Electronic media has been used to spread political opinions for a long time. Some may remember the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign that was prevalent in the 1980’s and started by Nancy Reagan—a series of advertisements and programs that appeared mostly in television and arcades. This is an example of more radical electronic advertisement promoted by the government—a campaign that directly advertised to youth and the growing trend of electronic entertainment. Arcade systems especially were targeted: the famous “Winners Don’t Do Drugs” slogan appeared before every game was played. Ever since their inception, video games have been explored by media industries and political presences to see whether they were viable advertising options and whether they would stand the test of time in the first place. Now, video games are one of the largest entertainment industries in the world. So, how can they be used to spread political opinions now, and which issues should be spoken about at the forefront of this booming industry? The answer is simpler than one might believe—in fact, the easiest response is simply that video games should be inherently more inclusive to the medium’s massive player base. While video games have historically been targeted for heterosexual, white, male audiences, the reality is that 48% of video game players are women (Yee). There is a large misconception about video games and their respective players—minorities enjoy video games just as much as their heterosexual, white, male peers do. A growing issue with inclusion in video games today is the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals in games—a demographic that is often overshadowed. Through the medium of modern video games, developers can promote and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights by including queer content in games to fix this exclusion and create a more comfortable and safe space for LGBTQ+ gamers.
The lack of gender variation in video games has been one of the most major issues in gaming history. According to Jared Friedburg, whose thesis in the Sociology department at Georgia State covered this issue, video games have historically been “marketed towards a male audience” (Friedburg 7) and lack women and LGBTQ+ representation. Video games, since their inception, have been wholly marketed towards cisgender, heterosexual white men, and have mostly been advertised as such to this day. Friedburg then notes that, when there have been inclusions of female characters, they are incredibly sexualized, having “a slim waist and a large bust,” which is an ideal that “has been touted on magazine covers, television shows, and film” (Friedburg 14). This oversexualization of women has been prevalent in all forms of media, and video games are no exception.
The reason for this phenomenon is quite clear: the video game industry is made up of the very faction that they include in video games constantly. Adrienne Shaw, with the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenburg School for Communication, notes that “the video game industry is fairly homogeneous,” with 91.6% of respondents in a workforce diversity survey of the industry identifying as heterosexual (Shaw 234). This lack of representation no doubt directly corresponds to the exploitative view of women in the medium, as well as the continuous stream of male protagonists. However, there are game studios who are working diligently on attempting to solve the issue of the lack of gender representation in games, and those studios do have a positive look on diversity and how it affects their environment and income. For example, Shaw points out an IGDA study that noted that respondents felt that “a diverse workforce has a direct impact (broad appeal, quality, etc.) on the games produced,” and that “workforce diversity is important to the future success of the game industry” (Shaw 235). So, why don’t other game studios hop on this diverse bandwagon?
Unfortunately, there is still a rampant amount of homophobia that rules over this particular sector of media, and it can tend to take over arguments like these. Shaw remarks that the “atmosphere of the industry” is a factor in the underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ content in games. While Shaw did not find ultimately hostile relationships between LGBTQ+ and heterosexual, cisgender coworkers, she points out that “not being hostile is not the same as being inclusive” (Shaw 235). This lack of acceptance in video game studios prevents LGBTQ+ developers from feeling comfortable in their workspace, and therefore, prevents them from feeling comfortable developing games with LGBTQ+ content. This homophobia exists far more violently in-game, however. For example, as Shaw points out, “the use of the words ‘fag’ or ‘gay’ in online gaming spaces are often noted as proof of this [the characterization of gamer culture as homophobic]” (Shaw 237). These slurs, while mostly not used as intentionally offensive to the LGBTQ+ community, still create a heteronormative space that creates an uncomfortable and unsafe space for LGBTQ+ players, regardless of the intentions behind the use of the word.
The direct use of slurs is overtly homophobic, but straying away from creating video games with LGBTQ+ content also evokes subtle homophobia. Game studios are afraid of creating a “gay game,” which would mean backlash from more conservative companies and industries. Shaw claims correctly that “this backlash can come in the form of loss of sales, ratings, and censorship,” (Shaw 240), which can create unwanted infamy for newly-released video games looking for positive reviews. Additionally, game studios can also be concerned about being “branded a ‘gay product,’ thereby alienating their heterosexual customers” (Shaw 240). So, video game developers would rather not create “gay games” and avoid becoming typecast as the “gay game studio.”
