The New Queer Tropes In Video Games Series Is Tired, But Sadly, Still Relevant

Screenshot: Nintendo

For the sake of making their games more realistic, video game developers have done extensive research on all sorts of random or mundane things: parasitic fungi, game theory, gun sounds, paleobotany, and breast physics are just a few. Some of these subjects no doubt required expert commentary, academic research, and a genuine dedication of time and resources. Others might have simply required a cursory Google search.

Here is another topic — arguably more important than all of the ones listed above — that could be improved by any level of research: How to respectfully include queer people and cultures in video games.

There’s no shortage of video game analysis either guided by or outright focused on queer theory. There are entire TV Tropes pages, sharp, intelligent opinion pieces, and heartfelt personal accounts by queer people. They shed light on better ways to show queer lives, ways that developers have messed up, ways that developers could do better, and ways that consumers are complicit. In short, there are resources for developers to do better - all a click or a phone call away.

I’m loath to admit this, but I found myself feeling a very familiar exhaustion when I first heard about Feminist Frequency’s new Queer Tropes miniseries, released today, hosted by Carolyn Petit. It’s not because I disagree that there are glaring and continual issues of queer representation in video games — it’s clear that there are, and the miniseries points out myriad examples, old and new. As someone with skin in the game—nonbinary, bisexual, genderfluid, LMNOP —and someone who also critically studies media tropes, I don’t discount the importance of having these conversations. But there was one thought that prominently came to mind when I first heard there would be a new video series on the topic:

“Again?”

This isn’t, per se, an issue with Petit’s work, which is thorough and thoughtful. The videos use examples—many of them regularly cited, some more obscure—to highlight common themes, design choices, and character archetypes in video games. The first video is a dive into queer-coded villains and a critique of the way their queerness is often conflated with their villainy, with examples like Dead Rising’s Jo Slade and Skyward Sword’s Ghirahim. The second is a look at the relative lack of viable queer romance storylines in video games. The third is a broad look at games that encourage players to be complicit with homophobia, either via gameplay choices or general queerantagonistic humour — the sorts of things, essentially, that seem harmless but have a real impact on our lives.

For their part, Petit’s videos are a solid survey of queer representation in games. I didn’t love her level of focus on Dream Daddy as the most prominent example of queer representation done right — as a femme, I’m a little sceptical of any cis-gay-men-first approach to queer representation, and Kotaku’s Riley MacLeod and Gita Jackson have discussed some of the game’s issues previously. But then, that’s exactly Petit’s point: Queer gamers have been starved of quality queer content for so long that we have to resort to head canon and often feel the need to whip up a complimentary frenzy if something is even half done well.

Frankly, no one is ever asking for perfection—just, you know, an effort to stop portraying trans women as heartless murderers and rapists, for example, or to stop making violent sex criminal lesbians. Petit does successfully give attention to ways these tropes are abused, what can be done to fix them, and examples of representation being done right. Each of these things is important. Each of these things has also been covered, broadly and with mind-blowing specificity, ad nauseam.

This isn’t to imply that Petit’s survey isn’t useful on some level so much as it is a lament that we keep having to point at the same problems, gawk at the same glaring imperfections, and raise the same points, over and over again, hoping that more developers will catch on this time around—wondering if this will be another case of preaching to the choir rather than an actual arbiter of a cultural shift. I sometimes explain to friends of the culture of being “offended”: Seeing homophobia in video games, especially as you get older, isn’t necessarily a cause for outrage, because at a certain point, you don’t even have energy for it. It’s more like walking into the office and hearing Carol in accounts payable making the same workplace joke for the 18th time. I might have gotten seriously annoyed at one point, but in this case, it’s just giving me a case of the fucking Mondays.

So that’s why I find myself utterly exhausted by the broader conversation around queerness in video games—and more specifically, the fact that we still have to have it. I’m not naive — I didn’t really doubt we’d keep having to have these conversations, nor has any of the above-mentioned resources ever seemed like a magic bullet for this issue, however well-written. I have no doubt in my mind we’ll still have a ways to go, and hopefully, Petit’s series will bridge the gap for someone who, maybe, genuinely missed the conversation that’s been going on for years here. Cultural inertia is a bitch: It takes waves and waves of resistance to push back against the way things are.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to look forward to smart, thoughtful analyses of video games doing it right, video games doing it wrong, and video games just doing weird, transgressive, and overall queer shit. I will not look forward to having to continue to hold people’s hands about this stuff. So kudos to the people still doing this work and to the people paying attention. There are plenty of reasons things are the way they are now — I just can’t really see them as viable excuses, for my part.


