Are Lesbian Characters Taking Over Video Games? Some Perspective on the History of LGBT+ Representation in Games
E3 is a gaming event where for about three days, the biggest studios in the gaming industry (and many of the smaller ones as well) announce new titles, systems, and paradigms. It’s the conference in the video game industry and is often a weather vane for predicting trends in games, like how many games are going to have washed out brown graphics and be about people with excruciatingly detailed arsenals of highly “realistic” rifles, or how many are going to be micro-transaction centered and involve dropping 100 players from the sky into an open world where they Hunger Games at one another.
At the 2018 E3, LGBT representation was one of those trends — or it appeared to be. The discourse started off a bit negative, when Electronic Arts-affiliated studio Bioware, known for its relationship-centric roleplaying games which, in recent years, have almost all featured the option to play a character who has relationships with members of their own gender, announced that their new game Anthem (not to be confused with the truly terrible Ayn Rand novel of the same name, apparently) would not deal with romantic relationships. For non-Bioware fans, this was roughly equivalent to if Quantic Dream (developers of Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy, Beyond: Two Souls, and Detroit: Become Human) announced they were going to make a game that wasn’t pretentious. This disappointing announcement was, however, followed up by the announcement by EA that the next title in their Battlefield series would allow the player to select a male or female protagonist, and the suggestion that romance options might be included, and then a presentation on Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the new ancient Greece-themed entry in the open world stealth series, in which it was announced that the player would have control of a male and a female protagonist and would be able to direct their romantic relationships — with men or women in either case. Finally, Naughty Dog, developers of Playstation-exclusive, highly cinematic shooters, showed a new trailer for The Last of Us: Part II, the zombie survival sequel which had already been announced to center on the secondary protagonist of the first game, Ellie. The trailer featured an extremely well-rendered same-sex kiss between Ellie and a woman she appears to be in a long-term relationship with.
The reaction in the asshole gamerbro community (aka “totally not still GamerGate”) was the same as it is anytime someone who looks vaguely like a woman appears in a Star Wars movie: inappropriate screaming about historical inaccuracy. Absolutely no one was surprised by this, and the gaming industry seems to be mostly unconcerned by these reactions — which is, perhaps, new. But over in my corner of the progressive gaming world, I started to see a particular “hot take” cropping up, framed first as celebration of a fact that was perceived (correctly) as likely to piss off the aforementioned gamer boys, and then a bizarre sort of moral panic. Specifically, the progressive gaming community is beginning to develop a narrative that same-sex relationships between women in games have been normalized, and in some cases, this narrative suggests that this is a problem. How could it be a problem, you ask? Well, I first want to note that it probably isn’t true and this essay is mainly going to be about proving that any kind of same-sex relationship, including but not limited to those between women, are still pretty stigmatized in gaming. But the problem is, allegedly, two-fold: supposedly, the logic goes, it’s less “risky” or “controversial” to depict women dating one another in a commercial sense, because homophobia against gay/bisexual men is stronger than homophobia against lesbian/bisexual women, at least among the presumed straight, white, cisgender male audience of games; and because the developers themselves are straight, white, cishet, and male, and thus the inclusion of lesbian characters is a form of fetishization (“look at the two chicks making out! Hawt, amirite bro?”
This is, frankly, bullshit on a ton of levels. Without even getting into the numbers and data directly, there were about 549 video games notable enough to be listed on Wikipedia released in 2017. (There’s far more if we count indie games released on Steam or itch.io or other platforms, but those can vary drastically in their content and in many cases, include content which has been censored or stigmatized and that’s why they’re indies.) The E3 announcement indicates that 2018–19 will have at least two and probably three “tentpole” (Hollywood term for “major financial investment that will be heavily promoted”) games that either have same-sex relationships in their main narrative or allow the player to choose if there will be same-sex relationships in the main narrative. Even if we assume that Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and The Last of Us: Part II are representative of a trend toward inclusion, I count about sixty games that were announced at E3 this year. None of the ones I haven’t named so far have announced same-sex relationships of any gender, and in fact there is one from a series (The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, part of the Life is Strange series) which is extremely likely to be the first in its series to not feature same-sex relationships involving the main character; and another (Anthem) from a studio which has historically included same-sex relationships but now explicitly will not.
