Video Games and Equality: An Old Thing I Wrote Once

I was going back through my old school work recently (because I apparently love making myself cringe) and came across a few of my old assignments that I actually liked. So I thought I’d tweak one a little and post it here to archive it and let others read what goes through my strange head sometimes.

Here is a thing (that was once a feature article but is now something different) that I wrote based on equality in games. You know, hence the title.

[Note: While this article uses the term LGBT, it does in fact mean more than just LGBT. I know there is a far broader spectrum, I just don’t understand it ’cause I, well, just don’t. I didn’t – and still don’t – know how to best describe that in the article, so I stuck to a very basic description to avoid looking like a total idiot or offending anyone. Hopefully it worked.]

bandicam 2015-08-09 19-16-38-323All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others (George Orwell, Animal Farm)

Do video games treat everyone as equally as we have been led to believe?

Video games are a controversial medium. There has been no shortage of issues and controversies raised around video games, and there are many people who look for the slightest flaw in video games and pounce on them. When it comes to portrayal of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) characters, there is a veritable minefield waiting beneath the surface for those brave enough to start digging. Most gamers just ignore these complaints as just that, complaints. After all, gamers get so used to filtering out unnecessary criticisms that it becomes natural. Unfortunately, these filters have not only filtered out the dirt, they have started to filter out the water as well. Could gamers, in fact, be in the wrong, and video games do actually address these issues poorly?

To put it bluntly, video games are, at best, mildly insensitive towards LGBT subjects, and at worst, downright prejudiced and insulting. There have been many LGBT characters since the creation of video games, but the sheer narrowness of the character design array is frightening. Almost every single LGBT character in video games can be classified with one or more of these simple tags: Villain, Monstrous or Stereotypical. For such a diverse medium, the fact that these three categories can contain almost all LGBT characters should be alarming in and of itself.

That is not the only reason we should be worried though. The amount of times characters have been censored in certain countries because they were LGBT is much higher than one would expect. Not to mention the fact that different parts of the LGBT spectrum are seen as more “acceptable” or “normal” than others. A large number of LGBT characters have their sexuality as their only character trait; as if their sexuality is the only thing that defines these characters.

As gamers, we need to realise that this prejudice exists and call it what it is: unfair treatment.

The biggest issue faced by LGBT characters when portrayed in video games is their tendency to be villains. Being homosexual or transgender is almost exclusively a trait held by villains or antagonists. Aside from “blank canvas” characters, such as player made Sims (The Sims – 2008-present) or The Dragonborn in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios – 2011), there are very few heroes or even neutral characters in video games that are classified as LGBT.

Here is a list of just seven LGBT characters in video games. This doesn’t include “blank canvas” characters like the ones mentioned above.

  1. Poison (Final Fight – 1989). Transgender. Villain.
  2. Flea (Chrono Trigger – 1995). Transvesite or Transgender. Villain
  3. Baron Friedrich von Glower (The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery – 1995). Homosexual. Villain.
  4. Luecos (Glory of Heracles – 2008/2010). Homosexual and Transvestite. Protagonist’s Teammate.
  5. Crystal and Amber Bailey (Dead Rising 2 – 2010). Incestuous Homosexuals. Villains.
  6. Vivian (Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – 2004). Transgender or Transvestite. Villain.
  7. Jeanette (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines – 2004). Bisexual. Neutral affiliation.

Of all seven of these characters, five are villains, one could be classified as a “good guy” and one has no affiliation with either side. Five out of these seven LGBT characters are villains. Only one character is a “good guy”.

Many other characters are treated the same. LGBT topics are treated as evil or strange. The antagonistic character Binbogami (Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon – 2008/2009) is another homosexual villain. Not only does he sexually pursue the protagonist against his will; he is shown to be a masochist and possible sadist as well. A character cannot just be homosexual or transgender, they need to be strange or have traits meant to revolt the audience as well. They must be monstrous.

