Video games as an entertainment format are still in their infancy. In the 45 year period since the arcade game Computer Space first commercially introduced the concept of playing electronic games on a screen, games have evolved and continued to mature as a medium.
Games are now capable of telling rich stories in a uniquely personal way; the player being involved in the progression of character development in a way that no other medium can achieve. The representation of homosexuality in video games is also evolving and on screen sexual diversity is slowly coming to the fore.
One of the most common reoccurring representations of queer identity in video games mirrors that of 1980s cartoons: the camp villain. From the snickering quips of Skeletor from the Masters of the Universe series through to the theatrical bitchiness of Starscream in Transformers, sissy villains have been an easy yet entertaining shorthand for homosexuality. Although these enemies almost never explicitly mention their sexuality, there are cultural signifiers at work that strongly hint as such. One interesting example is flamboyantly evil Spanish matador Vega from the Street Fighter series. Although he never shows interest in men or women (except to inflict pain), he shows an extreme narcissism and femininity that has long been used to negatively stereotype gay men. Vega considers himself to be extremely beautiful so he wears a mask in order to protect his good looks. His victory quotes in the game paint a vivid picture of a self-obsessed sadist: “Only I understand the pain of being too strong and beautiful”, “I won’t let your filthy claws come into contact with my sublime body” and “The screams of young maidens are like music to my ears.”
A notorious example of this sissy villain trope appears in the 1994 Sega Megadrive game Streets of Rage III. Ash is a mid-level boss who takes on the clichéd signifiers of a gay man. He arrives wearing a leotard, green tights under thigh high leather boots and a pink leather jacket with matching biker hat. Furthering this look is a huge male symbol necklace and a Freddie Mercury moustache. He prances around the screen, limp wrists flailing and snickering in a taunting laugh. When defeated his character lets out a female scream and he falls dramatically to the floor. Despite being cut from the American and European versions of the game, Ash has gone on to become something of a cult figure in gaming. This trope rears its fabulously evil head in games of all genres, from the camp exclamations of Kuja in Final Fantasy IX to the Phil Oakey haired androgyny of Ghirahim and his penchant for young male hero Link in The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword. It seems unlikely to be a trope that will go away.
In recent years there has been a conscious attempt in narrative gaming to move away from clichéd depictions of gay characters. As technology has advanced, the capacity to create complex characters has increased and we are now seeing nuanced depictions of gay themes. This is perhaps best illustrated in one of the most critically acclaimed games of the last decade, The Last of Us. The game tells the tale of Joel, a haunted survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the human race has been turned into grotesque fungus infested zombies. He teams up with tough teenager Ellie and together they help each other in a world filled with danger from both infected and non-infected alike. Thanks to incredible motion capture technology, strong writing and powerful performances, the game has really pushed the boundaries of quality and immersion in narrative gaming. One character in particular, Bill, so impressed GLAAD that, in 2013, they named him the most intriguing new LGBTI character in any medium. Bill is a paranoid loner who has made a safe haven in the midst of the devastating pandemic. He reluctantly agrees to help Joel and Ellie, and through this interaction we learn that he had a romantic partner called Frank. Bill is gruff and non-stereotypical and speaks with a bleak cynicism about his failed relationship. It’s refreshing to find a gay character portrayed this way in any medium, let alone a game.
However, it’s in the game’s extra chapter, The Last of Us: Left Behind, which we find a pivotal moment in the presentation of a gay relationship in gaming. The chapter is mainly set years before Joel meets Ellie. She is resident at a boarding school when her best friend, Riley, informs her she is leaving to join a militia group. What follows is an intimate gameplay experience unique in the world of gaming. We get to take control of the girls as they spend their final day together. The girls joke around in a Halloween store before discovering a merry-go-round in an abandoned shopping mall. Eventually Ellie begs Riley not to leave and the girls share an intimate kiss. “I’m sorry”, Ellie proclaims afterwards. “For what?” Riley replies. The moment feels like a watershed moment in game history. Not only does it portray gay love at a time when other big budget games are still scared to approach the subject, it does so with an intelligence and sincerity that is exceptional. The importance of this event is underscored further as tragedy invades the blooming relationship between the two young women. Despite the inevitable homophobic backlash from some sections of the gaming community, the scene was incredibly well received and praised for pushing the medium of video gaming in its mature depiction of a same sex relationship. As Keza MacDonald stated in her Guardian review, “Rarely have I played anything as powerful.”
