Why A Video Game Blockbuster Will Finally Allow You To Be A Gay Man

Why A Video Game Blockbuster Will Finally Allow You To Be A Gay Man

In the video game adventures of Commander Shepard, being a gay man was neither a matter of biology nor choice.

It was a matter of programming. And the programming of Shepard’s first video game, 2007’s Mass Effect, made being gay impossible.

And then things changed. The programming changed.

Why? The people who make the game wouldn’t say it’s because they are advocates. Not quite. They have another reason.

“We got feedback from players that they wanted more choice,” Ray Muzyka co-founder of Mass Effect studio BioWare told me during a recent interview. “We respond to that feedback and try to make our games better based on what our players are asking for.”

Muzyka and his fellow BioWare founder Greg Zeschuk do not come off as activists or overtly progressive individuals. The games from their company, however, have become flashpoints for discussion about sex, gender and sexual orientation. Their Mass Effect and Dragon Age games, flagship titles from mega-publisher EA, are some of the only video game blockbusters that include straight or gay romance. But both men, a pair of physicians-turned-video-game hitmakers, discuss what outsiders may view as an overtly-liberal or progressive agenda as, well, more of a customer-service project or architectural choice.

“It’s surprising that people think it’s that big a deal,” Zeschuk said. “If you’re creating this kind of content, it’s very natural to provide all the options. So that’s always kind of funny.”

The kind of content BioWare makes is role-playing games. They’ve been doing this for over a decade and they’ve routinely given players choice: about what weapons to wield, what fighting style to pick, what gender to be, what colour of skin to have and, gradually, which kind of sexual orientation they might be.

(A female-“monogendered” alien romance scene from Mass Effect 1

Outside the video game world, of course, the very idea of choosing one’s gender or sexual orientation is controversial. Gay and transgender rights’ activists have long argued that what some see as choice is really born identity. Not in video games. In video games, you can pick… but only if they let you. Only if the people who make video games who are essentially the gods of their worlds, let something be possible.

In Mass Effect 1 you could be straight. Or, you could sleep with a blue-skinned alien named Liara who was technically mono-gendered but appeared to be the kind of blue-skinned alien that would have been a lover to Captain Kirk on that spiritual predecessor to Mass Effect‘s multi-cultural sci-fi drama, Star Trek.

By Mass Effect 2, you could be gay, but only if you were female, a step either toward more progressive depictions of sexuality and/or one that stopped at the threshold of what a straight male player might find titillating.

In Mass Effect 3, out in early March, players who play as a male Commander Shepard can finally sleep with a male character. This follows on the enabling of straight, female-female and male-male romance options in BioWare’s recent Dragon Age series. And it poses the question of whether the BioWare doctors must at some point feel that they are making a political statement with their games. After all, we live in a time when each State in the Union’s vote on allowing or disallowing gay marriage is itself a political statement.

Here we have games whose god-like designers are actually implementing, at a more fundamental level, the ability for a gay identity to even exist in their world. And they’re saying, finally, yes it can. Political statement?

“We’re neutral,” Muzya says. ” It’s the player’s choice. It’s a role-playing game.”

(A male-female romance scene from <em<Mass Effect 2

“Yeah,” Zeschuck followed, “It’s a choice based on preferences.”

“We let players take on a role and really immerse themselves on how they feel they want to be playing the game,” said Muzyka. “Be true to that. Be true to your ideal of a game of choice.”

“If there’s a political bent to it, it’s very Libertarian,” Zeshuck said. “It’s like… yeah, we make the choices available. You decide what you want to do. We’re not pushing any particular direction with most of our stuff.”

Sex and sexual orientation are not the same thing, and it’s really the former that has earned the M-rated Mass Effect some of its more notorious press. Specifically, the original game was slammed on Fox News for supposedly being nothing more than sci-fi pornography, despite showing little more flesh than an edgier prime time network drama. That experience, more than any blowback regarding sexual orientation, seems to irk the doctors and compels them to reassure people that nothing their games have is all that outrageous.

