Mobile Mavens

Gay people in games: Industry experts call on devs to "share stories of diversity"

Our Mavens give their take on this week's burning issue

Gay people in games: Industry experts call on devs to "share stories of diversity"

Last week took on the issue of the representation of gay people in games front and centre, and we were keen to find out what our experts – the Mavens – made of it.

As a result, we asked them to speak as openly and honestly as they dared about whether the representation of gay people in games is a genuine issue, or whether it's actually a non-debate.

Even more interestingly, we also floated the idea as to whether this is an area where mobile could lead the way.

In short, we asked our Mavens, why do you think gay characters are so rare in games and what can we do to change that?


Will Luton Luton & Son Founder

This is a huge issue. It's more than an issue of gay representation - games are way behind in the way it represents gender, sex and sexuality in comparison to TV, for example.

The problem, I believe, stems from existing design paradigms defined by ingrained heteronormative culture. I've spent a bunch of time thinking about this as a designer and there's a set of ideals I have when I attempt to design games that use gender or sexuality. I don't always achieve these ideals, however.

The first ideal is to not ask the player their gender or to choose the gender of their character. Often this is really the question "which body type would you like?" for avatar dressing. Pokémon's "Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?" for example normalises the notion that there are two discrete genders.

However, unless an avatar's default is suitably androgynous, it's very hard for a player not to make a gender assumption.

The problem stems from existing design paradigms defined by ingrained heteronormative culture.
Will Luton

Secondly, if there is sex or there are relationships in the game then not only should the player be allowed two choose to pursue that with either gender, but they should be able to change their choice of partner gender throughout the game.

These ideals are often difficult to fit within design system that are well trodden, but can function. In the example of New Star Soccer I suggest the way you'd over come the problems of allowing gay relationships is with a bunch of simple changes:

  • In real world football there are distinct male and female leagues and divisions, so it could be argued for the inclusion of the gender choice at the outset. My understanding is that the only impact the choice has is the language used in reference to the player and the player's partners.
  • As the game already has boyfriends and girlfriends, rather than being given a boyfriend or girlfriend based on the player gender choice, the player is approached by both genders and makes the decision on which gender they would like.

In more linear, narrative-led games where the designer themselves choose the gender and relationship of characters then things are easier.

It's worth noting there's a queer games scene that makes games specifically about LGBT life and relationships. These however are niche titles for small audiences, but undoubtedly will impact mainstream games.

Tracy Alan Developer Relations

Great topic and cheers to Keith Andrew and the Pocket Gamer editorial team for running the editorial.

I have to agree with Will Luton about games being behind the times when it comes to handling of gender, sexuality, etc. It's a broad topic, to be certain.

There are many reasons why GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) characters, stories, and themes have been lacking in games to date, but I feel the only way to change that is for those of us in the community to insist on change.

Only we can share our stories, the experiences we uniquely have. They are stories of diversity, strength, sadness, loss, discrimination, love. Unfortunately, we are so used to being pushed to the margins that it sometimes feels natural to stay quiet.

GLBT stories and characters are usually never heard because they're never told. It's up to us to share these experiences - only then can everyone else begin to understand the uniqueness of the GLBT perspective and how it fits into the greater human picture.

John Ozimek Co-founder Big Games Machine

John is co-founder of PR and marketing company Big Ideas Machine. Also an all-round nice guy...

The games industry does seem to be slow in comparison to other forms of mass entertainment media to broaden the characterisations of its products away from a homogenised view of what Caucasian men aged 15-35 want to see.

Perhaps the closest trajectory to games is the comics industry, where the domination of the main publishing houses took decades to be effectively challenged and create characters and storylines that reflect far more the lives that their readers understand.

Batwoman being revealed as gay is something that DC Comics has been widely praised for.
John Ozimek

I doubt the writers and artists that created Super Man as a piece of anti-communist, pro-Americana propaganda would have imagined that 50 years later people would be protesting over the anti-gay views of its guest writer. But now there’s an incredibly vibrant indie comic scene, plus major characters have been given GBLT stories; Batwoman being revealed as gay is the obvious one that comes to mind, and something that DC Comics has been widely praised for.

However, we do live in a hit-driven industry, so I do wonder how inclined major publishers really are to offer more than token gestures, usually in the form of choices the player makes from the menu rather than the actual storylines or game worlds.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and in the next instalment of Call Of Duty the lead characters will finally come out? After all, it’s just a bit too macho to take seriously…

Oscar Clark Chief Strategy Officer Fundamentally Games

Oscar Clark has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also author of the book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.

