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“Procedurally and Fictively Relevant”: Exploring the Potential for Queer Content in Video Games

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A Closed World, Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Gamelab, 2011

by Evan W. Lauteria

Last month, I spent an evening wandering through a mystical forest, desperately trying to move through the fog to find a clearing between the trees. I felt more and more anxious as I explored the wooded maze, haunted by the sounds the forest’s insect and avian inhabitants as I walked down the winding paths. The forest seemed to go on forever, and the perils I faced – confrontations with monstrosities more terrifying than anything I’d seen outside of the forest – continued to pull me away from a sense of safety and security I desired. The monstrosities attacked me with bigoted curses, lies and harsh statements. Though they were members of my family: I felt alone.

I had spent that evening playing Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Gamelab’s A Closed World (2011), a prototype game produced by a team of Gamelab scholars, designers and interns. My experience of the game was one that spoke to my experience as a queer person; I played through digitized representations of lived moments confronting homophobia. That is, the game is premised on rooting its fictive world and procedural gameplay mechanics on queer lived experiences. In this case, of homophobia and the struggles to maintain happy, meaningful relationships. It is also premised on the assertion that queer content is “very uncommon in games right now,” citing designers’ concerns over authenticity, relevance and institutional homophobia in gaming culture’s market base as primary reasons for the lack of content in mainstream video games (Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Gamelab, 2011). A Closed World asks, “how [do we] create digital games where queer content is both thoughtfully presented and procedurally and fictively relevant[?] Can a game be made where the sexuality of the characters has an impact on play, without it simply being a re-skinning or forced inclusion?” (Harper, 2011).

Harper’s rhetorical claim about re-skinning and forced inclusion is intriguing, to say the least, and does seem to characterize the current state of mainstream gaming culture’s approach to queer representation in video games. Designers have consistently struggled, beyond the realms of sexuality and gender, to construct authentic characters and meaningful modes of play, but when addressing the topic of queerness and LGBTQ characters, seem to default to the “safe” options of additive inclusion in sexual/romantic game mechanics (Shaw, 2009:246-7). This additive approach of optional queer content via dating/sexuality mechanics, or, the “path of least resistance” (247), is problematic given that it regulates queerness into a position of equivalent exchange with heterosexuality. That is, queerness is just a different twist on non-queer heterosexuality, and queerness becomes absorbed within the normative framework of compulsory heterosexuality, to borrow from Adrienne Rich (1980). By framing queer sexualities as “just another option,” it is a simple “re-skinning,” as Harper frames it, with no acknowledgement of difference between heterosexual and queer lives, perceived or actual. Homophobia, heterosexism and normative gender oppression are swept under the rug in this optional approach, yet we know those forces impact queer players and we know being queer has an effect on gameplay (Consalvo, 2003a; Alexander: 2007). I examine briefly three recently released mainstream games to examine this “path of least resistance” approach to inclusion, while simultaneously seeking out kernels of potential for future work in meaningful representation and inclusion. The games are The Sims III (Electronic Arts, 2009), Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment, 2010), and Dragon Age II (BioWare, 2011). I hope that in examining these games, coupled with the experimental framework of Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Gamelab’s work on A Closed World, will offer some insights into a the possibilities for future inclusion and meaningful representation in mainstream games.

Thinking About Queerness In Games

Scholars in cultural studies, the humanities and the social sciences interested in queerness in games have variably asked questions about queer players’ interactions with games (Alexander, 2007; Phillips, 2011), examined queer organizing practices in online gamespaces (Sherlock, 2011; Sundén, 2009), interrogated gender and sexuality in gameplay mechanics (Consalvo, 2003b; Rutherford, 2011), and sketched out the means by which queer genders and sexualities are represented in games (Lauteria, 2006; Shaw, 2009). Written primarily by game scholars, not game designers, most analyses are focused on player experience or offer a queer critique of content. The question of design, of “creat[ing] digital games where queer content is both thoughtfully presented and procedurally and fictively relevant” (Harper, 2011) has not yet been deeply analyzed. This question, however, already grants a framework from which to launch an analysis of queer content as a design question. Harper pulls this language of the procedural and the fictive from a particular history of video game studies that attempts to merge the expressive authorship understood through traditional media with the simulation capabilities of the video game medium. This somewhat tumultuous relationship between the procedural and fictive, often falsely characterized in a “debate that never took place” between ludologists and narratologists (see Frasca, 2003a), is perhaps best elaborated upon in Jesper Juul’s Half-Real:

[V]ideo games are real in that they are made of real rules that players actually interact with; that winning or losing a game is a real event. However, when winning a game by slaying a dragon, the dragon is not a real dragon, but a fictional one. To play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world and a video game is a set of rules as well a fictional world. (2005:1, italics mine)

Frasca also states that, “[u]nlike narrative, simulations are not just made of sequences of events, [sic] they also incorporate behavioral rules” (2003b:227, italics mine). That is, simulation includes key components of narrative, namely the sequencing of events, but also employs behavioral rules to construct its fictive world through procedural interaction. Put more simply, the procedural aspects of the game refer to the play-oriented rules and mechanics, i.e., what the player can do; and the fictive components of the game refer to the narrative and aesthetics, i.e., what the player can see and hear. These are vast oversimplifications of these two categories, but the important point is that they are never fully separable – the player indeed sees/hears fictive elements and reacts accordingly, directly linking procedural play to aesthetics. In this sense, Harper’s (2011) call for procedurally and fictively relevant queer content mandates a linkage between the real rules and the unreal fictive elements of a video game to truly seize the video game medium’s capacities to produce meaning. Queer content must traverse and simultaneously link fiction and rules.

Queer Space – The Sims III

In 2003, Mia Consalvo, with support from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLADD), conducted an extensive analysis of the underlying gender and sexuality mechanics of The Sims (Maxis, 2000). The Sims, which she describes as an “electronic dollhouse” (Consalvo, 2003b:2), is less a game and perhaps more accurately described as a digital toy or digital make-believe. Players build houses, design bedrooms and kitchens, and make their dolls (Sims) interact in imagined scenarios; find a job, host a party, cook dinner, go to the bathroom, etc. The Sims was particularly interesting because it was one of the first games to offer “queer” content. Players had the option to allow their Sims to marry, cohabitate and raise children together. There were some divisions between same-sex and different-sex couples [1], but the opportunities players had - to romance members of the same sex, to engage in homosexual “WooHoo” (The Sims’ euphemism for sexual intercourse), and adopt children to same-sex couples was an intriguing step toward queer content – if fraught with aforementioned problems of “re-skinning” sexuality and gender.


The Sims III, Electronic Arts, 2009

Now fast forward. Acknowledging the success of previous installments in The Sims franchise, Electronic Arts released The Sims III in June 2009 and sold 1.4 million copies in its first week (Remo, 2009). The Sims III now featured a continuous neighborhood world, instead of simply individual households, and Sims could now cycle through an entire lifetime, from birth to death. The mechanics, for the most part, an inch closer to “real life” than the first The Sims game, and for the first time in a Sims game, players could wed same-sex couples rather than only engage in a same-sex civil union or joint ceremony.

Still adopting this “re-skinning” of sexuality and gender – in fact, making queer relationships more reflective of their heterosexual counterparts, The Sims III’s non-marriage mechanics relating to same-sex relationships are perhaps more intriguing. According to a Sims 3 forum conversation [2], Sims will not engage in autonomous same-sex relationships on their own initially, instead requiring at least one same-sex couple to live in the neighborhood first. That is, players must take control of an individual Sim and romance another Sim of the same sex to make the neighborhood “gay-friendly,” at which point other Sims may engage in same-sex romantic interactions on their own. While uncritically represented within the gamespace of The Sims III, these notions of “gay-friendly” space and the importance of visible action toward change are not foreign to queer people, and the capacity of a game like The Sims III to graft conceptions of safe space onto procedural mechanics of play perhaps offers the potential for games to convey the social reality of safe vs. unsafe space for queer people. To render this fictively and procedurally relevant, however, would require mechanics that weigh the dangers, repercussions, and risks of “coming out” by flirting with and romancing a member of the same sex, mechanics noticeably absent from the neighborhood of The Sims III.

