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On the Maturation of Queer Representation: Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim

Jason Beck
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Alexandria
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love giving big companies my money

Having tackled a three-part series on social privilege (which you can find here, here, and here), I would like to turn to a (potentially?) less controversial subject and discuss how queer representation in video games has, of late, matured. Specifically, I would like to discuss the games Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim. ME3 and Skyrim are both good games that received widespread critical acclaim and sold a crap-ton of copies, so their presentation of queer themes in the game-world is—to my mind—important. I am also (in the interest of full disclosure) something of a Bioware fanboy, and you can find my discussion of queers in Dragon Age II here, as well as a more emotional reading of DA2 here.

Heterosexuality is everywhere. This is a point I’ve made before, but it’s worth re-iterating here. Of course, heterosexuals comprise the vast majority of the population, so this isn’t particularly surprising, but the point is less, “Hey, here’s an obvious thing!”, and more, “The widespread prevalence of heterosexuality in our culture means that queer representations are, comparatively, dramatically less widespread.” At some point, it’s nice for queers to be able to “connect” to things: to movies, to books, to comics, to video games, to whatever.

That is, how many movies do I have to watch where the guy gets the girl, the prince rescues the princess, and so on (to say nothing, of course, of the omnipresent, patriarchal gender roles on display) before I get to watch/read/consume/see/hear something I can actually relate to (because, sorry, I’ve got no real desire to rescue any princesses and get hitched).

And, although things are getting better, the inclusion of (for example) a “token gay” in a movie/tv show/book/video game/whatever is not a mature representation. So the request isn’t so much, “Hey, can you throw a gay or two into [media form]?”, it’s more, “Hey, can you provide a more accurate reflection of the world- i.e. can you include characters to and with whom I can relate because they’re more than one-dimensional?”

If we set aside arguments that game makers/filmmakers/writers/musicians ought to do this (because queers are people too, because ignoring our existence makes your world-building less realistic, whatever), we can set our sights upon the more positive and pro-active action of financially supporting companies that make good choices when it comes to the integration of queer storylines into their products. That is- why not put our money where our proverbial mouths are?

Aside from this, however, it’s worthwhile to discuss how queer storylines have matured and improved, and celebrate the good story-telling choices being made by companies like Bethesda and Bioware.

I’ve chosen Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim as points of discussion partially for the reasons listed above (popular games with widespread market penetration), partially because I’ve played them and can speak to them directly, but also because they both tackle a subject (those damn, troublesome gays!) in ways that are simultaneously different and effective.

Skyrim’s tackling of in-game relationships (and, therefore, of non-hetero sexuality) is, in many ways, very muted. Although Skyrim is an RPG, your character does not engage with other people in the game-world in the same way that your character in Mass Effect 3 does. The world is quieter, really, and if you end up with an adventuring companion, they’re not going to have a whole lot to say. Massively in-depth character development isn’t necessarily the point of Skyrim, though, so it is probably not surprising that in-game romance is not front-and-center. In fact, to get married in game requires some work (to actually unlock the marriage option requires going rather out of your way in many respects) and, though marriage brings actual, mechanical benefits to your character, it is by no means necessary, celebrated, or otherwise overly-encouraged.

In fact, in Skyrim (and this is explained, in-game, thematically), you pretty much unlock the marriage option, then pick someone you’re interested in, and get hitched. This might not sound like the “mature” storyline that I was mentioned above, but the maturity here is not in evidence in the actual marriage structure in the story (which you could probably- and fairly reasonably- argue is a little lackluster), but rather in the options open to the player. That is, my character (a dude) could propose marriage and get hitched to a dude without any discussion of its strangeness, without having to jump through extra hoops, without getting treated any differently by anything at all.

This is the correct way to approach queer inclusivity: by treating it as normal (because, for us, it is- as normal as your heterosexuality is to you); by not treating it like something outlandish, freakish, bizarre; by not calling attention to it.

You may (perhaps) argue (reasonably?) that the inclusion of queer-ness in games is just a stunt being pulled by companies for publicity, but I don’t think this argument holds water when games like Skyrim are encountered. Was there a lot of controversy over the in-game marriage equality? Well, there might have been, but I didn’t hear anything about it, frankly. There definitely was over Mass Effect 3, but their approach to story-telling is very different from Skyrim’s, so queer-ness was much more “in your face” than it is in Skyrim (where you essentially have to seek it out). In some sense, it seems almost overly-cynical to assert that this is just a business stunt, and, having read articles/tweets/forum posts/whatever from writers (at places like Bioware, and so on), I’m not convinced this cynicism is warranted.

If we can shift to Mass Effect 3, what we see is a game that accomplishes the same thing as Skyrim (presenting the homos without fanfare, without ridicule) in a different (but still mature) fashion. The emphasis in ME3 is very different, in many respects, than in Skyrim: character development is front-and-center, romances are fleshed out, there are extensive dialogue trees to engage in with a panoply of NPCs, and so on. Bioware has made real progress in its extension of characterization to queerness, with same-sex romance options being offered in Dragon Age: Origins, then back-tracking in Mass Effect 2 (with female-female romance as an option, but male-male excluded), then forward again in Dragon Age 2 (with options for male-female, male-male, female-female).

The lack of spectacle is my point, if we want to distill it down as far as possible. One of the characters in ME3 will (if you engage with him in dialogue) disclose backstory about his husband, and this is presented nonchalantly, as normal/typical/just-fine-and-dandy. Additionally, there is queerness woven into the background of the setting, too. NPCs will argue, discuss, fight, talk with each other as your character walks by, and you may (if you want) stop to listen. And so, I did a double-take when some random NPC was talking to another about her wife (because the integration was seamless, because attention wasn’t called to it, because no one was jumping up and down and saying, Look how inclusive we are!).

The inclusion of queer NPCs is a step forward, just as surely as the inclusion of queer romance options is. It’s an acknowledgment, in many ways, of our existence; it’s a way of saying, “This game-world is diverse, and so is ours”. Things are not perfect, and in some sense there’s almost a contradiction in what I am presenting here: I am celebrating the lack of celebration of queers in games. At some point, hopefully, this will be unnecessary. At some point, it won’t bother anyone that there are queer representations in game-worlds, but until that point, it seems worthwhile to say, “Yes, more of this, please, game companies,” and, “Thank you for including us in ways that we can appreciate”.
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