Quiet Queers: LGBTQIA+ Invisibility in Games

The phenomenon of "quiet queers", who are conveniently silent on all matters of their gender or sexual identity, and how this can be a difficult problem especially for an LGBTQIA audience.

Originally posted 7 October 2014 @ GayGamer.net.

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Introduction

There is a problem in videogames of LGBTQIA+ characters whose queerness is silent.

This isn’t to say that all LGBTQIA+ characters whose gender or sexual identity is only mentioned in-passing are inherently bad, or are examples of bad writing; sometimes, the most interesting, effective and emotionally-engaging way to state something about a character is to understate it.

The problem is that “invisible queerness” – queerness that is effectively absent in a text except for authors stating it outside of the text (e.g., Dumbledore in Harry Potter), single lines ad-libbed at the end of the text as an afterthought (e.g., Gobber in How To Your Train Your Dragon 2), or going utterly unspoken but hinted at through vague allusions, nudge-wink stereotypes and plausibly-deniable overtones (e.g, most queer characters during the first and second millenium CE).

So long as their queerness isn’t intrusive, or doesn’t require players to talk or think about queerness in any but the most basic terms, they’re lauded as being exemplars of the entire LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

(As an aside: this isn’t exclusive to LGBTQIA+ characters, either; consider that every erstwhile internet-troll’s list of “Good Examples of Females In Games” usually includes a woman who goes unseen and unheard throughout the entire game except through taking advantage of interdimensional space-warping physics, and another woman who is reduced to a single instance almost thirty years ago of having been mistaken for a man until she removed her armor (and who now seems to have been set down the well-travelled torrid torrent of inappropriately-sexualised female characters).

Speaking Up and Talking About Change

When talking about making any change in the games industry such as better representation or more inclusive work practices, the conversation often turns to the fact that games are a business and as such, need to make money in order to survive; this idea is used to make otherwise dubious choices more palatable. “It’s not really homophobic if the main character isn’t a lesbian,” we’re told, “it’s just that developers want their games to make money.”

However, this is an overly-simplistic understanding of how games – or any product, really – are made and sold.

Yes, games are informed and shaped by decisions on what’s best for business, but that doesn’t mean that every single one of the decisions made about a game undergoes extensive scientifically-rigorous analysis and evaluation procedures; more often than not, it’s just Some Guy making a judgment call, often based on common sense or conventional wisdom. Where we run into problems is the fact that our common sense and conventional wisdom can also include ideas, beliefs, and preconceptions that run the gamut from common nonsense to unconventional stupidity such as racism, misogyny, transphobia and the like.

Similarly, the pursuit of profit is not a universally-valid justification for problematic business practices. Ethical responsibility and accountability aren’t fashionable social-justice-buzzwords, they’re very real concepts that inform how we think about profit, labour and work, and when these concepts are ignored, people – particularly marginalised people – are threatened with or subject to harm.

So, while it’s understandable that game developers make these choices, that doesn’t make those choices necessarily reasonable or justifiable.

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Bioware is the go-to example when showing that business practices can include queer people and still be profitable, and the worlds of Dragon Age and Mass Effect in particular are held up as being practical demonstration that ~the gays are totally equal now, right?~

In fairness, Bioware have been pioneers in the AAA industry for putting same-sex relationships and LGBT characters slightly left of front-and-center for a while now. But that’s not to say the worlds of Dragon Age or Mass Effect are the paragons of integrating queerness.

First of all, we need only consider that the only transgender characters in the Dragon Age series thus far are a sex worker in a brothel whose name tag is “’Female’ Dwarf”, a sex worker named Serendipity (who was actually envisioned by the team as “more of a drag queen”), and a woman who appears in the Dragon Age novels who is described with the biologically-essentialist phrasing “fully female with the exception of her biology”. Although this doesn’t negate the interesting, encouraging and positive portrayals of other LGB+ characters elsewhere in the series – and may actually be improved with the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition – it does complicate the idea that the way LGBTQ+ people are represented in Bioware games is inherently or categorically progressive when it falls prey to the same cissexist and transphobic tropes that real-world activism often does – LGB, with a silent “T”.

(To further complicate the issue, the folks at Bioware demonstrably listen and engage when LGBTQ+ people talk about these topics when other companies often stay silent; Check out these three posts between Bioware’s David Gaider and game developer Amy Dentata).

