Developing queer characters - How we can do better

Developing queer characters - How we can do better

By Joey Relton and Ian Goodall

June 1st 2017 at 1:00PM

Aardvark Swift's Joey Relton and Ian Goodall look at how games can improve on representation

If you don’t belong to a minority it can be hard to understand the yearning to see people like you represented in the movies that you watch or the games that you play. Simply by turning on the TV, looking at a magazine rack, walking past billboards or even turning your head to the left, your gender and sexuality are constantly validated as “normal” and acceptable. 

Turn the clock back even just a few years and you’ll see how far we’ve come today. It wasn’t long ago that LGBT+ characters in games barely existed. Those who did? They were relegated to the focal point of a two minute joke. Yes, for the most part, we’re beginning to move forward from this, we’re even seeing queer main characters in triple-A games such as Ellie from The Last of Us, and Tracer from Overwatch; this was unheard of just a few years back. Things may be getting better, but we’re now faced with a very different set of challenges.

It’s simply not enough to just include LGBT+ folk; developers need to take care and nurture these characters and their stories. Negative stereotypes which promote intolerance must be avoided and we need more representation than a singular, small token character who’s tasked with representing multiple different groups within an entire community with just 60 seconds of screen time. 

Games are arguably the most interactive and emotively powerful medium we have and, when put to good use, can have hugely positive effects. Having a character to identify with is so vitally important for reaffirmation of an individual’s self-image, but intolerances can also be challenged by introducing queer themes and characters to more closed-off audiences in a way that may feel less threatening.

With all that in mind, here are just a few things to keep in mind when writing an LGBT+ character for your game.

 ‘PLAYERSEXUAL’ IS NOT BISEXUAL

Let’s start things off by talking about the ‘playersexual’ route of inclusivity. Simply put, these are characters that will romance the player regardless of their gender. On face value this may seem like the optimal way of doing things and pleases everyone involved, but there’s a key distinction to be made between playersexual and bisexual, and it’s a fairly big one.

Back when LGBT+ characters were as rare as they were poorly portrayed, the introduction of romanceable playersexual characters was considered a big leap; it was the first time we saw romance options which LGBT+ players could relate to, and ultimately pathed the way for actual queer characters and relationships in the future. The problem however was that these character’s sexuality would hardly, if ever, be addressed. These were characters that were effectively written as heterosexual with a switch that could be flicked to make them ‘bisexual’ at key moments.

If the sexuality of a playersexual character is disclosed at any point, it is mentioned lightly after advances of a player of the same gender, yet this is left completely out of the game if approached by a player of a different gender. Because the character isn’t written as bisexual, and only “coded” to have this sexuality at key points, it’s completely possible to play through the entire game believing that the character is completely heterosexual, defeating the goal of having visible representation.

Obviously there are games where playersexual characters are appropriate. In games which don’t rely heavily on individual character narrative, such as The Sims, playersexuality plays a fairly important game mechanic. Yet when it comes to genres like RPGs which are heavily story focused, we miss important dialog and narrative. Sexuality is a big part of a person’s life. By simply reducing this to a sex scene we lose out the intended inclusion of diversity and are left with only tokenism.

PLAYER ROMANCE

Talking about romance, and more specifically perhaps sex scenes in games – what’s the right balance? It’s not an uncommon complaint that queer romance or sex scenes can be significantly shorter and feel less important than their heterosexual counterparts. Add too much emphasis on sex however, and you’ll likely hear something along the lines of “We exist outside the bedroom too”.

It can seem like a double-edged sword, but it’s understandable once you realise that we’re inundated with overused tropes like those which portray every bisexual under the sun as nymphomaniac deviants. The best way to answer the question of how much is the right amount is to look at what your heterosexual characters are getting up to.

If you have a heterosexual character that has the same story significance as a homosexual character, treat the queer character’s romance with the same level of attention as the straight character.

AVOIDING TOKENISM

Tokenism can be seen as the inclusion of a poorly written or implemented LGBT+ character that exists simply to tick a box. We can probably all think of a game where the only queer throughout the whole story appeared on the screen for the grand total of a minute, and within that sixty seconds told you everything about their gender or sexuality, never to be seen again.

In reality someone you’ve just met is very unlikely to open a conversation with a stranger with something so personal. Rachel Cabot, 2016’s Sumo Digital Rising Star Code winner who has since worked at BossAlien said, “tokenism tends to be very reductionist; a single facet of a queer person’s experience is trivialised as a quick win for representation.” when asked on the matter.

Similarly to the issues associated with playersexual characters, we miss out on a lot of important narrative when the only representation we have comes from a small token character, and the whole experience seems forced and unnatural.

Not every LGBT character has to have a story revolving about their sexuality or gender; they can easily be heroes, villains or milkmen that just happen to be queer. As long as the character is properly fleshed out and avoids stereotypes, this is much more than tokenism.

A couple of good examples characters who successfully pull this off are Bill from The Last of Us, by Naughty Dog, and Sera from Dragon Age: Inquisition, by Bioware. With his big, burly and rugged demeanour, Bill is the polar opposite of most homosexual stereotypes. As a side-character with somewhat story-significance, his sexuality is only really addressed once during a heart wrenching scene as he finds his partner dead. Though only addressed for a moment, the emotional attachment to the scene, and Bill’s significance as a character, elevates Bill above the realms of tokenism.

Sera on the other hand will occasionally make light-hearted remarks about her sexuality during party chit-chat if brought out on missions, her significance to the story however makes the important distinction from tokenism.

Characters like Sera and Bill aren’t necessarily going to help people understand and sympathise with experiences that’re unique to queer people, but they play other, and equally important, roles. First of all they add realism to a story. LGBT+ people exist, and by adding them to a story you make it more reflective of reality. More crucially however, they act to normalise the existence of queer people without resorting to negative, overly used stereotypes– and that’s something we badly need more of at the moment.     

The LGBT+ community is constantly crying out for better representation and it’s easy to forget why. We’re a minority with little representation in media as it is. Every negative stereotype isn’t just a missed opportunity for something better, but that character will ultimately influence the players’ views and opinions of queer folk. Not only this, but there’s an enormous opportunity to explore stories revolving around LGBT+ issues which have only just started to be touched upon by games and the wider media in general.

Studios like Naughty Dog are making strides with their queer representation and have created some of the best examples of queer characters in games to date. These are the studios that developers need to look to as an example when writing LGBT+ characters in the future.