Gay Characters in Videogames

Author and Screenshots: Matthew D. Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Buck Feris
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Additional Screenshots and Scans: Buck Feris and Bill Loguidice

Notes: All pictures were taken directly from the editors' personal materials unless otherwise indicated
Special Thanks: Buck Feris and Bill Loguidice

Creative Commons License
The following text (not including illustrations) is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Box cover for Troika's 'The Temple of Elemental Evil'In Troika Game’s computer role playing game The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003), the player is presented with a role-playing scenario that may shock even seasoned veterans of the genre: The player is asked to rescue, and given the option to marry, an openly gay character.

After several hours (or days) of fairly routine hacking and slashing through giant frogs and bandits, the player’s adventuring party finds itself in the pirate-themed port village of Nulb, an “adventurer’s trap,” the like of which any player of TSR’s classic Dungeons and Dragons tabletop (pen and paper) game is likely to have wandered into on countless occasions. There’s a blacksmith for purchasing arms and armor, a house where the party can rest, and a special pirate named Bertram who flirts with a male member of the party. Bertram promises a lifetime of love and happiness in return for the winning of his freedom from his lover and master, a certain pirate captain who is happy to trade off his sex toy/punching bag for the right amount of cash.1 Surely, Nulb must be on the west coast of this game world!

Screenshot from Troika's 'The Temple of Elemental Evil.' The caption reads, 'You and Bertram are married in a small ceremony, and he opens a dentistry office in Verbobonc. You live happily ever after.'The party can elect to take Bertram with them or, more likely, allow him to remain in Nulb where he will pleasantly pass the hours until the player finishes the game. He shows back up in the concluding scenes if the player rescued him. A portrait is displayed with two men embraced, and the narrator levelly explains that you and Bertram were married and lived, as they say, happily ever after.

The irony is surely not lost on readers of Armchair Arcade; we expect to rescue a fairy princess, not a pirate fairy. Yet, The Temple of Elemental Evil does not blush in its mission to accommodate all types of players, even those male players who prefer the intimacy of other men to women.

So, what do we make of Bertram? Does his presence here indicate a radical re-envisioning of computer games; the long-expected (but often dreaded) incursion of the “gay movement” into that one literary sphere which has been, until now, the unquestioned domain of young, straight men of the middle and upper class? How far we have come from those naive days of SSI's Curse of the Azure Bonds, when gay characters were unthinkable, and female characters, if they were portrayed at all, sported enormous breasts on prominent display—even if the display came at the cost of their armor’s integrity!

Scan of the manual for 'Curse of the Azure Bonds'In general, I think we should admit that classic computer role-playing games (and the majority of modern games) are sexist, if by that term we mean that they exclude females and gays as potential players. The assumption made by game makers was that the overwhelming demographic of Americans who purchased and played videogames were a particular strand of white, straight males, who were often victims of vicious stereotyping themselves. I’m thinking here of “geeky gamers,” those nerds who wore calculator watches and were unequipped physically to win honor on the football field or basketball court. Sexuality for these unfortunate few was limited to masturbation and pornographic magazines (if one were lucky). Perhaps the only way to tolerate such a life is with considerable power of imagination, and these people had that pulsing at every pimple. What computer role-playing games supplied was a chance to escape from a world of tyrannical locker jocks, puritanical parents, and beautiful women (for whom hardcore gamers served only as a source of cheap amusement). A quick glance around any classic Dungeons and Dragons session will, more often than not, reveal a group of nerds in ill-fitting trousers and cheap tennis shoes who get a little too excited about a long sword +5, and who, when pressured, will admit that while facing an army of trolls in the darkest dungeons of Moridir does not warrant the quaffing of a potion of barkskin, actually speaking to an attractive woman is cause to soil one’s armor.

These are, of course, exaggerated stereotypes of “geeky gamers” that are both hurtful and wrong. Yet, when I recently posted about “gay characters” in videogames on a popular retro-gaming forum, an overwhelming number of responses contained the harshest stereotyping of gay people imaginable. Though gamers may have been subjected to stereotyping and insults most of their lives, this fact does not make them less likely to hurl them at others. The general consensus was that game makers should not include gay characters in videogames.

