The Bittersweetest Thing

Lead Writer of BioWare's Dragon Age game series, lover of fan tears. This is where I blog about game development, fandom, and narrative design. Anything I say here is my opinion alone.

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On Gaming’s Gay Agenda

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So I did a talk at GDC recently, wherein I discussed how issues of sexuality in BioWare games have tied into larger discussions of inclusivity in gaming: not only of our gay fans, but gamers of colour, women… any group that games are not traditionally aimed at. How inclusivity is not only a moral issue for developers, but also an economic one.

A friend recently commented, “You must have gotten a lot of hate mail for that.” I told her that, no, I hadn’t. The response has been almost universally positive. I included my work email in that presentation, and I’ve received more response than I could ever reply to… pretty much all consisting of thanks and commendations from fans and fellow developers alike. I didn’t give the talk for the warm fuzzies, but I’m quite thankful for all the support.

"Ah," she said. "If you’d been a woman giving that exact same talk, I wonder if the response would have been the same?"

I told her that I could almost guarantee that would not have been the case. Which is as sad a comment on the state of things as one can imagine.

"So nothing negative at all?” she was amazed.

Hey now, let’s not get crazy. Of course there was some. Oddly, it did not target the feminist aspect of my talk. Or perhaps not so oddly, since I’m not a woman. Instead it focused on the parts of my talk that touched on sexuality.

Which is a generous way to put it, since it implies those responses actually addressed my talk in any fashion. Mostly it was, and I paraphrase, “you’re a faggot, and you’re ruining games with your faggotry.”

Normally I would ignore stuff like that. Considering the mindset that would compel someone to send me email which is invariably illiterate in its use of grammar, and which does more to prove my talk’s points on privilege than the writers appear to fathom, I’d rather focus on the positive. With the GaymerX convention this weekend, however, I figured this might be a good time to address the issue.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this sort of response, after all. Even when it’s not frothing-at-the-mouth in its tone, the gist seems to be “why does this need to be addressed at all? This isn’t what gaming is about. It’s stupid that this is even a point of discussion, and focusing on it detracts from the true purpose of games… which is fun, and not social justice. You’re making your own games tiresome and preachy, when the only thing you should concern yourself with is making them good.”

Did I get that right? Does that characterize the general response from those who argue against including gay characters or gay themes in games? I think those who scan the comments section of any article that addresses the subject (a dicey proposition in and of itself, as woe betide anyone who reads the comments) would probably say yes.

So what would be a good response? I’m going to avoid mentioning privilege more than just this once— even though its simplest definition applies here as “I don’t like the idea of developers spending time and energy on things I don’t care about and which don’t affect me”, it’s considered an attack word and most people will simply tune it out as “social justice talk” and stop listening. Which is a bit unfair, as words exist to aid communication, but so does empathy… so let’s look at it from their perspective for a moment.

Let’s say you’re a regular gamer. Ignoring all discussion of what “regular” means in this instance, you think of yourself as the norm— a straight dude who enjoys games that cater to his sensibilities. Violence doesn’t bother you, nor anything else that is generally considered a “mature theme”. In fact, you like games that challenge you, whether via the story or by way of difficulty. You play games for a bit of escapism, to blow off some steam and to have fun.

Being preached at is not fun, and that’s what all this talk feels like to you. Like you’re a bad guy for enjoying games as they’ve always been, and wanting to keep them that way. What’s more, the appearance of gay anything in a game just feels so… awkward to you. It sticks out like a sore thumb, the developers all but yelling at you “SEE? SEE HOW PROGRESSIVE WE ARE??” You hate it. It’s annoying.

Perhaps you take it one step further. All this talk of “accessibility” seems to coincide with games being “dumbed down”. Rather than games being things you have to be good at to win, they’re now made for everyone. Maybe your favorite genre just isn’t what it used to be. You tell yourself it’s because developers & publishers are kidding themselves, spending their time on things that aren’t important. Maybe you don’t consciously add the “like me” to that sentence, but you feel you represent the part of gaming that is honest and true. If games remembered their roots, they would be better.

Does every such guy feel that way? Hardly, but that doesn’t matter. You can find plenty of people online who feel just as you do, and everywhere you go online there are others yelling at the top of your lungs about things that make sense to you. WHY IS NO ONE LISTENING? It’s madness. It seems like the entire industry would rather pay attention to a bunch of screeching harpies, people who aren’t even real gamers, and your only hope is to shout them down.

…an unfair characterization? I don’t think so. I could probably try to dive down into the psyche of those who get truly hateful, who think that the only valid response is to harass anyone they disagree with, but I tend to believe people are generally good. They mean well, for the most part. They do things because they believe they are right. So I assume most of the opposition comes from a place of misunderstanding. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m running with that because the alternative is to assume that people are generally petty, selfish jerks… and that’s a level of cynicism I’m not yet comfortable with.

What are they picturing, anyway?

