GDC: 27th Annual Game Developers Conference Talks About Queer Characters and Social Issues

Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, writer, blogger and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, Raw Story, and The Huffington Post

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1 Response

  1. Daniel says:

    Do you recall early in January 2013 when there was a big bolus of hysteria from the evangelical squinty-eyed loon contingent over the planned inclusion of gay characters in the EA/BioWare MMO, Star Wars: the Old Republic? And how the HRC and Their Amazing Friends were all butt-kissing EA for being so progressive in the face of such adversity? Well, let me tell you… the allegedly “inclusive” content, which finally debuted in April, was (at my very most generous) disappointing.

    For your delectation, here is the report of defamatory representation I sent to GLAAD. I also sent a copy to Eric Musco, community manager for SWTOR at BioWare Austin, but he didn’t respond. This is as good a place as any to share this with the blogosphere:

    Star Wars: The Old Republic is a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game produced by Bioware Austin, licensed by LucasArts and published and distributed by Electronic Arts (EA), an industry giant that makes a big deal out of its support for LGBT concerns in the workplace and for inclusion of LGBT themes in its games. While the studio got a fair amount media attention for its decision to include LGBT options earlier this year, the actual content provided is problematic in several ways, as is the game developers’ lack of dialogue with their LGBT players over their concerns with this material.

    In order to adequately describe the problems with Bioware Austin’s presentation of LGBT content, I will need to explain some aspects of game play, including the manner in which opposite-sex romance is presented to players.

    While I will try to be brief, the matter requires an explanation of how the game presents romantic content in general in order to demonstrate how the presentation of same-sex romantic content differs, and where specific problems exist.

    Star Wars: the Old Republic puts the player in the role of a hero inhabiting an historic era predating the time of the popular film saga. Players choose between eight types of role or profession for their characters, each role having a separate story line and a separate cast of supporting characters who accompany the hero through his or her adventures. Each of these forty supporting characters (“companions”, in game) have their own unfolding story for a player to explore in occasional interactive cut-scenes, unlocked as players get to know their companions better through various game mechanisms in the course of regular game play. Roughly half (19 out of 40) of these stories permit a player to engage in a developing romantic relationship with a companion and implied, off-screen intimate moments, culminating in an option to marry. These options are only offered with companions of the opposite sex.

    Players are also presented with opportunities to reply flirtatiously in conversational cut-scenes with some game characters encountered throughout the game setting. at all levels of play. Most such options are mere flavor text, but a significant number unlock options for further flirting and culminate in off-screen, implied intimacy with the character. These characters do not continue to play an ongoing role in the player’s story. They are casual encounters with no long-term development and do not affect the further course of a player’s adventures in any way.

    At the time that the game launched, in December 2011, and for over a year after, until April 2013, no casual flirt prompts were available with characters of the same sex. Since April, 2013, a handful of casual flirts with non-recurring characters have existed. Most are only encountered late in the game, after a player has already had opportunity to form a lasting romantic attachment with a continuing, opposite-sex companion character. Most flirt options available to the same sex are also available to opposite-sex flirting, including every female character so available. The one character who only offers flirt opportunities to player characters of his own sex also provides players with the option to kill him when he is no longer required by the story. The only two same-sex flirtations a player can encounter in the early levels of the game (when opposite-sex companion romances are available as well as many different optional opposite-sex flirt opportunities) are restricted to characters that only exist in-game during recurring week-long events each month, and are presented as figures of a criminal underworld. By contrast, opposite-sex flirt options for both sexes include numerous planetary governors, nobility, and key figures in society in addition to the inevitable show-girls and damsels-in-distress.

    To summarize, here are the problems in the presentation of LGBT-themed content in Star Wars: The Old Republic:

    – Stable, committed, long-term relationships including marriage are not available with same-sex characters.
    – Lesbians do not exist. Any female character that a female player can approach is just as willing to flirt with men.
    – The only representation of same-sex romance available as part of the free-to-play experience are two criminal informants who betray their associates.
    – Lord Cytharat, the only character in the game who is presented as clearly and exclusively gay, is specifically able to be killed by players who encounter him.

    Video games have a deep reach among young people especially, and the Star Wars franchise enjoys a wide, popular appeal. How LGBT themes are presented in Star Wars: the Old Republic matters, and those who develop, license and publish the game should be held accountable. While EA (publisher) won praise for hosting an industry summit on LGBT issues in the video game industry last March (“Full Spectrum”, co-presented by the Ford Foundation and the Entertainment Software Association), this game continues to present damaging images and stereotypes of LGBT persons.

    Please confront EA and Bioware Austin and help them understand how they can better present LGBT themes in the future.

    Bioware Austin (game developers)
    Ste 110, 3110 Esperanza Crossing,
    Austin, TX 78759
    (512) 382-8682

    Electronic Arts (publisher / distributor)
    209 Redwood Shores Pkwy
    Redwood City, CA 94065
    (650) 628-1500

What do you think?