I suspect, like me, a lot of white hetromale game designers, no matter how liberal minded we are, feel ill equiped to do justice to the subject.

However, even if true that doesn't explain things. There are gay people in this industry who are open about their identity and still we don't see the issue getting the same priority we have in other media.

I wonder if there was something about the traditional games development/retail infrastructure, commercial imperative, and the historic focus on a hetromasculine hardcore audience that held back creativity, limiting the tales we have told in games.

But with the digital evolution of games for mobile, console and online, these shackles have somewhat been removed. The Facebook Social game allowed us to see a mass market audience for the first time. This has given us more reach and a more diverse audience.

Is it possible that it's only now that we have an indie scene and open access to markets that we are capable of finding a way to use games as medium to explore the topic?

I'm not saying that is an excuse for missing out any minority from a game based on gender; ability; race or sexuality (etc) but I'm wondering if that's an explanation.

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

I think that's the key, Oscar. This feels to me like an area where mobile can lead.

It's about time we stopped pitching homosexuality as something unusual.
Keith Andrew

It's entirely possible for mobile games to find an audience sizeable enough to bring in money without having to go utterly mainstream. Therefore, the line that the big boys on console use that mainstream gamers simply wouldn't want to play as a gay character or even be offered the option (which I don't really believe, to be honest) doesn't really have a role here.

But, by the same respect, I don't want a massive movement. My motivation for the original editorial was that I was annoyed that a game where being able to be gay would have no great impact on the gameplay hadn't taken the option to do so.

New Star Games has since offered me an explanation as to why that is so, but I think moving forward, it's about time we stopped pitching homosexuality as something unusual - however accepting of it we are - and instead treat is as something every day, something run-of-the-mill, something utterly ordinary.

David MacQueen Executive Director Strategy Analytics

Broadly, it’s a source of constant disappointment to me that the characters in games are typically white, male, hetero, psychopathic killers.

Even thinking of a triple-A mass appeal title that isn’t strictly about killing, such as Uncharted 2 (which I finished recently) where the character is supposed to be a “nice” guy, you have to kill literally hundreds of people to finish the game. Nice? Not really.

Games as a medium seem stuck in a sort of Hollywood-blockbuster mentality. The "extras" (or NPCs in the case of games) are only there as cannon fodder for the protagonist.

Should we be calling out Uncharted's Drake for being too generic?

There are a few exceptions in gaming that explore moral choices and it’s often those richer titles where you may see some exploration of societal themes such as moral choices, racism, sexuality – I’m thinking of a few Bioware titles for example.

So far the hits from indie development community are often more like abstract art, or at least that’s my impression. Limbo, Badland, World of Goo, Super Meat Boy, Papa Sangre, Braid, Euphoria - it’s more about the gameplay and art style than anything else.

Not that I’m complaining about them, they’re great games. The point I’m driving toward is that in a smaller game there’s maybe not a lot of scope for exploring the character - maybe it takes a budget like Bioware had/has to create something where these sorts of societal themes do get explored. So I’m unconvinced that mobile (despite a largely indie scene) is necessarily going to explore those topics more than other platforms. I won’t be holding my breath.

That said, there’s always things like Papers, Please to prove me wrong. Not that it’s on mobile, but it’s more in that sort of development budget range. So maybe there is some hope after all.

Jared Steffes Co-founder Muxy

I agree with David that story telling may require a certain amount of 'horsepower' (money, skill, engine, length of game) in respect to how deep we understand a game character.

Every person should have the opportunity to be represented.
Jared Steffes

Otherwise it is left up to the player's imagination to fill in the blanks about the character and stereotypes are developed if it is a poor job of representation . The Last of Us made me feel uncomfortable because I was forced to play like the main character was cast. It was very lifelike to me.

To my point, I believe we have finally progressed as developers and as consumers to accept deep engagement with non-stereotypical acceptance into real life. It's like when my generation found out the rock musician Alice Cooper was a very intelligent person via the movie Wayne's World.

Yes, there are gay gamers. Yes, every person should have the opportunity to be represented. I see it coming as more people are free to be who they really are and begin developing games that represent gay gamers.

Over the past week I found these two flyers in San Francisco and got to talk to some gamers about this subject. It was really interesting and mindful.


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