Rockstar Games is no stranger to controversy. Its Grand Theft Auto games, for instance, likely have garnered more headlines than any other game in recent memory.
For that reason alone, it wasn’t too shocking to see the New York-based developer topping the news once again as it readied its latest release, Bully for the PlayStation 2. Even before the game was in stores, critics condemned the game for its presumed violence. One critic in particular, Florida lawyer Jack Thompson—who has a history of taking up arms against the gaming industry—went so far as to call the unreleased game a “Columbine simulator.”
As we now know, all the vitriol and hand-wringing were for naught. Although Bully features its fair share of (fairly PG-rated) fist fights, no trench coats or guns were to be found when the game made its way onto store shelves across the country in mid-October.
That wasn’t the end of Bully’s headline-grabbing adventures, however. Hard-nosed gamers quickly uncovered a controversial “Easter egg” (of sorts) that, to some, brought to mind the infamous “Hot Coffee” incident from Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas—Jimmy, Bully’s protagonist, could hit on and make out with some of his male cohorts.
Although the discovery brought a typically froth-mouthed reply from critics like Thompson, it was warmly welcomed by the otherwise taciturn gay gaming community.
When word broke about Bully’s “boy-on-boy action” on gaygamer.net (a site that bills itself as being for “boys who like boys who like joysticks”), for instance, visitors loudly applauded Rockstar’s stealthy efforts.
“I love how Rockstar just threw this in here with absolutely zero commentary,” commented a gamer going by the handle of “E. Gauger.” The gamer also loved “how everyone was running around screaming ‘Columbine simulator!’ while two under-aged boys are making out in a parking lot like William S. Burroughs all over again. It’s gorgeous and important and cute.”
Another gamer, “Richie,” added: “I love this. Games like this should be about choice. Is Jimmy (the main character of the game) bisexual? He is if you want him to be. I hope more games follow suit.”
Not As Groundbreaking As You Might Think
Bully isn’t the first game to include gay content, of course. Games have long featured gay characters (either overt or implied) and even gay storylines, though positive examples of either were few and far between until recently.
Atari’s The Temple of Elemental Evil, released for the PC in 2003, is a good example: It gives players the option of rescuing and then marrying another male character. A year later, Lionhead Studios’ Fable (published by Microsoft and playable on Xbox and PC) followed suit by allowing players to flirt with, have sex with and marry other male characters. Lesbian gamers were thrown a bone that same year when Maxis’ The Sims 2 was released (by Electronic Arts) for practically every gaming platform known to mankind. It allows players to seek out relationships with either gender and take them to whatever conclusion they choose (sex, marriage, childbearing) as well.
The Temple of Elemental Evil
Although the developers responsible for the above-mentioned games generally are more than happy to talk about their creations, their jaws tend to clamp shut when the subject of “gay content” rears its ugly head (and that includes the controversy-courting folks at Rockstar).
Thankfully, that’s not the case for Dene Carter*, creative director of Lionhead Studios' highly-hyped Fable.
Designed to be one of the most open-ended adventure games ever, Fable centers around an anonymous “Hero” who evolves throughout the course of the game based on the actions of the player. The hero can be molded into whatever kind of person the player desires: Kind, evil, handsome, ugly—even heterosexual or gay.
According to Carter, offering the ability to “play gay” was not, originally at least, an example of the developers’ social consciousness.
“It was not so much a question of overt inclusion as a reluctance to remove something that occurred naturally in the course of creating our villagers' artificial intelligence,” he says. “Our villagers each had a simple concept of 'attraction to the hero.' We'd have had to write extra code to remove that in the case of same-sex interactions. This seemed like a ridiculous waste of time.”
Once the option was “discovered,” however, Carter and crew embraced it, despite their reservations as to how the gaming industry and the general public would respond.
“While not everyone in the gaming industry is heterosexual, it was always a question: ‘Will this cause us problems?’ We knew there were some parties—those who frequent the online boards in particular—who would be violently opposed to such content, and would make their personal bias known in the most vocal and negative way possible,” he shares. “We considered the impact of such reactions, and far from discouraging us, it made us realize that a positive decision could be seen as an important stance and support of tolerance. Microsoft said from the beginning that they'd countenance almost anything we saw fit to place in the world, as long as it fit into the world! They were true to their word.”
Fable - everyone loves a hero.
In reality, the assumed negativity never surfaced. In fact, the opposite occurred, according to Carter.
“Post-release, we've had very positive reactions from many members of the gaming community,” he says. “This seems entirely logical; in Fable, if you don't agree with playing as a gay man, or gay weddings... you don't play as a gay character. Simple, really. Fable doesn't force you to confront these issues. It merely allows you a game-space to project your own personality into.”
*Note that the use of Dene Carter's name is an addendum to our original article, following a request from Lionhead Studios' PR agency, Edelman. Originally, these quotes were attributed to studio director Peter Molyneaux.
