Culture 

LGBTQ+ Gamers on the Need for Proper Representation in Today’s Gaming World

Players and developers discuss why video gaming should be an inclusive experience for all.

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LGBTQ+ Gamers on the Need for Proper Representation in Today’s Gaming World

Players and developers discuss why video gaming should be an inclusive experience for all.

You may remember Gamergate. In 2014, the controversy made headlines for weeks, as feminist critics and progressive figures in video gaming became targets of harassment. One of the victims was Anita Sarkeesian. The creator of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a YouTube series that tackles issues of sexism in gaming, received violent death threats after she won an award for her project. According to The New York Times, others like game developer Brianna Wu and video game designer Zoë Quinn, who were outspoken about the gaming world’s “toxic culture” and gender inequities respectively, were doxxed and threatened with murder and rape. The months-long campaign of harassment revealed something alarming: video games, an online space that’s supposed to offer entertainment, became a breeding ground for rampant misogyny and discrimination.

For the longest time, cisgender men have dominated the video game industry and have continued to be mistaken as the face of the entire gaming culture. This diversity problem not only prevents women gamers from gaining visibility, but it also hampers the development of a safe and inclusive environment for other minorities in the gaming space, namely the LGBTQ+ community.

Ever since queer characters started appearing in video games in the ’80s, the LGBTQ+ community has been fighting for proper representation within the industry. While several online spaces – like Transmission Gaming and Gayming Magazine – have emerged in recent years to connect and empower queer individuals in the gaming community, according to a 2019 report by anti-hate organization ADL (Anti-Defamation League), 35 percent of LGBTQ+ players in the U.S. experienced harassment online due to their identity. With 2.5 billion gamers and counting across the world, the community must finally address its problems of gender biases and trolling.

Over the years, game developers have attempted to represent the LGBTQ+ community in the best way they can. However, queer characters continue to be a rarity in video games today. As tech editor Carli Velocci points out, many of them are assigned to supporting roles and are often non-playable. Sometimes, the portrayal of these characters even perpetuates stereotypes of LGBTQ+ people. Take the Grand Theft Auto series for example. Although considered to be one of the most successful video games, the franchise features a number of queer characters that are depicted negatively, as DW reports. Trevor Philips, a protagonist of the game’s latest title who is believed to be bi or pansexual, is given aggressive personality traits and is described to be someone that engages in “non-normative sexual practices,” according to the LGBTQ Video Game Archive.

Needless to say, the gaming industry has a long way to go as it continues to improve its diversity efforts. We spoke to gamers Ricki Ortiz and Veronica “Nikatine” Ripley about the need for positive and authentic LGBTQ+ representation in today’s gaming world, as well as developers of BioWare, Xbox and Electronic Arts (EA) games about how gaming can be an enjoyable experience for all.

Ricki Ortiz

Ricki Ortiz is a transgender professional gamer who has been playing for Seattle-based esports organization Evil Geniuses for the past 10 years. She got into gaming as a child when she would tag along with her father and older cousin to their local arcade Golfland in Milpitas, California. Since her dad and cousin would always play Special Force 2, fighting games naturally became Ortiz’s forte.

After many years of playing video games for fun, Ortiz entered a tournament that was held at her local arcade – she ended up landing in third place. Her loss motivated her to become the best and to try to win every tournament she could find. In 2010, after entering countless tournaments and winning 90 percent of what she entered, she was scouted by Evil Geniuses and signed with the team just one day before the 2010 Evolution Fighting Championships.

What are your thoughts on the gaming scene today in terms of LGBTQ+ representation and inclusivity? 

The thing I love most about the gaming community, especially the fighting game community, is that it has always been extremely welcoming and friendly to all walks of life. The community was extremely welcoming from the beginning and it’s even more welcoming now. I just ask that people don’t judge the community as a whole from negative comments read in chats. Judge the community at local events and major competitions. That is where all the love is.

How would you compare the gaming world to the offline world that we currently live in?

