknown to the developers but of vital significance to the people who use that trait in their identity. So, how can we mitigate that, and allow for any possible trait to be added?

How about allowing the community to modify the mechanic as they see fit, by providing toolkits and using open-source code and libraries? There will always be things you miss, so allowing for a crowdsourced solution means that the development team won’t need to pre-empt every single identity and trait in existence. Better yet, it sends a very clear message that the development team probably understands, empathises with and supports its players’ desires for self-expression and representation – and that is a powerful sentiment, when more and more critics and players are demanding it. Developers must address the wants and needs of their target demographics to be successful; and that means not only listening to players, but also providing them with accessible tools for helping satisfy those wants and needs when the developers themselves couldn’t pre-empt them.

This also allows for folk to modify the mechanic to work in novel ways not intended by the developer – how about a game that uses the Identify As… mechanic to explore how people of different ethnic and racial identities might be perceived by other people? What about a game of subterfuge and espionage where you have to identify a spy among a group of randomly-generated characters by trying to identify the traits they have? What about games that aren’t specifically about queer identity that still allow you to use the Identify As… mechanic to enrich the character customisation options and personal storylines – such as the opportunity to play a game like Grand Theft Auto as a straight trans*woman?

So, now I’d like to open the floor to our readers – how do you think the Identify As… mechanic could be used, modified, and expanded on in games? What existing games might benefit from the mechanic? Are there games or situations where the mechanic might not be so useful? Are there flaws with the mechanic, and if so, how might you fix them? Be aware that if you do put forward any suggestions, a developer may well end up using your idea in a game – so you might want to beat them to the punch using free, accessible game development tools like Twine, Stencyl, GameSalad or Unity 3D!

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About Mitch Alexander

(Writer) Mitch Alexander is a Game Design graduate, designer and critic from Glasgow, Scotland. who usually talks about things you get into deep discussions about at 3am, like Silent Hill, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, The Mothman Prophecies, The Invisibles, or how creepy monkeys are. They're so, so creepy.

12 Responses

  1. avatar Zell says:

    This idea started out well, but kind of veered off track about halfway through. I don’t need the next Mass Effect to have a “has penis” modifier for my character, nor do I think it’s game developers’ responsibility to account for every possible permutation of gender and sexuality, except possibly in a Sims type game. I don’t even think it’s necessary to include gay/lesbian options for romances, and I’m pretty sure they’re only included now because a lot of straight gamers like being able to play as attractive lesbians and gay options are included for fairness sake. Which is fine, that’s certainly their right.

    • None of those things are necessary (although it depends – necessary for what end, exactly?), but there are very few mechanisms that are necessary for a game to function, and there are a plethora of mechanisms (such as this one) to bring that game closer to the developer’s vision of what that game should be about. Just because something isn’t necessary doesn’t mean it’s not valuable, after all.

    • avatar Radiant Sophia says:

      I agree Zell. I don’t think it’s necessary to include romance at all in a videogame. Weren’t they better when such things were left out. I don’t think it’s a game developers’ responsibility to account for ANY gender/sexuality. Being ace and agender I think all genders and orientations are equally problematic to include.

      • avatar Emily says:

        What about Mass Effect? The romance in the game was handled really well in my view. It was not a necessary part, and could even be avoided all to gether but it added some humanity to the character. I’ve tried male Shep with Ahsley, male Shep Liara and Fem Shep with Traynor (I tired to do a femshep with Garrus but failed) and they all combine little elements of humour, nervousness and romance. If you took out all unnecessary elements out Mass effect would essentially become Call of Duty Space Edition. Think, here is a list of several things that weren’t necessary; multiple dialogue options, character customization, player progression, open world exploration, weapon modification, morality choices, interupts for dialogue, Fem Shep, romance, vehicles, hacking minigames, story, etc etc. If we cut out all necessary things from games they would all be the same. Added elements such as romance or Mitches idea of LGBT background for your character makes good games great.

  2. avatar Emily says:

    Zell, as Mitch points out it would be impossible for developers to get everyone in, his suggestion is merely to cover some of the basics and allow for the community to fill out the rest. Suggesting that developers need not bother because its not necessary is a little dishearting. Games offer people a way to expiriment like never before, and people who are unsure of themsevles may try out this different identities and found out who they truely are.

    I know because I am a Trans Woman, and I spent a long time experimenting in games creating a female version of the old me in countless games. Thats how I found out that my fantasy was much more.

    Now I actually know of one game that touches this a little with its extensive character creation system. I know this may seem odd but Saints Row 2 actually allows you to create a Transsexual character. On the first screen you pick your characters sex along with some other things, then you can make the character have the outward appearence of a woman. The game also allows for making characters a mix of various gender aspects, as sex does not stop you from having beards, makeup, manly or girly walks, manly or girly vocals, breasts and even clothing can be worn by both sexes unlike some games (I’m looking at you Bethesda!). It even has a NPC who despite being clearly male wears makeup (Granted this is a side mission giver and only on screen for a short time, as well as some bad homosexual stereotypes but nothing is said about his choice in makeup).

    So there you go. I think further inclusion of such things can only be a good thing, especially if the developers get out of the habit of stereotyping people like me.

  3. avatar Shaunii says:

    Despite my over-arching view that video games are works of fiction (all be it it interactive fiction), i find it troubling that the author has neglected the Fable series of games. Particularly as Lionhead studios are a British company and the author appears to be residing in Glasgow.