At its core, the video game industry was built on a foundation of toxic, white masculinity and heteronormativity, and the modern industry today mirrors that toxicity. Efforts to change the harmful environment have been mixed. For example, Friedburg uses the example of Anita Sarkeesian to demonstrate the problematic responses to individuals trying to create change. Anita was a graduate student who started a campaign on Kickstarter to try and address common gender tropes and stereotypes found in video games. She wanted to try to develop a video series to showcase the stereotypes and inspire discussions from a feminist perspective. Initially, the campaign was well-received, but there were extremely vocal responses to the campaign, saying that she was making the community look bad, and criticizing her feminist perspective. Anita was stalked, she received rape and death threats, her website was hacked, her family and partner were sent threatening messages, and her YouTube channel was nearly shut down. As of September 2016, she released six videos, but she continued to receive violent threats after each one (Friedburg 4). The response to Anita’s campaign unfortunately sheds light on the problematic culture behind video games. The fact that her good intentions were met with such brutal and vehement reactions shows how stuck in its ways the video game industry remains—unwilling to change and fully become an inclusive medium.
It is important to acknowledge that the video game industry is not alone in having a severe lack in diversity. All media has issues with including people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, the disabled, and many other minorities. Especially in film, the plot and characters remain white, straight, cisgender, abled, and catered towards a masculine audience. Women are exploited, and minorities are left out, or worse, demoted to pure stereotypes. The “bury your gays” trope, which is a real issue in LGBTQ+ film where LGBTQ+ characters are always killed, continues in media today. So, to break this chain of exclusion, what can video game developers do to start including more LGBTQ+ individuals in games?
To start, game developers can follow the footsteps of game studios who are bravely accepting or ignoring being typecast as the “gay game studio.” There are several game studios who are already breaking these barriers and who are willingly putting LGBTQ+ characters in their games in order to be more inclusive to LGBTQ+ gamers. Examples include: Ubisoft, who has included LGBTQ+ characters in their games since the initial Assassin’s Creed release in 2007, including, most notably, the protagonist Alexios or Kassandra; Gearbox Software and 2K Games with their Borderlands series; Bioware, who developed two groundbreaking series: Dragon Age and Mass Effect, who feature several games full of LGBTQ+ characters; Bethesda, the developers of both The Elder Scrolls series and Fallout, two game series full of LGBTQ+ characters and romance options; Naughty Dog, who developed The Last of Us, and whose sequel coming out soon will feature a lesbian protagonist; Square Enix, who developed Final Fantasy and Life is Strange, two series featuring LGBTQ+ characters; and the list goes on.
These games feature LGBTQ+ characters and plotlines in some way, shape, or form: some include LGBTQ+ protagonists controlled by the character, who can make choices or experience the character’s emotions; some include side characters; some include villains. There is an important distinction here, though: each of them made an effort to be diverse by including LGBTQ+ characters in some way.
Some games, such as Dragon Age: Origins¸ which was released by Bioware in 2009, received mixed reviews for its inclusion of gay, romanceable characters, as well as the inclusion of optional gay sex scenes. Some critics praised its inclusion of diverse characters, and some denounced it for including non-heterosexual relationships and having the audacity to add gay sex scenes. However, Dragon Age: Origins became an incredibly important game for its time. Its use of combat mechanics was inspired and its plot was incredible, and the addition of LGBTQ+ characters and options for the protagonist was icing on the cake. It allowed the already invested player to truly feel connected to the protagonist, and that immersion is incredibly important in video games. It allows the player to become devoted to the character and the plot, and to feel that personal connection that is always sought after with any good storytelling medium—be it books, television, movies, or video games.
Every video game experience should be open and accessible for every person who wants to play them, because every person should be allowed the right to escape reality and be the hero for a while. Video games were created to entertain just like any other medium; and like all modes of entertainment, the aspect of immersion is incredibly important. Video games, like movies, books, and television, are supposed to transport you into the world they create. They are a way for you to see the world in a different perspective, to escape reality for a little while, and to be a part of a heroic story in which you are the valiant savior. Video games teach you how to survive, how to live freely, and how to fight for what you believe in. Playing them can offer an experience that no other electronic medium can—the ability to be a part of the storytelling experience. Isn’t it unfair, then, that most video games only cater to one type of person—the white, heterosexual, able-bodied male? The inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community—and ultimately, the inclusion of minorities as a whole—in the video game industry is in the very companies’ hands who are responsible for creating this invariable medium. Hopefully, the video game industry can look past its whitewashed and heteronormative past and create a more sustainable and accepting environment: one that lets everyone be a hero.
Friedberg, Jared, “Gender Games: A Content Analysis Of Gender Portrayals In Modern, Narrative Video Games.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2015
Shaw, Adrienne. “Putting the Gay in Games: Cultural Production and GLBT Content in Video Games.” University of Pennsylvania’s Annenburg School for Communication, 2009
Yee, Nick. “Beyond 50/50: Breaking Down The Percentage of Female Gamers by Genre.” Quantic Foundry, 19 Jan. 2017, https://quanticfoundry.com/2017/01/19/female-gamers-by-genre/.