The gaming world is definitely more light-hearted and fun. It is a good distraction at times from all the madness that is going on in the world currently. Granted, the issues going on globally are ones we should not ever forget or run away from, but it’s nice to play some fighting games to unwind.

“When I initially transitioned in 2014, I did experience some backlash from the online and Twitch community. I think it became less about my skill and more about how I physically looked over time.”

Have you ever experienced any form of cyberbullying or discrimination within the gaming community? 

As with every community, there are some bad apples. When I initially transitioned in 2014, I did experience some backlash from the online and Twitch community. I think it became less about my skill and more about how I physically looked over time. It was definitely challenging to deal with, but I chose to ignore it and found positivity in the community at events and competitions because all of my peers welcomed me with open arms. I am grateful for that.

The gaming industry is notorious for sexism and is plagued by trolling. Why do you think that is still the case today?

I personally feel these issues still exist for the simple fact that someone anonymous is going to feel brave behind a computer screen and spew negativity. I understand that this kind of attention can be hard to deal with, but I truly ignore it and remember how many positive people I have in my life. I also remind myself how far I’ve come as a player and as an individual. It’s going to take a lot more than some trolls on the Internet to get me down.

Apart from the introduction of LGBTQ+ characters in games, what other ways do you think video game developers and the gamer community can help make gaming a pleasant experience for everyone?

I think from a game development standpoint, it would be amazing to see more LGBTQ+ characters created. It’s the representation that the community needs. Growing up, all I saw was cis-normative characters on TV and felt extremely left out. Nowadays, we are seeing way more representation on screen but we still have a long way to go until it becomes normalized. As for the gaming community, I do think we definitely need more female representation – it’s happening slowly but surely. I think events like Smash Sisters and Combo Queens massively help the community by creating safe spaces for women of all walks of life and helping us feel comfortable to attend events more often and connect with others.

Veronica “Nikatine” Ripley

At a young age, Veronica “Nikatine” Ripley started playing StarCraft with her father. Now, the trans woman content creator and roleplayer is the Founder of Transmission Gaming, a Twitch server for trans people who want to play games with other trans people. Ripley also has an active presence on Twitter where she discusses gaming, culture and queer topics.

Last year, her Transmission Gaming Twitch team raised thousands of dollars for various LGBTQ+ charities. To raise awareness of peace and tolerance within the online gaming sphere, Ripley continues to use her platform and voice to spread the message.

What are your thoughts on the gaming scene today in terms of LGBTQ+ representation and inclusivity? 

I think the industry has made some progress, but I think the type of progress is important as well. The biggest change I want to see is more qualified LGBTQ+ people hired in the gaming industry. There are so many interesting stories to tell involving the LGBTQ+ community, but to do justice to the authenticity of the stories, they really should be told by LGBTQ+ storytellers.

How would you compare the gaming world to the offline world that we currently live in?

I don’t think the difference is all that striking. In certain ways, the Internet is just a reflection of our culture. Trolls and hecklers exist in real life, especially people who spit on buskers or try to shun women and minorities. But there exists a torrent of caring, positive people willing to stand up for the rights of those around them, and though they may not be as loud on the Internet, they certainly exist in huge numbers.

Have you ever experienced any form of cyberbullying or discrimination within the gaming community? 

Sure, as a Twitch streamer I get it all the time. When I first started out, it was constant. The first time I got trolled, I think I audibly gasped as I was so taken aback. I realized pretty quickly that was the reaction they wanted, the whole point behind the troll. So the next time it happened, I didn’t think about it as much. And the time after that, it got a little easier. Now I have a team of wonderful moderators who all help keep my chat fun and clear of trolls. But I think it’s important for people to see that trolling doesn’t affect me, or any role model, so that a person can look to someone like myself and hopefully feel a little more self-assured and confident.

“If game developers want to tell LGBTQ+ stories, then it is absolutely vital that they hire LGBTQ+ writers who will be able to translate those very real queer experiences into a nuanced story.”