Delving Deeper into Diversity
Veteran game developer Brenda Brathwaite (she’s worked on 21 published titles) hopes the un-sensationalized portrayals of gay people in games like Fable and Bully eventually become the rule rather then the exception.
“There just haven’t been many” gay characters in video games, she says, “especially normalized ones."
“The same-sex kiss in Bully was newsworthy to me precisely because it wasn’t sensationalized. Just two kids kissing,” adds Brathwaite, currently working as an interactive design and game development professor at the Savannah College of Art & Design. “That this is coming to video games is, to me, normal. People of all different sexualities are a part of our daily lives and the media we consume. We’re not shocked to see a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered) character on TV, so why should we be shocked when he appears in a game?
“What I find particularly warped about this is that the perception exists that if you show a kid a gay character in a game that this will somehow affect him negatively,” she says. “That type of thinking is so illogical and insulting to me. I just don’t understand it.”
The public isn’t wholly to blame for the lack of gay content in mainstream video games, however. As implied earlier by Carter, those behind the scenes play a role as well.
“Consider that our industry is largely composed of straight, white guys,” suggests Brathwaite, who recently published her first book, Sex in Video Games. “Diversity—both in our workforce and in our games—has been an issue for a while now. The more diverse we are, the more diverse our content will be.
“That doesn’t just cover GLBT characters,” she adds. “I’m also talking about non-hypersexualized females and characters of color. There was actually a game made where you could create a blue character, but the game made no allowance for brown. Can you imagine?”
That said, Brathwaite says “game developers are fairly liberal in my experience.”
That’s certainly been the experience of Jeb Havens, a lead game designer for 1st Playable Productions, based in Troy, N.Y., and a regular speaker on GLBT issues within the industry.
“I've always been in companies that are very gay-friendly,” he says, “and I'm always very open and honest about my gayness at work.”
Havens, who acted as a designer on Cyberlore Studios’ Playboy: The Mansion (published by Groove Games in 2005 for PC and Xbox) and was lead designer on the game’s “Private Party” expansion pack, agrees with Brathwaite that the industry’s gay-friendly attitude doesn’t always translate into the games it produces.
Playboy: The Mansion
“From my experience, this seems to be because most developers—especially those in the position to make the big decisions of design and marketing—are straight and wouldn't feel comfortable including gay characters/scenarios even if they wanted to.”
Another game developer with an interesting perspective on the topic is Jacques Servin.
Don’t be surprised if the name seems familiar; Servin gained some level of fame when he was fired from Maxis in the mid-90s for adding scantily clad male swimmers with a penchant for kissing one another to the developer’s SimCopter game.
Servin says neither his gayness nor the gayness of his prank were an issue for the powers that be at Maxis. “Will [Wright] is great, brilliant, fun to work with,” he assures. “There was no homophobia, nor was there any problem with gay content.”
When asked if the general “straightness” of the gaming industry sometimes keeps developers from including gay content in the games, however, Servin responds, “that sounds about right.”
Don’t look for Servin to become a poster boy for adding gay characters and storylines to games, though. In his opinion, there are more important things to worry about.
“It’ll surely happen when the time is right,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to me like the most urgent thing—I’m much less worried about any content in video games that about, say, AIDS in Africa or the potential destruction of Bangladesh (not to mention New York) if the worst climate change predictions come true.”
Advancing To the Next Level
Where do developers go from here? Carter, for one, suggests the industry needs to alter its view of the gaming public, especially as it relates to how they think about gay content in games.
“Put it this way,” he says, “if you asked an average gamer to take a stance on sexuality, he would simply grunt: ‘Um... I'm kinda busy with this killing zombies bit. Ask me lat... aaAAAAARRRGHHHH.’”
Brathwaite agrees, and even goes so far as to suggest most gamers would accept a gay main character if it was presented in the right way.
“If the sexuality of the avatar was a part of the narrative,” she offers, “I think the great majority of the gaming public would accept such a change, particularly if they were the ones choosing the sexuality of the avatar.”
“When I consider games in a broader sense,” Brathwaite adds, “I’d go so far as to say we already have games that allow players to be who they want to be. The social aspects of all MMOs promote that. While you’re not directly selecting your sexuality, you sure as hell can be who you want to be in the game.
That said, Brathwaite admits “there are a ton of games—the great majority, I’d wager—that have nothing to do with the sexuality of the character. Rarely are they as outwardly straight as, say, Duke Nukem. They don’t outright state their sexuality, nor do they need to.”
Although he’s clearly supportive of allowing players to choose their character’s sexuality (and other traits) when it makes sense, don’t go looking for Carter to produce a game that focuses solely on a gay character (or the larger gay community) any time soon. His upcoming sequel to Fable will still allow gamers to mold their hero’s sexuality (and play as a female as well), he says, though he adds, “we'd be against marketing a game specifically at gay gamers, as much as targeting women, older men, specific racial groups or any other distinct groups."
“This isn't a moral stance,” Carter assures. “We create games for everyone, and attempt to be as inclusive as possible. Fable was designed so that anyone could pick up a game-pad and have a good time.”