In other words, it’s arguably true that extremely high-budget games are slightly more committed, and extremely committed in one very high profile example (The Last of Us: Part II) to including some form of same sex relationships in their titles, and it’s also true that said highest-profile example is about a lesbian relationship (it also, notably, includes a transgender male character in a prominent role — his sexuality is unknown at this time). I think generalizing from a data point of two, maybe three games (at least one of which is confirmed to have male/male relationships as well as female/female ones) is difficult, and at most, we could say that there’s some high-profile lesbian games being made.
Now, there is a significant and storied history to the specific topic of “lesbians in games,” and I think it’s certainly true that a lot of the high profile games that have had same sex relationships have ended up gaining attention for content involving women loving women characters. I’ll get into that when I break down the data, but first, I want to address the second thread of the “progressive” argument that we have some sort of problem developing here. I’ve seen multiple high-profile gaming social media folks say some variation of the argument that an alleged fetishization of female/female relationships has made them more palatable to game developers, often with the implication that the developers themselves — assumed to be cisgender men — are among those perving on their main characters. Frankly, given the number of women attracted to women I know who were over the moon at the (honestly very small) amount of representation they got at the 2018 E3, I think it’s pretty insulting to focus on the hypothetical dudes who might also enjoy the inclusion of a minority group in their gaming media when there’s a ton of members of that actual group who play games and are feeling validated. But of course, it would be completely reasonable for men attracted to men and other sexual minorities to feel left out if gaming representation of LGB+ orientations (I’m leaving out the T — and for the record I’m trans myself — simply to avoid conflating the issue of gender identity depiction with romantic interest) was limited to “lesbians.” Even if that were true — and the data below shows that it’s complicated but there might be a little bit of evidence for lesbians being a bit more popular as main characters — assuming that the motivation is prurient, or for that matter that the developers (and executives) making these decisions are all cishet men (they may be, but I don’t think anyone’s gone and checked, and there’s this thing called “the closet”, and also games have massive teams who all influence content, and marketing decisions are often not made by lead designers) is pretty insulting.
So, that’s the surface problem with this discourse. I do think it’s reasonable to ask which kinds of LGBT+ characters are getting included, and so I’ve spent the past day or so doing some rudimentary statistical analysis, both on my own data set and with excellent data from Queerly Represent Me. Queerly Represent Me has some really, really good content; my own database was trying to get at specific nuances that weren’t specifically demarcated, and also to factor out a couple of categories for reasons I’ll explain. In any case, I’ll explain the origin of the data I’m using subsequently, as I try to answer a number of questions.
How Many Games Have LGB+ Protagonists?
At first glance, using Queerly Represent Me’s excellent database, it looks like there might be something in the “lavender menace” narrative! Out of games with LGBT+ representation — and again, that’s a tiny slice of games overall — they find the following:
Almost half again as many games have a woman who can have a same sex relationship. Obviously, this is not a bad thing per se and doesn’t prove anything about developer motives — and I’ll come back to the devs in a moment on this topic. But for all that I love Queerly Represent Me, their dataset has some notable quirks that I want to point out before we go deeper into the data:
- They include any game that has been published in some way — meaning free games available for download and not promoted by any particular company are included, and the current discussion is about industry norms;
- they include the specific genre of visual novels, which I personally love, partly because they have so much queer representation, but, again, visual novels are overwhelmingly developed by very small indie developers or individuals
I think it’s worth including those in an analysis but it’s also worth doing an analysis of what these numbers look like if we look for games that aren’t visual novels and/or developed by extremely low-budget indies. This is not to dismiss indie games, I love them. It’s just that when it comes to the discourse surrounding who’s doing what at E3, they’re not necessarily relevant. Some visual novels are developed by studios, and some — like Analogue: a Hate Story — have become important parts of the discourse around LGBT+ representation. But I do want to get a cross section of “mainstream” games — not just “AAA” but studio games in general. This is where I have to break from Queerly’s dataset, because they allow distinctions between “AAA” and not, but this excludes important titles in this discussion, like Life is Strange, which are developed by major studios but on a sub-AAA budget. (If we do run the numbers from Queerly on games they deem AAA, the numbers are exactly the same for “gay” and “lesbian” main characters; nearly every game they’re referring to has a character creator. They also include games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Watch_Dogs 2, which I’m fairly sure most players would not consider to include LGBT main characters, and I’m not sure XCOM would count at all — you don’t learn anything about your squadmates’ sexualities.)