    Now to clarify, At the beginning of the series you were restricted to a male protagonist, and whose personality you shaped by interactions with NPC sprites, this combined with an amazing moral system shaped your character in unique and interesting ways. This extended to sexual preferences. By the second game, you were fully able to explore many of the issues talked about in the article above. Including the ability to change ones gender, and like in the real world, the reactions of people to that change would be different and varying(i don’t condone it, i am just expressing it). There was even a quest (in one of the games) which allowed you to set up a young man with another man or woman and convince his father that the match was suitable, and out the young man in the process, if you so desired. Socio-political theory aside for a second, that must be progress.

    All this aside, when I play games, I play for recreation. not to re-create myself in the game. In 75% of the games I play that have the option, I play as female(despite being male), often of a different race. I have homosexual relationships in game, I have heterosexual relationships, sometimes polygamy enters the fold. I think that it’s part of the escapism of computer games that I get to explore the gambit of human life without the moral, social or ethical consequences.

    As a people who have long been in the shadow of stereotypes, wouldn’t adding in character traits invariably lead to even more stereotyping. Would it be really make the games themselves better if our characters walk or talk in a certain way.

    I personally like to think that the games companies are working on it, and bit by bit they are moving forward. One day perhaps we will get there, but i think we are on the right track.

    >Emily: i totally get the clothing issues in Bethesda games, i would really like more options, esp. Skyrim, after all i made my dragonbone armor, why can’t i paint it pink?

    • avatar Emily says:

      You know I’ve never been one for pink, but now that you’ve said pink Dragon Bone Armour, I really want some!

      Also thanks for bringing up Fable, I completly forget about that. It is certainly another game that really explores gender presentation and even points out the odd thing that men can’t wear women’s clothes but its perfactly alright for woman to wear men’s (only men are given the “cross dressign” attribute if they wear opposite clothing).

  4. avatar SparklyHyena says:

    Dragon Age 2 actually had some depth.
    The bi pirate lady showed support my gay relationship with the elf guy even though she wanted to ravage him herself.
    (my character was a ruthless mage hating mage who looked like the 9th Dr.Who)

    I guess foot fetish would probably be requested.
    But I do not support bestiality or insess mods (especially for a Mario game)

  5. avatar Azthok says:

    Honestly I think that there should be no actual system to “define” gamers identification at all. Focusing only in freedom a game gives you the opportunity to let your actions define yourself and that’s the best way to play I think, and also the most intuitive.

    I felt exactly this playing Oblivion and (aside from graphics which sucked regardin characters) I think it is the best characters customization ever made. Everything is possible and everything is also extremely simple to understand and be done, and I REALLY felt that my character had a strong personality and a strong sense of coherence, a lot more than simple words or definitions written in some table or graph could do

  6. avatar lorewise says:

    I love the idea of this series. I wish more game websites would host articles about game design.

    With regards to this article in general I can see this type of mechanic working very well in the dating sims genre and particular kinds of rpgs. From a development end I could see this being difficult to implement however. Outside of art, writing is one of the most difficult / expensive parts of creating a video game, and let’s be honest as a whole writing in video games has a long, long way to go. So maybe your idea to outsource to the community isn’t such a bad idea. My problem with that is I’d much rather a developer make the effort to get it right rather than pass that responsibility off to the consumer.

  7. avatar Robyrt says:

    I like the “Queer Mechanics” concept, but Identify As seems like a recipe for creating a paradox of inclusivity, rather than a method of solving it. If you really want to be inclusive, and you don’t care about how any of those options affect gameplay, just add a text field labeled “Identity” to your character profile and be done with it. If you want the options to be meaningful and fun in the context of your specific game, your designers need to actively manage them, at which point it’s basically a more techie-friendly version of a forum thread asking for user ideas on your game’s mechanics.

    Think of it in a different context. You could have an open-source “Motorcycle Driving” library which the community can continually update and refine to create the best driving experience ever with as many past, present or future models as they can craft, and which games can implement any time the player needs to hop on a bike. But how many games would even ask for such a system? How many games could use it without breaking immersion or game balance? You’d end up with one or two games like Saints Row that are already half-joking about the whole thing, plus a bunch of games that use only a small slice of the library for their particular needs. When your goal is inclusivity, that’s not a great result.

    There’s a further difficulty with gender identity specifically, because it was created by people who don’t fit in commonly defined boxes. No matter what character traits you associate with each combination in “Identify As”, people will say, “That doesn’t represent me!” Who are the gatekeepers of what makes it into the release build of “Identify As”? Who decides what percentage of people generated with the Random Identity Generator fit a particular identity? Et cetera.

    It is seductive to posit a universal solution for a messy real-world problem, but it’s rarely appropriate for the scope of your project.

  8. avatar Dan says:

    I agree with the basic concept, that games should start being more inclusive to people who don’t identify within the usual (M/F Straigh/Gay/Bi), but I think more than anything this should be incorporated directly into the gameplay rather than in the character customizer. For example, while you should be able to modify your character to be gender queer, things such as sexual preference should be brought about entirely through character interactions, and would be a matter of writing for scenarios rather than being strictly chained to a customizing screen. Pronouns and sexuality could be as simple as a dialog choice between characters, trans* transitioning could be an optional side event, and that might change how they react and respond from there on out. I just want to see games PLAY more inclusively.

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