From Bullies to Heroes: Homophobia in Video Games
Due to the lack of homosexual characters in mainstream video games, there are very few positive references to homosexuality. If a homosexual male avatar is present in a video game, he is usually portrayed as flamboyant, feminine, and unable to fend for himself. There are, however, an abundant amount of tough, courageous male avatars who celebrate heterosexuality in the form of saving damsels in distress. These male avatars are not afraid to use violence, weapons, and curses to win over their true love, which usually ends in the gamer beating the video game. One only has to look so far as Super Mario Brothers, in which the protagonist Mario vies for the safety and love of Princess Peach. If the gamer completes the adventure, Mario and Princess Peach will live happily ever after. But why can’t it be the other way around? Female superheroes rescuing their Prince Charming? Male heroes rescuing and falling in love with other men? Isn’t it safe to assume that various gay gamers could relate to a love between two women or two men? Despite the amount of gay gamers, they are grossly unrepresented in the gaming world.
In a 2006 survey conducted by the University of Illinois, Jason Rockwood wanted to explore the social and behavioral demographics of GLBT video game players (Sliwinski 1). The first of its kind, Rockwood hoped to prove that gay gamers did exist. He insisted that, “Yeah it sounds ridiculous, but that’s where you have to start on something like this. This survey is an attempt to quantify the existence of an invisible minority” (Sliwinki 1). Being an invisible minority, you are often times forgotten; your views, ideals, and concerns are not perceived as legitimate, and are therefore not taken seriously. By conducting this survey, Rockwood unveiled the overwhelming number of gay gamers that otherwise would have been unnoticed. Video games used to predominately be played by heterosexual white males in an effort to find comfort, to escape reality, and be a part of a world where they are celebrated.
These gamers could be found at every corner of the world, every walk of life. They were the nerds, the geeks, and the outcasts. Disillusioned by reality, they were consumed in a fantasy world that became their truth. Thus, it was not a surprise that the avatars featured in these video games reflected these males in their actions, looks, and style. As the title suggests, Jason Hsu’s blog found on Live Science entitled, “Video Games Lack Female and Minority Characters (2009),” Hsu questions why there is a lack of minority and female avatars in mainstream video games. He states, “Female and Latino gamers in particular would have a hard time finding their virtual counterparts despite each representing major players of video games” (Hsu 1). Hsu goes on to blame the lack of diverse avatars to video game manufacturers and developers. He writes, “That suggests video game developers could have overlooked a hugely underserved group of customers, especially if they wrongly assume that the average video gamer remains a white male” (Hsu 1).
As the popularity of video games grow, the average gamer is no longer your stereotypical heterosexual white male. Instead the average gamer comes in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and sexual orientation. It is easy to see this by simply looking at websites such as Gaymer.net, Lesbiangamers.com, and Girlgamer.com which celebrates being different in an otherwise homogeneous society. In a 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Internet Project, researchers studied the race of several avatars from 150 of the best selling video games. Even though female make up thirty-eight percent of all gamers, just 15% of all avatars are female (Hsu). The survey also concluded 82.9% of avatars are white and just 2.6% of all avatars are Latino, even though Latinos make up 12.5% of gamers (Hsu).
This survey clearly shows a gross misrepresentation when it comes to minorities and females. Although this survey does not discuss queer avatars, just by playing any popular games, one can see how predominately heterosexual the vast majority of avatars are. Once it is proven that there are gay, female, and minority gamers, shouldn’t avatars start reflecting this truth? Yet, Rockwood’s survey was conducted nearly four years ago, while the Pew Internet Project was concluded in 2008. Many gay and minority gamers blame this on game manufacturers who are predominately white heterosexual males. Hsu wonders if this is why white avatars predominate in video games. He also believes the lack of female avatars represent the lack of female game developers in the gaming world (Hsu 1).
Gamers want to be able to relate to the characters they play, so why shouldn‘t it be any different for video game developers and the avatars he or she creates? Although the lack of homosexual representations in video games are common, there are creators and manufacturers out there who appreciate diversity and individuality. They are creating avatars that are every day people who just happened to like the same sex. In some cases, the public is unaware of their homosexuality until they are starring it straight in the face. In other cases, their homosexuality is visible and unapologetic.