Why should anyone want to change this status quo? Why incorporate gay characters into a mainstream videogame? Tom Decker, producer of The Temple of Elemental Evil, counts adding Bertram as one of his “best decisions.” He describes his reasoning in a recent interview at RPG Vault:

Doing some of the writing for the game, I had a lot of fun with creating some of the characters and quests in Nulb. I particularly felt strongly that since we had several heterosexual marriages available in Hommlet, we should include at least one homosexual encounter in the game (although there were actually two, one was in the brothel that was removed) and not to make it a stereotyped, over the top situation, but on par with the other relationships available in the game. I felt strongly about keeping the character of Bertram in the game, and I am glad we were allowed to keep him, despite any controversy it might cause. It's been entertaining reading the boards about Bertram and reactions to him.

Unfortunately, Decker does not explain why he felt so strongly about incorporating gay marriage into his game, though his feelings seem to stream from a sense of fairness. Another possibility, of course, is that Bertram is present purely for shock value. Regardless, I think The Temple of Elemental Evil will go down in history as the first mainstream videogame2 to promote gay marriages. Is this something the videogame community should celebrate or condemn?

Gay Characters in Videogames: The Modern Moral Spirit

Before I begin to answer this question and take my stand on the issue, it is probably best to attempt to analyze exactly what the problem is with gay characters in videogames. Why is this even an issue?

Let us consider for a moment the ever increasing addition of gay characters to modern television programs. Such an addition would have been scandalous just a few decades ago, but now we have Billy of One Life to Live, Will and Grace, Willow and Tara of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ricky Vasquez in My So-Called Life, strutting their stuff with all the temerity of Dr. Frank N. Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show). This is a short list, and I’m sure anyone with access to a cathode ray tube and a remote control could list at least a hundred more. Surprisingly, this surge of homosexuality into television programming has not sparked a moral revolution; far from it, anyone daring to speak out on the matter is likely to lose his job. When it comes to gay characters in television, movies, and even children’s literature—we’re forced to swallow. Ironically, the current president of the United States is sponsoring a bill to ban gay marriages. We can infer from this, perhaps, that Mr. Bush does not watch much television.

What we are seeing here is a radical re-envisioning of what it means to be a man of moral integrity in this age of political correctness and the occasional superstar’s slipping boob. We are entering a near-Victorian Era, though strangely in reverse, with our “updated” Ten Commandments being in effect exactly opposite of those inscribed upon those hallowed tablets with lightning bolts and the unquestioned authority of Jehovah. The Bible, after all, simply tells us to burn homosexuals, and that kind of teaching doesn’t sync well with the modern moral spirit. George W. Bush’s stance on gay marriage is quite clear; he and other religious fundamentalists feel we must protect sacred institutions from violation by "moral degenerates."

If I were asked to describe this moral spirit in any learned terms, I would reach for my copy of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, a three-volume work written by a rather controversial philosopher whose gay lifestyle was cut short when he died of AIDS in the early 1980s. Foucault tells us that we are entering a George Orwellian-like world where surveillance, confession, and therapy allow power to penetrate ever more deeply into our personal and public lives. Certain discourses trump all others; though we privilege the opening-up of academic discourse to subjects like sadomasochism, we at the same time limit and expel those aged voices which hold all such material as an abomination not only to the University, but the nation. Of course, in American rightwing rhetoric, being a liberal has come to mean embracing all forms of sexuality, and some of the left’s most influential thinkers (Kristeva, for instance) are now claiming that everyone is bisexual. Many feminists and queer theorists have urged gay couples not to marry. For them, seeking to gain legitimacy through the institution of marriage is merely replicating a facet of a corrupt and unworthy social system.

Screenshot taken from the movie 'Jeffrey'One of the changes in our moral temperament, according to Foucault, is the requirement to speak about sex in candid and learned ways. We are told to teach our children how to properly masturbate, if not how to wear condoms; we are told that two men or two women can live just as happily as a married couple than their heterosexual counterparts; we are even assured that two men can reap the physical benefits of an unimpeded sexuality and raise children in a positive and healthy environment. The sight of Dad #1 kissing and fondling Dad #2 is not only appropriate, but absolutely nutritious for the social and mental development of these bright-eyed youngsters.

