Clearing the 'hump of assumptions' in making LGBT inclusive games

Clearing the hump of assumptions in making LGBT inclusive games

A "hump of assumptions" can stand in the way of creating and including lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender characters in video games today, said David Gaider, lead writer for the Dragon Age series at BioWare. Speaking on an EA-populated panel at GaymerX in San Francisco today, Gaider and colleagues addressed the importance of heeding the demand for diversity and, more plainly, "reflecting humanity" in modern games.

Hesitation over tackling LGBT issues, Gaider said, can come from pessimistic assumptions made – both by creators and marketers – about how the audience will react. One of BioWare's earliest gay characters, Juhani in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, was practically snuck into the game. "I think for a long time it was just assumed that nobody would accept it," he said. "That's what the mentality was. It's not like we went and tried to ask permission or anything - we kind of hid it. She never says, 'She was my lover.' She just says, 'We are very close.'"

Not explicitly addressing the topic, however, "seemed like a very obvious exclusion" to Gaider. BioWare's next role-playing game, Jade Empire, was less subtle in its depiction of a same-sex relationship, and it faced far less resistance than the team had assumed. There was no long conversation after the team asked, "Why don't we just make the romances available to both genders?" According to Gaider, "that was the whole conversation."

A similar anecdote came from panelist David "Rez" Graham, software engineer and AI programmer on The Sims 4, who recalled the introduction of same-sex characters in the first Sims game. Far from leading to a dreaded debate within the company, the equal-opportunity woohoo-ing (the game's euphemism for sex) of the Sims happened without consternation. "The lead engineer on the original sims was openly gay," Rez said. "He had a reputation for just ... implementing shit. Nobody really questioned it, which was cool. It boiled down to exactly one meeting, which was: How do we want to support this? There was never a question of do we support this, it was a question of how do we want to support this." (It took until The Sims 3, however, for same-sex marriage to formally appear.)

Of course, the presence of gay or lesbian relationships in a game that playfully simulates humanity is different from the likes of a serious space opera like Mass Effect, which occupies a different space in gaming culture. According to panelist Jessica Merizan, community manager for BioWare Edmonton, "the rules are different" for games that are aimed at consumers beyond the 18+ male demographic.

"I grew up with The Sims, and it didn't really seem like a big issue," she said. "I'm pretty sure that's how I learned about sex in the first place." A game like Mass Effect 3, which drew ire from a subset of fans for its inclusion of a gay pilot named Steve Cortez, broached the subject differently – and while it was controversial, Merizan was pleased it wasn't a storm obscuring the game. The "man's man" Cortez, she said, illustrated that "you don't have to be a certain way to be gay."

Gaider, meanwhile, tempered assumptions made over EA's bottom line following the (eventual) inclusion of gay romance options in games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect: "It's fair to say that our taking that step affected our sales in no way whatsoever." While some may choose to object and avoid purchasing the game as a result, "I think we have equal evidence of people who bought the games because it included that."

By opting for empathy and inclusion, Gaider said, EA gained new fans that are vocal in their support of those games through forums and social networks. "That's the sort of language that companies listen to," he said. "As developers we are there to make art, but we are also there to survive and make money. In talking about it, they are making their presence heard."

That presence, the panelists suggested, will grow with the increased prominence of independent games, some of which explore LGBT issues in more depth than AAA productions do. The powers that be are "not only capitalists, they're copy cats," Gaider quipped. "They will jump onto that bandwagon so fast."