This is seen again in Final Fantasy VII (Square Enix – 1997) as a quest in the game forces the protagonist, Cloud Strife, to enter a gym filled with homosexual men. They are obvious stereotypes, wearing pink underwear, and moving flamboyantly. They also encourage this ‘monstrous’ stereotype, as text in the game suggests possible molestation of the character at best or outright rape at worst. Just because the characters in the gym were gay.

Not only are these sorts of characters treated as strange or weird, they often end up being censored outside of certain countries. Characters like Birdo (Super Mario Series – Nintendo – 1985-present) and the aforementioned Vivian, who were originally said to be transgender in Japan have had all references to their gender removed. Characters like Vivian are censored outside of Japan constantly. But why? Do the creators and publishers think that western audiences won’t understand, or is it out and out exclusion?

Yet another issue is the issue of subtle bias, or allowing one particular facet of the LGBT spectrum to be considered more “normal” than others. The game trilogy Mass Effect (Bioware – 2007-2012) shows this type of bias towards LGBT issues. Bioware has always been known as a pioneer in the gaming industry, due to their sensitive inclusion of controversial topics (such as LGBT relationships). However, in both Mass Effect 1 & 2, male player characters are not allowed to have homosexual relationships, while female characters may. It is a subtle bias, but an important one to notice nonetheless. It subconsciously breeds the idea that sexuality and gender are ranked; that one gender or sexuality is better or more important than the others. Video games and media in general have already done this for years by having straight relationships almost exclusively and having men as the main characters, but we cannot let it get worse. In a movement that is all about equality, we can’t have certain people getting preferential treatment.

This isn’t to say that limiting a game to only showing one type of relationship is bad. If having a heterosexual or homosexual relationship involving the player character is essential to the plot or that character’s development, by all means, have that. Not all games require choice. However, games that hide behind the guise of “free choice” but nonetheless limit choices for no explainable reason, should not be tolerated. Or, at the very least, called out for their exclusion. If a game freely allows a player made character to be straight or homosexual, then both all characters should be allowed such choices. It is subtle exclusion to allow females to be homosexual and not males, or vice versa.

Gone Home

Gone Home (The Fullbright Company – 2013) is one of the rarer video games that treats the idea of lesbian relationships with respect but unfortunately doesn’t get as much attention as larger,  better funded games.

The final, and least recognised issue in video games is the description of characters as gay or lesbian without reason. A startling number of games describe a character as homosexual for no other reason than to have an LGBT character. Just wanting to seem inclusive is a poor reason to state a character’s sexuality. Someone’s sexuality is not indicative of their personality, and should be but a facet in an overall description. Using the term homosexual to describe someone is like using the word vegetarian to describe someone: I know one of the things they like or dislike, but you’ve told me nothing about them as a person.

Many games include characters like this though. For example, the game SilverLoad (Vic Tokai – 1996) contains a gay barber. That is all the description the character is given. Simply that he is a barber and he is gay. These few words do not explain anything about the character, and yet they are considered an acceptable character description? That blank description is considered to be “inclusive”. Not only does this make characters in these games less varied and interesting, it is degrading to members of the LGBT community. Being homosexual or transgender is not a character trait. It is an important part of these people’s lives, not a trope to be used as a cop out description.

The worst part about this blatant disrespect towards LGBT people is that no one benefits. Not the developers, or publishers or players. None of these people benefit from these stereotypes, and they actively detract from the lives of LGBT people. These stereotypes are used as an easy out. A lazy escape. There is no excuse for this. For the video game industry to be so apathetic towards the development of these characters is nothing short of disrespectful.

It is unfortunate that video games are so insensitive of these issues, when video games themselves have been the target of such stereotypes before. As gamers, it is our duty to identify these stereotypes and unfair portrayal of people when they appear in our medium. It is our duty to remove issues like this one that become embedded subconsciously within the medium, lest they become the norm.

It is our duty as humans to stop unfair prejudice and injustice to our fellow humans, no matter who they are.

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