The gaming industry is notorious for sexism and is plagued by trolling. Why do you think that is still the case today?

I could say it started way back when Nintendo started shifting it’s advertising demographic to primarily focus on boys. I could theorize that it’s a product of forums designed to harass and troll women and minorities, but it’s not that simple. Anonymity plays a large role but honestly, I think the problem is cultural. The problem is that in order to be accepted or befriended in certain corners of the Internet, a person has to show they can fit in, and certain corners of the Internet are simply not kind to women and minorities.

How can video game developers and the gamer community help make gaming a pleasant experience for everyone?

The introduction of LGBTQ+ characters is not enough. Too often, shallow LGBTQ+ characters are so one-dimensional that they border on parody. Having a whole character’s personality and the motivation begins and ends at, “They’re gay.” That isn’t compelling for a story and it does a great disservice to the colorful tapestry that is the queer experience. If game developers want to tell LGBTQ+ stories, then it is absolutely vital that they hire LGBTQ+ writers who will be able to translate those very real queer experiences into a nuanced story. I think the answer really can be as simple as: “Listen to the LGBTQ+ community.”

Patrick Weekes, Lead Writer of Dragon Age

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third major game in the Dragon Age franchise developed by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts in 2014. The role-playing video game follows the story of a character called the Inquisitor who is on a journey to save the continent of Thedas and close a mysterious tear in the sky (the “Breach”) that is unleashing dangerous demons.

Upon its release, the third edition of the game was recognized by GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) for its portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters: Dorian, Krem and The Iron Bull. Patrick Weekes, one of the game’s lead writers, took part in the development of The Iron Bull and wrote the stories of Cole, Solas, Cremisius Aclassi and the rest of the Bull’s Chargers.

When did your company realize it was time to diversify your character lineup and to introduce LGBTQ+ characters to your games?

It was more of a gradual process of determining what we felt we could do and what our players were ready to see in our games. BioWare started including LGBTQ+ characters not long after we started including romances in our games. Our first romance was in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn in 2000 and three years later when we released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, we included a subtle same-sex option with Juhani as well. Jade Empire offered gamers to be romanced by both male and female player characters in 2005, and from then on, we have continued to expand our options. In 2012, Mass Effect 3 offered the first full romances that were same-sex only, as opposed to being available to both male and female player characters.

Dragon Age: Inquisition in 2014 included our first major trans character – a man named Krem who helps manage a mercenary company that works for your hero. We created Krem after listening to our fans at a convention panel in 2012. They told us that they wanted a trans character who was presented respectfully as a person and not a punchline or a monster, and we took that message back to our teams to figure out how to do that.

Why do you think there is still a lack of queer characters in most video games today?

If a game is primarily about combat, which a lot of modern AAA games are, some creators can feel that saying one of their characters is gay or trans is an irrelevant side note that will just cause them problems. It’s a little easier for games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age because while they do include a lot of combat, they focus heavily on relationships.

Another reason queer characters aren’t more prevalent is that creating these characters respectfully takes more time and effort, especially the first time you do it. When we worked on Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition, our character artists realized that the character creation engine was built on an assumed gender binary and had to jury rig the system in order to create his appearance in a way that did him justice. Krem also took twice as much time to write as he would have taken had he been a cisgender man because we consulted both internal and external sensitivity readers and performed rewrites based on their feedback.

Any time you see a queer character in a game, that’s a character someone on that project had to make a case for. We’re fortunate that BioWare’s teams include many such champions, both members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies.

“When we include queer characters in our games, we are helping to normalize them for players who may not have much exposure to LGBTQ+ content in the outside world. ”

What is the customer feedback for Dragon Age: Inquisition?

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. We have heard from people who said that seeing someone like them in a video game helped them get through a difficult time or gave them the courage to come out to their friends and family. One young woman told us that pursuing a romance with our female follower Sera in Dragon Age: Inquisition helped her realize that she was gay herself. Beyond that, when we include queer characters in our games, we are helping to normalize them for players who may not have much exposure to LGBTQ+ content in the outside world.

