So as some of you may know, or have read or heard about, this summer at GAMBIT I am the product owner of a game design team, in order to do some research on why queer/LGBTQ characters and themes aren't making it into games. If you read "Playing It Straight" in Edge back in October, you probably know what sparked me to want to do this. I am in the weird position of being an ethnographer studying the process of my team (who are all great) and being the person who the team is supposed to be appeasing, if that makes any sense. I often have to quell the urge to get too involved.
An issue came up Wednesday that I wanted to discuss because of its broader implications, which is the nature of our in-game protagonist.
A major inspiration for our game has been old SNES-era RPGs like Earthbound, and so the team has been at work developing enemies, the setting, the main character, and the encounters that make up the meat of such a game. They've had a ton of great ideas, most of which I don't want to get too deep into, especially since we're only halfway through the 8 week creative process, and I don't want to open up my team to critique before it's time. I also can't share any of the assets they've made with you until the game is done. But it is enough to know that they've been working hard on concepting out these ideas.
Part of the challenge of this process is that the GAMBIT summer program is only 8 weeks long, and so we are constantly under that Sword of Damocles; a really common thing to hear ourselves say is "That'd be a great feature! If we have time, let's put it in!" and then quietly we accept that the time probably won't materialize and that's okay. We're going to make the best game we can in the circumstances. Well, one of the features that I asked for in the game but which we really had to give a low priority was selectable gender for the player's avatar.
Sexual identity and gender identity are inextricably linked, and separating them is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. It's also worth noting that, at least in mass media in the US, homosexuality is often conceived of as a white, male, upper middle class phenomenon, though lesbians are increasingly visible. But queer people of color and lower socio-economic status are often pushed aside, and transgendered and bisexual individuals usually get cut as well. There are many reasons for this, and not all of them necessarily appropriate for this post. It is enough to say that we have every reason to want to include a range of experiences in our game, and not contribute to the trend of queer content being mostly about white men with money to burn.
To that end the team decided to design a main character who was purposefully androgynous, so that the player could read whatever gender they wanted into the avatar. This was a decision I was behind; to me it was a compromise that wasn't quite as good as being able to create what you wanted, but which was (unlike that feature) likely to make it into the game in the time we had and which contributed to the ideals of the game. Now, that's the first part of this equation.
The second is that we are also starting to address what is the most critical, and most challenging, part of this process: getting the queer content into the game. Without talking too much about our plans, part of our current thinking is that there will be, at some point in the game, short scenes from the in-game avatar's memories that establish the avatar as a queer character, and that the memories would be resonant with the experiences of queer people... in as much as that's possible, since there is nothing like a "universal queer experience." The best we can offer, I believe, is a series of experiences that many queer people can look at, and feel a degree of empathy and resonance with, but which also involve themes that any player can relate to and understand. It is, as with many decisions about this process, not perfect, but as close as we can get. Creating this game has been, I have found, a series of compromises.
This week we had a very tight deadline, because at the GAMBIT Open House yesterday every team's games were playable by the public for the first time, meaning we were soliciting public feedback. Everyone was under a time crunch to get something that, while perhaps not polished, is enough that we can get good feedback about the game to head into the second half of the program. One of the things my team worked on Wednesday afternoon was creating one of those scenes, describing a time when a queer person's identity might make them feel inadequate somehow.
It's tough to do, especially since for the moment we're trying to use only images, not words, but what we discovered while talking it through is that working within the restriction of an androgynous main character was introducing a particular set of challenges to the process. As I said before, gender identity and sexual identity are very tightly knit. Part of the challenge is that we have to establish the character as queer inside the context of the mini-scene. But how can that be easily done, in a way that is reasonably able to be understood by the average player?
This is a legitimate challenge and I think it's more at the core of these issues not appearing in games than any sort of institutional homophobia among either devs or players. As my game director, the awesome Abe Stein, said during our prototyping work this spring, "Unless they're actually having sex on screen, how do you know? How does it get said?" It's the question that's dogged us. If you want to establish a character as gay or lesbian in a social world, how do you do that without establishing, even in some small way, their gender expression? For bisexuals this is even more complicated, and I would dare say that gender expression and its relation to one's identity is at the core of the issues transpeople face. In short: can we actually accomplish this with an androgynous character?
It's important that the team finds a solution that works for them; the game is as much theirs as it is mine... probably more so, considering they're behind the creative work. I didn't want to say "yes, keep the androgyny" or "no, pick a gender," because I don't want to limit their creativity, nor underestimate their ability to find a creative solution. I want them to go at the problem with all their effort, and find a solution that they're comfortable with. That said, as I left them to think this afternoon, I did say that it might be in order to tell the story they want (and, in some part at least, that I want) to tell, an androgynous main character might be more liability than good. What I asked them to do was weigh the pros and cons of the situation, then decide.
But that conversation haunted me all the way home. I make no claims that my little game is going to change the universe, no matter how incredibly awesome my team is. In fact, I said multiple times during our prototyping phase that if we fail, even that is still "useful" because I am studying the process and not the result, though that is what I call my 'inner ice-cold sociologist persona' coming to the fore. The truth is I want our game to be socially responsible; Abe uses the word 'tasteful' in this instance, and that's not entirely off the mark. If we slip into old tropes just to make a game with some queer content, that's a "part of the problem instead of the solution" scenario.
That said, I wonder where the line of compromise is, because part of this research is to examine how the constraints of the process can affect creating queer content, too. And compromise is at the heart of any text that's produced. My friend, talented writer Karen Healey, had to deal with a very similar sort of scenario regarding the cover of her debut novel Guardian of the Dead. What's the point at which you say "Okay, I am an advocate for [x], but I understand that to make what I want happen, I have to give in and accept compromise position [y]"? It's tough, and any decision you make sort of gives you that pit of the stomach feeling you get when you're forced to give up something you really want, just to make something else work.
Part of me is asking myself, "If our game goes out with a white male protagonist, have I done the community a disservice?" I don't know the answer to that. I want my team to find their own answer to that, too, and as long as it makes sense I will back their play. But I thought that this dilemma really gets at the heart of why I'm doing this research in the first place, and why I think this is a genuinely difficult thing for game designers out there to do right now. If we want to see these characters and themes make it into games, we need strategies to deal with the difficult and often ambiguous issues that come with crafting games where sexual identity is meaningful in some way.