Queer representation in games: Heroes Like Us at PAX Australia 2016

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Queer representation in games: Heroes Like Us at PAX Australia 2016

What happens when you put five queer folk on a panel in front of a packed theatre of awesome people?

On the 5th November, 2016, a dream team of bisexuals working in the games industry gathered to chat on the ‘Heroes Like Us: Representation of Queer Identity in Games’ panel at PAX Australia. We discussed queer representation and what it means to us, and engaged with PAX’s diverse community using the #PAXQueer hashtag on social media.

Positive representation of diverse sexualities and genders allows more players to identify with the games they play and can help increase empathy for the issues we face. During ‘Heroes Like Us’, we discussed some successes and failures of representation, and the ways developers can move forwards. We divided our panel into four key categories, and answered some thoughtful audience questions. We had such a marvellous time chatting about interesting games with an engaged and passionate audience, and we couldn’t resist continuing the excitement and sharing the panel with you.

Panelists

Alayna Cole [Games lecturer, researcher, developer, and journalist, University of the Sunshine Coast]

Wren Brier [Games Artist, Freelancer]

David Hollingworth [Digital Editor, Next Media]

Ashton McAllan [Director, MachineSpirit]

Jess Zammit [Senior Writer, Select Start Media]

Favourite (obscure) examples of queer representation

Discussions of representation often focus on issues within the industry, including misrepresentation or erasure. In response to this trend, we felt it was important to begin our panel by sharing examples of games that positive queer representation, in our opinion. Knowing that our audience was primarily made up of people who are already aware of well-known queer characters—such as those within Bioware titles—we opted to discuss more obscure examples.

Failbetter Games is a development studio known for approaching gender in interesting ways. I particularly highlighted Fallen London during the panel, which provides the player with an option to dismiss questions about gender, deeming them unimportant while there is a giant squid roaming on the streets. Sunless Sea is another game by the same studio that approaches gender in a unique, humorous way.

David opted to discuss a sci-fi book series, praising The Expanse series, by James SA Corey - specifically the third book, Abaddon’s Gate - for normalising queer identity through implicit references and contextualising factors. The way this world disrupts heteronormativity is important to him, and it would be positive to see similar disruption to heteronormativity more commonly in videogames.

Ash referred to Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear and specifically the representation of Mizhena as important to her because she was excited by the representation of a trans woman in this title. Next, Wren mentioned Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus, liking the way it explicitly addresses same-gender relationships and attraction. Lastly, Jess’s favourite representation is in Life is Strange, specifically the ongoing relationship between Max and Chloe. She mentioned the excitement of seeing bisexual representation—which is often masked behind playersexuality—as well as what she felt was the organic development of their relationship.

Character customisation and pronouns

Embedding queer representation into character customisation by using options that don’t make assumptions can—to quote Ash—be lifesaving. One way that queer representation can be embedded into these systems is by examining the way binary genders underpin character creation.

Read Only Memories is a game well known for its use of diverse gender pronouns, with the question of pronouns being one of several the robot Turing asks the player early on. The response options are important because they are not limited to two binary genders, and have even gone further than incorporating a third, gender-neutral pronoun. The inclusion of options such as ze/zir and xe/xir, as well as the ability for the player to create their own custom pronouns, allows players of diverse genders to feel included and considered. Just as Ash said that she may not have survived without her ability to explore gender in World of Warcraft, games that allow players to experiment with gender pronouns, like Read Only Memories, can save lives.

Ash also mentioned ‘Roll20’, a virtual tabletop tool, which offers important guidelines for how gender should be treated in tabletop RPGs. Their article about building character sheets includes this request to authors:

For the most part, adding drop down menus and pre-filled options to the new digital character sheets makes them easier to use and quicker to fill out. However, there is one particular place we want to keep things free-form: the gender field. All submissions of new pull requests for any character sheet containing an area for “gender” will need to make that a blank field (as opposed to a drop down menu containing a predefined list of options). This guideline is reflective of our ongoing efforts to be inclusive in our approach to facilitating gaming-- we want the maximum amount of people to be able to game the way that provides them the most fun. In this case, taking the time to address this small programming change makes a huge difference to our community.

This request is significant in its active attempt to make all tabletop gaming more inclusive, a task that has been supplemented by the approaches of some existing tabletop RPGs, such as Pathfinder.