We have also gotten valuable feedback from our players on what we can do better, whether it’s times when we’ve unintentionally stumbled into harmful tropes or written dialogue that didn’t feel true to people’s lived experiences. We are always looking for ways on how we can do better in the next game, both in what content we include and in how we present it to the player.

Apart from the introduction of LGBTQ+ characters in games, how can game developers help make gaming a more inclusive experience?

The answer to this depends on what kind of game you’re making. For a single-player game, I think the key is presenting the kind of world you want to see. Our games let the players choose what their character says in dialogue and that presents a fantastic opportunity to frame the discussion and educate the players.

For multiplayer games, EA made a commitment last year to promote positive behavior and take clear steps against fostering toxicity in our communities. Since then, EA has introduced its Positive Play Charter, which provides positive play guidelines to help make sure our games and services are an enjoyable experience for all players. We’ve also improved our internal escalation policy to deal with harmful behavior in our games and created new training programs for our own internal teams that are working directly with our communities.

Florent Guillaume, Game Director at DONTNOD Entertainment

During Microsoft’s Xbox London event last November, the tech company unveiled Tell Me Why, featuring a transgender character as the lead hero. Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment under the direction of Florent Guillaume and set to be published later this year by Xbox Game Studios, the game was created with the help of GLAAD. Tell Me Why centers on a transgender man named Tyler and his sister Alyson, who have different memories of their troubled childhoods. The character of Tyler is voiced by trans actor August Black.

When did your company realize it was time to diversify your character lineup and to introduce LGBTQ+ characters to your games?

I wouldn’t say there was ever a specific moment of realization or an agenda set that would aim to introduce LGBTQ+ characters in our games. I believe we’re very fortunate at DONTNOD to have the broad creative freedom that allows us as authors to tell the stories and themes we resonate with. We work in a safe environment where we can be honest about what we want to do, without thinking too much about what is marketable or not. As writers, we tend to put a lot of ourselves in our games and expose the values we believe are important to be shared.

When we started writing the story of Tell Me Why with our Narrative Director Stéphane Beauverger, we quickly identified the themes we wanted to explore with this new game: family, secrets, twins’ bond and identity. Those themes led us to craft Tyler and Alyson Ronan, our lead characters, as twins, and the nature of our story inspired us to include a trans perspective with Tyler.

Why do you think there is still a lack of queer characters in most video games today?

It is true that LGBTQ+ characters and other underrepresented groups are too often marginalized. However, the medium is evolving and we can see that diverse storytelling is now a priority for many AAA and independent developers. With the intention to tell broad and diverse stories, there are new opportunities to bring in more diverse characters.

I believe that every positive representation we, as a gaming industry, deliver in games is a new [step] towards more diverse and inclusive road for all other developers. We also have tremendous respect for the queer gaming community who are really the ones paving this road. Achieving universally positive representation has been a process too slow, but we’re getting there.

“This virtual space needs various sets of rules to protect all players from any type of discrimination, harassment and toxic behavior.”

What has been the feedback of your customers so far since the announcement of Tell Me Why?

So far, the feedback after the announcement has been very positive. Fans and press have been keen to learn why we’re making this game and why it is so important for us to approach character development with a commitment to positive representation.

We’re also very pleased with all the playtests we’ve conducted that helped us polish the game with care and get a sense of the reception from these early players. It’s been really important for the whole team to have this positive response to go through the challenging times of early 2020. I’m very proud of our team for their dedication and care throughout the last stretch of development and can’t wait to release the game in a few months.

Apart from the introduction of LGBTQ+ characters in games, how can game developers help make gaming a more inclusive experience?

