Comment & Opinion

Why won't developers let me be a gay Premier League footballer?

A fight for equality, or against apathy?

Why won't developers let me be a gay Premier League footballer?

My interests as a teenager were often some way off those of my friends.

While they had dreams of becoming world famous footballers, sleeping with as many women as they could and generally living the life pitched to them in 'lad mags', I was somewhat more design led. I was getting horny over old buildings, dreaming of designing my own and – if I was feeling particularly fruity - reading books on font design.

Oh, and those footballers they were looking to emulate? Lets just say that, in the case of a few prime picks, I appreciated them on an entirely different level.

In truth, growing up as a gay teenager caused no great divide between me and my heterosexual friends – this is no 'woe is me' tale – but one unifier was always video games. Whatever our particular likes and dislikes, a Mortal Kombat tournament or a four-player run on Micro Machines after school was sure to break down any barriers.

If I analyse it now, decades on, part of the appeal of most videogames for me was that they made no comment on characters' lives outside the game. I don't think it's especially unfair to suggest that, until the last two generations, most games weren't especially sophisticated when dealing with the lifestyles of their characters. As a result, the vast majority (though not all) simply didn't bother.

For me, taking on Mortal Kombat as Scorpion, Johnny Cage or even Goro (unlocked by the now infamous cheat that would crash my Mega Drive in roughly four seconds flat) made no comment on either the character's sexuality or mine. Games simply never dabbled in that field.

Lets vamp

Broadly speaking, my views haven't changed.

In the case of most games, I don't look for any facet of me to be mirrored by whomever I'm playing as on screen. I'm no more tied down to the idea of taking on the role of a gay character than I am playing as one with dark hair, brown eyes or a penchant for san-serif fonts. Just as in film, television or any other medium, I can relate to characters of all shapes and sizes, colours and genders.

On the flip side, however, I can't deny that the few times when I have come across characters that were anything other than 'heteronormal', my interest has been piqued.

I remember when games magazines first ran stories suggesting that Metal Gear Solid 2's Vamp was bisexual. Suddenly, Vamp's (albeit brief) appearance in play gained added significance – yes he played an assailant and, yes, he wasn't one of the game's lead, but he was at least an acknowledgement by Kojima and co. that life takes all shapes and forms. Characters don't, by default, have to be straight.

Likewise, for a long time I flirted with the idea of buying Rockstar's Bully – the game itself never particularly grabbed me, but the knowledge (as documented in many amusing YouTube videos) that you could romance boys as well as girls undoubtedly grabbed my attention.

Whether or not Bully's depiction of bisexuality was one to endorse is a question people would no doubt differ on to this day, but – perhaps wrongly - it still felt like progress.

Fast forward to 2014, and gay characters in games on any format remain a rare occurrence. It was a subject tackled at GDC in Manveer Heir of BioWare Montreal's talk, where it was suggested that developers and publishers across all formats are unwilling to take the 'risk' of hanging their game on a gay character for fear it will alienate a mainstream audience.

Mobile, however, could be something of a special case. As indies will attest, it's now possible to find potent player bases away from the masses, with niches of all kind earning their money back and more on smartphones and tablets.

You don't have to be Candy Crush or Clash of Clans to make a living on mobile. Creative 'risks', therefore, don't appear to be the difference between success or failure.

Making the break

Indeed, any platform that plays host to indie studios automatically benefits from games that, from a creative standpoint, are more willing to break away from the norm.

Follow that line of thought, and you might think mobile would be the perfect environment for games that dabble sexuality to flourish. Yet – and this may be down to my own ignorance – I struggle to think of all too many indie hits that feature gay or bisexual characters at their heart, or even in passing.

No longer can we use the excuse that games don't make any comment on a character's sexuality, either. Even supposedly casual or mid-core games are increasingly delving into such areas.

That fact came to my attention via a Twitter conversation between the New Star Soccer account and one of the game's fans. In response to the question 'tell us the three words you'd use to describe your New Star Soccer player', said fan offered the following in jest: "Turned gay, endless-wannabe-gold-digging-girlfriends".