The Saints Row series was discussed for its approach to gender in terms of character creation. Several of the Saints Row games offer players the freedom to experiment with gender, with options such as clothing, voice, and build not restricted by gender. However, the game does require the player to select a binary gender regardless, which seems unnecessarily when the series has used ‘they/them’ to refer to the player-character in more recent releases. Similar gender neutral pronouns are used in Undertale to refer to gender ambiguous characters, Frisk and Chara. Using they/them pronouns works to make non-binary players feel more included, and has the benefits of being rarely noticed by players and of reducing the cost of voice acting (by reducing the number of lines actors must record).

The limited impact that binary gender selection has on the narrative and mechanics of the Saints Row series leads to a simple question: why? Including a binary gender selection option in a character customisation screen seems to be a habit that developer’s struggle to break. There is no inherent problem with asking players to select a gender for their character, but if this choice is included in a game, it’s important to consider what impact the choice will have. If it’s primarily about the pronouns used in dialogue and a restricted bathroom somewhere in the game, it’s likely this should be reconsidered and either implemented differently or removed entirely; alternatively, if the game offers cultural insights regarding how different genders are treated in a particular society and therefore gender has an incredible impact on narrative or mechanics, then gender selection should remain, but should still be treated with care. The overall message from this discussion is that, if developers include gender selection in character customisation, it needs to happen with purpose.

Character customisation systems don’t just impact the selection of the player-character’s gender; it can also include the selection of the player-character’s sexuality. Jess mentioned Demi Lovato: Path to Fame as an example where the player can decide whether their character like boys, girls, or ‘both’. However, this system isn’t well implemented in the game; when a woman player-character selects a woman to date, sometimes dialogue still defaults to using he/him pronouns or referring to the partner as a ‘boyfriend’, clearly indicating the heteronormative path the game expects players to follow. While this selection of sexuality during character customisation can work to reduce the impacts of playersexuality as a romance mechanic, it quickly becomes an enforcer of heteronormativity if not correctly reflected throughout the game.

Explicit and implicit representation of sexuality

While everybody on the panel agreed that we would like to see more representation of diverse sexualities and genders in games, the next question was whether these should be explicit or implicit representations. The overwhelming response of the panel was that both forms of representation are equally important.

Explicit representations include characters like Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition, who openly tells the player-character that he prefers the company of men. Implicit representations can be inferred through dialogue, behaviours, or relationships, and are sometimes less clear or obvious because they are not pertinent to the story. An example of implicit representation was presented by Wren, who discussed Bully, a game where relationships between the protagonist and male classmates is possible if the player correctly interprets the hints these characters provide. Another example of implicit sexuality can be found in the Borderlands series, where many characters have diverse sexualities or genders, which work to make the game world feel more inclusive.

David summarised the importance of explicit and implicit representation well. The ‘out and proud’ narrative is a powerful story that helps those who are queer see that coming out and being visible can be positive. At the same time, normalising sexuality through implicit representation is equally powerful, as it allows queer audiences to feel accepted regardless of how vocal they are about their identity, while also showing non-queer audiences that people with diverse sexualities and genders are embedded in society and are not always distinguishable through stereotypical ideas of ‘queerness’.

Playersexuality

Playersexuality - a concept that has already been discussed in this summary a few times - occurs when all romanceable characters in a game are bisexual, but only for the player. Generally this approach provides limited characterisation or backstory to support their bisexuality and occurs within game worlds that promote a heteronormative narrative. Playersexuality was a topic of particular importance to this panel, as all of the speakers identified in some way as bisexual and has a personal investment in increasing bi-visibility.

A clear example of playersexuality can be seen in Stardew Valley, a title where the player is able to date all romanceable characters regardless of the binary gender they select at the beginning of the game. There are several couples and families living in Pelican Town, but all of them are in man-woman relationships that perpetuate the heteronormative narrative. It makes the representation of queer relationships through playersexuality feel like a superficial attempt to appeal to queer audiences.

Another common example of playersexuality can be found in Bethesda titles, such as The Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout series. The freedom of the sandbox that these open worlds present - which differs from the more controlled, directed open worlds of Bioware titles - allow players to experiment with a power fantasy. They can become whoever they wish, go wherever they please, and date whomever they like. In this context, playersexuality begins to make more sense, but when it still exists in a heteronormative space, the context conflicts with the emergent narrative the player is attempting to create.

