Hollywood and Film vs. AAA and Indie Games: Who Is Losing Least in LGBT+ Representation?

A lot has been said recently about how so-called “AAA” video games are moving into the same cultural space that major Hollywood studio releases occupy — they are becoming places where we spend our time, mental energy, and, well, money, as a culture. Less has been said, and more should be, about how LGBT+ people — and here I primarily mean “lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who are open about it,” because the truth is that nobody is representing transgender or asexual people and other sexual and gender minorities very well — are not represented well in either, but how the gap of representation seems substantially smaller in video games. Off the top of my head before I started doing research for this article, I could name dozens of fairly high-profile video games, including Skyrim and The Sims, which combined across platforms constitute a substantial percentage of all video game sales ever, where LGB couples are present. The only film with a significant budget that I could think of off-hand was Independence Day: Resurgence, which against what I would have thought were significant odds has a gay couple as important background characters.

That offhand impression isn’t the whole story. In the wake of the decision of Jurassic Park: Fallen World’s creative team to delete an (extremely minor) scene which would have had a character inform the protagonist that she was gay, and the fact that this, like the deletion of the bisexuality of the character Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok, was blamed on “time constraints” and not bigotry, I have developed two hypotheses: either same-sex female relationships distort the fabric of film’s space-time, or a bunch of people in Hollywood are lying to cover their bigotry. (The frequent excuse about the importance of Chinese box office and the alleged bigotry of Chinese censors doesn’t hold up when you consider that both these examples are minor scenes that were, in fact, deleted from the film without affecting its coherence, and that films are edited for foreign markets all the time. Remember when the Harry Potter filmmakers reshot every scene that mentioned the [thing] Stone because Americans don’t know what a Philosopher is? Because I do.) Conversely, video gaming, despite being the home of, well, GamerGate and its assorted hordes of bigots, has recently foregrounded LGB representation with promotional materials for The Last of Us: Part II and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and even took a crack at representing nonbinary people in Battletech (which is fairly easy and inflamed bigots to a ridiculous proportion, given that it is literally canon that no one cares about your gender in a giant stompy robot, so the player’s ability to select from three instead of two pronouns is irrelevant because no one uses them anyway). So, are games better than movies? Are games getting better at this than movies? These are two separate questions. I had a number of questions, but what they boil down to are:

  • In raw numbers of significant, meaningful depictions of gay/trans people that aren’t obviously characterized as bad or wrong, who’s doing better: film or games?
  • Who spends more money developing titles that feature LGBT+ representation?
  • Who is doing better at sales with LGBT representation?

The results are interesting. Film obviously has a significantly longer history than video games (although with Tetris still holding the title for best selling game in history, games go back farther than one might think.) That history has included representation of people who are not straight. The first same sex kiss occurred in Wings (1927), which you may recognize as the movie Rian Johnson copied an entire shot for for the casino scene in Star Wars — the Last Jedi. Strangely, he couldn’t manage to snag any of that progressive 1927 lesbian representation.

Obviously, this was before the censorship regime that would soon take hold of Hollywood and help contribute to it becoming the propaganda machine that it is today. If we look more recently, 1969’s highly controversial Midnight Cowboy, one of the first films to be rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, featured a bisexual male main character and received the “X” rating (now roughly equivalent to NC-17) for, well, having gay people in it. That probably didn’t help representation moving forward.

As I found in my other recent Medium piece about gay representation in gaming, technically the first LGBT+ representation people can point to in games was in 1986, which in the defense of games, was not far from the time where video games were first figuring out how to actually have characters who related to one another at all. The first high profile example of games where LGB relationships were there and more or less normalized was 1998’s Fallout 2. The Sims, in 2000, was notable for allowing gay relationships but not marriage but also more or less forgetting to implement straight marriage, and all subsequent Sims titles — which, again, constitute one of the most important and highest grossing franchises in video game history — allow same sex couples to do everything that mixed-sex couples can do. The Sims 4 added explicit transgender and nonbinary representation last year. Meanwhile, the 1990s brought us some really terrible examples of trans representation (Silence of the Lambs, The Crying Game) and some cult classics (Bound, But I’m a Cheerleader). The negative-representation trans examples were culturally significant at the time, while Bound and But I’m a Cheerleader are gay cult classics but didn’t get a lot of recognition when they came out.

What touched off this discussion was studio tampering, and specifically the removal of discussion of same-sex interest from a character in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and the same event not long before in Thor: Ragnarok. It’s worth noting that video games also dealt with this — but most prominently, from film executives, although they aren’t the only culprits. What I mean by this: both Bioware’s 2003 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Obsidian’s 2005 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II were originally planned to include the possibility for a female player character to pursue a (chaste, because this is Star Wars) relationship with other female characters. This was forbidden at the behest of Lucasfilm, the film studio which had the final call on these games — some claim at the behest of George Lucas himself. In 2011, when the massively multiplayer sequel The Old Republic was released, Lucasfilm again forbade the inclusion of gay relationships; after the Disney buyout of the Star Wars franchise, which notably made the entire Old Republic series non-canon with respect to new material, Bioware was allowed to include token same-sex relationships (which technically makes Star Wars: The Old Republic, with its $200 million development budget, the most expensive anything with gay representation, ever, giving video games a highly sketchy but significant data point over video games).