It is these games that are paving the way for a more homosexual equality in video games. Lesbian game designer, Anna Anthropy states in an interview with Lesbiangamers.com, “Right now amateur game developers are gaining more and more avenues for telling their own stories; if there are going to be more stories about queer women in games, they’re going to be written by queer women in an environment where their visions aren’t tempered by the demands of marketing” (Lesbiangamers.com 1). Although these games might stir up controversy by mainstream society, it does not stop the game from winning prestigious gaming awards and widespread success. Bully, also known as Canis Canem Edit (Dog Eat Dog) outside of North America is a third person action-adventure video game released by RockStar Vancouver on October 17, 2006 for Playstation II. Created by Jeronimo Barrera, Bully focuses on Jimmy Hopkins, your everyday boy who must earn his way through a fake New England boarding school called Bullsworth Academy. The gamer must complete a series of missions and mini-games in order to advance in the game.
The games represent popular high school classes such as English and Chemistry. Achieving high grades in these classes allow Jimmy to gain abilities such as being able to make stink bombs and itching powder or being able to apologize to cops. Some of the missions are socially driven, such as getting chocolates for a girl. If you succeed you get to kiss her. Recently, a controversy surrounding Bully occurred when Jimmy Hopkins was able to kiss a male student. Parents and gamers alike were upset that the creators and manufacturers would allow a same-sex kiss on a rated T (for teen) video game. Anti-video game activist and lawyer, Jack Thompson, tried unsuccessfully to prevent Bully from reaching Florida gamers, while Yahoo! Games listed it as one of the top ten controversial games of all time (Silverman 1). When Thompson attempted to prevent Bully from reaching gamers in Florida one of his main concerns was the homosexual kiss. Although at this time gay marriage was legal in Massachusetts, Thompson had a very hard time accepting a gay kiss in a mainstream video game that would be distributed to a vast majority of gamers around the country.
Neither the creators or manufacturer of Bully expected the instant controversy the game received immediately after it’s release. In an interview with gaming website 1up.com Barrera explained, "You know we didn’t think it was going to make such a big stir. It’s one of those things where we treat the ability to give the player as many choices as they can in the game. It’s one of those things we felt balanced the game out. So we put it in. We didn’t think people were going to go so crazy for it. Honestly it was like, '“If you can kiss the girls, why not be able to kiss another boy?"' Unfortunately, Barrera is one of the few creators who feels this way. Who can blame them when there is a mass of homophobia sweeping the gaming world? In a survey featured by Whattheyplay.com (Table 1A), an American gaming website geared towards parents, asked its participants what they as parents find most offensive in video games. The four choices the parents could choose from were; A graphically severed human head, A man and woman having sex, Multiple use of the F-word, and Two Men Kissing. Although (Table 1A) parents agreed sexual intercourse was the most offensive act in a video game (37%), two men kissing beat out a graphically severed head by 1%. Parents did not want their children to witness two men kissing, but found death, violence, and gore slightly more appropriate for their children.