We are routinely asked to speak about sex, and are also told to take pride in being able to do so. Let Grandpa Curmudgeon blush when our sixteen year old describes having anal sex with her boyfriend of the week; the new morality says that it is good; it is healthy for Nellie to feel comfortable talking and discussing such issues, and as long as she uses the proper form of protection, who are we to judge? Sexuality is purely a personal preference, we are told over and over again, and since every person is unique and entitled to his/her/its pursuit of pleasure, we have no right to intervene. The only thing that is important is to label, classify, and categorize oneself as accurately and clinically as possible. The bedroom has become a truly public place; it is our domain, sure enough, but we are obligated to form our personalities around whatever activities take place there. The only sin in this modern morality is not allowing (or forcing) someone to speak his mind—assuming, of course, that the comments are not hostile towards any of the 365 flavors of ice cream or yogurt available at the local sex shop. We value most highly the freedom of a man to confess his genetic pre-condition of homosexuality; such discourse must not be censored; however, that redneck preacher or Arkansas hillbilly who dares utter a protest must be silenced at all costs. Thus we reach the reversal of the so-called Victorian Era, during which we are told that even using the term “leg” was a serious faux pas, and concerned mothers wrapped dressings around piano legs for fear that seeing them might morally corrupt her children. Now our contemporary mother teaches her children the most frank clinical and popular terms not only for legs, but for clitorises, and the most suspicious young men are those who do not seem to have any desire to have sex with a woman or another man—such people are politely told to consider therapy. The asexual being is the only figure of moral suspicion and hatred these days. Age is certainly no escape—every third commercial on television is a promotion for one drug or another that will raise that old mizzenmast and help one set sail once again upon the sea of sexual pleasure and moral gratification. The last sexual taboos (pedophilia, incest, and bestiality) are no longer universally offensive. In short, we take our immorality as seriously as the Victorians took their morality.

Foucault asks us to question the notion that our sexual fetish is who we are. Many Americans argue that someone who prefers sex with other men is not just enjoying a fantasy; he is gay. Someone who enjoys both male and female sex partners is bi. This is not a sexual preference, then, but an “orientation”, a socially-constructed identity, and people are expected to conform to the rather arbitrary mannerisms, language games, and political positions that match their “type.” In fact, the homosexual as an identity did not emerge until we began seriously to discuss and portray him, usually in clinical terms. As any curious schoolboy knows quite well, just reading about and describing sexual activities, especially taboo activities, are exciting in and of themselves; no one should doubt Foucault is correct in his assertion that discussions of sex, even in the context of “this is evil and sick; let’s describe it in detail” does far more to encourage and fetishize the conduct than repress it. Foucault asks a simple but provoking question: Is all this talk about sexuality, with its obsession with labels and categories, really making the world a freer place?

The question is whether folks identifying with labels like “gay” would do better to resist them. It’s a complex and difficult problem. Consider the plight of the black identity; blacks can either downplay difference and “be like the whites,” thus gaining acceptance into mainstream society (“I’m just like you, but I happen to have black skin”), or they can establish and protect difference and resist assimilation (“Being black is about far more than skin color, but you can’t know what means because you’re white.”) There are obviously advantages and disadvantages to both possibilities, but one fact is certain: One cannot put a token in the arcade machine and keep it, too. Mainstreaming always involves a certain amount of violence as many of the characteristics that define a group are blurred or destroyed for the sake of homogenization.

Now, this has been a long and hopefully entertaining rant that may at first have only a tenuous connection to the subject at hand. Perhaps I have grown too fond of my own words and drifted off course like the drunkest pirate captain? I think not, matey.

