Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender gamers share in their love for RPGs. They represent an escape from the societal expectation to look, act and love in a certain way. With games like Fable III, The Sims, Dragon Age and Mass Effect, gamers have an unprecedented amount of control over their experience than ever before. Unlike other genres, RPGs rely on strong story and character development. Choice and shared similarities between RPGs and the “gay experience” is why many LGBT gamers enjoy these types of video games.
Last week, Penny Arcade held its annual Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) Prime at the Convention Center in Seattle, WA. In a panel titled, “Gays In Love (With Their RPGs)”, Samantha Allen (whom we recently interviewed following her Open Letter to Games Media made waves), Dean Levengood, Jeremiah Bratton, and Jason Toups discussed their theories about why they believe many LGBT gamers are drawn to the genre.
The RPG experience offers more choice than other gaming genres. Most importantly players can decide how they look. Allen —a contributing writer at The Border House Blog— describes being drawn to the genre because “I could make someone that I wanted to look like.” As a transgender woman, Allen could use the custom character creation features found in games like Dragon Age 2 to design a female character that would represent her inside the game. Toups —Co-founder of Gaymism, and a former GayGamer writer— describes his own attraction to the genre as freedom from “Being told what a hero should look like”. For youth who are confused and may be questioning their own identify and/or sexuality, the ability to design the look of their in-game character can be an important tool on their road to self acceptance. Or, it could simply provide entertainment that can’t be found in other genres. Levengood —a blogger/podcaster at Gaymism— uses the feature to “make characters that [he's] attracted to”. These choices make RPGs more easily mappable to the gay experience than any other genre.
Whether it’s to make your digital boyfriend, represent yourself or who you want to be, RPGs offer these choices to LGBT gamers. They’re mappable to the gay experience. Bratton —Founder and coder at Gaymism— describes his “adventure daddy” experience as ”going on an adventure with someone”. Instead of representing himself in-game he viewed it as a way to experience the game’s story, characters, setting and mechanics with a character he was physically attracted to. On the other hand, Allen had a much deeper connection. In Dragon Age 2, your character loses their home, family and is an outcast in a strange land. She was able to relate with all this because it’s similar to what she experienced in her transition from male to female. Other transgender gamers may feel the same way about the game. The social aspects of RPGs are also another reason why LGBT gamers are drawn to the genre. Losing family and friends after coming out is a reality for many. Relationships are important in RPGs so getting to know the characters you play with and establishing those firm relationships is a familiar experience for LGBT gamers.
Also familiar to many LGBT gamers is inferring story and relationships that aren’t specifically laid out in games. In the case of Japanese RPGs, the relationships between characters are so close that it’s easy to imagine gay relationships. The opening of Final Fantasy VIII features a one-on-one battle between protagonist Squall Leonhart and Seifer Almasy. This scene could be interpreted as a sexual encounter between the two. Consequently their rivalry could be based not on a disdain for each other but as the two fighting their own feelings for one another. This is just an interpretation, but it’s this kind of reading between the lines that LGBT gamers are familiar with. Thankfully, LGBT representation is getting better.
Games like Dragon Age 2, Fable III and Mass Effect 3 all have better LGBT representation than previous RPGs. In Dragon Age 2, most of the characters are bisexual; allowing the player to establish relationships with whomever they choose. Mass Effect 3 takes a different route by allowing the player to establish same-sex relationships with two specifically gay characters (ie, their sexuality is always gay regardless of if the player chooses to pursue them). In Fable III, the player can easily identify a character’s sexuality, establish a relationship with them, marry and have kids. But even with this amount of representation, it’s still a journey.
Bioware, despite being the most progressive, still stumbles and makes mistakes. Dragon Age 2‘s solution of making all characters bisexual was seen as unrealistic to some. Mass Effect 3 had a better approach but created another problem by making the only exclusively gay characters non-white. [Update: Having these two characters both be people of color and exclusively gay tokens them, in my opinion. While it's great to have representation of LGBT people of color in this game, the way it was executed could have been more thoughtful.] The “Gay Planet” misstep in Star Wars: The Old Republic is another example of a company that is still learning how to be more inclusive of LGBT gamers. Still, developers are now having the necessary conversations about inclusiveness. Despite the missteps, at least they’re now walking in the right direction.
The plethora of choices and the identifiable elements found in RPGs is why many LGBT gamers are drawn to the genre. Never before has the future of gaming been so exciting for so many types of people. But, better LGBT representation won’t come without continuing the conversation. Gamers need to take to social media and vote with their wallets to tell publishers what kind of games they want to see. This year saw the release of two big games that failed to be more LGBT inclusive: Fire Emblem Awakening and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. The former doesn’t include a same-sex marriage option and there wasn’t much of an outcry. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn saw a much bigger controversy when gamers were banned from forums for talking about the lack of same-sex marriage in the game. There is still a long road to be traveled. If gamers continue to have these conversations with developers and their publishers, then finding a fair, accurate and inclusive representation of LGBT characters and issues in RPGs will just be a matter of selecting a game.