Queer Mechanic is a 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 Mechanic 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.
Many of the LGBTQ characters in games come “as-is”, in the sense that they have already undergone most of their soul-searching and self-realisation about their gender, sex or sexual identity prior to the beginning of the story; similarly, although there are often dialogue options to bring up the fact that your character isn’t heterosexual, these are rarely (if ever) framed as your character “coming out” to that person – instead, it’s more like they’re getting the other person up-to-speed with something that has already been established.
Which is strange – because for all its potential for being an emotionally-taxing event, coming out can be a big event in queer folks’ lives, as it marks a milestone in the process of coming to terms with one’s identity. And, while it may be too niche to be included in all games in all genres, there’s certainly scope for using coming out either as a core or constituent part of a capital-Q Queer game, or even as a special event inside games with lots of character-driven narrative, such as Bioware’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect. So, with all that opportunity for interesting storytelling, why don’t we consider ways we could use it in games?
Last month we took a look at the potential for games based around the “animal” epithets in gay subcultures – this month, we’ll explore another facet of queer identity – how the process of coming out could be modelled and explored in videogames.
Given that we’ve had such a good track record of not having games that force characters to go through the experience of coming out (with all the real-life discomfort that that might provide), it might be pertinent to ask why we would want to re-introduce the closet into games in the first place. After all, as many gamers say, games are fundamentally about escapism, allowing them to play in scenarios entirely unlike the ones they experience in day-to-day life: requiring characters (and, by extension, their players) to undergo a process that many would rather think less about seems contrary to the idea of getting away from the problems of real life.
The fact is, though, games aren’t fundamentally about escapism; or, rather, they don’t have to be by necessity. We just have so many games that facilitate escape that we’ve come to believe that escape is all they’re good for.
For example, the field of serious games focuses on creating interactive media to use for learning and teaching; in a way, serious games are exactly the opposite of escapism – they demand that their players engage with and real-world concepts and applications, to the extent that they take away skills, knowledge or understanding that has some effect in their lives outside of the game.
Even within the field of games-as-entertainment, we find representations of real-world conflict are front-and-centre, such as Papers, Please, which focuses on the often-harrowing process of immigration and customs, and includes conflicts centered on xenophobia, classism and financial worries. There’s also David S. Gallant’s I Get This Call Every Day, a personal tale exploring the droll drudgery of call-centre work. These games – and works similar to them in other media – allow us to explore subjects that are uncomfortable or alien to us in our everyday lives.
The process of coming out can similarly be uncomfortable or alien to many gamers, and as such it’s a process worth exploring in games; as LGBTQ characters occupy more and more games, it’s important to recognise that not all queer people are welcomed with open arms when they make their gender, sex or sexual identity known. We should be thankful that there isn’t a pointless “tell queer character you disapprove of their lifestyle” option in most games, but often, the only times we’re exposed to queerphobic sentiment in games is if the creators have been insensitive enough to include something offensive without realising or acknowledging that it’s problematicin the first place, and as such can’t address the issue of queerphobia, explore what it’s like to face it, or demonstrate that it’s an unequivocally negative experience for those targeted.
One of the biggest, most significant aspects of coming out is the reaction of people in that person’s social networks; coming out to friends and family can be a positive bonding experience, which could be realised in game terms as something similar to the “approval” system of Dragon Age; a character coming to terms with their identity and being supported by team-mates could provide positive bonuses to friendship, approval or trust stats between them. The narrative could easily support this, in much the same way that the characters of Persona 4 make reference to their (and their friends’) defeat of Shadows that represent their suppressed thoughts, feelings and beliefs, which dramatically improves how they relate to and support one another.
However, if the people that you rely on withdraw their support, it could mean going without friends, family, finances, or even a home – something that’s not even as remotely uncommon as it should be, as it’s estimated that around 40% of homeless youth in the West are LGBTQ, despite only 10% of the population identifying as LGBTQ. Coming out has the potential to affect your career (in the form of facing discrimination or being fired) and religious activity as well (where the person could be prevented from worshipping in the way they choose – and may also bring with it problems in that person’s family or community if religion affects both). This could be represented similarly to the above “approval”-style mechanisms, although with the deduction of approval/friendship points rather than accumulation – but there is also the potential for modelling the loss of support when coming out. In game, this could literally mean no longer being able to team up with certain characters, being removed from your “home base” (which may mean having no place to stash inventory items or having access to resources the player previously enjoyed), or losing regular “top-ups” of in-game currency such as those found in Final Fantasy VIII’s “SeeD salary” system or Assassin Creed II’s Income system. There’s always a danger that players will greatly resent having their character effectively “de-powered” or “brought down to normal”, though, especially when they’ve invested a lot of time and effort in the game; on the other hand, it does go some way to demonstrating the feeling of impotent rage at having lost something incredibly valuable.
As noted above, it could easily be argued that it’s a good thing that games don’t come with a “make clear your stance on how abhorrent homosexuality is to someone who thought they could trust you” option as standard; it could be reasonable to include an option could be allowed, if only to prove by demonstration and narrative how unjustified such an stance actually is.
It’s also worth taking the time to consider that coming out as – and personally coming to terms with – being trans* in a cissexist society brings with it even more concerns, including (but not limited to) the process of transitioning. This can be a massive, complex set of circumstances, though, that deserves more than being simplified and elided into the much broader process of coming out – so keep your eyes peeled for it being covered in a more extensive Queer Mechanics article in the near future.
Coming out is not necessarily as dichotomous as it might seem, either – after all, you can be “out” to friends and family, but “closeted” to extended family, acquaintances, or society at large – or even just “closeted” by the fact that some people aren’t up-to-speed with your identity. Perhaps this could be modeled in game by having the character come out via dialogue options in individual interactions with characters, and as such can choose to have their character hide their sexual identity from certain characters – which could be appropriate in game scenarios where queer sexuality could have a negative impact as it may in real life, but may not stand up so well in sci-fi settings, where queer sexuality is often (but not always) taken as a given. This could add another layer of complexity to character relationships – would certain characters treat the player character worse (or better) if they knew their sexual identity? Would certain characters hide their romantic interest in the player character until they actually came out? Would characters misinterpret signals and make their move, assuming that their character swings one way, when they swing the other (or both, or neither…)
And what about those cultures and scenarios for which coming out often isn’t even an option, or that it must be done carefully and precisely, or brings with it so many other caveats? It’s hard to have a discussion about the intricacies of coming out (even if we accept coming out as being something confined to the West, Global North, certain classes e.t.c., e.t.c.) when games often aren’t acknowledging the reasons why someone wouldn’t want to disclose their sexual identity (or don’t share a lexicon where “coming out” is even a process one can go through) in the first place.
As always, we’ll end by opening the floor to our readers: how do you think coming out could be used as an interesting game mechanic, either as the core of a queer-centric game or as an interesting aside in a more broad, expansive game? Are there games which would have greatly benefitted from having a character definitively come out? Should the consequences of coming out be limited only to narrative outcomes, rather than mechanistic ones? Let us know what you think below!