Queer Survival – Fallout: New Vegas

Unlike the highly procedural un/safe spaces of The Sims, representations of queer safe and unsafe space are positioned entirely in “cosmetic lines of dialogue” (Kevin Rutherford, personal communication, 2011) in the world of Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment, 2010). Instead, as Rutherford (2011) examines in his analysis of the game’s “Confirmed Bachelor”[3] perk mechanic, queer male sexuality becomes an asset in survivability and battle in the post-apocalyptic world of New Vegas. Perks, a part of the Fallout franchise’s RPG statistic and attribute system, grant the player myriad benefits while exploring New Vegas. For instance, the “Lead Belly” perk reduces the radiation effects from ingesting contaminated food and water by 50%. The “Laser Commander” perk allows the player to deal 15% extra damage from laser-based weapons.

In past editions in the series, as Rutherford (2011) states, women were at a mechanical disadvantage in the game. Treated more poorly by in-game non-player characters (NPCs) – denied quests, spoken to more harshly, etc. – players opting to play as women could attempt to balance the negative repercussions of sexism with the “Black Widow” perk, which granted an additional 10% damage to male opponents and opened additional dialogue options to solve quests, receive items, etc. In the worlds of the Fallout franchise, there are noticeably more men than women, meaning the male version of the perk, the “Lady Killer,” is also noticeably less helpful.


Arcade Gannon in Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian Entertainment, 2010 

The New Vegas installation in the series shifts the gender/sexuality dynamics a bit with the introduction of queer sexualities through the queer male perk “Confirmed Bachelor” and queer female perk “Cherchez La Femme.” Rutherford argues that the “Confirmed Bachelor” perk actually yields the greatest rewards to the player out of the four gender/sexuality perks. The queer female “Cherchez La Femme” perk suffers from the same problems as the straight male “Lady Killer” perk – there aren’t enough women in the gamespace to yield much benefit. At the same time, the “Black Widow” perk does offer the same benefits as “Confirmed Bachelor,” but at the cost of experiencing sexism in New Vegas. That is, male characters with the “Confirmed Bachelor” perk gain all of the advantages of seducing and flirting with male NPCs, yielding new quests, free items, etc. while simultaneously dodging the negative repercussions of sexism experienced by their female counterparts.

Rutherford does acknowledge the shortcomings of these mechanics, asserting that in the world of Fallout: New Vegas “sexuality is instrumental and commodified” (and therefore, arguably limited in its performative power) (2011). Indeed, these mechanics position sexuality as a “perk,” as a skill or attribute for getting ahead, operationalizing sexuality in a competitive and capitalist paradigm. What I find most interesting about these mechanics, however, are the ways they have the potential to speak to the lived experiences of queer people in “survival mode.” While operationalized in a rhetorically positive capitalistic manner in Fallout, the “Confirmed Bachelor” and “Cherchez La Femme” mechanics begin to suggest the potential of video games to represent the social lived reality of impoverished and homeless queer youth in urban centers. That is, designers could employ these mechanics to portray the ways in which some queer youth, faced with the dangers of hunger, homelessness, poverty, and police harassment, operationalize sexuality for survivability in the form of “survival sex” – the practice of seeking shelter or other life necessities like food in exchange for sexual intercourse (see Ray, 2007:55-57). If the fictive world of post-apocalyptic New Vegas were replaced with the queer social networks of contemporary New York, a mechanic like “Confirmed Bachelor” and “Cherchez La Femme” might produce a game that makes queer lives fictively and procedurally rich and meaningful to the overall gamic experience. In its current iteration, like with the compulsory heterosexuality of Sims in The Sims III, that potential has gone untapped and the linkage between the fictive and procedural remains artificial at best.