Playing Gay Characters in Videogames

Playing a gay character in a videogame and seeing a gay character on a television may seem at first to be vastly different activities. We “watch” gay characters on television; we don’t “become” them. However, this attitude is rather naive in that it ignores the obvious role of living vicariously through a fictional character, a rather moot point in literature that nonetheless seems to escape most laypersons. In older literature, the person we are to identity with is made obvious with a name like “Everyman” or some Greek or Latin derivative of the term; the character we are supposed to be is stripped of as many particular or specific details as possible and functions rather like a hollow shell into which the reader inserts himself. Ben Johnson was quick to point out that the reason why Shakespeare’s plays are so wonderful is that he was a master at this subtle art. D.B. Weiss, author of Lucky Wander Boy, claims that Double Dragon II was the first game in which the player’s character was so well-defined that identification was difficult. Before that, it was just a pie-shaped wedge, and anybody could be that. It is obvious to anyone familiar with my earlier article why first-person shooters are so popular—the player can be the character quite literally; the game never shatters the vicarious identification by representing the character’s face or body. As soon as such an image would appear on screen, the player would snap a bit—“Hey, that’s not me, I’m much shorter,” and so on.

An obvious question arises when we read a work of fiction: Who are we supposed to be? Where does the reader come in? The reason why so many men do not wish to read romance novels is that they simply can’t identify with the characters or the narrator. Any fiction guide worth its font size cautions writers against works with no characters the reader can relate to; even space aliens should be given enough human characteristics to allow the reader to enjoy the story.3 A story about various forms of molds and algae, stripped of all personification, would be about as much fun as various forms of mold and algae.

Dr. Frank N. Furter from 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'We are not forced to assume the role of that “transsexual from Transylvania,” Dr. Frank N. Furter, in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Instead, the character may stand out as literally alien and fundamentally exotic; a spectacle and glorifying of abnormality and explosive irony that very few people would choose to identify with. The characters most of us identify with, Brad and Janet, are two woefully naive young people who have hitherto suffered precious little of the immoral smorgasbord available a few miles up the road. We watch (with varying degrees of discomfort) as these characters are “corrupted,” Brad and Janet have sex with Dr. Frank N. Furter, thus betraying each other and forever sundering their loving relationship to each other. Janet becomes a nymphomaniac, and Brad, ah, poor Brad, has little for his pains but a gnawing awareness that he will really never fit-in anywhere. The straight white male in this movie has been screwed.

Now, contrast this type of identification with that taking place in these modern television shows, where gay characters are presented to us without any of the ridiculous animosity of Dr. Furter. Here we see “healthy” and positive people, enjoying wholesome lifestyles that would make The Cosby Show’s Huxtable family proud. We are handed portraits of gay persons and couples that we would feel good about having next door, just as The Cosby Show helped racist Americans get comfortable with the idea of having a black couple next door. One doubts seriously if the true black experience in America at that time would have been fit for the television. “They’re just like us” seems to be the motto of the modern spirit, though it is to be immediately followed by, “But we must celebrate their difference.” I’m the sort of chump who can’t help but grin at the naivety of people who insist that everyone is unique, yet must resort to a retinal scan or DNA analysis to really tell them apart—All in the Family seems to have had a more accurate view of race relations. Do we really do gay people a service by welcoming them into our world with the sole stipulation being that they act just like us?

People seek out literature (whether that be Microsoft's Xbox or a TV) for one purpose: to live vicariously through someone else. The harder it is for a reader or player to identify with a character in the literature, the less successful it will be.4 The audience must recognize themselves; they must think, “Oh, no, what will I do—the killer is in this darkness somewhere!” If all the audience sees are characters, and those too well-defined or eccentric for identifying with, the result will be boredom. There is a situation here that is most often described in terms of “marked” and “unmarked” characteristics. These are terms from linguistics that make a lot of sense when describing potential avatars in videogames. For instance, if the avatar is to be a knight, then we make certain assumptions that are considered unmarked. For instance, the knight is male, European, and strong. Someone may say, “Well, my knight is going to be female and speak with a Texas accent.” These characteristics are called marked because they clash with our expectations. Now, we could talk about marked and unmarked characteristics with some universal set of values in mind, but I think it makes more sense to look at what an individual player has in mind when determining what is “me” and what is “other.” For instance, someone with a Texas accent may wish to play a character with the same accent—this could conceivably make it easier for the player to identify with the avatar. Theoretically, it makes sense to say that the more marked characteristics a player must accept in her avatar, the less capable she will be of identifying with the avatar and enjoying the game. What I hope is apparent here is that characteristics aren’t “marked” or “unmarked” universally, but individually; we each have our own experience-informed way of categorizing such things. Furthermore, it is not necessary or always desirable for players to control avatars that are similar to them. A small girl in a wheelchair, for instance, may not want to play an avatar with the same disability and may even be offended if someone just assumes she would. Tact seems to be utterly necessary in these situations. We must strike a careful balance between making a player feel included without making brash assumptions his or her preferences.