“It’s all very appropriate,” Muzyka says of the sex in the series. “It’s all very well-integrated. It’s not surfaced in a way that you should go this way or that way.”

“There’s something about the tonality and how we present it,” Zeschuk added. “We don’t kind of snicker and make fun of it. It’s like a serious part of a serious game. The game itself obviously has humorous elements, but the actual relationships are dealt with in a mature and very adult way.”

Every time a feature is added to a game, it requires more work. That means that it is literally more laborious to create a virtual world that lets you be male or female. It’s more work to let you sleep with one character, and even more work to let you fall for another. The economical game designer might skip a lot of this stuff, and even BioWare can feel that temptation, one Muzyka says, they’ve resisted.

“A few years ago there was a debate among the team members that, yeah there’s more of an expectation to enable more content so, essentially, our games have to be bigger to enable these choices to occur,” Muzyka said. “You have to have different paths. You have to have different playthroughs. It actually adds up. It’s more expensive to do that.” (In this context, “expensive” refers to developer effort, not cost to the players. The price of a game that lets you be gay or straight doesn’t go up!)

The corners BioWare may have considered to cut are not being cut. Hence, among other things, a Commander Shepard who now might be a gay man.

“We are doing it as a service to our fans, because we think it’s part of the expectation of a role-playing game,” Muzyka said. “It’s part of the expectation of a BioWare game because of the way our games have been for the last couple decades. We’ve had that kind of choice going way back to Baldur’s Gate back in the 90’s. It’s been refined. We think it’s a good thing to offer players. Choice is always a nice thing, when it works. When it’s high-quality.”

BioWare today is, alongside Rockstar and a handful of other big-name game studios, an outlier. Most games, as violent as they are, remain sexless and void of talk or depiction of any sexual identity other than straight. The doctors know that puts them on the edge.

“I would say, our entire career, one of the frustrations has been not just in this but in all kinds of areas we’ve been held to a really high standard,” Zeschuk said. “It’s always, ‘we can totally innovate everything. We can do this. We can do that.’

“Can’t we just make a game and you’ll say whether it’s good or not? Why do we have to be the one carrying all of this weight?

“On the other hand, we created that ourselves by stepping forward and saying this is what we’re going to do.”

And they’re doing it, with what appears to be a muted agenda and a total lack of retreat.

Top image is from a Mass Effect mod, as seen on YouTube.


  • Whilst I think this is really positive, I hope this hasn’t been introduced the way it was in DA2. Rather than including genuinely gay characters for you to interact with, they basically made almost everyone bisexual. This was totally stupid. In real life, there are people I can’t date because they are the wrong gender for me, people I can’t date because I’m the wrong gender for them, and people I can’t date because am a raging alcoholic with crippling phobia of clowns.

    I guess what concerns me is that the game hasn’t included genuine gay options. Instead they’ve almost played to a stereotype where people choose to be gay.

      • That’s a dumb comment. Of course not. However, gay romance options were added at the request of fans who wanted to enjoy a component of their real life in game. It only makes sense to do it sensibly.

        • I regret using the word enjoy in that last sentence as though its a pure pleasure thing. Would have been better to use the term role-play instead.

          • Don’t be stupid. I facepalm every time I see this argument “Well X and Y are in the game and they don’t exist therefore Z thing you’re complaining about should be fine?”. When people complain about things similar to what Thom is complaining about (and I must add that I agree with him 100%) then he is clearly talking about realism within context. In Dragon Age, yes, it’s fine to have Dragons and magic and talking trees etc. because they are appropriate to the universe. As the game also conforms to basic social standards so that it’s playable for modern people who speak english, it is not appropriate to have every single character as a bisexual because that isn’t wholly realistic.

          • In the game universe, it is realistic. It’s never mentioned to be otherwise. Perhaps in a world where there are multiple races, from elves to dwarves, living so close together, sexuality has become less negative.