Queer Social Change – Dragon Age II

The most recently released of the three games I examine, Dragon Age II (BioWare, 2011) is also perhaps the most irritating. BioWare has a relatively good track record of queer inclusion in its games, allowing female Commander Shepherds of Mass Effect (2007) and Mass Effect II (2010) to date blue lesbian aliens, and permitting both male and female Grey Wardens in Dragon Age: Origins (2009) to date same-sex rogues. It should come as no surprise that Dragon Age II features similar options for queer romance, allowing players to date and sleep with Isabella, Anders, Fenris, and Merrill regardless of the main character’s, Hawke’s, gender. The only heterosexual dateable option, Sebastian, pledged an oath of celibacy before the start of the game’s events, rendering the only exclusively heterosexual option an asexual one.


Hawke and Anders in Dragon Age II, BioWare, 20011

But this is why I refer to Dragon Age II (BioWare, 2011) as “irritating.” Defaulting to the extreme end of the “optional” queer content spectrum, BioWare has managed to construct a highly religious, racialized, and xenophobic city of Kirkwall that is also sexually free. Despite clear gender divisions within the fictive world of Dragon Age II – only women may serve in the Chantry; despite clear religiously-motivated xenophobia – followers of the Qun are considered both barbaric and to be feared for their backwards beliefs; despite evident colonial racism – elves were enslaved and are now either forced to live in impoverished areas of town or traverse the Free Marches in nomadic tribal units; despite all of these other forms of oppression represented in the lands of Dragon Age II, heterosexism is completely absent. The fictive world of Dragon Age II, a Kirkwall designed to reflect a medieval British and/or some other ambiguously European city, does not match up with its procedural gender/sexuality elements.

My critique has simultaneous sought, as previously mentioned, a kernel of insight into how to effectively incorporate queer content that is fictively and procedurally relevant. I suggest we can find such a kernel we turn to the conflict between Mages and the Templars, which is a driving fictive, and later procedural, device in Dragon Age II. Early in the game’s narrative sequencing, we encounter Anders, central to the Mage-Templar conflict as an outspoken opponent of the Templar’s imprisonment of Mages in the Circle (which functions somewhat like a boarding school in Dragon Age: Origins, but is constructed as far more of a penitentiary in Dragon Age II). He opposes the witch-hunting practices of the Templars and blames their disciplinary policing of Mage lives for many of the problems claimed to be caused by Mages themselves. In particular, he believes that Mages only turn to demons for assistance, later becoming “abominations” that ruthlessly attack and kill nearby humans, because of the oppressive grip of Templar rule. The game’s culminating moments, marked by a dramatic boiling point in the Mage-Templar conflict that requires the player to choose a side, lead the player to either slaughter all Mages in the city of Kirkwall to maintain order or overthrow the current military/Templar state to save the lives of its Mage citizens.

It should be noted that if you romance Anders and side with the Mages, he tells you at this point in the game “[t]en years, a hundred years from now, someone like me will love someone like you, and there will be no Templars to tear them apart,” in perhaps an active nod to queer partnership on the part of the writers. Much as queer people can and do resort to alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. under the oppressive heteronormative grip of reality, Mages are forced to strike deals with demons to escape the oppressive militant state of Templar-controlled Kirkwall. Much as queer people hide in the closets of the everyday, so, too, do the Mages of Kirkwall hide from the Templars in Darktown by concealing their identities. I would like to argue that the lived experiences of Mages, and the conflict that arises between the Chantry’s Templars and Kirkwaill’s Mages, reflects the lived experiences of queer people resisting and negotiating with heteronormative institutions. This includes, of course, the Chantry’s direct metaphor of the Church, but also institutions of government, prisons, and schools. Were the conflict reframed on lines of sexuality rather than magic, I think we would see a game that places a player in the heart of oppression at its most sinister, trapped between the competing problems of queer deconstruction and appeals to the future and traditional institutions and appeals to security. What sort of choices would players make, faced with the moral dilemma of killing queer people to maintain the heteronormative state? What sort of problems for the player might arise from framing queerness as a problem to be fixed versus a queer person’s personal appeals to humanity? How might this unison of fictive and procedural elements work in representing the queer subject in a heteronormative world?