This point at last brings us to my analysis of the “issue” of gay characters in videogames. Let’s make a quick example: Cinemaware's Defender of the Crown. At one point in this game, the player is asked to rescue a maiden—a typical enough subplot in this genre of games. If the daring rescue is successful, the player is informed that he has fallen in love with the maiden (the romantic scene is ripped straight from the cheesiest of soap-operas and will not be described in detail here). Here are the possible women the player can rescue:

Composite illustration made from screenshots of Cinemaware's 'Defender of the Crown'

Screenshot from Cinemaware's 'Defender of the Crown'As a youth, I was happiest when I rescued Rosalind of Bedford, who is the most beautiful of the four. I can say that because I am exercising my personal taste. I enjoy women; there are four women, one of them is my favorite. But what if I were female? Ostensibly, that choice would have been ruled out at the beginning of the game, when the player is asked to choose among four male avatars. But what if I were gay? Conceivably, one of these avatars could be. No matter how many times someone plays Defender of the Crown, though, he will not be asked to rescue Prince Herbert.

The rescue of Prince Herbert from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'

Indeed, the reason why this famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is so amusing is that the viewer knows exactly what Sir Lancelot’s reaction will be to the “male maiden.”

Defender of the Crown assumes that the player is male and will enjoy marrying a beautiful princess; the game does not take into consideration a female nor a gay character. The game should probably carry a message on its package: “Not intended for gay or female characters.”

This seems like a tidy conclusion, and the answer to the Defender of the Crown problem is obvious: Make one of the personas gay, make another female, make one black, and so on, until every possible player “type” is represented. Unfortunately, this article was not prepared in time for Cinemaware to consider it for the revamped release; there, the persona selection is omitted entirely, and the player must choose Robin Hood. Efforts to include all player possibilities in other games have been of mixed success. Electronic Arts' The Sims Online has been noted for its inclusion of gay character possibilities, but I’ll let this The Sims Online fan speak on the matter, since I have so little experience with this line of games. From what I see, I’m not missing much.

One of the strengths of role-playing games is the emphasis on vicarious living; most often, players are given quite a bit of freedom in designing their own character—someone whom he or she can relate to, but also someone he or she would like to be. New World Computing's Might and Magic VII offers a wide enough selection, though no obvious gay characters are present and, in particularly bad taste, the default party has a single black character—who is a thief.

Box cover for Broderbund's 'Lode Runner'What I’m working with here is the vast body of classic and modern videogames. The question I’m asking is whether or not there are any games here that a non- straight-white male would want to play, and the answer is overwhelmingly yes. Most of the games I have in mind are “classic” games like Atari’s Asteroids, Taito’s Bubble Bobble, Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris, Broderbund’s Lode Runner, and so on—games whose “poor” graphics were actually wonderfully abstract and well-suited for the player of difference. Indeed, often the only player-specifications made in any of these games was on the front cover of the package—there we might see a man representing the Lode Runner, for instance. Without such redundant materials, anyone could have assumed the role of the Lode Runner; why did they just assume he would be a white male?

