In the blog post Could Mario be gay? dargan99 points out that popular media is largely dominated by heterosexual-identifying characters and heteronormative relationships, and speculates that Japanese game designers such as Shin Megami Tensei may hold the potential to expand the “current limited possibilities of a character’s sexual development in-game.”
To begin, I agree, popular media at large is saturated with heteronormative content and the current international videogame culture is essentially an extremely sexist boys club which objectifies women and excludes non-traditional gender identifications. With that in mind, I would argue that, while limited in number and scope, there already exist a number of games in the U.S and abroad which expand the possibilities of a character’s sexual development in-game beyond strictly heterosexual traditionally-gendered interactions.
While often overly optimistic to the point of being offensively dismissive of the dominance of heterosexual male hegemony in the gamer ethos, the article A Gay History of Gaming published on IGN.com by Kenza MacKonald does identify a large number of games which feature homosexual characters and gameplay options which are incorporated by design. Games such as Sims 3, Fable, and Skyrim allow the main character to flirt/sleep with and marry whomever you want, male or female. Sims 3 in particularly has gained some notoriety by allowing characters to take on alternative lifestyles in the game such as allowing same sex couples to adopt, get married officially (not just take part in a union), and engage sexually. Design decisions to allow non-heteronormative gamplay has predictably been met with both criticism and support. When game developer BioWare was confronted by complaints about gay characters in Dragon Age II (i.e you are not restricted to heterosexual relationships in-game and support characters hit on the main character regardless of gender) the game designer David Gaider responded “the romances in the game are not for the straight male gamer’. They’re for everyone.” Gaider went on to detail some surprisingly egalitarian ideas about how he would like romance to be incorporated into gameplay, stating “My preference is that the romances cover a range of styles and sexualities as evenly as we can, and that they have comparable levels of content, and leave it at that.” This marks an exciting glimmer of hope in greater diversity, equality, and freedom for more diverse sexual-identification and representation in mainstream videogames.
Another important aspect of sexual-identification and representation options in video games is that video game culture is not a monolithic ethos; there are distinct differences between the video game cultures of, for example japan and the U.S. Japan, like the U.S. has a thriving video game culture which features heterosexual characters and interactions, but unlike the U.S. japan also features a large genre known as H-games or graphic novels which are built around sexual themes and frequently contain both homosexual and heterosexually explicit content. The H-game genre began it the 1980s as a largely heterosexual dating sim type genre(1); today it contains a large number of subgenres which cater to a wide variety of gender/sexual appetites. For example, some “Boys’ Love” games centrally feature openly male homosexual characters and character interactions as the main driving force behind gameplay. When aimed at women these games are broadly referred to as yaoi, while when aimed at homosexual males they are referred to as bara. Japanese H-games are not a small aberrant collection of indi games but rather a very large game genre in Japan. The Japanese Boys’ Love sub-genre of H-games constitutes a large market, grossing 12 billion yen, or over 128 million dollars in 2006.(2)
It is worth noting that while both game designers such as BioWare and social media such as H-games in Japan provide examples of expanding options of sexual representation and gender identification in videogames, the factors motivating game designers to produce these games is qualitatively different. Yaoi games feature homosexual main playable characters and feature homosexual relationships in response to demands from the Japanese market for games with these options (3). In this respect these games do not consciously try to contribute to the equality of sexual/gender representation in games at large but rather are driven by a desire to produce specialized games to cater to a particular market; this is akin to the pink game phenomena. In contrast efforts by game designers such as BioWare are in spite of large amounts of negative criticism by vocal fans. At least in the case of BioWare efforts are being made to consciously expand option for sexual development and representation in-game not by making “specialized” games but rather by expanding mainstream game by increasing in-game possibilities for sexual/gender development and representation. Hopefully this “provide options for everyone” model will gain traction over the pink game model so that everyone can enjoy gameplays more equally.