The Sims III, Fallout: New Vegas, and Dragon Age II do not do an effective job of incorporating queer content into its fictive and procedural worlds in a meaningful, authentic or relevant way. But I do think that game designers are beginning to toy with complex modes of play and interesting fictions and mechanics that can lead to meaningful and relevant queer content. While it is frustrating to see designers continue to employ an additive, “re-skinning” approach that frames sexualities and genders as interchangeable, it is also meaningful to see the new procedures for play and the vibrant fictive worlds employed in these games. With tweaking, reframing and reorienting, there is a chance for meaningful queer content in video games.


Fable III, Lionhead Studios, 2010

What is perhaps most infuriating about all of these examples, however, is the complete and utter absence of transgender lives and experiences. While Fable III (Lionhead Studios, 2010) permits cross-dressing and drag, and Persona 4 (Atlus, 2008) features a (potentially?) transgender character, video games have consistently done a terrible job representing the lives of transgender people. This is only exacerbated by poor decisions regarding transgender characters on the part of major figures large-scale game companies like Capcom’s community manager Seth Killian [4]. Games, game designers, and gaming culture are clearly still unable to grapple with the existence of transgender people and the politics of transgender lives. Even A Closed World (Singapore-MIT Gambit Gamelab, 2011) fails to properly engage the topic of transgender experiences, and it warranted a controversial but not inaccurate critique from transgender game designer Anna Anthropy:

it’s not challenging. i’m not referring to the game’s difficulty, although you can’t ever lose the game. what i’m talking about is that in a closed world, homophobia is an rpg monster that you defeat using skills like ETHICS and PASSION. it’s not a complex system of interwoven and often subtle oppressions. it’s not the reason most of the trans women i know are on food stamps. it’s a bad guy, and you kill it, and you win (Anthropy, 2011).

Upon first glance, Anthropy’s claims do not really offer a lot in the way of addressing queer content. She’s right; A Closed World does default to typical video game tropes – skills, final bosses, etc. – which might suggest that video games are not capable of representing queer content in a meaningful way. How does one represent “a complex system of interwoven and often subtle oppressions” in a video game, especially when we are far more familiar with the big bad guy like Ganondorf or Bowser?

I am not sure I have offered a perfect answer, but the insertion of queer lived experiences into a game’s procedural and fictive world, through the experience of safe/unsafe space, of surviving, of working toward social change, is a good starting place. A Closed World does that, but on a limited scale. We should note, of course, that this is somewhat intentional. As a prototype, A Closed World attempts to grapple with the question of fictive and procedurally relevant queer content in practice, in ways not effectively done elsewhere. The additive, optional approach is insufficient; good games require hard work. As companies like Electronic Arts, Obsidian Entertainment, and BioWare continue to push forward in including queer content, I challenge them to find ways of making queer content meaningful, thoughtful, and relevant by referring to A Closed World, taking Anna Anthropy’s critique seriously, and employing the suggestions outlined in this paper in actual practice.


Notes:

[1] “Only opposite-sex relationships qualify for a proposal of marriage” – The Sims instruction manual, page 57.

[2] “Why is my town Gay?!?!?” Accessed on November 29, 2011.

[3] “Confirmed Bachelor” was a common euphemism to describe homosexual males in the mid-20th century in theUnited States.

[4] In a tweet this past summer, Seth Killian (@SethKillian) said “Poison gender to be decided by fans voting = Ultimate user generated content” suggesting that fans will be granted the opportunity to vote on Poison’s gender. Poison, who originally appeared in the arcade version of Final Fight in 1989, was removed from the game’s 1991 port to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System when it was made clear to Capcom USA and Nintendo of America that she was transgender (identified as a ニューハーフ or “New-Half,” a common term for male-to-female transgender people in Japan, in the game’s instruction manual on page 25).

Games Cited:

Atlus. (2008). Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4.USA:Atlus,USA.

BioWare. (2007). Mass Effect.USA: Electronic Arts.

