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When Samson Romero – a queer gamer and fourth-year social work student – and his friends play against online opponents, they often play with the audio off.
“I can’t tell you how many times my friends who play Call of Duty get called the f-word,” said Romero. “There are only two insults in the gaming world: either you’re gay or you’re a woman.”
The anonymity of a game avatar can be a powerful thing. Unidentified players have free reign to make homophobic jokes or attacks – attacks that could often be prevented, if not for the gaming industry’s long history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) neglect.
Mainstream gaming companies traditionally appeal to an audience of straight men, where the male characters are hyper-masculine and female characters overtly sexualized. But according to a U.S. study by the Entertainment Software Association in 2013, males only make up 55 per cent of all gamers – and that includes gay, bisexual or transgender male players. Then there’s the other 45 per cent of female gamers being alienated as well.
However, a new batch of games is beginning to reflect the LGBTQ demographic. The Last of Us features lesbian character Ellie battling zombies in a post-apocalyptic world, while Assassin’s Creed: Liberation protagonist Aveline de Grandpre takes on a more gender-ambiguous role. In the game Dys4ia, players can even explore the life and processes of a transgender person, including the frustrations of hormone replacement therapy.
Many LGBTQ gaming groups and conferences have also ignited in North America. In San Francisco, LGBTQ industry professionals and enthusiasts gather for the GaymerX convention, while the “Toronto Gaymers” (those who identify as LGBTQ and have an interest in gaming) even bring their consoles to bars and play over drinks.
“Representation is important because it makes us real. LGBTQ gamers aren’t unicorns,” said Romero. Being a recognized member of gaming culture is validating, and including LGBT characters, if done well, can also help to educate non-LGBTQ gamers about the community.
The LGBT-friendly gaming zone has surfaced at Ryerson, with groups like the Association of Ryerson Role-Players & Gamers (ARRG) and RyePRIDE available to students. Romero, an organizer for “Toronto Gaymers,” is frequently involved with ARRG, sets up booths for LGBT awareness at gamer conferences and marches in the Pride Parade with cosplayers.
Romero says being a gamer has often conflicted with his queer identity. After coming out as gay when he was 16, Romero drifted away from video games, as his newfound community didn’t gather around consoles. He didn’t feel it was a hobby a gay person could even have.
For blogger Morgan MacCormick, a trans woman and lesbian, the gaming community served as an escape. “Outside of video games I was told that I couldn’t be who I wanted to be,” said MacCormick. “(In video games) I could save entire galaxies, stand up to any aggressor, and design from shoe to hair the woman that I wanted to be.”
When the gaming industry puts little focus on LGBTQ characters, it isn’t always a personal choice. It often comes down to business. “Innovation inherently loses money, and so you won’t see the mainstream gaming industry taking a lot of risks,” said Jaime Woo, a Toronto game designer whose outdoor group game, Gargoyles, has been played around the world.
“Indie developers are champions who push the boundaries, because they have much less to lose. In terms of LGBT characters, big companies might see a financial risk in alienating their audience,” Woo said.
Even in progressive games like The Last of Us, Ellie is only revealed as a lesbian during added game content, not in the original version of the game, which reveals a much safer approach to breaking the straight-only protagonist trend in the gaming world. With the film adaptation of The Last of Us recently announced, viewers will have to see if Ellie’s sexual orientation is emphasized or ignored.
Despite the progress, homophobic views are still present in the gaming industry. This past June, a Facebook game appeared where players controlled a stool-throwing priest attacking LGBTQ activists. Around 1,000 people liked the game, the Huffington Post reported. In the latest installment of Grand Theft Auto, there are also a number of jokes about transgendered people, including the game’s main characters shouting, “Hey, you need to keep taking your hormones!”
Though the representation of LGBTQ game characters is sometimes questionable, this select niche does serve as an effective starting point for the industry and gives an opportunity for growth.
With or without the presence of mainstream LGBT characters, MacCormick believes gaming also reflects the daily struggles those in the community face.
“Oftentimes video games feature a character who can barely survive a tussle with a level one monster, but through effort and patience, can square off with entire armies. This is one of the best lessons someone in a disenfranchised community can receive,” said MacCormick.
“If you want something you have to be willing to fail and begin again. And when the game, or the world, asks, ‘Would you like to continue?’ You click ‘Yes’ every time.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 12, 2014.