Coded This Way: LGBTQ History and Hope in Video Games

This post is about: Art, Gaming, LGBTQ, Sex and Gender
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A drawing of a nude, heavyset woman wearing an emoticon mask, attacking a person in a monster suit with artificial arms in a setting that references Super Mario Bros.

For all the complaining that video game enthusiasts make about being stereotyped as homophobic, sexist white guys spewing hateful epitaphs like sewage from a broken pipe, signing into most multiplayer games with a chat function, gaming forums or comment threads on gaming blog reveals… an awful lot of homophobic, sexist people spewing hateful epitaphs like sewage from a broken pipe. I can only assume they’re mostly white guys based on the sexist and racist language aimed towards everyone that isn’t.

Which is obviously sad for a number of reasons, the biggest being that the stereotype really doesn’t fitone study states 40% of gamers are women1 while Jason Rockwood’s original “Gaymer Survey” firmly established queer gamers as a real demographic.

Players aside, the game industry itself has always had a contradictory history with LGBTQ content. Within the arcade and console markets alone, queer characters and plot devices existed surprising early (in part because of Japan’s different – though not necessarily better – views on homosexuality). Even so, in the 1990’s we mostly find queer characters in the role of villains, and usually fulfilling stereotypes obviously intended for the amusement or titillation of heterosexual men and to a lesser extent, women.

For the purposes of this survey, I’ll mostly focus on the console market ushered in by Nintendo in the mid 1980’s and arcade games that were ported or else contemporaneous. I’ll branch out to look at a few PC titles when talking about the late ‘90’s and beyond.

In Part One, I’ll look at how the effort to protect children from “mature” content has been the primary factor in deleting or hiding queerness in gaming. I’ll also look at recent examples of how harassment has been used as an excuse to enforce the invisibility of queer identity “for our own good.”

After that, I’ll examine the actual content. In Part Two, I’ll look at how transsexual identity has been portrayed – or denied – in gaming. In Part Three, I’ll look at gay and lesbian themes and characters. In Part Four, I’ll conclude the series by looking at progress made and challenge game designers and publishers with ways queer representation can be improved in future titles.

1 I do have my concerns about this study. The ESA is a marketing group, after all, so they clearly had an interest in making their demographic sound as appealing to the outside as possible. I’d prefer something from a purely academic angle. Also, they don’t appear to have offered, or at least didn’t report, gender identities other than male or female. However, it’s currently the best survey of gender in gaming I’m aware of.

*Artwork by me.

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