My own data set is subjective, but I included titles based on the following criteria:
- the game is either from a major studio/publisher or has gained considerable success;
- the game is not in the visual novel genre;
- the game is available in English or has been at some point in time;
- LGBT+ representation is not purely negative;
- the representation is either explicit or heavily implied
This dataset yielded, out of games from those criteria, only 77 titles that had any kind of LGBT+ content. My data analysis tools at the moment are just Google Sheets, so it’s taken me a while to dig around with this data set, but based on this database, I got the following numbers for protagonists who are or are strongly implied to be interested in male/male or female/female relationships:
The gap has narrowed considerably when limiting things to major titles. There is a slight bias in favor of the possibility of W/W relationships; there’s historical reasons for this as well as circumstantial that I think are worth breaking down later. It’s not overwhelming.
What Kind of Games Have LGBT+ Protagonists?
Important note: both datasets above treat games where you create your own character and can define their sexuality/relationships as equivalent to games where you play preset character(s). Many games are counted toward both M/M and W/W for this reason. In fact, in my own list, I found something that I think is absolutely indispensable for this conversation:
Out of all the games that have any LGBT visibility in my dataset, only one third are like the vast majority of games: games where you play a preset character. What this means is that very few game developers are committing to all players having an LGBT+ game experience — most who do include LGBT+ characters either allow complete character customization (which is a very small subset of games) or have multiple protagonists, usually only one of which has same sex attraction. This is a major pushback on the idea that any kind of LGBT+ rep is becoming normalized to the point that progressive gamers should be concerned about overrepresentation.
Put another way, the majority of major games have linear stories where the player experiences the same story and mostly only controls gameplay elements (usually combat). This is very much not the case in the subset of games with LGBT+ representation.
Basically, what this chart says is:
- LGBT+ themed games are not representative of games as a whole, which mostly have linear stories; and
- LGBT+ themed games often provide routes — sometimes the default — by which players can avoid encountering LGBT+ content
Now, personally choice-driven games are my jam. But of course I also love LGBT+ narratives, so there may be some bias there. I’m not saying choice-based games are bad. I’m saying that historically, games have avoided making all players see gay content. I also think that E3 this year may be evidence this is changing, although not getting complacent is really important.
Are Lesbians Taking Over?
In order to really get at the (offensive, bad, and yet in the discourse) question of whether lesbian characters are overrepresented, we really need to get at the question of what games allow only one kind of same sex representation. Let’s do that:
So out of the games in the dataset where you can actually have some kind of same sex relationship as the or a protagonist, the majority allow you to be in either an M/M relationship or an F/F relationship. In about 20% of games where you can be some kind of gay character, you can only be a gay or bisexual woman, and you can also choose to be heterosexual. In about 7% of games, you can be either a heterosexual or a gay man, but you cannot be a gay/bisexual woman. 18% of games allow the player to pursue romance between a woman and a woman, but not any other configuration; I am not aware of any games where you have to pursue a relationship with a man as a man, or where that’s an option and the alternative is celibacy.
So, again, looking pretty good for the lavender menace narrative, but let’s actually look at what these numbers mean. First off, about half of all games that include same-sex relationships allow (or always include) same-sex relationships between both men and women. Second, the significant majority of games with potential same sex relationships have M/M relationships when you factor in the two games where you play a man and can be with men or women or both. Finally, while there clearly are a few more cases of lesbian representation, this representation is by no means uncontroversial or unchallenged.
