Last week I gave a talk at St Andrews LGBT student society. It was my first attempt at talking about some work I have just started on Gay Gamers, and perhaps more broadly LGBT gamers. I am greatly endebted to Fruit Brute – the creator of gaygamer.net and his posts regarding the “Top 20 Gayest Video Game Characters”, during July 2006. This gave me an excellent jumping off point.
The motivations for engaging with this area and how I am doing this are multiple:
- As I have already discussed, during my ethonographic work on SingStar gameplay, the SingStar Anthems title was released with the strapline “Unleash Your Inner Diva!”. It has also been retitled by Fruit Brute as “SingStar Queer Edition“.
- Beyond that prompt, my later work on Gaydar (and my recent post here), highlights issues surrounding the commodification of difference viz social media. So I wondered how are LGBT people configured in digital games?
- In addition, I am aware of those digital games researchers who argue that: “There is little in the way of understanding elements of the gaming experience that are not limited to the actual playing of the game itself (Crawford and Rutter 2007: 273). So how are LGBT players engaging with games beyond the screen?
Thus, given this context, my talk was concerned with the LGBT gaming experience in terms of such things as character representation, forum participation and how LGBT gamers/characters are dealt with by those in the digital games industry. In short, I discussed LGBT gaming on and beyond the screen. What I will quickly do now is run through the things I discussed - LGBT characters, heteronormativity in games, and LGBT gaming controversies.
Below I list some of the characters I discussed and give brief explanation of why they were included:
|Dance Summit 2001: These characters are simultaneously labelled by Fruit Brute as drag queens and trannies. A forum comment points out that there is a difference between the drag queens and trannies.|
|Soul Calibur IV: Voldor is ‘thrown out there’ as potentially gay. But it’s also made clear he could just be into S&M. A response argues that he’s probably ‘just out there’. It is clear that some characters’ sexualities are contested|
|Zelda Series: Tingle is introduced with much humour by Fruit Brute and configured as high camp. This spoke to me of a recognition of the resonance of gay stereotypes. Frute Brute also talks of Tingle as a reminder of a ‘Chicken Hawk’ who pounced on him the first time he went to a gay bar thus highlighting the intertexuality of gaming|
|Resident Evil: This post made clear the presence of transvestitism in gaming. Alfred Ashford dresses as his sister. Of course, I acknowledge there is no link between transvestitism and sexuality, but transvestites are included within the trans group of LGBT.|
|Street Fighter: Again Zangief’s sexuality is contested but he is also drawn upon to highlight hypermasculine discourses viz Bears in the gay community. Frute Brute also make clear the contradictions surrouding some Bears – they are hypermasculine, yet also have the potential to be highly camp and effeminate. Zangief sits in a bath during a game with two women and it is suggested that he is merely discussing hand bags with them.|
|Super Mario Bros 2 (and beyond): Birdo/Birdetta is highlighted as a male to female trans character. It is also the case that in later printings of the game’s guide booklet and later releases of the game Nintendo ‘corrected’ the error and discussed Birdo only as a female character.|
|Streets of Rage 3: I included Ash as his playable character in the Japanese version of the game is highly camp (he has ‘slap combo’s, giggles girlishly and cries when he looses – oh yes, and there’s the outfit). However, beyond that, it’s interesting again that in the release of the game in the US and Europe, his character was not automatically playable (it’s possible to unlock him if you know how to).|
|Fear Effect 2: This game includes two openly lesbian characters who were reportedly included by the games designer to hook in young boys.|
|The Temple of Elemental Evil: In contrast to Fear Effect 2, this game included gay men and gay marriage on par with other relationships in the game. A serious attempt at social inclusion was made.|
|GTA IV: This game’s storyline required a character to ‘pretend’ to be gay, and post a profile on an internet dating site in order to entrap another character. Further, later in the game, gay bashing occurs, but there is also the potential for the ‘gay basher’ to be killed for this.|
|Bully: Scholarship Edition: This game allows for fluid (Bi) sexuality. Moreover, points can be gained for kissing other boys.|
Following this discussion, I moved on to run through my experience of playing the online version of the MB board game – the game of Life. The premise of the game is to travel through life dealing with its ups and downs. I had found a story on the internet in which the game had been raised as problematic because it allowed a player to choose a spouse of the same sex. This was seen as a problem because it was a game for kids and it was felt that such a possibility with thus not appropriate. I thus decided to download and play the game. Sure enough, it was possible (as in the orginal board game) to choose a same sex spouse. However, from that point on the game was heteronormative. When I got married, an image of a man and woman appeared, when I became a grandparent, I was pictured with a woman. Only in the car was a pictured with a man and in the ‘photograph’ (as shown here) at the end of the game. Funnily enough we only had boys!
Finally, I moved on to discuss other aspects of homophbia as related to gay gamers. I discussed two recent cases of profile blocking in the Microsoft XBOX live gaming community. In the first case (May 2008), a gay gamer who had chosen the gamertag theGAYERgamer was blocked due to complaints by others in the XBOX live gaming community – Microsoft felt the tag broke their rules viz offensive tags. In the second case (February 2009) a lesbian gammer was barred because she had stated that she was a lesbian in her profile. Microsoft reportedly said that other gamers were offended by this.
So what can we make of this… Well of course, my thoughts on this aren’t very well formed just yet, but a number of things do seem to be emerging. What personally surprised me the most was the extent to which LGBT issues/characters are engaged with in digital games, however superfically, seriously or instrumentally. Even given there is a large amount of guessing and labelling of characters (leading to the status of certain characters being contested), it is also clear that the full gambit of LGB and T are included.
It is also clear that LGBT characters are included in periferal ways and as integral to the game. They can have ludic and narrataive value. Moreover, as with other aspects of digital gaming we see intertextuality – comparisons are made between Tingle and Chicken Hawks, hidden characters in games are equated with the hidden nature of the LGBT community at particular points in time and in particular spaces. We also see that gay gamers experiences of gaming spaces beyond game play can be ‘safe’, considered and humourous (as in gaygamer.net) but also subject to homophobia – as in the XBOX live community (I have thought about this and despite Microsoft’s attempts at explaining themselves, I do see the recent activity as homophobic. Even though I understand somewhat their attempt at crafting a policy to facilitate the enjoyment of everyone – it clearly uninformed and discriminates against gay and lesbian players).
Although my thoughts are only preliminary, it seems to me this is a fruitful area requiring more research, even though for those who identify as LGBT (including me), sexuality does not necessarily figure in gameplay and our experiences on or beyond the screen.
As an aside, for those interested Jenny Sundén at the Royal Institute of Technology is undertaking work on the queering of world of warcraft, there is a good LGBT gamer entry in Wikipedia and the Humplex site has some interesting flash games with borrow from mainstream games such as resident evil (note this site contains material which could be categorised as pornograhpic and which some might find offensive). If you know of anyone working in this area, please do let me know.