Secondly, queerness goes beyond the gender of two folk who’re involved sexually and/or romantically: as much as it might be tempting to assume that anything depicting men shagging each other is suddenly unequivocally inclusive towards queer people (or even just gay men), this is not the case. One element of queerness cannot be introduced into a fundamentally heterocentric system to make it all-inclusive, because heterocentricity only exists when queerness is ignored, suppressed, and marginalised in ways that make even saying “maybe we should think about queer people for a second” can easily be dismissed as outrageous, unneccesary, tangential, divisive, and – if it was said by a queer person — self-centered.

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Let’s take an example. In many ways, it’s not enough to say that the state of Skyrim is egalitarian and equal. Sure, it maybe does better than most in that you can have same-sex marriages, but if queerness as a concept was not only tolerated but accepted and embraced in Skyrim, why is the rest of the world largely unchanged?

For example, why are there no same-sex couples ruling as monarchs? Where is the High Queen and her female consort, or ancient legends of the Three Kings of Skyrim who were married to one another? Obviously, much of how monarchy works is tied up with primogeniture, succession and being able to provide children – but again, these are heterocentric principles in and of themselves, so, if Skyrim (or Thedas, or any fantasy world in games we could name) actually values non-heterosexual people as much as it does heterosexuality, why would people not have looked at primogeniture and biological succession as being outdated and exclusionary? And even if that’s somehow too radical to be introduced, or if that’s an intentional choice to show how backwards the society is, why do we not see more worldbuilders considering and addressing this within the game text, through political movements in-game centering queerness, LGBTQ+ characters – or whatever names for gender and sexual identities might exist in the world — talking about how they’re excluded based on their gender or sexual identity?

Queers Acting Up

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When it comes to actually ambiguous queerness by making queerness visible and significant, many people are frightened to consider what a visibly queer character would look like; and it’s understandable, as queer folk have been subject to seeing loud, over-the-top and cringe-inducing stereotypes for centuries.

I’d argue that queer characters that are loud and over-the-top – that is, undeniably, vocally and visibly queer – shouldn’t go away, because many queer folk ARE loud and “over-the-top”, depending on how you define either of those concepts. Aggressive and unequivocally queer characters are subcultural touchstones for many LGBTQ+ people: they only become a problem when they are taken to represent all queer people at once, which means any other image of queer people – such as hard-femme bears, stealth trans family men, Two-Spirit poet-activists, bisexual working-class women or polyamorous non-binary artists – are made forcibly absent and erased, with the implication that they are not prevalent enough, not well-known enough, not noteworthy enough to be included.

But you have to consider – what counts as “loud” or “over-the-top”? Where do we draw the line between someone when they’re being authentically themselves (as much as anyone can considering our behaviour is constantly modified by society, who we spend time with, etc), and when they’re being “too queer”? How many times are they allowed to mention their sexuality in relevant contexts before they’re being “too in-your-face about it”? What counts as “relevant contexts”, and who gets to decide this? A lot of the time, it’s straight people – and, because of how our societies are built around thinking of straight people first and queer people second, a lot of LGBTQ people pick this up and replicate it to better fit in with (or to avoid being ostracised by) a society that hates them. After all, if you can say that you’re not like those loud, angry queers, you’ll be offered a modicum of protection that you might not have got otherwise – all you have to do is distance yourself from marginalised people and hope that someone else doesn’t come along with opinions and behaviour that’s even more inoffensive to a heterocentric society than you.

Visible and Vocal

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Yes, queerness doesn’t have to be put front and center to be discussed, examined, enjoyed and valued, but to be honest, it’d be nice for people to act like we were important for even the slightest moment.

The fact is, in a world that is institutionally against your existence unless you conform to narrow preconceptions of your gender and sexual identity, mediated by your race, class and other intersecting axes of life experience, it is important for said LGBTQIA+ people to be able to openly discuss their gender and sexuality, to embrace the behaviour, lifestyle and culture that comes with it, and to wear it as part of an integral part of their identity: an identity formed partially because heteronormative society attempts to marginalise them because of it.

To that end, there categorically needs to be more visibly queer characters in games. More storylines unapologetically and sympathetically centered around queerness as important, significant and meaningful. More discussion within games about not only intra-LGBTQIA+ issues, but about challenging heterocentricity and heteronormativity.

And definitely less people challenging us for daring to feel like these games, these characters, these stories and these conversations are important to us.

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