The reason is obvious. Young white males made up of the majority of the videogame buying public, so it only made sense to market exclusively to them. Consider that so many old videogame advertisements, whether for games or consoles, showed us a father and son enjoying a videogame while the mother and daughter sat back and watched. Computer Space, the first arcade game, featured this advertisement. The barefoot woman in the photograph seems to be offering herself as much as the arcade game; given this choice, I know of few men who would have sought change for a quarter. What all of this male-targeted marketing has created is a self-perpetuating demographic; new males are lured to videogames, but women, gays, and to some extent blacks, have been excluded. It is important here for the reader to realize that I am quite aware of the abundance of games featuring sexy female avatars; Eidos' Tomb Raider or Fear Effect 2 spring instantly to mind. However, the question I pose is whether Lara Croft and Rain are meant to appeal to young women who might identify with them, or young men with an appreciation for the well-endowed? For an idea of the problem I have in mind, imagine a game in which players were forced to choose a “Fabio” like main character wearing a thong. Screenshot from Sir-Tec's 'Druid: Daemons of the Mind'This kind of uncomfortable identification has been asked of women for too long in the videogaming world. Where are the games for “regular” girls, those without gigantic breasts and voluptuous lips? Indeed, one of the few avid female gamers I know personally constantly makes this complaint: “I have small breasts,” she tells me, “I don’t want to play a female character with heavy jugs; I just can’t relate to that.” It seems a female gamer would just about have to be gay to enjoy playing some of the modern games with female avatars. For the same reason that I wouldn’t want to play Fabio, she doesn’t want to play Lara. Fortunately for me, I can choose Sierra's Half-Life, whose main character bears a close enough resemblance to me for identification to take place.

Furthermore, regarding Fear Effect 2, I may as well describe my own prejudice concerning the presence of “lipstick” lesbians in videogames and movies. I have often discovered troves of lesbian pornography in my male friends’ adult film archives. When pressured, these friends revealed to me that they enjoy these films because they wish to avoid challenging their sexual identity by viewing other males having sex, especially when penises or other male parts are prominently displayed during the movie. For these sexually insecure individuals, women-only pornography is safer and more comfortable. Far from helping men grow more comfortable with alternative sexualities and ease “homophobia,” these “lesbian” films and games actually reinforce such tendencies. Any man who has actually had sex with a woman probably questions whether the women portrayed in these films are “real” lesbians, though trying to generalize or “essentialize” what it means to be a “real” lesbian is about as easy as deciding, once and for all, which game deserves the title of “Best Videogame Ever.”

Inconclusions

As I have tried to demonstrate in the above paragraphs, and in my previous article for Armchair Arcade, identification plays a major part in enjoying a videogame. If the game is abstract, like Tetris, identification takes place in the same way it does when we watch cartoons: We find enough of ourselves in the personalized features of the characters to identify with them. Readers of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics will understand what I mean when I say that identification becomes more difficult as the characterization becomes more realistic. I don’t want to go into great detail about Scott’s book here; any readers who found this article interesting should not waste time getting to the local bookstore (Graphic Novels section) and purchasing a copy of the book. Even though Scott is concerned with comics, we can practically take everything he says about them and apply it directly to videogames.

Let me give a quick example here, then I’ll try to live up to the feeling expressed in the above subtitle.

The smiley face

Consider a simple smiley face. The image is so abstract; so simple, so universal, that almost any human being can recognize him or herself within it. That smiley face is a sort of “essence” of a happy human face; all of the extra detail has been stripped away, and we are left with the simplest possible image that could evoke that recognition. Compare this simple smiley image with a photograph of the rather handsome young men below. We do not see “universal” humans there; rather, we see individuals, each with his own personality, life history, story, goals in life, and so on. If we were dealing with a small child, we could draw a smiley on a chalkboard and say “This is you!” I doubt the child would have much difficulty with the concept; indeed, small children frequently draw stick figures and claim that they are, “Mom, Dad, and me!” However, imagine trying to convince a child that one of the faces below was she. She would, hopefully, respond in the negative. What this demonstrates is that identifying with any particular avatar is easy or difficult depending on the relative abstraction of the avatar in question. The editorial staff of Armchair Arcade: Bill Loguidice, Matt Barton, and Buck Feris.In the case of an extreme abstraction, like the smiley face, identification is almost universal. However, if we put a bow and lipstick on that smiley, a yellow wedge becomes “Ms. Pac-Man,” a female, and thus allows a whole new sex to enjoy videogames (one wonders why Ms. Pac-Man was so popular with males as well as females; my thoughts are that the game was so abstractly represented that it did not cause any problems with identification. It probably helped that the game was particularly well-constructed and fun to play). Hans-Georg Gadamer, a famous German philosopher, speaks of this same situation in terms of a model versus a portrait in his book Truth and Method5. The idea there is that the model “is not meant as herself; she serves only to wear a costume or to make gestures clear,” whereas someone represented in a portrait is “so much himself that he does not appear to be dressed up” even if he is in an elaborate costume (128). An easy to way to imagine the distinction here is to consider a beautiful young girl in a leather jacket portrayed in a Macy’s catalog, and a Polaroid of that same young woman (perhaps in the same jacket) stored in a photo album at her mother’s house.