I try to imagine what these guys picture when they hear talk about inclusivity for gay fans, what they see games becoming if they were to be inclusive. They can’t be responding to games as they are now, because examples of gay anything in the gaming industry are currently few and far between. So they see this encroaching “gay agenda” and picture… what? What do they think is the desired ideal?

Every male character in every video game from here on is gay? You’re playing Gears of War and your fellow gunner makes constant remarks on how attractive your ass is? Formerly manly lead characters reduced to metrosexuals in angora sweaters, every male character you meet in every game from RPG’s to Grand Theft Auto making passes at every opportunity? Every plot revolves around leather daddies, lesbian love, and drag queens?

Are we even in the same world? In what universe was this even on the table? It’s reductio ad absurdum— picturing the most ridiculous extreme and arguing against that as if it was what’s being asked for. Perhaps I’m even engaging in it myself, and what they’re arguing against isn’t nearly so extreme, though I honestly can’t imagine what it is they feel this discussion will lead to which merits such a response.

The phrase I most often hear with regards to gay content that currently exists, such as the optional same-sex romances in some of BioWare’s games, is “you’re throwing it in my face”. Or “you’re shoving it down my throat”. Ignoring the ironic phrasing, the implication appears to be that the existence of such content at all is an insult or an attack— like slapping the player in the face with a dildo, it’s beyond the pale.

Why the focus?

Indeed, the existence of any discussion whatsoever appears to require developers to focus on it. As if this were a conversation we can have only at the exclusion of any other activity. Perhaps that’s due to the strange fishbowl-like nature of any Internet discussion— the more you pay attention to it, the larger it seems. Encounter a few conversations about it online and suddenly the perception is that this is all anyone is discussing. I mention it, and obviously this is all I as a writer at BioWare must concern myself with: I’m abandoning my regular duties to think gay, gay, gay all day long. How can I fit more gay into this game?

The truth is it’s not a focus. It will never be a focus. The focus for any developer is to get their game out the door. Everything else is secondary.

It is not, however, an either/or thing. It’s not like the only two options that exist are “no discussion” or “discuss it 24/7”. Despite what some might think, I suspect all which is being asked for— whether it be from gay fans or any minority among players— is some consideration from the companies making games. Ultimately, these players enjoy the games for the same reasons as everyone else. They want them to be good, and fun, just like everyone else. They would just like to be acknowledged, and not constantly reminded that they are the “other” who plays these games despite them being made for someone else.

But what would that take?

So how does a company do that? Complete realignment of project priorities? Committees established to ensure that your game is inoffensive, agreeing to some mandated representation percentage for characters that belies all creative process? Revolution in the industry, where inclusivitiy is a box-listed feature for every single game?

Don’t be silly. That isn’t the world in which we live.

Personally, I think the only extraordinary effort required is the overcoming of the notion that this should be a big deal. It shouldn’t be. It should be the expected norm, and pass without comment when it arises in games. No news articles or online controversy required.

Idealistic? Maybe. The fact is, no single game can be all things to all people. What’s desirable is having more games include diversity where it fits… ideally reaching a point where one can expect that, in any collection of games, one is bound to find diverse characters as par for the course throughout. Since there is no guiding body which can determine which games need to have it, or when the industry has reached “enough”, it’s really down to developers & publishers taking time to consider what would work for their projects.

Time. Some time, as opposed to none.

If one is looking for causality in why the industry is changing, I think it’s rather odd that anyone would lay that entirely at the feet of games becoming more inclusive of the audience. We willingly divide ourselves into camps of “us” and “them”, when our mutual love of gaming should be a uniting force. We all want games to be good, and embracing the audience should be a way to make them better. It should be a way to show the young that they’re not as “other” as they fear, or that the “other” is not such a terrifying force after all.

The only way we make it normal, after all, is by treating it as normal.

Is it ever going to be perfect? Hell no. I have no magical solution to offer, no wand to wave which will suddenly make publishers less risk-averse, no perfect formula which would make a gay character less threatening or less controversial. I have my own ignorance to overcome and battles to fight, so speaking on behalf of every anything feels a bit odd… and I’m not trying to. Until we reach a point where one doesn’t need to be seen as having an agenda in order to encourage some sanity in our approach to inclusivity, however, the discussion will have to continue… despite how annoying some people find it.

Because it’s not the end of gaming as we know it. I think we can all spare at least a little time and energy on behalf of those who are not like ourselves. It is not too much to ask, and surely needn’t devolve into battle lines being drawn and hateful words being spewed on both sides… because, at that point, who’s really listening anymore?

I look forward to the discussions we’ll be having at GaymerX this weekend. Not because I assume a utopia is nigh where nobody will have anything nasty to say about it or about me, but because such an event is possible at all. We progress on this and other fronts by inches, sure, but as I said earlier I’d like to think there’s more that unites us than divides us. The only “gay agenda” that exists in gaming, after all, is that we’d all like to have a good time doing what we love.

Have a good day, all. Hope to see a few of you at the convention.

Notes

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