The Growing Role of Sex and the “Queer” in Gaming
Some weeks back, I participated in a brief discussion on a forum that I’ve been a part of for quite a long time. This discussion revolved around the role of sex in games, specifically the role of homosexual content in gaming. The forum is a Christian site dedicated to games. I’m not really a driving force behind the site anymore; I was, at one point, and the evidence can be seen in this Kotaku article. That wasn’t so long ago. Months have gone by, and perspectives have changed, and I’m no longer as much a part of the site now as I was then, though I will never deny the influence that I’ve taken from there as I’ve grown as a writer.
That said, the focus of the thread in question was a response to an IGN article, discussing the history of sex in gaming. In the tradition of every IGN article ever, it was poorly written, but raised some pretty good points. (On another note, would it be too much to ask for IGN to hire a decent editing staff, or to at least proofread their content? That’d be great…) It was, ultimately, a justification for the place of sex in gaming, and my goal here is not to justify. In fact, I want to explain: Why do we need sex in games? Why do we need characters with defined sexual orientations? I’m not gay; why would I care if a game presented a character as gay or straight?
The easy answer is that art reflects life. Easy answers aren’t what discourse deals in, and it’s not how understanding is reached. The “easy answer” would assume that games are art (which is a pretty big assumption to make, given some of my past thoughts on the concept), but it would also equate gaming with film and literature. Is that incorrect?
I would cite bisexual poet/novelist Mishima, who said: “I do not mean to say that I viewed those desires of mine that deviated from accepted standards as normal and orthodox; nor do I mean that I labored under the mistaken impression that my friends possessed the same desires. Surprisingly enough, I was so engrossed in tales of romance that I devoted all my elegant dreams to thoughts of love between man and maid, and to marriage, exactly as though I were a young girl who knew nothing of the world. I tossed my love for Omi onto the rubbish heap of neglected riddles, never once searching deeply for its meaning. Now when I write the word love, when I write affection, my meaning is totally different from my understanding of the words at that time. I never even dreamed that such desires as I had felt toward Omi might have a significant connection with the realities of my ‘life.’“
Yet, I feel that would give games too much of an out. I look to Dragon Age, The Witcher, Mass Effect and any major story-driven title of the last ten-odd years that has featured sex, and I see nothing to support the placement of the act in gaming. Characterizations falter. Sexual tension is rarely handled delicately (though to be fair, a few games have done this well: the Uncharted series especially has balanced naturalistic characterization with subtle sexual tension to build the drama), and where it appears it is mostly done in a heavy-handed fashion. This doesn’t help the cause; it only supports the idea that the act is placed in games to amuse and titillate.
The Witcher 2
Most of this never borders on pornography; some of it, notably the scenes in the God of War games (and one cutscene at the beginning of God of War II, in an attempt for realism, gives a peek at a woman’s perineum as she lays nude in bed next to a reclining Kratos) does. And that is, for what it is, essentially okay. I’m not a prude, and I’m certainly not against sexual expressions in media, be they pornographic or not. Yet it seems to me to sell a game short, specifically a game such as God of War. There the violence and sex drench the scenery, but the philosophical themes and story outweigh both in their depiction of rebellion against the gods and familicide-inducing internal hate. That’s dark subject matter, and those that dismiss the series for its outward appearance are missing one of the deepest examinations of human character that has yet come to light in the game industry.
The same cannot be said of something like Bioware’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect franchises, where characterizations rarely evolve naturally (and thus, neither does the sex, which more or less results in, “Oh, we’re doing this now?” situations after much clumsy smooth-talking rife with bad double entendres). Granted, I’m not a writer who works in the game industry. My fiction is very internally-focused and deals with intense emotions and the horror of revelations. This is not conducive to creating an engaging game, or at least one that would capture gamers. Yet the dialogue that I find in games time and again makes me embarrassed for the author. Even a game such as Dragon Age II, one of the best-written games of 2011 (I don’t care what anyone says, I loved it and the experimentation), had some extremely clumsy lines. This is okay. This is acceptable. This is expected. It’s a game, and we don’t hold it to a higher standard.
That lack of expectation doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be an expectation. It isn’t indicative of anything at all, honestly, except that the industry isn’t mature enough to see sex as anything beyond a pedantic act of pleasure. That can change, and it should change.
New attempts at apropos narrative directions have pushed fledgling titles beyond the comfort zone. For every borderline trashy showing, we have a tenuous romantic development, as seen in Enslaved and Heavy Rain. Ironically, Heavy Rain also featured exploitative titillation as one of the selling points of the game. Sole female lead Madison Paige appeared semi-nude in the pages of Playboy’s “gaming” themed issue, as well as in an early shower sequence focusing perhaps too much on her body, in a display unbefitting what was supposed to be a smart, strong woman in gaming, attractive because of that and her beauty, and not just her body. It’s disturbing, because for every well-done interaction, every exquisitely written slow burn relationship, we have something that pushes everything backwards, from the very un-ironic use of Playboy as collectibles in 2009′s Mafia 2, to Kratos demonstrating his prowess before two Grecian hussies in wanton repose.
At the same time that the industry is attempting to mature beyond its historic limitations, there’s a consistent attempt at inclusion and maturation by the inclusion of homosexual characters in the games that we play.
We have the frankly brilliant characters of Brucie and Florian in Grand Theft Auto 4 and Persona 4′s Kanji struggling with himself and his sexuality, culminating in the reveal of his Persona. These games grapple with these themes, and don’t shy away from them. The characters aren’t described or depicted as “freaks,” as in the case of Resident Evil Code: Veronica’s antagonist; they aren’t presented as anything but normal if excessively flamboyant.
Kanji Tetsumi, from Persona 4
This isn’t a new thing in gaming; if anything, it’s an established trope that has long been established in Japan (early examples – and I know I’m leaving stuff out here, but for the sake of space, let’s just go with it – include transgender characters in Super Mario Bros. 2 and Chrono Trigger; or, the Western-developed Fallout 2, which has the first same-sex marriage in a game; and the duology of the Persona 2 games, with a homosexual character named Jun) and in Western games, though hardly handled to the extent it has been in the East.
My mind here is drawn to the gay characters that have impacted me throughout fiction: the Judge in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; Sal Romano, played with a distinct deftness by Bryan Batt in AMC’s Mad Men. Let’s ignore the tired flamboyance of the characters of old. Quickly – faster than the mature inclusion of sex in games – homosexuality is being presented as an accepted facet of character, not as a reason or excuse to mock someone different. I would love desperately to see a mature depiction of a healthy adult relationship in a game; I would also love to see writers act like they know how basic human interaction works on a level past what they’ve seen in other media. Writing dialogue is hard. I get it. Allowing your characters room to breathe and grow is even more difficult, especially when you have no more control than what is given you by someone not working on the script. We need more creators willing to experiment, like Michel Ancel and Hideo Kojima and Peter Molyneaux and David Jaffe, and even Denis Dyack. These men have created flawed games, but also masterworks, striving to push the medium forward. This includes sex. This includes the depiction of the queer in gaming.
Am I advocating a push towards the use of queer theory in games? Maybe. I was always more of a deconstructionist when it came to a given literary piece, preferring to piece together meaning from the ramshackle pieces of the whole independent of the intent of the creator. What I mean is more that sexual identity is something that a person is inextricably linked to: we are sexual beings, and sex occupies much of our time. In an attempt to isolate the depiction of sex from the art that we make – the books that we read, the movies we watch, even the games that we play – we remove a vital facet of character, and thus remove ourselves. If disrupting the Puritanical nature of American society, so terrified of death and sex that we can hardly breathe, is what it takes, then so be it.