What was more alarming was a Norwegian gaming site posing the same question (Table 1B) for Norwegian parents. The choices were the same but the outcome extremely different. Results showed an overwhelming 65.8% found a graphically (Table 1B) severed head to be the most offensive act in a video game. Two men kissing came in second with 24.9%. It is as if parents are so desensitized to violence and gore in video games that a severed head is a common occurrence. It is as though violence in movies, comic books, and video games are acceptable, while two men kissing are not nearly as visible in these outlets and therefore seen as strange and baffling. Gamers used to play video games in the comfort of their own home, but in the past few years a surge in online gaming communities have soared due to the internet. Blogs on video games have become popular as well as forums and message boards discussing video games. In an article entitled, “Impact of Homophobia in Virtual Communities” featured on Kotaku.com by Justin J. Cole, Cole states, "…similar to other forms of mass medium entertainment-like music, books, and movies-the new frontier create by advances in technology, especially Internet technology, has increased ability to transmit our voices, images, and ideas. But it has also come with a great capacity to harass, bully, and spread prejudices- often times with little-to-no repercussions." (Cole 1)
These online communities, although a community in their own right, might not always foster enthusiasm and acceptance when it comes to diversity. The internet can be a wonderful learning tool, yet as Cole pointed out, it can be a breading ground for harassment and prejudice. On a video game discussion board, a parent, Martin Varsavsky was surprised and upset when a male character proposed to his thirteen-year-old son’s male avatar in the popular video game Fable. Released September 14, 2004 by Big Blue Box and Lionhead Studios to Xbox, Fable was a much anticipated game thanks to Lionhead creator Peter Molyneux's constant publicity. The role playing game (a video game in which the gamer assumes the role of a fictional character) takes place in the fantasy world called, Albion The story centers around an orphan boy who dreams of becoming a hero. Gamers must go on quests that will ultimately tell him the truth about his past. Along the way to achieving these quests, the Hero can explore towns, go on missions to gain weapons, money, and strength as well as commodities such as food, clothes, and even tattoos. It is the gamer’s decision whether or not his or her avatar is good or evil. Heroes physically change to mirror the choices the gamer has decided for his or her avatar. Thus, if the gamer decides his/her Hero is evil, the gamer’s avatar will have red eyes, dark armor, and horns. If the hero is good, he will don blond hair and bright armor.
Along the quest, the hero meets many townspeople, and is allowed to form friendships and even romance. This is where the controversy begins. The gamer’s male avatar is allowed to court and eventually marry male or female avatars. Varsavsky admits in his post, '“As much as I endorse gay marriage in real life among consenting adults I am not sure that I endorse gay characters proposing to my son.”' This is an attempt to illustrate the binary separating heteronormative society and queer culture. It is a common trait between heterosexuals to pretend to accept queer culture, yet, when queer culture is proposing to the individual’s thirteen-year-old son, that acceptance disintegrates rather quickly.
Molyneux, the creator of Fable, defended his decision to include same-sex marriages in an interview with gaygamer.net. Molyneux was congratulated by the website for scripting same-sex marriages into the actual video game. In response, Molyneux declared, “A lot of time when you do things, you do them by accident. It just seemed right-it wasn’t something I sat down and deeply thought about” (gaygamer.net 1). Molyneux’s ability to see past the binary between heteronormative and queer culture, his ability to see the barely visible gray lining that every binary is sure to have, proved a stepping stone to one day fuel the two cultures together to form a culture void of hatred, racism, and homophobia. Although not about homophobia in video games, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s theoretical piece “Sex in Public” (1998), taken from the journal Critical Theory, offers insight on why homophobia is a recurring theme in online gaming communities. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner discuss what it means to be immersed in Queer culture in a heteronormative world.
Berlant and Warner’s essay predominately discusses intimacy in both a public and private setting. They compare heteronormative society’s fixation with private sex and their obsession with public sex that is so many times linked to queer culture. Their argument represents the constant negative attention queer culture has garnered from society. Queer culture is often misrepresented as the counter culture of heteronormative society, even though Berlant an Warner would disagree. By heteronormative; Berlant and Warner state it is, "...the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent--this is, organized as a sexuality -- but also privileged…It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine than of a sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations--often unconscious, immanent to practice or to institutions." (Berlant and Warner 548) Heteronormative culture is what society deems normal and is distinct from heterosexuality. These ideals are built around morality and a sense of what is right. These mores encompass everyday tasks such as making your bed in the morning, going to college, or even getting married. As a person living in a heteronormative society, we are expected to believe in these ideals. By practicing these ideals, we are able to be successful, happy, and accepted in life (Berlant and Warner 549). Furthermore these ideals are considered to be the only way to be content with life. Berlant and Warner argue against this theory. They ask their readers what happens when we don’t take cues from the heteronormative life that surrounds us? As a result, many people are ready to start a discourse on Berlant and Warner’s idea of a combined culture, yet too many are refusing. As a result, heteronormative culture still remains privileged in society while queer culture struggles to break free from its counter-culture label.