Comments

    Don't do it, don't make this article one of those comment sections. Just breathe in and out and move on.

      Came here just to read the comments. Was not disappointed...oh wait, yes I am.

      I took the moment, breathed in and out, brewed some tea and became the Kermit meme. Thanks for the advice.

        I think a lot of people took the advice, these comments aren't half the shitshow they would usually end up.
        Maybe Rape Day stole the thunder.

    Nothing more boring than literal years of complaining how games don't portray gay / trans people properly... Yet these thousands upon thousands of people won't get up and make the game they supposedly want.
    Just go do it.

    I work in an office of 100 or so people. I have no idea who is and isn't LGBTIQ. Why should any realistic game be different unless the theme of the game specifically relates to those issues? There seems to be an assumption that unless a character in a game/movie/tv shows is portrayed in a stereotypically "non-straight" way that they must automatically be straight.

      well they can't identify with a character unless it explicitly conforms to their exact identity, colour, sexual preferences the whole deal and the fact they keep making up new ones... you see the problem right.

        I totally see the point, and it's a good one. But equally I can see why devs would be afraid of having accusations of tokenism and stereotyping levelled against them by including explicitly queer characters in games that don't explore the sexual identities of any of the other characters. It almost seems like a lose-lose situation in this era of outrage.

          it is lose-lose the difference is in scale you get way less shit for not being "inclusive"

          it's like comparing a sun shower to a cyclone.

      I work in an office of 60 or so people. I know of several who are LGBTIQ, but that might be because I work in an office where people can be safely open without their sexuality and gender identity. If you work in an office with that many people yet have "no idea" if even a single one is LGBTIQ, then maybe that says something about your office environment?

      Isn't that one of the points of the article, though? Stereotypes are a less than ideal representation of queer people.

      On the other hand, in your example of your office: don't you think that you would know if any of them were gay if you were their close friend rather than a vague acquaintance? We relate with the people in entertainment media in similar ways as we do with friends, thus it's understandable if we get to know things such as their sexual orientation.

      An example of this is Captain Holt from Brooklyn 99. We know that he's gay because of two main reasons: First, we got to see that he was discriminated for being gay (AND black) before finally making it as Captain, a milestone he doesn't take lightly. Second, we from time to time get to see snippets of his domestic life or comments about his relationship with his male partner. Other than that, he's lacking most other stereotypical "gay traits" and is rather defined by other aspects of his personality such as fastidiousness, introversion and droll sense of humour.

      Wow, just straight over your head huh. Nobody is asking for much, I hate how every queer character is usually a f****** stereotype. The majority of LGBT people are not stereotypes, they're just the same as everyone else. No, what I personally want is realistic representation, your point about assumptions doesn't hold any water. How hard is it to insert a throw-away line or subtle nods here and there that a character is LGBT, and not treat it like something other than ho-hum normal? Not hard at all.

    the real question is
    as a developer and considering the track record for anyone who tries to abide by this inclusiveness crusade and what inevitably happens to them when they don't meet expectations.

    why the fuck would you even bother trying to represent the LGBT etc perspective if your just going to be attacked for it anyway, the idea that it is even possible to do enough research and get it right is bullshit your much better off just saying i couldn't do it justice so i stay away on purpose. you get a lot less crap for no representation that trying to appease these people.

    Spend years creating an identity and subculture based around sexual preference, then proceed to be annoyed when the stereotypes/or extremes of that subculture is used in media.

    Just make good stories, don't shoe horn a character for the sake of representation.

    People shouldn't care about a sexual preference/race/religion. If your identity is so one dimensional that you cannot find common ground or empathise with a character due to differences the problem is not with representation.

    Also stereotypes are fine if used correctly as long as you take the piss of multiple groups (like classic Simpsons)

      Spend years creating an identity and subculture based around sexual preference, then proceed to be annoyed when the stereotypes/or extremes of that subculture is used in media.

      You talk as though the stereotypes were created by the subculture, but that's almost never the case. Stereotypes are created by the "mainstream" culture in order to easily encapsulate (and often, dismiss) subcultures. By mocking or fearing the "other", people make themselves feel better about their "normalcy".

    It's an even worse issue in TV and Film. Every goddamn LGBT character has to be a stereotype, it's disgusting. The vast majority of LGBT people are not stereotypes, they're just people, your sexuality etc has nothing to do with you are, you were already yourself before you realised those things. The people who behave stereotypically most of the time choose to behave that way. We need realistic f****** representation, subtlety, characters just being people, with nods to their sexuality etc which are treated as nothing but normal and without fanfare.

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