Another standout representation of a gay character in a narrative game comes in the Japanese role playing game, Persona 4. The game itself wraps a murder mystery in Jungian psychology and a hyper-coloured anime aesthetic. Key to the game is the Jungian concept of ‘the shadow’, described as “an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself”. In the game, a number of characters are killed or threatened when they refuse to accept part of themselves. The character of Kanji Tatsumi is a macho juvenile delinquent, prone to fits of violence and swearing. When he’s taken into the Shadow World, the games mysterious danger zone, he is forced to accept who he truly is or die due to his denial. The Shadow World in the game is a very complex setting. It appears as a secret TV Channel, the Midnight Channel, which traps victims, and in which unwanted traits of a person’s personality are exaggerated and broadcast. As Kanji is denying his homosexual tendencies, the Shadow World appears to him as a gay sauna and his shadow personality appears as a flamboyant and lisping stereotype of a gay man. At the end of the stage, Kanji accepts this side of his personality, and the shadow is defeated. On the surface it appears as if the flamboyant shadow Kanji is just another offensive stereotype, but as Nich Maragos, Persona 4 Editor for Atlus USA (the game’s development company) states, “That flamboyance was also what the viewers of the Midnight Channel wanted to see: a typical gay person on TV that people would laugh at. The TV station broadcasts what the audience prefers to watch – it’s a stark portrayal of modern society.” The game manages to show us the coming out story of a non-stereotypically gay character and simultaneously functions as a critique of the exploitative portrayal of camp male homosexuals in the entertainment industry.
Just as narrative gaming is evolving, the concept of player identification is also evolving. Games are more and more allowing players to shape and mould their own characters, outside of the rigid restrictions that more narratively linear games offer. The leaders of this movement are without a doubt Bioware. The company specialises in role playing games that give the players a large choice in how their character develops in the game, and that includes same sex relationships. Role playing games have long allowed the player to forge their own experiences but one stumbling block for gay gamers has been that any relationship choices have been strictly heterosexual. Bioware have been at the forefront of ensuring that players can enact out their own fantasy life on the screen, whether that be wooing female same sex aliens in Mass Effect or committing to a gay relationship with the muscular Iron Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Even Nintendo, possibly the most traditional video game company in existence, have apologised for not including the option of same sex relationships in their lifestyle simulator Tomodachi Life. Further examples of the choices for players to create gay avatars can be seen in The Sims and numerous online role playing games including Final Fantasy XIV.
One fascinating aspect of gay culture is the way icons are created. Although this is something that happens rarely in gaming, I would argue that the titular witch from the Bayonetta series is perhaps the strongest candidate we have for a video game gay icon. Bayonetta is a witch tasked with killing angels. She struts around the screen with the confident stride of a drag queen, exuding a powerful sexuality reminiscent of the tough women in early Russ Meyer films. More than mere eye candy, Bayonetta is a woman with her own agency. She decides her fate, no hero needs to rescue her and she uses her sexuality to taunt her enemies. This is a woman who has guns in her high heels and can summon demons from her ‘wicked weave’ hair. Needless to say, the game is high camp. Bayonetta spanks her enemies, pole dances and winks at the camera to a jazzed up version of Fly Me To the Moon. Completing the game rewards the player with a choreographed dance routine fronted by Bayonetta and a group of sexy angels. She kills the final boss by firing her lipstick into his forehead. Her one-liners alone should include her in the pantheon of strong female gay icons, “I’ve got a fever and the only cure is more dead angels.”
So where next for LGBT representation in games? Well it seems the indie game scene is throwing up experimental new experiences that could not be approached in more traditional big budget gaming. Gone Home puts the player in the role of a college student slowly finding out her sister is a lesbian through mixtapes, polaroids and heartfelt secret letters. Cobra Club by Robert Yang tasks the player with taking the perfect dick pic. Yang’s latest game Rinse and Repeat involves the player scrubbing the back of a hunky man in a communal shower. The explosion and breadth of gay experiences in gaming in recent years points to a maturing of the medium and it appears we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.
Stuart Isaac Burnside, cinematic fiend and celluloid trash junkie, is UnDividingLines’ film editor. He works for the British Film Institute.