If Mario lived in Skyrim or a Japanese H-game he could be gay: some current options for representations of sexual identity in videogames

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.

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3 Responses to If Mario lived in Skyrim or a Japanese H-game he could be gay: some current options for representations of sexual identity in videogames

  1. anelso11 says:

    Response blog post #2 (@ glovinge)

    I found your blog to be immensely interesting, particularly on the topic of variation in the perception of sexual identity across cultural boundaries. There are some who forget that the Western (or even the American) dominant point of view with respect to sexual-identification is not the only one out there. Other cultures have alternative ways of perceiving and experimenting with sexual identity that would otherwise be considered societally unacceptable or even unthinkable in our culture. It makes you wonder about the video games that are developed abroad by cultures possessing these alternative perceptions and that become immensely popular in the United States. Is the reason why they become popular due to the fact that they conform to our current heteronormative standards and expectations? Do foreign developers purposely leave out these alternative perspectives while creating a game in order to attend to the expected demographic of heterosexual, white males? If developers were to bring in these different forms of sexual identification into mainstream gaming, there could be a wide and diverse range of responses from rejection to acceptance to indifference.

    Another subject you touch on is the unequal representation of sexual identity and experimentation in games on the whole. This can relate to the differences between video games that actually contribute to sexual or gender equality and those that use this concept as an excuse to over-sexualize game content. The comment by the game designer of Dragon Age II, David Gaider, is a great example of the former. Rather than succumb to the complaints of players (likely heterosexual males) about the romance options and interactions in the game, he confronts them and defends his perspective with an egalitarian point of view. The other games that you have listed, such as Sims 3 and Skyrim, also introduce alternative representations of sexual and gender identification that is much needed. These perspectives are often in the form of either subtle interactions or side components of the game, and involve very little over-sexualization of the characters. The same cannot be said of games such as Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. While the game introduces some forms of homosexuality (primarily lesbian romance), it is dramatically over-sexualized and caters more to the fantasies of the heterosexual male player. The romantic interactions in these games tend to be a more intimate part of the plot or character interactions and are not the least bit subtle. Of course, there is variation in the degree of homosexuality portrayed and the subtlety of these interactions between these two categories and within games in general. It just should be acknowledged that there are developers who will introduce homosexuality into games without the intention of actually providing alternative representations of sexual identity. Rather, they are still primarily catering to the heteronormative audience while attempting to create the appearance of open-mindedness.

  2. jtomcal says:

    In relation to complaining about homosexual relationships and transgendered individuals in video games, Capcom has had a load of controversy over one of their recurring characters in their fight game series: Poison. Poison was a character that first appeared in Capcom’s game Final Fight in 1989. Poison has be in many of Capcom’s titles up until the most recent rendition in Street Fighter x Tekken, released in 2012. This video sums up pretty well the history of these renditions and the controversies surrounding Poison’s gender. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3Lj-9npanOI#!

    Capcom has been constantly pressured by hetero-normative audiences in America from stating on the record that Poison is transgendered, despite Poison being labeled as such while in development. So Capcom, in the interest of business (who could blame them), has constantly dodged the question as to Poison’s “official gender.” Often they leave it ambiguous, saying it is up to the player, or that Poison is a certain gender in the American version of one of their titles while another in the Japanese version of the title.

    I don’t believe that we have had an examples in class on the issue of transgendered characters in class, so I thought that this would be something tangible to discuss.

  3. cstabile says:

    A. makes an excellent point about the ways in which diversity in sexual orientation gets introduced into video games — generally in terms amenable to what the industry considers its primary demographic: straight white men. I think A.’s point also applies to Poison (especially fan art). I wonder what kind of pressure Capcom has experienced, or to what extent Capcom has used the publicity to pique interest in the character. Certainly, there seems to be little about Poison that challenges straight male fantasies from a visual perspective.

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