In any case, in the same decade where Lucasfilm was suppressing gay Star Wars characters, film made some pushes to be at least seen as diverse when it came to gay relationships. Brokeback Mountain is probably the most notable gay film of the 2000s. It did not, however, make a dent in the box office. Meanwhile, in games, Bioware’s Mass Effect series released two titles in the 2000s, each of which had the potential for a bi or lesbian female protagonist, and two other titles (Dragon Age: Origins and Jade Empire) that had the possibility of gay or lesbian relationships for their protagonist.

The current decade is where it gets interesting. There’s been increasing press around movies about gay and transgender people: Moonlight, Tangerine, Love Simon, Call Me By Your Name. There’s been continuing release of games with same-sex relationships by Bioware (although their next game, Anthem, has been stated to not include any form of romantic relationships). Joining them have been numerous independent developers ranging from zero-budget to extremely large budgets; Bethesda’s Skyrim, which has the potential for same sex protagonist relationships, is, like The Sims, one of the highest grossing titles of all time across all platforms. They also included same-sex attraction in Fallout 4 (if the main character is same-sex attracted, they appear to be specifically bisexual, as the plot requires them to have a dead spouse of the opposite sex with whom they had a child). Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas also included the possibility of the expression of same sex attraction by protagonists, although it didn’t include “romances”. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us splits protagonism between Joel, a presumably straight man, and Ellie, a lesbian teenager who will be the protagonist in the upcoming Last of Us Part II, which recently made waves with an E3 trailer containing the most motion-captured-lip-smacking-detailed kiss in video game history, which just happened to be gay. In the medium-to-low budget range of games still developed by studios, DONTNOD’s Life is Strange series has, in its currently released titles, centered on lesbian and bisexual women and their relationships.

To Sum Up: Video Games Are Doing Less Worse Than Film

Here’s what it boils down to: if you look at all of film history, there’s almost no films that are both successful and well-funded by studios that also represent LGBT+ characters well. If you look at video game history, you see inclusion of same-sex attracted central characters for at least the past two decades. Furthermore, it’s clear that many creatives in games would like to be doing more, and that in one high profile case, an entire series was planned with LGB representation and that representation was removed or not implemented because of a film studio’s decision.

Video games are still overwhelmingly about straight people. None of this is to suggest we should be complacent — my other Medium article on this subject showed that games with LGBT representation, much less protagonists, are a miniscule fraction of games as a whole. However, Hollywood is so incredibly worse at this, deleting offhand references to the sexuality of background characters.

The kicker: if you look at the top 50 films of all time in terms of how much money they made, zero of them have any gay representation at all. In video games, one of the three main characters of the third best selling game of all time, Grand Theft Auto V, Trevor, is bisexual. Having played the game, I wouldn’t trumpet it as good representation, but it’s there in a way nothing on the top 50 in film has. It’s also notable that GTAV is only beaten by Tetris and Minecraft, neither of which have anything resembling characters with relationships at all. Skyrim is the twelfth best-selling game of all time, The Last of Us is number 38, and The Sims is number 42. Four out of fifty of the top video games of all time have gay people in them; zero of the top fifty movies do.

Let’s be honest, Hollywood: deleting people’s sexualities and never including queer characters isn’t about how they affect the “time balance” of your movies. It’s an excuse, just like the vaguely-racist “Chinese censors” thing is. Out of the high-budget films I found that did have positive gay representation, by the way, the Wachowskis and Roland Emmerich, all queer directors, were responsible for a disproportionate number, whereas game developers who put gay characters in their stories are frequently not queer-identified. If video games, the industry that brought us GamerGate, can take some tiny, half-assed strides toward inclusion, then Hollywood needs to drag itself out of this non-inclusive bog of its own making.

Dr. Eleanor A. Lockhart holds a Ph.D. in communication from Texas A&M University. She is a former professor of communication studies, and unable to work due to disability. If you want to support her health and ability to do research like this, you can support her Patreon, PayPal, or Cashapp. Her Twitter is @BootlegGirl

Eleanor is currently raising funds for her final gender confirmation surgery. If you’ve appreciated her articles here, you can help out at https://gogetfunding.com/ellies-final-trans-surgeries/

Eleanor Amaranth Lockhart

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Dr. Eleanor Amaranth Lockhart holds a PhD in Communication & has been writing about gender in nerd culture since before GamerGate. Twitter.com/bootleggirl