Friday, November 12, 2010

Gay (But Not "Gay") Characters in Video Games

(EDIT 2: I have an updated statement here, where I attempt to defend myself from the avalanche of criticism engulfing me. I also explain the Matthew Shepard comparison better. The original post, however, remains unedited and in its original form below.)

(EDIT 3: Since this gets linked in forums all the time, often to the clucking of virtual tongues, let me clarify two important points: (1) this isn't about New Vegas and (2) this isn't about Jim Sterling. Instead this post (and the rebuttal) was about a subtle but widespread homophobia that has infected much of society, even among gays -- it's actually more akin to misogyny since it relates to gender, but I call it homophobia because we're basically talking about different generalizations of gay men here.)

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Over on Filefront (when did they start posting articles? wha?) there's a piece by Jim Sterling about a gay dude in Fallout: New Vegas. Read Sterling's complete argument and give him some page views, or just look at this sentence that irritated me:
Jim Sterling: "Arcade Gannon’s sexuality isn’t a big deal, and that’s how videogames should play it."
The argument that [all] gay video game characters should downplay their sexuality might be well intentioned, but is ultimately representative of the most dangerous kind of homophobia -- a homophobia wrapped in intellectualism, appearing "tolerant."

True, sexuality isn't the only thing that defines a person -- but for the vast majority of LGBT people, I would argue that it's a crucial part of personal identity. To insist that effeminate gay men are "camping it up" and should just "be normal" is homophobia. That's the same type of attitude that murdered Matthew Shepard -- he would've been fine if only he didn't act so damn gay around people!

Now, this thinking isn't exclusive to homophobes; gay men discriminate against each other all the time. Some might brand me as "straight-acting" when (a) I'm not acting, and (b) straight men don't have a monopoly on being more "masculine." But then many gay men also discriminate against "feminine" men and imply they're not "acting like real men" -- whatever that means. So yes, everyone is guilty, there's plenty of self-loathing to go around, blah blah blah.

But I digress. Perhaps my main point here is that the vast majority of adults on this planet have been known to care about sex. Sex is kind of a big deal -- and thus, so is sexuality. Games aren't exactly evolving as a medium if we always downplay this aspect of life -- or worse, downplay it only for LGBT characters to make them seem more palatable for people who think gay sex is icky.

Not all video games have to engage meaningfully with sex (... although it helps) -- but I would argue that there have to be some, at the very least, that do. Now, criticism without a solution is simply whining, so here I propose an alternate model for the portrayal of gay characters in media, a model that acknowledges -- hey, some gay men like having teh gayz-zex:

In the animated show "The Venture Brothers", the character Shore Leave is somewhat effeminate, unapologetically sexual... and hacks computers / is Brock's slightly less blood-thirsty near-equal in terms of competence at killing people. (He's amazing.) And in the Scott Pilgrim franchise, Scott's roommate Wallace has absurd amounts of teh gaysecks but is still a supportive friend, mentor and accomplice. These gay characters are successful with their sexuality intact, while more or less circumventing the typical stereotypes.

Sex is a healthy, positive and important part of these characters' lives. Prescribing some kind of "ideal gay" who doesn't "broadcast it" is just as artificial, boring and negative as the stale stereotypes so often invoked in network sitcoms and those god awful reality shows on Bravo.

Insisting that difference along any lines, like sexuality (or race, in the case of Grace Holloway from BioShock 2) is "irrelevant" or "doesn't matter" is a dangerous argument. I'm not sure what Western country you're living in, but more often than not, being non-straight, non-male or non-white is going to affect your life in some profound way.

(Just off the top of my head in the US: gay marriage isn't federally recognized, and so gay men don't get spousal privilege in federal courts nor social security; the FDA thinks our blood is always permanently tainted with AIDS; we have to justify our fitness as parents more than anyone else, etc.)

You don't ignore your difference; instead, you own it. Some might just keep to themselves unless asked -- that's fine. But to insist that everyone keeps it to themselves? Tyranny. For every silent shoegazer hipster gay who "you'd never think", we also need a muscle queen dancing in a peacock speedo on top of a Ferrari. Because they're gay too.

Again, I'm not saying every game has to be about sex (or am I?!), but here Sterling is proposing selective blindness and a glass closet for ALL gay characters in ALL games as a model to emulate. Yeah, stay invisible and don't make a fuss! That always works.

So, to review:

1) All forms of media reflect back on some aspect of life.
2a) Video games are a form of media.
2b) Sex is a big deal in many peoples' lives.
3) Some video games should address sex meaningfully.
4) LGBT people see sex differently than non-LGBT people.
4b) We should ignore that difference and only coyly imply that LGBT people might possibly maybe sometimes have sex lives, so as to avoid the mistake of portraying them as real people AND to avoid invoking a wildly exaggerated stereotype that has no currency today anyway. And thinking about gay sex is icky too.
5) ??? [...] hegemony! [...]
6) Thus, all video games should feature hardcore gay male pornography, though softcore will suffice if it's a lower budget indie platformer. (Cactus, I'm looking at you.)

QED. Next blog post: I will broker world peace and prove whether P = NP.