            Remember that even today much of the reason that homosexuality (or even any sexuality) is regarded as a bad thing is because of the influence of organised religion over the centuries. It’s become institutionalized, and we’re really only now trying to break free from it.

            Do you remember the treatment of the Dalish elves? In world, people believe that elves are filthy thieves, who need to be contained in slums for the safety of the city. That is heavily racist if you view it from a modern mindset, but it’s an established fact in-universe. That shows that the game is designed around more than just ‘modern sensibilities’ – most of Bioware’s game are designed to provoke and challenge, just like any other type of well-crafted fiction.

            So, in a world which didn’t contain those influences (eg. Dragon Age), it makes perfect sense that sexuality is not considered a taboo.

          • I wasn’t quite saying that it’s completely unfeasible in Dragon Age, my post may have been poorly worded/I may have used a bad example. I was just explaining to Z why that argument I was talking about is stupid and ignorant, not really arguing about the topic at hand.

          • The thing is, there’s a difference between thinking being gay is “bad”, and not being interested in the same or the opposite sex. One is a social construct and the other is biological. I think, Iike Bioware, your inferring that sexuality is a choice, where I think its not.

          • maybe its just a game and unless you’re going to DO the gay relationships in the game, then you can infer that all of your other characters are straight in your playthrough because you never see them hooking up with characters of the same gender.

          • When writing a story world, part of what you need to do is make it a world your audience can believe. There needs to be a logic to every world, or a story becomes boring with ample appearances of what appears to be deus ex machina but is in reality just a lack of any structure to the world. For example if everybody can fly in a fantasy game that’s fine, but it makes no sense if you then save the heroes because suddenly the people pursuing them cannot fly for no adequately explored reason.

            it actually is established in the game universe, Dragon Age: Origins takes place in the same universe and not everybody was bisexual. Kirkwall is shown to have quite bit of contact with Ferelden with people travelling between them regularly (obviously pre blight), so they’re not really seperate enough for it to be forgone that Kirkwall is a haven of horny bisexuals.

            Even if it wasn’t though, the world they set up and created needs the audience to believe that world could exist (there’s a logic to the world), show don’t tell. You can’t just TELL your audience, everyone in this city is bisexual deal with it. Or rather you CAN but it’s a sign of bad writing. Perhaps that wasn’t an issue for you but clearly Bioware didn’t do a great job of this because so many people found it jarring, so many people had concluded the world of Dragon Age was one that included heterosexual people. You could argue this is just a default view, and perhaps that’s right, but if that’s the case you as a writer need to show the world that (for good reason) bisexuality is rampant here, despite the similar social queues, despite some similar gender sterotypes, despite the language used, despite the fact that Dragon Age: Orgiins established this wasn’t the case.

            OT: My only issue is if companions that were previously heterosexual are now bisexual/homosexual. I’m all for Sheppard having the option, because for all intents and purposes he’s supposed to be the person playing, and the option is a welcome addition to the role playing element. But if Kaiden suddenly wants balls in his mouth… There’s a serious continuity problem. (Actually one character realising his gay sounds kind of cool, but if every character in the game suddenly realises they’re sexuality isn’t what they thought it was at the exact same time… well really, if Bioware doesn’t see a problem there then god help their writing staff.

    • I agree with your point entirely, but will deflect it slightly by saying:

      Shepard has mad magnetism.
      Men/women want to be him/her; men/women want to have him/her.

      • In fact Anders was one of the biggest – he became gayish only to fit the game, and was incredibly clingy as well. At least Zevran in DA: O, who was actually bysexual was intentionally a sex-pig.

          • I don’t want to turn this entirely into an Anders thing, but the way they retconned his character really pissed me off. He was meant to be a grey-warden for Chris-sakes and then he becomes a complete douche, justified or otherwise.

  • Why are people complaining about gay sex in ME, when YOU the player have to make the choices to get there. It’s stupid because i see not one guy gamer complaining about lesbian sex in ME, just gay.