It was a tweet made not in reference to a bona fide facet of gameplay, but rather the fact that keeping girlfriends happy in New Star Soccer inevitably revolves around regularly showering them with gifts and trinkets – an approach that's intentionally reliant on stereotypes in itself.

Nonetheless, though the tweet in question was lighthearted in nature, it still made me question (and, as a result, pose in reply) just why you can't you play as a gay footballer in New Star Soccer.

Out and proud Premier League footballers may be an unnaturally rare breed – well, non existent, in fact – but even the most rudimentary handle on statistics would suggest every club has at least one gay or bi player on its books, if not more. So, why is this not represented in play?

Star turn

For New Star Games, the decision to leave out gay and bi players was not an intentional one, but rather one due to both limited time and resources.

"New Star Soccer is first and foremost a game about the professional aspect of playing football," the developer offered us in a statement in a reply to my concerns.

"Footballers aren't normally defined by their personal relationships or sexuality: they’re mostly defined by how good they are at football and that is therefore the focus of the game. The fact that the game doesn't contain broader content in certain areas of sexuality, religion and race doesn't indicate anything positively or negatively about those aspects.

"However, if we find out that there is a demand for players to choose their sexual orientation then we would of course look into that, using the same criteria used when considering adding any new feature to a game."

Essentially, like free-to-play, to have included anything other than heterosexual players in New Star Soccer would have required the game to have been coded in such a way from the start – something the developer indicated on Twitter. Like free-to-play, if you're going to be gay you've got to be gay from the get go, to put it crudely.

Does a lack of demand from players mean a developer shouldn't include gay characters? I'm starting to think not.

But in that statement, New Star Games has perhaps unintentionally got straight to the heart of the issue: an apparent lack of demand.

Are New Star Soccer players ever likely to request the game include the ability to play as a gay or bi footballer in a significant number? It doesn't seem likely. Nevertheless, does that mean New Star Games shouldn't alter its approach anyway? I'm starting to think not.

We can't afford to underestimate the impact games, mobile or otherwise, have on society's perception of the people they represent – or, indeed, the people they don't. Intentional or not, New Star Soccer's sole focus on heterosexual players makes a comment on the sport – a declaration that footballers are, and can only ever be, straight. It's an issue other football franchises, such as FIFA or PES, avoid commenting on simply by not cover touching on any element of a player's life other than their time on the pitch.

New Star Soccer, however, brilliantly bases a core element of its play around romantic relationships, and although I don't think this illustrates any kind of stance on sexuality by the development team behind it, I do think criticisms of this approach are utterly valid.

Bully for you

If we are to ever get to a stage where gay characters in games aren't seen as pieces of titillation – as in Bully – or simply unusual facets of play, developers have to do one thing and one thing only: start depicting gay characters in games.

For me, it doesn't matter if only 0.05 percent of New Star Soccer's player base ever choose to 'go gay', the option should still be there, simply because gay players are not only possible, they're also likely to be highly common.

And this is where my stance has shifted since I was a teenager. Games have changed. Games deal with issues. Games deal with life. I still don't need to see replications of myself in play in order to engage with characters – Assassin's Creed's Ezio is undoubtedly one of my favourite game leads of recent years, yet you could write the things we have in common on the back of a stamp – but I'm likewise less willing to tolerate a mass of games that seem determined to suggest I don't exist.

Critics will suggest that I'm calling for change for change's sake here, and I'm understandably wary of demanding that developers start including gay characters just to tick boxes – token representation is arguably more damaging than no representation at all. But, right now, the fact that many games that do touch on relationships feel there's no demand to represent anything other that heterosexuality shouldn't stand.

Equality comes not from hitting a set quota of 'gay games', but from a desire for homosexual or bisexual characters to be entirely unremarkable. Passé. Dull, even. To get there, however, will require a clutch of developers to do what the big boys claim is simply too much of a 'gamble' – to represent the whole spectrum of sexuality in play where appropriate.

I'm counting on mobile developers to fuel that fight in the coming months and years. If the last five or so years have proved anything, it's that the topsy turvy world of mobile has little time for those unwilling to lead the way.


With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.