In June, the Supreme Court officially overturned a California law that made the sale of violent video games to minors illegal. This effectively extended the protections of the First Amendment to video games, placing them in the same class as all other media besides pornography.1 The path is clear for the gaming industry. By law, it can’t be censored.
Except by itself.
Nintendo of America didn’t just dominate the North American market for a decade – Nintendo was the North American market. The NES, Gameboy and Super Nintendo triumvirate ruled the roost until Sega became a true challenger in the mid-90′s. And as the ad below shows, a big part of their marketing scheme was maintaining a family-friendly reputation. After all, parents were the ones with the wallets.
To accomplish this, Nintendo of America established official content guidelines in 1988. You can read them here2. Since you needed Nintendo’s approval to publish a Nintendo game (in fact, you needed them to provide you the cartridges), the company had complete control over content. There was one major dilemma, though – most popular games were made for the Japanese market and then imported to the European and North American markets later. For whatever reason, Nintendo had no strict content guidelines in their home nation and were more tolerant, especially of violence. Then there were the many games originally released to the wild frontier that was the arcade market, that also wanted to cash in on Nintendo’s home console base.
As a result, many of the classic Nintendo games Americans know and love were altered before North American release. Sometimes the changes were subtle – a name might be translated differently to remove a reference to demons or hell. Others were drastic, with entire features removed, like the “Fatalities” in Mortal Kombat. However, one of the areas that concerned NoA the most seems to have been sexuality. As a result, Americans had no idea just how many queer characters and themes existed in those early years, masked by misguided censorship.
Nintendo had no codified rule banning homosexuality and transgenderism from its games, neither in Japan nor America. However, the American division’s content guidelines did ban “sexually suggestive or explicit content.”
Because being “straight” is considered “default” within our culture, it is taken for granted that unless otherwise stated, that’s what you are. The same is true of trans identity. The only way to exist as a queer individual within the heteronormative mind is to make your identity explicit through actions or words. Because of this, we are inherently sexualized – while the straight and cisgendered can simply exist, LGBTQ individuals cannot speak to their identity without bringing to mind how they have sex and with whom, or what set of genitals they have or once had. We violate moral taboos by our very existence. This is one of the largest roots of homo- and transphobia: In their minds, they cannot separate thoughts of us from thoughts of sex.3 That queer identity is about more than what parts we have and where we put them – that sex is no more or less essential to acknowledging us than it is to acknowledging cisgendered heterosexuality – escapes the heterosexist mind.
This is evident in Nintendo of America’s decisions concerning gay and trans characters in Japanese imports during this era. As I’ll go into more detail about in Part 2, a hint of transexuality was removed from Super Mario 2 and trans women were completely replaced with male versions in Final Fight (although I should note Nintendo generally removed all female enemies to avoid the appearance of violence targeting women). A portion of the RPG Dragon Warrior III was set in a gay bar in the original – this was removed in the American release (the content was restored in the 2001 Game Boy Color re-release). The SNES version of Ultima VII removed the ability to sleep with a “bedmate” of either gender.
Power is Beautiful
Eventually, Nintendo of America’s policies of censorship lead to a financial coup for their first major competitor, Sega. The uber-violent arcade game Mortal Kombat was ported to both companies’ systems in 1993, but the Sega Genesis version, which retained much of the gore of the original, outsold the censored SNES version despite looking and sounding worse. Nintendo got the message – it was time to shelve the “family friendly” stance. Not only did Mortal Kombat II retain the blood, but other titles began to show less and less censorship – including less invisibility for queer characters. Most notably, a major villain in 1995′s Chrono Trigger has a genderfluid identity (he even states “Male or female, what difference does it make? Power is beautiful, and I’ve got the power”).
The controversy over Mortal Kombat contributed to another major development. In 1994, as a result of both an increase in the creation of and demand for “mature”-themed games, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board was founded to create an industry-wide ratings system (and take the burden off console makers like Nintendo). Today, most games submit themselves for review by the ESRB, which assigns a rating similar to those for films. They also assign a few “Content Descriptors.” So a game might be rated “M” for “Mature” due to “Sexual Themes.” But what are “Sexual Themes?” What moves a game up the chain from “E for Everyone” to “T for Teen” to “Pour Peroxide in Your Eyes?”
According to the ESRB site, “Sexual Themes” refers to “References to sex or sexuality.” Whether this is used as grounds for assigning a game a higher rating due to queer characters or themes is difficult to ascertain; searching for LGBTQ terms on the ESRB’s site returns no results, and they aren’t specific on what kinds of content result in what rating.