Let’s actually break down what games we’re talking about when we talk about games with same-sex relationships. The thing is, this isn’t just a random assortment of games or developers; it’s a set of developers and game series that have pushed boundaries with LGBT+ themes. And they have had to push and are still in many cases getting pushback. In order to talk about this, let’s take a look at what franchises this data is coming from:
So, a lot of these games are in series or franchises of some kind. A huge number of the games that allow some form of same sex relationship or were intended to before studio meddling are from the following franchises: The Sims, The Last of Us, Saints Row, Star Wars, Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, Dragon Age, Fable, Fallout, or Life is Strange. Out of these it is extremely important to understand that designers for almost all of these franchises had to fight to get gay content included in any context. As far as I know The Sims is an exception here, but it’s not exactly part of the gaming mainstream. The Bioware Star Wars games — which comprise all the Star Wars titles on this list — were all censored by Lucasfilm prior to release. Only The Old Republic has canonical same sex relationships that aren’t just heavily implied, and that was only permitted in an expansion after Disney bought out the franchise. Bioware/Obsidian pushed hard for the ability to include same-sex relationships — which, for the record, were F/F — and had to reduce the textual obviousness of the optional relationships with female squadmates in both Knights of the Old Republic games. Even Life is Strange, despite being widely thought of as emblematic of the supposed trend of lesbians in games, was forced to add options to, essentially, declare that the relationship between its main characters amounted to “gal pals.” The original game states that the protagonist, Max, is bisexual, and includes a male romantic option, even though he’s deemphasized compared to the female romantic interest. In the prequel, Chloe is lesbian but can choose not to view her relationship with Rachel as romantic. Designer statements have made it clear that they think both these relationships were romantic and that pressure from higher-ups required them to make the content implied. In other words, what I’m saying is that one of the canonical examples of the supposed lesbian trend doesn’t even technically depict lesbian relationships in all possible playthroughs.
Two more charts, and then I’ll sum up my point. First, all LGB player character representation over time:
Obviously, it’s increasing. (I’m pretty sure I missed some in the 2000 year period before 2000, but I think this shows more or less the actual trend.) Note that we haven’t yet had as many games in the past two years as we did from ’11 to ’15, and I expect we’ll catch up, but that’s a reminder to take nothing for granted. But anyway, to finish off, also by function of time:
Games with exclusively lesbian themes exist, but they are clearly a minority. The final time block is unfinished, of course, so the likelihood is that we will end up with more games than in any of the previous five year periods that have exclusively lesbian relationships — but the rate of depiction of M/M relationships is also climbing
So, What’s the Deal?
The claim on some parts of progressive gaming Twitter is that lesbian representation is fetishistic, that we’re getting games with lesbians because pervy guys want to see girls make out, and that AAA gaming is getting into cash grabbing from the LGBT community in a way that isn’t “risky,” as presumably gay men would be. (I definitely agree that including transgender characters is still a risk studios are largely unwilling to take, certainly as protagonists, and it’s certainly because they’re worried about backlash — just look at what happened to Battletech.) My contention is that this is a highly self-selected perception and that what we’re actually looking at is two things:
- most games that have same sex relationships also involve character selection and creation and in most cases this means both lesbian and gay male characters are represented;
- studios which are more likely to have female protagonists are also more likely to depict same sex relationships, because they’re more likely to have progressive views
There’s no need to go to a conspiracy theory that studios are trying to exploit the LGBT+ community. Obviously, they do want our money — but historically, regardless of the merits of capitalism, minority groups whose money isn’t wanted by business tend to not fare well. This is a good sign. But I also hope people remember that depicting any same sex relationship is still risky. Our rights are currently under legal siege and that’s going to be reflected in the culture.
You don’t see these kind of fights over on Film Twitter, because almost no movies with a significant budget have ever been made about any gay people. High budget franchises like Marvel don’t even allow canonically gay background characters to admit it on screen. Video games have, for the past 15 years, consistently included some level of same-sex couple related content at an increasing rate in big tentpole franchises. Mass Effect was, in its heydey, one of the blockbuster games. The Last of Us: Part II will in all likelihood be the most expensive project with a gay main character in film or games. And speaking of those franchises, here’s one more graph, courtesy of MSPAINT, demonstrating just how few franchises have lesbian relationships but not gay male ones:
On top of all of this, let’s keep in mind that in most of the examples we’ve been talking about, the F/F relationships that are portrayed are stigmatized and end tragically. For instance:
We don’t actually know how The Last of Us 2 will end up, but…
This E3 reaction is, as far as I can tell, based on the fact that a lot of gamers who were excited about Ellie having a girlfriend in The Last of Us trailer were, in fact, women attracted to women, and those women also declared their intention to pursue the F/F romances in Assassin’s Creed. Additionally, the Life is Strange franchise is currently getting press, even though 1) the next titles may not even include LGBT+ issues and 2) the budget of Life is Strange games is miniscule next to the Assassin’s Creed and Last of Us series. None of this is sufficient to say that lesbians are overrepresented, and I’m worried that this discourse is going to actively discourage inclusiveness in gaming.
Dr. Eleanor A. Lockhart is a scholar of communication focused on gaming and online culture. She is currently without an income due to disability, so if you want to support work like this, you can visit her Patreon or Paypal.