When I was younger, first starting out with gaming, LGBT+ people didn’t exist – at least not according to the games I was playing. All powerful gods with repetitive voice lines? Sure. Cities where everyone forgets that they are starving because you build a park? Seems reasonable. Lords of hell being trapped in gemstones by old wizards and faceless angels? Absolutely.
But queer people? Nowhere to be seen. In fairness, there are some games where the distinct lack of representation is less an indication of social biases and more a reflection on the irrelevance of a supernatural, ethereal being’s gender or sexual orientation. Equally, when one is building a city from a top down perspective, dealing almost exclusively with electronic renderings of inanimate objects, the opportunities for the representation of LGBT+ groups are few and far between. There were, however, plenty of games where the opportunities for representation were there and were duly ignored.
Nowadays, thankfully, things seem to have improved. LGBT+ visibility in games is at an all time high, and though I’m sure there is still a long way to go, it is encouraging to see some of the biggest names in computer gaming doing their part. Two games, in particular, and their makers, have drawn my attention in this regard; namely Bethesda’s Skyrim and Blizzard’s Overwatch.
Way back in 2011, the fifth instalment of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls game series hit the shelves to astounding acclaim. With a rich and varied lore, a stupendously ambitious engine, and seemingly unending storylines Skyrim represented a landmark in the genre. And in between the dragons, the shouting and the inexplicable floating mammoths, a landmark of a different kind was discovered; in Skyrim, marriage is not just between a man and a woman.
Clearly, it occurred to the developers at Bethesda that it makes absolutely no kind of sense to have a world where orcs can get hitched with elves and khajiit can tie the knot with argonians (or cat people getting married to lizard people, for those of you who read the word ‘khajiit’ and thought you were having a stroke) but where two men or two woman can’t possibly live happily ever after.
More than the just the fact that gay relationships are a possibility in Skyrim, a further indication of progress was that, in the game, nobody gave a crap. Seriously, there is absolutely no difference between playing a straight or a gay character in the game, and why would there be?
But the fact that there was representation without drawing the player’s attention to that representation is important. This world full of glowing plants, fantastical magic and the single most annoying species of crab ever to be conceived may be completely ludicrous, but it also shows us what equality actually looks like – equal opportunity in every way AND no forced distinction between groups in society. As subtle political commentary in blockbusting fantasy RPGs goes, Bethesda nailed it.
Fast forward to 2016 – Blizzard, having failed to make a longstanding project become a reality, release a first person shooter (FPS) game that they had cobbled together in just a few years. That game, Overwatch, receive an almost unprecedented amount of hype even before its public release, and has since grown to become arguably one of the biggest and most successful video games in the last decade, if not the last two.
Despite being a FPS, Blizzard went to great lengths to build a detailed lore around the world and characters of Overwatch. High quality animated shorts, online comics and in-game clues all serve to enrich the playing experience. It was one such digital comic that confirmed an LGBT+ aspect to the game that many players had already guessed; that the poster girl character of the game, Tracer, had a girlfriend.
Though the revelation did attract a surprising amount of press coverage, the media coverage of the reveal was less about the fact that the character was a lesbian and more about how the way in which Blizzard chose to show it; by presenting a totally normalised, average couple of Christmas Eve. Again, like with Skyrim, LGBT+ characters were represented without being depicted as ‘other’.
It is clear to me, then, that the representation of LGBT+ groups in video games has improved dramatically in recent years, as indeed has their representation in the real world. But in both realms of reality there is still work to be done. Whilst the two games that I discussed in this article have done a great job at normalising different sexual orientations, representation of other genders still seems to be missing.
I believe that, in time, we will start to see video games which represent the full variety of human conditions in all of their glorious complexity. Until then, it’s worth looking back at the games that made the first steps towards representation, building the foundations for progress. It is these games that will be looked back on as landmarks in their fields, and it won’t be just because they’re fun to play. It will be because they mattered.