    • People are probably complaining because they expect it to be handled like relationships were in Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age 2, where merely talking to someone more than 3 times causes them to slobber all over you, and rejecting their advances ceases all further dialogue.

      I know just like in real life I’d rather not have a gay man hit on me, and it would feel especially contrived in Mass Effect 3 where the main character has a clearly defined persona, and sexual identity throughout the previous two games.

      I won’t mind if I can avoid the gay romance by choosing straight dialogue choices, but I expect it to be more in line with Dragon Age 2 or Mass Effect 2 where ‘romances’ (that’s a joke) were thrust upon the player.

  • I’ll say that this is a welcome step, that won’t change remotely how I play my Shep but will enhance how millions of others do — that can’t be a bad thing, right? (Assume, like Thom states it’s implemented realistically.)

  • It confuses and still offends me as to why ME2 didn’t have male-male when there was female-female relationships. I’m just glad that there is that choice in the new one.

  • I would be happiest if your ability to have a gay male shepard depended on his behaviour in previous games.
    For example saving Kaiden, refusing the advances of female/monogender crew members and developing relationships with male crew members.
    Basically, if you’ve been roleplaying a gay male shep in previous games (don’t say it can’t be done) you can act on those choices in the third game.

    • If this is the case I really won’t care. I just don’t want to follow the game, be a total bro with Garrus, as in, have the kind of relationship where you’d have a beer with him and a good chat, and then suddenly he wants a kiss from Shepard. That just breaks the immersion so much and completely ruins any perception I had of him from past games.

      I’m all for it being in the game but I would just hate it if that sort of thing happened.

    • If this is the case I really won’t care. I just don’t want to follow the game, be a total bro with Garrus, as in, have the kind of relationship where you’d have a beer with him and a good chat, and then suddenly he wants a kiss from Shepard. That just breaks the immersion so much and completely ruins any perception I had of him from past games.

      I’m all for it being in the game but I would just hate it if that sort of thing happened.

      • That kind of situation isn’t how it happens. In ME2 playing as Femshep you still got all bro-like with Garrus, the only thing that indicated a romance option was YOUR choice to initiate that. He didn’t walk up to you and be all “Hey we’re bros right? Hey bro, get on THIS”, it was handled in a mature and subtle way and completely of your motivation, and that was a straight woman on alien man dialogue.

        • Lol, pretty good way of putting it. I haven’t played Femshep to that extent yet so I wouldn’t know, but I hope you’re right.

        • No, that’s not what I was saying at all. Read my post more carefully and don’t try to twist my words to make me look like an ass.

          • ” then suddenly he wants a kiss from Shepard. That just breaks the immersion so much and completely ruins any perception I had of him from past games.”

            Part of the problem here is that you seem to be genuinely fearful of Garrus ‘suddenly wanting a kiss.’ Which is a sort of silly thing–people aren’t like that, gay or not. If you can’t read signs ahead of time that’s probably your problem (not yours, just… a person’s problem, “one’s own problem”) But have BioWare ever done that in Mass Effect? They’re just as likely to have the sexually compatible person tell you to fuck off, a la Jack in ME2 with a male Shep.

            But what bugs me most (and you’re not the only person who’s said this over the months…) is that it Bioware’s fault if your perception of Garrus is changed. Haven’t you ever had a friend come out, or seen something similar? Perceptions of people DO change. You (again, one, the observer) CAN be wrong, and that’s ok. Its a learning experience. Garrus being attracted to a straight Shep also doesn’t eliminate the chance for them to be buddies either, if Garrus is a normal person and knows he can’t try to “turn” Shep or something.

            Sorry if I came off too snarky before. This whole debacle has worn my patience a little thin.

          • Yeah, man. One of the most shameful things I’ve ever done in my life happened after a friend came out to me. I acted all cool to their face, made uncomfortable jokes behind their back for weeks after. Eventually I realized it was me who had the problem, basically dismissing the monumental effort it must’ve taken for them to work up the courage to do it. People are complex and seeing a little complexity in games can only be a good thing.