Fallout 4 offers a clear example of how heteronormative expectations conflicts with the ‘freedom’ narrative Bethesda games are attempting to construct. Although the sole survivor in Fallout 4 is permitted to date all romanceable characters, regardless of gender, they are forced to begin their story in a heteronormative relationship, limiting the player-character to either a heterosexual or bisexual identity; this could easily have been resolved by allowing the player-character’s initial relationship to be with a same-gender partner.

These difficulties arise when developers attempt to walk the line between player-made and pre-made characters. When creating a game about freedom, having a fully player-made character is an important part of the fantasy. However, in games like Ladykiller in a Bind and The Witcher series, having pre-made, fully characterised protagonists supports the narrative. Our panel suggested that developers need to choose one of these approaches and do it completely, as every element of pre-made characterisation developers apply to a player-made character works to disrupt the player’s preferred emergent narrative.

Questions and answers

One of the highlights of the ‘Heroes Like Us’ panel was our enthusiastic audience. Before finishing the panel, we opened to the audience for questions.

One audience member wanted to know about techniques that developers can use to explicitly represent queer - particularly transgender - characters, and how to allow players to create player-characters who are transgender. The key advice the panel gave is to avoid cisgender or heteronormative assumptions, such as discussions of a character’s childhood that assumes they grew up as the same gender that they are presenting as during the game’s story. An example of these types of conversations can be seen in Technobabylon, with Max Lao’s gender identity implied through dialogue options where she mentions having previously attended an all-boys school. Allowing players to choose similar dialogue options for their player-characters is a better way of representing diverse genders than alternative approaches, such as varied appearance options. Ash mentioned that being visibly transgender can be uncomfortable or dangerous, so altered or stereotypical appearance options for diversely-gendered characters is not an example of positive representation.

Another audience question asked whether homophobia is acceptable when building game worlds. If including homophobia, transphobia, or other oppressive ideologies into a game world, it's important to consider why they are there and how it’s being handled. Ash and David mentioned Star Trek as a non-game example of using different lenses to explore homophobia. Wren also mentioned We Know the Devil, which uses homophobia and the feeling of being an ‘outsider’ to inform the game’s premise. If oppressive behaviours are being included so the game can make a comment about them, that’s different to including them simply to further discriminate against marginalised groups.

One question asked advice for somebody who is non-queer and wishing to create a game character who has a diverse sexuality or gender, such as for a tabletop RPG. The panel suggested the importance of asking why you want to create a character of a particular identity and what you are trying to represent. When anybody attempts to embody a character with an identity different to their own - in terms of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, ablebodiedness, etc. - it is important to do research, never make assumptions, avoid relying on stereotypes, and respond well to feedback. Wren suggested ‘The Adventure Zone’ podcast for an example of how to seek feedback and regularly check approaches to representing characters unlike yourself.

A final question asked how asexuality can be better represented in games. Of the sexualities that games have explored, asexuality is particularly uncommon, with romance in games often relying on sexual behaviour to be communicated. Relationships that are not sexual in nature rarely cite asexuality as the reason, leaving asexual folk with few characters to relate to in terms of sexuality. Our panel responded enthusiastically to the question, insisting that more explicit representation of asexuality is needed. Particularly, it’s important that characters who do not wish to engage in sexual behaviour aren’t treated as broken, or aren’t a quest to complete. It’s also important that asexual characters who are represented aren’t ‘convinced’ to engage in sexual activity by a partner, which is a trope in some visual novels. Mostly, asexuality needs to be included in games sincerely and explicitly to increase visibility of the ace community.

Further, after the panel was complete, an audience member approached me and asked how developers can improve representation of demisexuality, and I gave similar advice. Improving diversity in the ways relationships are portrayed in games will help those who do not adhere to societal expectations to see themselves represented.

Conclusion

‘Heroes Like Us’ covered important topics surrounding queer content in games and strived to focus on positive examples and representations in addition to constructive or critical feedback. Improving representation is a process that requires developers to continue building upon the attempts of the games that came before. For a full list of the games discussed during ‘Heroes Like Us’, check out the PAXQueer 2016 page on the Queerly Represent Me database.

Hopefully we’ll see you all again at PAX Australia next year.

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