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.
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.
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!