As Pride Month draws to a close, PocketGamer.biz's Lewis Rees takes a snapshot of 2023's inclusion picture so far and appraises where we're at and suggests where we need to go.
As a proud member of the queer community, it’s only in the past few years that I’ve started to see myself represented in the media. Outside of odd exceptions, it’s historically been rare for me to see someone like me in the shows I watch, the books I read, or the games I play, and now that I’m older I’m elated to see so many game makers make concerted efforts to portray the community in a nuanced and respectful way.
That’s not to say that we don’t have a long way to go. There’s a disturbing rift between how queer people are represented compared to cisgendered and heterosexual people. Certain parts of the community are frequently played for fanservice, and many creators across mediums - too often - define queer characters by their sexualities or gender identities - something I’ve come to call Neapolitan Representation.
In short, Neapolitan Representation is the systemic reduction in how members of the queer community are portrayed. If we think of representation as an ice cream bar, heterosexual and cisgendered people are given access to the entire bar, and able to find a combination of flavours and topping seemingly tailor made for them.
Meanwhile, queer people too often find themselves in a situation where they’re offered a single scoop of chocolate or strawberry and represented as binaries. Gay men and lesbians are masculine or feminine. Meanwhile trans people pass… Or they don’t.
It seems that right now our personalities are reduced to our sexualities or gender identities, and anything else that makes a person a person is thrown out the window. Even subtlety - or vanilla, in this metaphor - is rarely utilised, with creators preferring more in your face flavours that immediately grab the attention of consumers. Of course, there are people out there who love chocolate or strawberry, and more power to them, but the point is that we all deserve more than three arbitrary flavours to choose from.
Finding the answer
Perhaps most pertinently, there’s a sizable gap between mobile gaming and other platforms - something we’ve written about previously. Mobile’s accessibility seems to act as a double edged sword, as the worldwide popularity of the platform means developers may be reluctant to include queer characters or storylines which may cause controversy or earns bans in countries with restrictions on queer representation in the media.
June, Pride Month, has become a time where game makers worldwide highlight not just their queer characters but the community at large. Mobile gaming giants such as Zynga, Sybo and King routinely run events and make donations to non-profits to provide support for queer people around the world, and many others have been running in-game events to celebrate the queer community.
Of course, there are notable exceptions, and this does highlight that, as far as the world has come in terms of representing the queer community, there’s still room for improvement.
Why is Pride important?
The queer community still faces discrimination worldwide, up to and including capital punishment. At present, same sex marriage is legal in 34 countries around the world, whereas homosexuality itself is illegal in 68 countries - twice as many - and can lead to capital punishment in 11.
However, it’s important to remember that the queer community continues to exist in all of these countries, with most estimates stating that around 10% of the population falls somewhere on the spectrum - that includes countries where it’s illegal. To this day, nobody knows whether sexual orientation or gender identity are genetic or environmental, but the vast majority of people agree that it’s not a choice. Despite this, portions of the population of countries like Uganda, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia are faced with the difficult decision of whether to suppress who they are, leave their countries in an attempt to live authentically, or risk serious legal repercussions for something over which they have no control.
Pride is more than just pretty colours, parades, and an excuse to celebrate diversity - it’s a symbol of hope, and triumph over adversity. While some have criticised organisations worldwide for seemingly performative action in support of the queer community during June - something that has some basis occasionally, such as American retailer Target’s decision to roll back it’s Pride collection following backlash from right wing groups - but the fact remains that for a closeted teenager, seeing a queer character can make them feel accepted. Seeing a hero they admire support the community can make them feel seen. Having the chance to take part in an event, or even see a company throw their support behind the movement, can make them feel like the world is improving, and they can feel more comfortable in who they are.
No, the world isn’t perfect. It never will be. We’ll likely never fully eliminate discrimination or bigotry, and even well-meaning efforts to support the queer community will occasionally go awry - even those within the community aren’t necessarily immune from misfires. However, seeing a company support progressive causes can go a long way to fostering positive brand awareness, and vice versa. Just look at the criticism surrounding the release of Hogwarts: Legacy due to JK Rowling’s controversial views on the trans community for one example of the latter.
The world is growing more accepting, and the people within it are growing more concerned with how people are portrayed. 34 countries where same sex marriage is legal may seem like small beans - there are 197 countries in the world by most accounts, which means it’s legal in 17% - but prior to Netherlands legalising it in 2001, there were no countries which recognized same sex marriage at all. Seeing companies celebrate Pride month, or offering consumers a platform to celebrate it, can go a long way towards highlighting the diversity all around us and fostering inclusivity, while building a positive brand image.
And what does it mean for employees?
Study after study has shown a higher proportion of queer employees in gaming than in most fields, and as much as showing support for the playerbase is a definite boon, so too is showing support for the workforce. As a gay man, I’m open about my sexuality, but I’m very aware that I was fortunate to come up in a (mostly) accepting family, and while I have, of course, experienced homophobic abuse, up to and including workplace discrimination and even criminal action, I’m also fortunate that this is a rarity. For others, they don’t have the benefit of an accepting mother or sister. They don’t have the luxury of feeling safe disclosing their sexuality in public. For people like this, a workforce that goes out of its way to show it cares goes a long way towards fostering positivity, and perhaps even helping these people come to terms with themselves.
In short, a supportive work environment that not only acknowledges but celebrates our differences can make all the difference in acceptance, and can lead to a company being an attractive prospect for both members of marginalised communities and their allies. And by doing so that company will be seen more favourably by the increasing number of consumers who are concerned about diversity.