Let us return for a moment to the child being told that this image or that image is she. If we showed her a cartoon of a little girl, she’d probably agree. If, however, the cartoon had a feature that differed greatly from the girl; for instance, if it had four arms, or had an antenna jutting from her forehead, the girl would find identification harder, if not impossible. At this point, the parent could introduce a fictional explanation, as in, “Well, this is just a story of a little girl that one day woke to find herself with four arms,” and so on. This kind of “patch” is necessary for most games involving a very specific avatar; many games try to ease the identification by suggesting such a story: “In A.D. 2101. War was beginning,” we are told by the narrator of Toaplan’s Zero Wing (1989). Icom Simulations’ Deja Vu (1987) introduced a particularly clever scheme to explain the player’s presence; he has no clue why he’s there, either.

How can we get more women and gay gamers interested in videogames? Well, for starters, we can tell the marketing departments to stop privileging young, white males in their advertisements and start catering to a wider audience. To be fair, many companies have already taken this step, probably out of fear of the bogey-persons of political correctness.

Perhaps more important develop will be the need to create either very abstract avatars which anyone can identify with, or an abundance of avatars that cover most particularities. It is not true that a gay gamer would always want to choose a stereotypically “gay” avatar; the idea here is that enough choices would be present to include possibilities like playing black, female, gay, young, old, or even non-human avatars. So far, we have yet to see games where these choices have a real effect on the gameplay; interestingly, Curse of the Azure Bonds limited the strength of female avatars, but this “sexist” limitation has been quietly removed in later AD&D products. Should female avatars be more caring and compassionate than male avatars? Should black avatars be allowed to jump higher or run faster than their white counterparts? Should gay avatars be snappier dressers than “straight” avatars? Troubled waters lie ahead, for it seems impossible to ascribe any general characteristics to these groups without doing more harm than good!

Gay avatars are an inevitable development in the evolution of the videogame that will take place with or without this article. If we already see such possibilities opening up in even mainstream titles like The Temple of Elemental Evil, I doubt it will be long before even the idea of a fantasy role-playing game featuring only one white male avatar will seem a strange, misguided aspect of our distant past. Is this a good thing? Should we fight this trend or encourage it? I’d love to offer some general guidelines or at least some advice for game developers on this issue, but, as is perhaps more common in philosophy than we like, the issue only gets more confusing the more we try to analyze it. Perhaps the best approach would be to start talking to self-proclaimed gay persons and determine what they would like to experience in a videogame. To my knowledge, The Temple of Elemental Evil is the only mainstream computer role playing game that gives players a serious gay option without “forcing” gayness on a heterosexual player. Perhaps it will serve as a worthy model for games to come.


1 The Temple of Elemental Evil is actually a computer game conversion of a traditional pen-and-paper based D&D module. The village of Nulb was only “described in a limited fashion in the original module”, so the Troika team took significant liberties fleshing it out.

2 The ESRB, the board that rates videogames for suitability, elected to give The Temple of Elemental Evil a “Teen” rating, despite the gay marriage and homosexual innuendos.

3 A point has been made here concerning Edwin Abbot’s story Flatland, where points, lines, and geometric shapes are the only inhabitants of a fictional world. Even at this level of abstraction, personification helps the reader identify with the characters.

4 This is not to say that players who enjoy Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto III are necessarily felons. What it does say is those players who enjoy the game are able to at least imagine themselves in these situations, as I am easily able to imagine myself doing irreparable harm to anyone tailgating my vehicle. The player must say, “Given this context, I would act in this manner.”

5 Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad, 1985.