Many people recognize queer culture by drag queens flaunting and cruising. But what happens when it is not that easy to differentiate between heteronormative and queer culture? What started out as a private space, video games, continue to develop into a public place where people can interact and play together on the internet. While once the domain of straight white teenagers, families are now bonding over Wii Tennis or the Super Mario Brothers. With games such as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, that cross the threshold of private and public space, the average gamer can now communicate outside their homes to gamers across the world. With Online Gaming Communities, video games become a public space where heteronormative and queer culture collide. When queer culture seems to infiltrate heteronormative society, society has a history of pushing it back. This can be seen with same-sex marriages, openly gay athletes, and anybody consumed by queer culture. Berlant and Warner conclude this is because, “National heterosexuality is the mechanism by which a core national culture can be imagined as a sanitized space of sentimental feeling and immaculate behavior, a space of pure citizenship" (Berlant and Warner 549). Those engulfed in a heteronormative society see queer culture as not only a threat socially, but morally. Queer culture must be stopped at all costs, even if it means censoring queer themes from video games.
In 1988, Super Mario Brothers 2 included a character called Birdo. In the instruction manual for the game the character Birdo is described as being a male who wants to be female. Furthermores he wishes to be called Birdetta. When the game was distributed by Nintendo, Birdo was nowhere to be found in the game. In 1991, Sega released Streets of Rage 3. A gay villian was removed from the game and a transsexual villain was changed to male and given long hair. Video developers and manufacturers attempted and often times succeeded in eliminating queer themes and culture from video games, afraid of the reaction from the heteronormative gamers, investors, and advertisers. By removing all traces of queer culture from these games, gay gamers are alienated not only from public spaces such as online video game communities but also private spaces such as their homes.
Video games appeal to numerous gay gamers because the individual’s avatar allows the gay gamer to hide his or her true identity. Avatars allow the gamer to be who ever he or she wants to be. The gamer can conquer worlds, put curses on villains, or score the winning touchdown, regardless of his or her sexuality. These fantasy worlds provide the gamer with a temporary way out of their lives. Unfortunately, video game communities are a different story. Video game communities are known to be not only homophobic, but racist as well. In the same survey from the University of Illinois, homophobic gamers were found in online gaming communities. A overwhelming 52.7% of the study concluded that gaming communities are “somewhat hostile” to gay and lesbian gamers while 14% would say the communities are “very hostile.” When asked how frequent players experienced homophobia, 42% said “Always” or “Frequently” while 32.5% answered “Sometimes.” Furthermore, when asked what forms of homophobia the gamer has experienced in the online gaming community the majority of responses included fellow gamers saying, '“that’s so gay”' and making derogatory comments pertaining to homosexuals (Cole 1). These statistics are a solid indication that homophobia does exist in the online gaming community. Berlant and Warner believe that if heteronormative society knew the emotional pain these derogatory comments, such as “Faggot” and “Queer”, caused gay gamers, they might think twice before articulating them. They argue a person cannot imagine cruelty that he or she has never and will never experience (Berlant and Warner 556). When almost half of the gamers surveyed say they persistently experience homophobia in gaming communities, there is a problem. Furthermore, 25% of all gamers are younger than eighteen (Cole 1).
Teenagers are very impressionable, so it is not a surprise that when a teenager hears a multitude of fellow gamers use words such as “gay” and “queer” in derogatory ways, homophobia will set in. In order to socially fit in with his or her peers, the gamer will include these derogatory words in their every day vocabulary. The gamer is ultimately afraid if he or she does not, they will be targeted and these words will be directed at them. If a solution is not acted upon quickly, homophobia will rapidly spread through not only the online gaming community but into every day discourse.