BioWare. (2009). Dragon Age: Origins. USA: Electronic Arts.

BioWare. (2010). Mass Effect.USA: Electronic Arts.

BioWare. (2011). Dragon Age II.USA: Electronic Arts.

Electronic Arts. (2009). The Sims III.USA: Electronic Arts.

Lionhead Studios. (2010). Fable III.USA: Microsoft Game Studios.

Maxis. (2000). The Sims.USA: Electronic Arts.

Obsidian Entertainment. (2010). Fallout: New Vegas.USA:Bethesda Softworks.

Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Gamelab. (2011). A Closed World. [Online Game], Boston, MA: Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Gamelab. Accessed online at http://gambit.mit.edu/loadgame/aclosedworld.php

References:

Anthropy, A. (2011). “a closed mind.” AuntiePixelante.com, October 5. Accessed online at http://www.auntiepixelante.com/?p=1276

Alexander, J. (2007). “ ‘A Real Effect on the Gameplay’: Computer Gaming, Sexuality, and Literacy.” Pp. 167-202 in Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century.New York,NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Consalvo, M. (2003a). “Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances: Studying Sexuality in Video Games.” Pp. 171-94 in The Video Game Theory Reader, edited by M.P. Wolf & B. Perron.New York,NY: Routledge.

Consalvo, M. (2003b). “It’s a Queer World After All: Studying The Sims and Sexuality.” GLAAD Center for the Study of Media & Society. Accessed online at http://archive.glaad.org/documents/csms/The_Sims.pdf

Frasca, G. (2003a). “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes From a Debate That Never Took Place.”  DiGRA Digital Games Research Conference 2003 Proceedings.

Frasca, G. (2003b). “Simulation vs. Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” Pp. 221-36 in The Video Game Theory Reader, edited by M.P. Wolf & B. Perron. New York, NY: Routledge.

Harper, T. (2011). “Gay-for-Play: Addressing the Challenge of Relevant Gay Game Content.” Paper presented at the 12th annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers, October 13, Seattle, WA.

Juul, J. (2005). Half-Real.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lauteria, E.W. (2006). “Sexuality and Sexual Orientation in Console and Computer Games.” Paper presented at the 2nd Annual UF Game Studies Conference, April 1,Gainesville,FL.

Phillips, A. (2011). “ ‘Welcome to MY Fantasy Zone’: Porn, Feminism, and Bayonetta.” Paper presented at the 2011 Joint Conference of the National Popular Culture & American Culture Association and the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture & American Culture Association, April 22,San Antonio,TX.

Ray, N. (2007). “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness.” The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. Accessed online at http://thetaskforce.org/reports_and_research/homeless_youth

Remo, C. (2009). “The Sims 3 Sells 1.4 Million Units In First Week.” Gamasutra, June 9. Accessed online at http://gamasutra.com/news?story=23980

Rich, A. (1980). “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience.” Signs 5(4):631-60.

Rutherford, K. (2011). “Fan Community Negotiations of Homosexuality in Fallout: New Vegas.” Paper presented at the 12th annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers, October 13,Seattle,WA.

Shaw, A. (2009). “Putting the Gay in Games: Cultural Production and GLBT Content in Video Games.” Games and Culture 4(3):228-53.

Sherlock, L. (2011). “What Happens in Goldshire Stays in Goldshire: Rhetorics of Queer Sexualities, Governance, and Fandom in World of Warcraft.” Paper presented at the 12th annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers, October 13,Seattle,WA.

Sundén, J. (2009). “Play as Transgression: An Ethnographic Approach to Queer Game Cultures.” Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice, and Theory – Proceedings of DiGRA 2009.

About the Author:

Evan W. Lauteria is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education at Syracuse University, where he teaches a course on schools and popular media. His research interests include critical analyses of video game mechanics, with particular attention to sexuality, gender identity, and colonialism. His current work focuses on modding practices of queer gamers as a means of resisting informatic control, and he has a forthcoming article in Reconstruction; on examining queer modding within the framework of McKenzie Wark’s (2007) Gamer Theory.