The Bored Gaymer

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On Games, Gays, and Thematic Representation

Jason Beck
United States
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Proprietor of The Bored Gaymer, BGG's most popular blog with the words "Bored" and "Gaymer" in the title!
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the token gay

In my past two posts, I have discussed the general presumption of heteronormativity in games and our culture writ large, as well as attempted to explain why the issue of having (or not having) queer themes in games is important (or not).

If we accept that theme in games can be- and, indeed, frequently is- important for a swathe of different kinds of gamers, and we further accept that I am not on some misguided crusade to force queer-inclusivity in every single game in existence (I definitely am not, promise), then the question naturally arises: To what extent can (or should) queer themes be included in games? And, further, how much queer representation is "enough"?

[And, additionally, a difficulty: what about thematic fidelity? What about historical games where queer inclusivity doesn’t make sense? On this, I take (again) a cop-out: That’ll be the next post. It was going to be part of this one, but I think it’s long enough (and important enough) to warrant a discussion of its own.]

So, to what extent can (or should) queer themes be included in games? This is a problematic question, because in many ways it intersects with other questions of marketability and profits; that is, if a company thinks including something "gay" in a game is going to decrease their profits, they’re probably less likely to do it. However, I’d like to avoid that discussion for the moment (future post on it, promise) and instead focus on how far these gay themes can be incorporated into games, and indeed how far they ought to be incorporated.

If we accept that games are, in many ways, supposed to be reflections of our world, then it seems reasonable to accept that queers are going to pop up from time to time (again, the queer proportion of the population is estimated at 10-15%). But does this mean that gay themes should be forced or shoe-horned into a game in some kind of drive to make a game perfectly representative, completely proportional, entirely politically correct? Well, no. If a game is a reflection of the world, or a part of the world, then the reflection should be naturally inclusive; the key is more to avoid deliberate exclusion than to force inclusion.

So what am I asking for, then? Avoidance of the "token gay", for one thing. The "token gay" character is as vexing as the "token black" or the "token <some other minority>". These characters are thrown in as a sop to political correctness; they represent no progress, they are not meaningful, they are transparent. So, this is not "enough", as it were. I’ve no interest in being confronted by media that throws in a gay character as an afterthought (how tedious!), or features some hot lesbian couple for the (obvious) titillation of the heterosexual male audience (woohoo objectification, amirite?).

This might all seem like a bit much: Are there really that many games where this would even be present? Are games truly supposed to be reflections of society? And so on and so on.

But, yes: If there are games with themes, then these issues will crop up eventually; they will crop up in the art, or the mechanics, or the character back-stories, or whatever. But, again, how much representation is "enough"? I have no quota to suggest, no agenda that needs fulfilling (aside from accurate inclusivity, tolerance, and stuff like that, of course), so it’s impossible to simply lay out a set guideline. It may (or may not), then, be more helpful to simply note that an awareness of heteronormativity, coupled with a willingness to eliminate hetero-exclusivity, would be useful.

That is, if your game has a "Love Interest" card (or whatever), make it gender-neutral. If it has sex or romance or whatever (explicit or implicit), make it gender-neutral. And why not, after all? Instead of specifying heterosexuality, why not just remove the specificity and allow for combinations engaged in by the players? And if you are going to write up character backgrounds, or include flavor text, or something of that nature, well, why not throw in a gay here and there? Avoid the token gay route and avoid tedious stereotypes: stereotypes are boring anyway, and "we" (or, at least, I) are not looking for thematic nods borne of obligation.

And, in the end, isn’t a game enhanced by diversity? Aren’t tropes more interesting when they’re being subverted? Couldn’t the villainous sorcerer (you can tell he’s evil by the terrifying hat, of course) kidnap the strapping warrior instead of (in addition to?) the blond princess with vast tracts of land? Is a game improved by having an all-straight cast anymore than it is improved by having an all-white cast?
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