While I haven’t found an example of a ESRB-rated game with a stated-to-be-queer character rated lower than Teen, I take issue with accusations that the ESRB uses queer content to rate games as Mature, like those currently made on Wikipedia’s LGBT Issues in Video Games page. The ESRB has actually rated several games with LGBTQ themes as Teen, including Bully (a decision that raised the ire of crusaders for video game censorship) and The Sims 3. Their stance seems to be that actual references to sex, queer or no, are worthy of a Mature rating but not queer romance or identification. This is surprising and admirable.
If only the gatekeepers of online interaction were so enlightened.
Fucking for Virginity
As you’ll learn in the rest of this series, the existence and representation of queer characters in games has improved dramatically in the last few years. At the same time, Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMPORPGs) and online-multiplayer features in other games have skyrocketed… and become cesspools of homophobia, racism and misogyny. Game publishers and console makers have responded with policies of forced invisibility: If no one discloses being LGBTQ, no one will be harassed for being LGBTQ.
The most brazen example came in 2006, when Sara Andrews began advertising her new World of Warcraft guild within the game. The guild, “Oz,” was intended as a LGBT-friendly space – a kind of WoW Gay-Straight Alliance. Andrews, a trans woman herself, quickly received an email from WoW publisher Blizzard Entertainment telling her that by identifying the guild and herself as LGBT, she was in violation of the game’s harassment policy. Continuing to do so would get her banned, they warned.
The section Andrews was accused of violating still reads the same as it did 5 years ago: It bans language that “insultingly refers to any aspect of sexual orientation pertaining to themselves or other players.” The company’s position was best summed up in the Washington Post article:
“Advertising sexual orientation” was inappropriate, said a spokesman for Blizzard, the California-based company that owns “WoW.” Many people are offended at the mere sight of the word “homosexual,” the company noted. Furthermore, “we do feel that the advertisement of a ‘GLBT friendly’ guild is very likely to result in harassment for players that may not have existed otherwise,” Blizzard wrote Andrews.
That last line is the most revealing. While the company later apologized and said it would review how their moderators enforce the policy, it was after the incident made headlines and became an obvious PR albatross. Blizzard and other industry experts claimed the original decision was well-intentioned if poorly-executed. But in reality, by demanding queer players follow a “Don’t Tell” policy, Blizzard was blaming the victims. Homophobic behavior was already rampant in their game, like it is across the industry. They claim they were trying to take away the weapons, but really they were trying to hide the targets. They may as well have tried “preventing” sexism by only allowing male characters – they ended up engaging in the behavior they claimed to prevent.
Sadly, this seems to be the default position in the industry. Microsoft has repeatedly fumbled the ball when it comes to Xbox Live gamertags and profiles (think “screennames” for online gaming on the Xbox 360 console). At first, any mention of sexual orientation in a gamertag was banned. After negative blog attention and the involvement of GLAAD, Microsoft eased the policy to allow gamers to identify as gay, straight, bi, lesbian or transgender… yet further incidents occurred when one gamer was banned for using their real last name – Gaywood – and another for mentioning their real location of Fort Gay, Virginia. Microsoft isn’t alone – their major competitor Sony and MMORPGs like Eve Online have had similar policies that have been enforced or revoked to varying degrees.
The Hate Escape
I do believe Blizzard, Microsoft and other modern game companies have better intentions than their late 80′s and early 90′s counterparts, but they are no less misguided. Once, Nintendo of America erased queer identity because of a heterosexist view of sexuality. Today, it’s more likely to happen in an attempt to prevent harassment – but that’s equally discriminatory. Queer gamers can only exist in the public mind if they identify themselves. It’s the homophobic players that would hurl slurs at them for doing so that should be punished, not the players who simply want to be who they are. The ESRB has the right idea in treating straight and queer sexuality equally when rating games. We can only hope this outlook will spread, and the onus of responsibility for harassment will be placed on the perpetrators, not the victims.
As things stand, I avoid playing online with other players. I’m not alone. As Sara Andrews told the Washington Post, “Maybe it’s not a very good escape from the real world, playing a game online and dealing with a bunch of other people… It’s like escaping the real world and finding what you don’t like about it — the slurs, the homophobia — in the online world.” I look forward to a day when a player shouts something homophobic into their headset and is shamed into signing out by everyone in earshot.
1 Reading the decision is odd, because by the same logic pornography should be equally protected. While I don’t advocate the sale of pornography to minors by any means, I do advocate the abolishment of restrictions on consenting adults buying and viewing it. It’s both tragic and unsurprising that graphic depictions of homicide are protected speech and graphic depictions of human sexuality are not.
2 Despite not being a primary source, Jim Cullough’s site is frequently referenced. It’s also a good list of examples of Nintendo’s direct censorship.
3 The same is true of some forms of sexism: Many men cannot regard women without bringing to mind sex, or at the very least their anatomical differences. Our culture of sexual shame and fear generates an ironic obsession in the minds of the repressed. This is why I argue that, if we are ever to defeat kyriarchy as whole, we must revolutionize the ways we think about sex itself.