The topic of sexuality and gender in video games is hardly undiscussed. It is easy to take a glance at the most prominent titles and series over the last thirty years and believe there was a serious lack of non-heterosexual relationships and unconventional gender presentation in gaming on offer up until very recently. However, this ignores a wealth of representation that has built up over time, whether it was considered ‘mainstream’ or not.
Games with romantic subplots or routes have offered increasing freedom in allowing the player to pursue love interests of both the same or opposite sex. The Mass Effect trilogy, which began in 2007, is notable for featuring a number of optional romantic choices for the playable Commander Shepherd (the gender of whom is decided by the player). Some are available for both genders, while others can only be with either the male or female Shepherd. Unique interactions and cutscenes help to establish the fact that, even in a fantasy setting, there are differences between heterosexual and homosexual relationships related to prejudices and power dynamics which can’t simply go unaddressed. But not every LGBT game experience should have to be rooted in reality, and a number of titles involve LGBT-related mechanics as an everyday factor, free of discrimination. Stardew Valley allows the player to get together with any romanceable NPC in the game, with little story impact beyond a few dialogue changes. MMORPGs like Final Fantasy XIV and The Elder Scrolls Online let players develop relationships with and marry other characters; the latter even allows for polyamory. A particularly interesting example is Dwarf Fortress, which simulates an entire world, including a relative proportion of homosexual, bisexual and asexual NPCs to that of the real world. Additionally, gender roles don’t exist and the only influence gender has is the ability to get pregnant.
When only looking at games in which gender and sexuality are directly incorporated into their plot, the number of those which address LGBT issues in any way are dwarfed by those which don’t. That’s not to say that they were nonexistent in the past; titles as old as 2006’s Rule of Rose have been able to weave themes of gender and sexuality into their story. In this form of media it is often hard to develop a satisfying narrative related to such themes, especially in genres which rely little on story or characters, but there has been an effort to change this nonetheless. Unfortunately, big name companies have begun using representation as a marketing tool, instead of genuinely wanting to show perspectives rarely seen in media. When Dontnod, developers of the Life is Strange series, announced their upcoming game Tell Me Why, almost nothing was revealed about the game except that one of its main characters is a trans man, to much media praise. A later interview revealed that the company wanted to have a ‘unique’ protagonist, suggesting that the decision to make them trans was entirely superficial. These actions overshadow the efforts of other developers to continue making diverse games, without using said diversity as a lure for business.