BioWare's censoring of homosexual terms on the Star Wars: The Old Republic forums was not a wise move, but they certainly weren't the first video game company to struggle with the issue of homosexuality.
And they almost certainly won't be the last. Homosexuality has long been a controversial issue amongst gamers, developers, and publishers alike. With the ever-growing popularity of online games, players often bring their intolerance online, sharing it with their friends, teammates, and guilds. This tends to lead to knee-jerk reactions from the industry, with an unfortunate emphasis on the word jerk.
Consider the example of SimCopter. A designer named Jacques Servin decided of his own accord to include a bit of beefcake in Maxis' SimCity spinoff, giving birth to "himbos". "Himbos" were shirtless, Speedo-clad men with nipples as bright as runway lights. The men would gather together in large numbers on certain dates, taking the place of some of the scantily clad women originally featured in the game. Servin, himself openly gay, included the bit of secret code on a lark, figuring Maxis would find it amusing.
They did not.
The Easter Egg was discovered shortly after the game's initial release, with 78,000 copies making it out the door beforehand. Jacques was terminated, and Maxis created a patch to remove the half-dressed men, also offering a service where customers could call in to get their disks replaced. Jacques' comments at the time neatly summed up the atmosphere of the early 90's.
"I didn't do it out of anger, just kind of `Why not?' I can't quite figure out why they would be so angry. It's not a game for kids; it's for 20-year-olds. But you put gay and kids anywhere in the same sentence and people explode."
SimCopter was released in 1996. A decade later and game developers were still reacting poorly to homosexual concerns.
In 2006, Blizzard scolded a player in their popular massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft for advertising her guild as gay and lesbian friendly, claiming she was violating the game's harassment policy. Following up on the issue the player, Sara Andrews of Tennessee was informed that her advertisements might cause other players to become abusive. Players who otherwise would have been content to sit at the auction house shopping for spell components, driven to the brink of homophobic madness by the mere mention of gays and lesbians.
After spending several years playing World of Warcraft, one could sort of see their point... but that point is beside the point. In trying to invite others to a guild where they could be comfortable, this player was exposed to an extremely uncomfortable situation. A situation that sparked threats both legal and otherwise against Blizzard.
Lambda Legal, one of the nation's oldest organisations dedicated to protecting gay and lesbian rights, examined the situation and came to a conclusion that seemed sensible to everyone but Blizzard: "You can't tell gay and lesbian people that they have to be quiet so other folk won't harass them."
Blizzard eventually apologised to both Lambda Legal and Sara Andrews, calling the situation an "unfortunate mistake", explaining that their game master who dealt with the issue misinterpreted Blizzard's rules, and that "it has always been, and will remain Blizzard's policy that LGBT-friendly guilds are allowed to announce their existence, and to recruit members in the same manner as any other guilds."
The World of Warcraft incident highlights one of the key issues that developers face when dealing with the subject of homosexuality. It generally isn't the reactions of the developers and publishers themselves that cause problems. It's their perception of how the players will react that results in them making unwise decisions.
Case in point, Microsoft's handling of a situation last year involving an Xbox Live gamertag. A gamer going by the handle "theGAYERgamer" was surprised to find his gamertag banned from the service, with Microsoft requesting that he change it before playing games over Xbox Live. According to reports, the company had received complaints that the name contained sexual innuendo and was in violation of Xbox Live policy. More recently, a lesbian gamer was banned from Xbox Live because her profile indicated a sexual preference.
Some would say that sexual preference has no place in online gaming, with Microsoft stating that a gamertag that read "theHETEROSEXUALgamer" would be treated the same way, but it isn't quite the same thing. Heterosexuality is a popular assumption. Homosexuality is considered an alternative. A straight male doesn't have to go out of his way to let women know that he is straight.
Things are looking up for Microsoft, having recently been in talks with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation regarding their Xbox Live policies. Perhaps they can come up with a better way of dealing with the homosexual lifestyle other than simply hiding it away.
This leads us directly to the recent troubles with Star Wars: The Old Republic. Following cries of discrimination following a moderator post stating that gays and lesbians did not exist in the Star Wars universe, community manager Sean Dahlberg apologised using the following excuse:
When I first built the word filter list, I added a variety of terms to the word filter that have been used numerous times in derogatory messaging.
While the SimCopter example was one of childish retribution by a developer who felt he was unfairly treated, both the World of Warcraft and Star Wars situations stemmed from employees of the respective companies that felt they were counteracting bad situations. Unfortunately, both representatives chose to attempt this by ignoring the fact that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered exist. You can't address an issue like this by sweeping it under the carpet. That just creates bumps in the carpet that someone is eventually going to trip over, getting hurt in the process, and that hurt will rest on the shoulders of the company that did the sweeping.
What makes situations like these so tragic is the fact that other companies have taken great strides towards accepting "alternative lifestyles" in the recent past. Rockstar Games allowed for same-sex kissing to occur in Bully. Many massively multiplayer games not only allow for gay and lesbian couples to get married, but issue press releases to announce the feature. BioWare itself allowed for same-sex pairings in their epic science-fiction role-playing game Mass Effect, standing strong in the face of the controversy that those gameplay elements drew from the mainstream media.
The internet is a haven for intolerance. One could say the anonymity afforded by the world wide web serves to enhance it, allowing bigots to open their mouths wider without fear of someone placing a well-deserved fist there. We cannot ignore this fact, but we also cannot ignore the large population of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered gamers. Hiding them away is not the answer. Sure, they will be subject to ridicule and strife by those less understanding among us. It's almost unavoidable. The point is, just like anyone who doesn't fit into societal norms, I'm sure they'd rather walk tall and dodge the occasional cruel barb then hide who they truly are.