Beyond character representation in video games

I’m lucky that the Queerness and Games Conference is right by where I live, and has many fascinating talks on the subjects of queer theory, games studies, and game design.

QGCon logo

A major theme at the conference is the idea of going beyond mere character representation.  That is, a queer game doesn’t just mean having a character who is queer, or giving the player the choice of who to romance.  It could be about having queer themes, such as the theme of rebelling against the status quo.

Of course, me being me, I have a rather different style of thinking from most people at QGCon.  At QGCon, no one ever voices disagreement, and everyone is happy and constructive.  Who would ever want to discourage all these awesome but anxious creators by saying anything even mildly critical? But personally, I don’t feel like I have properly engaged in any subject until I have cast a critical eye upon it, and listed its disadvantages.  So this is the critical discussion of non-character representation that I wish I heard.

What is non-character representation?

“Non-character representation” is my own idea and term, not used by QGCon.  It contrasts with “character representation”, which is when a character or the player avatar is queer.  I’m primarily thinking of “thematic representation”, meaning that the game’s themes resonate with queer people. For example, a game about generational differences between boomers and millenials, that’s queer.  A game about a whale and seal (presumed couple) getting naked so they can swim around catching shooting stars, while controlled by two players (presumed couple), that’s queer.  These are real examples.

But QGCon also provided many examples of representation that is neither about queer characters nor queer themes.  For instance, the server structure of World of Warcraft allows for the existence of queer servers, and this would not happen with just any server structure.  Another example is characters who are not queer, but who display fanservice for queer players.  It’s well-known that video games tend to cater to a very narrow range of straight male desire, while the fanservice to straight women, gay men, lesbians, and aesthetically-inclined asexuals is much more limited and accidental.

I have no intention of framing it as a dichotomy.  There are probably lots of kinds of queer representation which are difficult to categorize.  For instance, one person suggested a character in the world of pokemon who is completely interested in pokemon, as a metaphor for asexuality.  Is that character or non-character representation?  It doesn’t really matter since it’s not meant to be a complete classification.

Advantages and disadvantages of thematic representation

Advantage: Character representation tends to not really represent everybody.  The characters tend to depict only the most well-known groups (e.g. gay men are much more common than asexual women).  They also tend to rely on stereotypes which many people don’t relate to.

Disadvantage: Thematic representation also doesn’t really represent everybody either.  For example, with respect to asexuality, people discussed the idea of portraying forms of intimacy beyond just sexual intimacy.  While the idea of nonsexual intimacies is resonant with many asexuals, it should be unsurprising that asexuals are also incredibly diverse in their approaches to intimacy.  For many aces, it doesn’t make sense to frame intimacy as one of their goals at all, but they will try that framing anyway to conform to dominant frameworks.

Disadvantage: Character representation is easy.  Just make a character queer, and you’re done.  People at QGCon acted like being easy and straightforward is a bad thing, and I completely disagree.

Advantage: Thematic representation is easy.  It may be harder to think of how to represent queerness thematically, but it also might be easier to appeal to wider audiences, since queer themes may resonate with more than just queer people.

Advantage: Thematic representation is less superficial.  I think this is what people were getting at when they said character representation is too easy.  If players are given the option of making their avatar gay, won’t straight people just skip the option and learn nothing?  If a gay couple is placed somewhere in a game, what does that really accomplish?  Surely we’re past the point where queerness merely needs more exposure.  (Though to be honest, plenty of aces would be happy with just exposure.)

Disadvantage: Character representation can be deep too.  Some people really need a character or role model to relate to.  (Personally I don’t relate to characters in that way, so I couldn’t describe it.)

Can you think of anything else?

Final thoughts

I’m very iffy on the whole idea of posing thematic queerness as particularly laudable.  Take the game about the whale and seal catching shooting stars.  I’m not really sure about the queer themes of that game–I would say, at least, that the themes don’t particularly resonate with myself.  But by emphasizing how laudable and superior games are with queer themes, we’re positioning it such that questioning the game’s queerness is intimately linked to questioning the game’s value.  I don’t know, maybe the game captures something great that has little to do with queerness, and maybe seeing it through the queer lens limits our perspective of what makes it great.

And do you know what will happen when these values hit a larger crowd?  People will appoint themselves gatekeepers of what’s queer and not queer.  Questioning the queerness of a game will become a form of criticism, and criticism will become a form of invalidation.  This has already happened, just not in video games.

Those are the sort of things I worry about.  If you can make a video game all about gatekeeping, I would think it was awesome.

2 thoughts on “Beyond character representation in video games

  1. Coyote November 7, 2015 / 8:36 am

    The whole “queer themes” thing… yeah… that… seems like a case of rectangles and squares. Sga is coded as deviant but that doesn’t mean all depiction of rebellion is queer.

    (also, I do not get the whale and seal thing. am I missing some information?)

    “Surely we’re past the point where queerness merely needs more exposure.”

    I know you were just speaking rhetorically here, but, no. No we are not. Fill our games with more LGBT characters, I say. Heterosexual Cassandra is a crime.


  2. Siggy November 7, 2015 / 9:24 am

    Leading up to the conference there was a workshop where students were asked to make a short game with queer themes. I described two of their games as examples, including the whale/seal one.

    “Surely we’re past the point where queerness merely needs more exposure.”

    Yes, I was speaking rhetorically. I’m of multiple minds on this sentiment. I wonder if it’s coming from a place of privilege, where these people already feel they have the exposure, and now mere exposure seems lowly and crass (unlike their own desires, which are deeper and have more literary value). It particularly annoyed me when it was explicitly applied to aces, because from my experience in the ace community, most of us would be happy to have exposure.

    On the other hand, in practice, “mere exposure” really does tend to be shallow. Look, you can choose your in-game character to be gay. Nothing about the game changes in response to that. What does this do for me?


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