Many gaming communities and forums attempt to discourage the use of derogatory words, but due to their inadequate efforts, homophobia is free to run rampant and can often cause violence. Berlant and Warner argue if gamers in the heteronormative society experienced these threats and harassment, those in charge of the online gaming communities would adapt stricter harassment policies. In reality, there are numerous laws to protect families, a direct result of the heteronormative institution of marriage. Berlant and Warner give the example of senators refusing to endorse amendments that, “promote, disseminate, or produce materials that are obscene or that depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual or excretory sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sexual intercourse“ (Berlant and Warner 550). These senators hoping to further secure the heteronormative culture smother out any alternative way of sex that is not solely for reproduction- the only form of sex that is moral acceptable in a heteronormative society.
Online gaming communities mirror reality, for although there are many policies in place, these policies are not enough to curb homophobia and hatred inside an online community. Cole states getting rid of homophobia is not an easy task, yet something must be done. In his Guest Op/Ed in Kotaku.com entitled “The Impact of Homophobia in Virtual Communities (2009),” Cole states, "…similar to other forms of mass medium entertainment-like music, books, and movies-the new frontier created by advances in technology, especially internet technology, has increased ability to transmit our voices, images, and ideas. But it has also come with a greater capacity to harass, bully, and spread prejudices- often times with little-to-no repercussions (nap)." Using the internet allows a visibility cloak to users. They can be themselves or adapt a personality opposite of their own without running the risk of other users finding out their true identities. The down side is that these voice transmitters allow threats, hostile remarks, and derogatory discourse. Gay gamers have little options. They can either appear “normal” and well adapted in this heteronormative culture, or be forced to create their own communities- one of acceptance and void of threats and bullying.
Berlant and Warner would not find this surprising. In talking about gay neighborhoods being wiped out and adult bookstores that once were safe spaces for gay men to meet and converse closing, Berlant and Warner insist, “Now, gay men who want sexual materials or who want to meet other men for sex will have two choices: they can cathect the privatized virtual public of phone sex and the internet; or they can travel to small, inaccessible, little-trafficked, badly lit areas, remote from public transportation an away from any residences, mostly on the waterfront, where heterosexual porn users will also be relocated an where the risk of violence will consequently be higher" (Berlant and Warner 551). Gaymer.net, Lesbiangamers.com and numerous other video game websites geared at queer culture would not have to exist if they were granted a voice on heteronormative websites. Communities comes in all different forms, but unfortunately to be allowed into a heteronormative community, gamers must follow heteronormative rules and regulations. Anyone who does not abide by these rules are cast out of the community by harassment, bullying, and alienation. Many gay gamers wonder how long this segregation will last. Unfortuately, Berlant and Warner agree that as long as heteronormative culture prevails, the idea of an equal community is “unimaginable” (Berlant and Warner 557). Queer culture will always been seen as the counter-culture and inferior to the dominant heteronormative society. Until queer culture manages to infiltrate this society, segregation will always take place in public spaces. Not including queer characters within video games will just further the segregation, and the more segregated communities get, the harder it is to unite them.
In order to achieve this utopia of a combined culture, it is essential that gay gamers must stop living within the boundaries of their heteronormative society. By hiding their true identities, hatred, racism, and homophobia will continue to run rampant. Acceptance in video games will not only pave the way for this future culture, but eventually lead to it’s success. One cannot argue that the way queer avatars are treated in video games mirrors reality. Gay gamers are constantly trying to prove themselves, yet they are forever inferior to the dominant hegemony, which in this case happens to be white, male, and heterosexual.
Fortunately, this is not to say that progress is not being made. Popular games such as World of Warcraft and The Sims are breaking grounds for unapologetically including queer avatars within the video games. Although not acknowledged in the heteronormative world, there will always be queer communities in which queer culture is not only practiced but celebrated. Video games such as Fable or Bully pioneered their way through heteronormative society. Slowly but steadily, these games started expanding the gray area between the heterosexual and homosexual binary in hopes that one day that binary between the two cultures will not exist. In it’s place- perpetual gray. Bullying, racism, and hatred do not have to exist, but it won’t stop overnight. Creators and manufacturers’ acceptance of queer culture will eventually help the fusion between the two cultures, the two binaries, and make one culture that is celebrated for the love in it.
Berlant, Lauren and Warner, Michael. “Sex in Public.” Critical Theory. Winter 1998: 547-556.
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