What I think developers can do is to craft more inclusive gaming experiences that invite more people to play. Gaming has great potential to put players in the shoes of the characters they’re playing, making it a unique opportunity to drive empathy towards people, cultures or themes they may never be exposed to and to see the world from a new perspective. In my opinion, this potential to create empathy is key, as sharing other people’s experiences is the first step to create understanding and care. It’s up to all developers to help create a safe, diverse and inclusive gaming world for everyone.

Chloe Carter, Cinematics Lead on The Sims 4

Described as a “safe haven” for queer gamers, The Sims has been a champion for LGBTQ+ representation since launching back in 2000 via Electronic Arts (EA). Developed by video game designer William Ralph Wright, the game has allowed players to choose to be in same-sex relationships. With the launch of The Sims 4, Cinematics Lead Chloe Carter and her team listened to their customers’ feedback. EA made sure the latest installment represented the LGBTQ+ community in a better way, and featured an LGBTQ+ couple on its redesigned box art for the first time.

The Sims is known as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly video games. How does your company continue to improve the game?

As long as I’ve worked on The Sims, there has always been at least some level of awareness of LGBTQ+ identities. The game is all about the freedom to create and control, which naturally led the team down a path that leads to player choice instead of restriction. I think with The Sims 4, we took a more explicit approach, culminating perhaps most clearly when we partnered with GLAAD to release an update allowing players to create transgender/gender variant Sims characters. This wasn’t a one-off effort as we also added Pride content that included a bunch of new flags for various identities, and our Play With Life campaign prominently featured queer Sims players sharing their story.

I think we’re simply being more explicit about what was already there and what many players already saw. When people play The Sims, we want them to find parts of themselves within that virtual world. What resonates most often are the parts that are most representative of real people, so we are always seeking to incorporate the ability to build that world.

Why do you think there is still a lack of queer characters in most video games today?

I think there’s still a perception that the average gamer is a cisgender/hetero white male because much of the industry still looks like this. People have blind spots, causing them to create what they know for the audience they know. This is why a diverse team is essential to creating diverse content. Oftentimes, attempts at diversity are panned for how negative and/or inaccurate they are. It feels as if people took a preconception of what it is to be queer and ran with it, rather than doing any research or talking with a queer person. [It's even more uncommon to] have a queer person themselves being the creator. As such, I think a lot of people are also afraid to tell these stories and to create queer characters because they don’t want to get it wrong and are afraid of the backlash from consumers or the media.

“Diversify the studio by putting people of color, women and queer people in leadership positions. A more authentic story and experience will come from someone who has lived that experience or inhabits that identity. Inclusive teams create inclusive content.”

What is the customer feedback for The Sims?

The Sims feedback is quite a mixed bag. I think the major thing is that people want to see themselves in the game, and want to be able to create themselves and their friends. In the past, we had some misses around Black hairstyles and skin tones, and the community was vocal about it, so we’ve pivoted based on that feedback. We still have work to do, but I can honestly say that people on the team are truly listening and want to get representation right. I appreciate that The Sims players keep us honest in this way and I wish we had the time and resources to include everything players want, but I hope folks feel we are doing better. If not, we’re always open to more feedback and are constantly tapping into community discussions to continue learning from our players.

Apart from the introduction of LGBTQ+ characters in games, how can game developers help make gaming a more inclusive experience?

Diversify the studio by putting people of color, women and queer people in leadership positions. A more authentic story and experience will come from someone who has lived that experience or inhabits that identity. Inclusive teams create inclusive content. A diverse team is also more pleasant to work on rather than simply feeling guilty about homogeneous employee demographics, or worrying about getting representation wrong because nobody on your team has that experience. You’ll have people who are cultural or identity “experts” who can accurately speak to a part of the experience you are trying to convey.

That said, not everyone is comfortable being a consultant or representative of their culture or identity, but you learn a lot by simply being around someone and coming to see them as human. If your only conception of trans people comes from some hyper-dramatic transition story, we have a problem. If you work with a trans person and see them simply being a human and doing the same things you do every day, you’re going to write a more nuanced character, rather than a tragic, trans 101 archetype by and for cis [people].

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