Practical advice about queer characters in games
How can you be more inclusive in your game making, especially when it comes to LGBT issues? Samantha Allen, a games writer who often focuses on inclusivity and queer issues, hosted a panel at GDC offering thoughts and advice for game developers.
Critic, lecturer, activist and "cyborg witch" Mattie Brice says there are challenges to developing games that are diverse but not tokenistic ('We haven't had a lesbian in here, so let's drop her in there,' she jokes).
She believes a lot of developers approach her asking for some kind of list or prescription for how to "put the queers in," but imagining individuals in an essentialist way is not especially constructive. The definition of "queerness" is constantly evolving, and it's difficult to create characters whose identity comes across without making caricatures.
But one approach that helps is working in unreality, says Brice, who likes to cite the work of Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler for the ways the manage to fold social issues into science fiction work in ways that don't feel "lesson"-y.
"It is work, and you actually have to put in the work," says MIT researcher and eSports expert Todd Harper. "You have to want to do it, and if you don't want to do it, maybe you should go."
"Like it or not, games are culture and whether you're in QA, music or marketing, you're making culture," Harper adds. "Culture is how we understand each other. So if you understand you're making a cultural product, we understand that we're worried about what matters to other people all of our life."
"Privilege is the ability to say 'it doesn't matter,' he says. "'I don't feel like I need this?' of course you don't, if you're a cisgender, male, white heterosexual. But the rest of us kind of do. Empathy is the ability to see what matters to other people, it's the ability to see what matters to someone who isn't you."
"Empathy is a muscle, and you have to flex it over and over," he continues. "Empathy is the muscle we use to lift everybody up," he says. "If you don't care, find something else to do, where the desire to not care doesn't hurt anyone. Protip: No such space exists."
His one tip is to make something, question all of your decisions, and then try inverting them. "Instead of making a game that's like "yo, I'm going to sword you in the face" let them hug it out," Harper suggests. "Or dance it out." There is no real cost to trying something new -- something that means little to you can mean lots to someone else.
Allen, who writes at the Border House and other outlets, also has a piece of practical advice: "Don't use tokenism as an excuse for total exclusion," she advises. "I often hear 'oh we didn't include a female or queer character because we didn't want to tokenize them.'"
She recently played a game that effectively included a "heterosexuality check": it was an iOS dating sim that let her flirt with a woman friend, but didn't let her pursue a real romance with her. She was not able to advance the game or conclude any relationship arcs at all because she didn't choose to have her character flirt with any one man.
When she asked the developer about it, she found out they were afraid to actually develop a lesbian romance option because their one lesbian friend was worried about creating a 'token.'
"When people are thinking about tokenism, they're only thinking about the character within the economy of their own game,"Allen says. People who worry it might be weird or offensive to have only one minority character in their game have lost perspective on the idea that they're contributing to a community of other games and other characters, she suggests.
In the development of Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn initially left the gender of the main character's partner ambiguous at first, but then realized something personal: "I was taking a lot from my own experience with a couple of women I had loved," she says.
"So I decided, at a late stage of that game, to let that character be a woman, and to write her a little bit more personally. And as soon as I did that, the writing for all of the romance things got much better. A lot of people assume that in Depression Quest you're playing as a straight white man... if you don't explicitly state their frame of identity, people often assume straight white male. Even if you leave it blank, people fill it in in their head."
It was hard for her to her to hear from players who couldn't imagine having a woman as a love interest if they weren't a man: "They're basically saying that my identity is not relatable," she says. But it was still important to her to express her own experience. Now, she's making a satirical comedy dating sim where she's trying to present a possibility space, and where it's been an interesting challenge to make a game about love and sex without giving anyone a gender.
Eventually Quinn decided to make it so the player is given a possibility space with set genders, and they're allowed to interact with them however they like -- her own approach to love doesn't have to do with gender, so she built an environment where other players could also have that experience.
"I know at that point I'm not actually making 'queer characters' in a lot of ways... it's kind of a tricky thing to apply practically, but at the end of the day you have to trust yourself and your voice, and do a lot of talking to other people," she suggests. "That's the best thing you can do: Talk to other people. Don't just have your 'one lesbian friend' that you base everything off of. Consider what your systems are saying about gender and sexuality, consider what the player is actually going to be doing, and then talk to people, and then talk to people."
Allen has a striking concern: That all the focus on customization options as a solution to inclusivity issues will limit further development of queer characters. "Folks are starting to see character customization as a panacea for inclusion," she says. "It's like, 'If we put some sliders in there, anyone can play it and feel like themselves.'"
She felt that EA's recent Full Spectrum event, where the publisher committed to focus on inclusion, was a positive step for the company but also saw a concerning divide appearing: "'For the bros, we make Battlefield, and for everyone else you can play Dragon Age!'" she laughs.
"I want to see a gay character in Battlefield 5. I want to see authored, intentional queer and women protagonists and supporting characters. So I worry that [while] a character customizer can be very powerful... I don't think we should stop there, with 'as long as we make a character customizer we never need to put queer characters in any games.'"
Christine Love's first game, Digital: A Love Story contains a gender-ambiguous protagonist that interacts romantically with a woman. She didn't emphasize the possibility of queerness, but to her, "if any queer women saw themselves in it, that was enough."
"It's okay to make experiences that possibly some people perceive one way, but possibly other people who are never represented at all will see themselves in it," she believes. Her game Analog: A Hate Story, which focused on storytelling and relationships, "does ask the player's gender, and then the character proceeds to ignore what you said about your gender," Love says. "It's only asking you so that you can [see that] gender is relevant. The player could see that 'I could have selected I'm a woman, and still have this romance.'"
The player's gender doesn't matter to some characters in her games, and matters deeply to others, depending on their backgrounds in the narrative."I did feel it was important that players get both experiences," says Love. "So I put in an achievement: If you go through a route as a man you get half the achievement, and if you go through as a woman you get the other half. And as a result, half the people who played the game did both."
"These things are there: You can draw attention to it, but I don't know if it's the biggest of deals if someone doesn't realize, just so long as it is accessible to other people," she says. "The other thing I learned here is that -- and this ties into worrying about whether you're making token characters -- Whether or not someone's queerness is important to them and what it means to them is on a very wide spectrum."
By drawing attention to the queerness of of her games she can counteract expectations of her game that may arise based on the fact that they're all about interacting with cute girls. The gender ratio of her most committed players is actually pretty even, she's learned.
"I think that shows that no matter how your game is perceived, even if people think it might just be for straight people, you can clearly have such a strong impact on people just by being inclusive."
Words like "queer" and acronyms like LGBTQ ("and all the letters we keep tacking on!") can be problematic in and of itself, since identity is a broad spectrum that a lot of people value in different ways. And androgyny is not a "blank slate" -- plenty of nonbinary people are likely to feel stung by the idea that character is determined by choosing gender.
"There's no way to capture a universal queer experience," warns Harper. But listening, talking, asking questions and focusing on empathy matters.
"If you accidentally hurt someone, that's fine, but you have to use that experience to learn and change your behavior," he says. "The listening part is especially important once you've really screwed it up, because that's the only way you learn to not do it again."
"Once that's done," adds Love, "in your own space, in your own way... you should absolutely explore what's important to you. Even if it's coming from a place of privilege it is still valid to explore those, and you should not be afraid to do it."