          • (Sorry for the tangent, btw. My ramblings were supposed to be about perceptions of people changing. 😛 Fairly unrelated to the debate.)

          • Yeah I probably cam off as too harsh. Sorry. I just get annoyed when I say one thing and people interpret it incorrectly, which is probably my fault more than theirs to be honest.

            Let me get one thing clear, I’m not homophobic. The point I’m trying to make is that Garrus (in Garrus’ case, don’t know if I could say the same about other squadmates) has acted very, well, heterosexual for the past two games. If he randomly admits that he’s completely in love with Manshep it’s just so out of character for him, and I think it would kind of make all that character development in the past two games all pointless.

            My main problem is if Bioware makes everyone bisexual from the get go. It just doesn’t seem realistic.

    • So what you’re saying is Shepard isn’t allowed to be bi and only finding women he liked in the previous games means he’s not allowed to like guys in the latest?

  • I think the real question is top or a bottom? Could totally work with Jacob – have you seen how tight that guys leather pants are? And really – until you have a relationship with any of the characters, or if you don’t pursue those dialouge options with them, then the characters are completely a blank state sexually.

  • When it was discovered you couldn’t have a gay relationship in ME1, I was kind of hoping it was to do with the story- basically your Shepard HAD to hook up with the opposite gender, so a baby could be born, and that would be the character for ME2- the story being about how Shepard prepared for the Reaper threat for his whole life but everyone had forgotten about it by the time they actually appear, like 30+ years later.

    But then Shepard was the main character of ME2. Oh well.

  • I’m all for it. A whole lot of people seem to be a little miffed about ‘changes to the characters’ and such, but that seems a little on the nose. Would your character from ME1 have worked with Cerberus for ANY reason in ME2? It’s a game, it’s based on, in part, what the designers are able to make work. Sometimes that will go against what we may think from previous games, sometimes it will open our eyes to something we never would have considered from previous titles. You’re worried that say, Garrus, who was straight this whole time may suddenly become bisexual? He’s been changing this whole time, not just in sexual ways. Garrus in ME2 is a different person, and the story supports this.
    If you play through ME3, chances are you will follow, say, 1 path relationship wise. Maybe one character who was not an option now is. Is this such a stretch? Maybe all this time working, and fighting alongside interesting people has allowed said character (Garrus again, for the sake of argument) to realise something about themselves, or even just admit something. If handled well, that could be a fantastic story element. And, in most cases, Bioware handles these things very well.
    …I’ll still be after Tali. I just can’t resist the Moe. Maybe i’ll test the waters on my second playthrough.

    • It funny you use the Cerberus example – its why I think ME2 is a complete failure as a narrative. If that’s the standard we’re going to set, we might as well all agree to remove narratives from games all together.

    I think Fallout New Vegas handled gay characters well. Two characters were openly gay and their sexual preference would not be changed by dialog trees. I think giving Sheppard the option to be gay is great for gay players, because at the end of the day we all play our Sheppard to reflect ourselves. I don’t think all teammates should be bisexual; rather there should be some powerful, openly gay characters in ME3. In FNV Veronica spoke to my character about being discriminated by the Brotherhood of Steel for being gay. This conversation added an element of realism and emersion for me; now imagine if Veronica had the option to be romanced by either gender only stating she was gay if my character was of the same gender. It would take away from her character. Finally I want to say if a game is going to have a bisexual character the character should be represented as such.

    • While it might be slightly unrealistic that everyone in a game is bisexual. its a game. its a role-playing. game. this means that on your one playthrough you play as one gender either female or male. you can only have sex with so many people. which means that some of these characters will be straight in one play through bi in another and gay in the other. Thats because it depends on WHO is playing the game at the time and I find it hard to believe that ANYONE HERE can have a straight and gay relationship with the same character in the same playthrough. Not Physically Possible. So! the characters react to what you do and they will be straight gay or bi depending on what you do, so cut the crap everyone that theyre all bi because you can’t play a male and a female on the same playthrough. which means the characters will only physically be possible to do one or the other in a set playthough. I think some people just feel entitled to exclusivity. got nothing to do with being realistic or whatever.

