Exploring LGBT+ Representation in Core Video Game Narratives

I’m Michael Musatow, my goal is to become a credible authority in LGBT Narrative Design.

As the first of two rigorous years of grad school ended our professor gave us a summer assignment, start generating ideas for a year-long independent study. I’ve always been fascinated by video games and the impact of a good narrative. It wasn’t long after the year started when I found a community of LGBT gamers, coining the term Gaymer and introducing me to the queer game developer (dev) world.

As a gay video game player, I seek games where I can play diverse characters or where people like me are represented in a genuine way. Unfortunately, when I was younger there weren’t many, and I was embarrassed to talk about it. More companies are realizing the importance of diversity. There are definitely more games and companies trying, but it’s not enough, often they throw a non-vital gay character into the mix, resulting in a negative stereotype.

A Better Tool:
To help companies avoid stereotypical tokenism, I am creating a rubric for monitoring LGBT+ representation in video games.

There are two simple tests I’m using to help shape my criteria. The first is the Bechdel Test. Created in 1985, it is a checklist for women’s representation in fiction (specifically film). The Bechdel Test looks for three things.
1. The movie has to have at least two women,
2. They must talk to each other, and
3. They must be talking about something other than a man or relationship.

The second is the Vito Russo Test. A test created in 2013 for LGBT representation in fiction (film).
1. The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender,
2. The character must not be defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, and
3. The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.

The Vito Russo test was not widely adopted because it allowed for the stigma of the gay villain or stereotypes to continue. The language of the third point was vague enough where the LGBT character could start the film dead or only spoken about and still pass the test.

My Test:
The Moose Test combines and elaborates upon the above criteria.
1. The game must contain a character that is identifiably LGBT.
2. The character must not solely be defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity,
3. They must be tied into the plot in such a way that removal would be significant,
4. Their role must not have a negative impact toward LGBT perception,
5. They must have a role in the game’s dialogue, and
6. That dialogue must advance the plot in some way.

I plan to use this rubric to critique a sample number of games and identify the publishers and developers to see if any stand out amongst the crowd.

I have called upon all members of the gaming community, not just the queer gaming and game dev community, to help with my research. In doing this I have identified a few pain points and concerns from the LGBT+ community. I’d like to reveal these findings and their effect on my process, some of which will be alluded to or explained more fully in future articles.

Roadblocks So Far:
The largest hurdle I’ve encountered is the wide scope of the LGBT+ umbrella and what it means to be a queer gamer. When games attempt to include representation it is usually limited to gay men and transgender people as villains, or lesbian/bisexual women as objects of fantasy.

Another pain point that I thought was a problem, is that LGBT+ characters are not often played by queer voice actors. It turns out that this is not seen as an issue by a large part of the community, and it will be a topic I touch on in an upcoming article. One last concern stems from the former point, there needs to be a member of the LGBT+ community on video game design and dev teams.

My Goal:
The goal of this project is to use the Moose Test to identify which video games throughout history pass or fail, which developers are designing queer narratives or characters, are existing teams helping or hurting the LGBT community, and which companies are publishing diverse content. Representation matters socially and financially; my test will serve as a simple litmus test for game companies to make diversity happen.