  • I’m still amazed this is such a big deal to people.

    Seriously, as long as they handle it maturely as they have in the past that’s what’s important.

    • I think you miss my point. Veronica’s character was a strong and intelligent homosexual. There was no changing this fact in game, no matter how many times you played. We were provided with a true homosexual character. In reality a huge percent of people are homosexual. It would only add a level of realism to include true homosexual characters rather than sit on the fence with quasi homosexual characters.

  • man, i so love the game, not because the game play, or you can play as a gay guy. it’s because this game is REALY pissing the “baby boomers” right the fuck off XD

  • Many people would disagree with me but I would prefer it to be an option you pick at the beginning of the game. This would allow the players to play their standard Shepard and characters would react realistically. In real life I’m not gay and I don’t advertise my inclination for hetero or homosexuality in any way. But clearly subconsciously I would be dressing acting and speaking like a straight man and until I literally confuse the hell out of a gay man will I even get propositioned by one. I would find it quite unrealistic for my Shepard to be a blank-slate that could flip-flop between sexual attitudes at the blink of an eye and represent easy-riding to either sex in Mass Effect.

    I’m also in agreement with anybody here that characters should have set sexualities and not be all-purpose fanfic simulators for either sexuality. It would create a lot more realistic and meaningful characters.

    I’m also in agreement here with many who say that not all the romancible

      • Use your imagination. If you think these types of people both look and act completely the same then you may as well not ascribe any sexuality to them. Attitudes to dress and language differ, the way they carry themselves, who they talk to and in what manner are all affected by there experiences and preferences.

        The point that I was trying to make is that we’re used to all that body language in real life, but when viewing a piece of media or playing a game we metaphorically need to beaten on the head with stereotypes and exaggerations of these ideals. I personally find it unrealistic to have somebody who would act like a sexually neutral robot until spurred on by a command to “get some ass.”

          • Stereotypes ARE stereotypes for a REASON. Yes you just said that. Nobody would have stereotypes if the very type of people who they are attributed to never exhibited them.

            You have no basis by which to call my post ignorant. I don’t understand how it is ignorant for me to understand that all people have varying degrees of body language that affect how we interact with them. I don’t see how it is ignorant for me to expect to see properly fleshed out characters that would act the way they would act if they really had a past with experiences and built up values and preferences that most REAL people would have.

            I do however find it ignorant for somebody to read everything that I have read and come to the conclusion that I must be some kind of gay-hater flashing my ignorance just because I’ve stated that I know I’m straight.

  • Although I’m none to fond of how politicized the gays have made out of a video game character (haven’t you all got bigger battles to fight?). I however acknowledge that the main draw of mass effect is to inject your personality into the choices/story so I have no inherent problem with a plethora of choices even If they do not personally interest me.

    • Hahaha “the gays” They’re climbing in your window, comin’ through your door…

      Seriously, can we quit it with the whole “there are worse problems in the world, why are you worried about a videogame?” These things matter because our cultural output reflects our society. I know how I would feel if I was invisible in movies, books, games, advertising – everything. The GLBT community deserves to be reflected in mainstream culture as much as everyone else, and I’m glad they are getting more exposure as we become more enlightened.

  • It’s an option provided in a role playing game for players to choose, or bypass completely. If it offends you, don’t play it.

  • I think that it’s pretty disingenuous to claim that there were homosexual romance options in ME2. I mean, a female Shepard can have sex with Samara or Kelly, but they’re not considered romances for the purposes of the game – you don’t get the Achievement and they don’t have nearly as much detail or as many cinmeatics. Heterosexual relationships, even for a female Shepard, are the only ‘real’ ones in ME2.

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