After a few minutes on Xbox Live, you’re likely to be convinced that the gaming community is rabidly homophobic. The frequency with which players casually fling around words like “fag,” “homo” and “gay” as insults is enough to deter all but the most thick-skinned gay gamers from joining in the fun. But there’s a more subtle bias against homosexuality that’s long been the norm in the games industry: the near absence of gay characters in single-player games.

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It’s an issue that has come into greater focus as videogames have aspired to tell more complex stories with more nuanced characters. But despite these goals, the experiences that designers have created for players are too often limited to a heterosexual male perspective. It’s a double-edged sword: Designers are reluctant to include homosexuality in their games because many people would object to being forced to play a gay character. Flip that issue around, though, and you realize how unfair this is to gay gamers, who must play as heterosexual characters if they want to play at all.

“I can’t recall off the top of my head any games that blatantly expressed homophobic comments or ideals. But the fact that there were no games depicting gays was a milder form of silent homophobia that the industry suffered from as a whole,” says George Skleres, a game designer who happens to be gay. “It definitely sends a message to people who play a lot of games that ‘normalcy’ is being white and heterosexual, because the hero is always white and heterosexual.”

Chris Vizzini, founder of gaymer.org, echoes Skleres’ sentiments. “I would like to have the option to choose to be a gay character and have it smoothly integrate into the storyline,” he says. “We just want to be included without ridicule.”

Unfortunately, such characters are a rarity. When games do feature gay characters, it’s often in a harmful light. “Sometimes we are negatively stereotyped,” says Vizzini. “Case and point would be Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. There is a guy depicted as a swishy queen roller-skating down the street in hot pants and leg warmers. No one I know is like that.”

This lack of sensitivity is partly due to the lack of openly gay developers at most studios. “The game industry in its infancy was very homophobic. It’s not that gay people weren’t employed, but the anti-gay tendencies that permeated the industry kept most of them in the closet,” Skleres says. “For a long time, because the developers were primarily white, heterosexual men, the games were made for white, heterosexual men. Anyone outside of the 18-to-25 male demographic was completely untapped.”

Slowly, though, it seems that developers are acknowledging the existence of the gay gamer audience by introducing homosexual paths, mainly in sandbox games. In open-world games, the responsibility for exploring these options lies with the player, which makes them a natural starting point for developers to acknowledge homosexuality without forcing it on players. The Sims and Fable franchises have long been praised for their gay-friendliness, but allowing gay relationships can still be controversial; Bully was attacked for featuring the option for the main character to kiss other boys.

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For games industry giant and Fable creator Peter Molyneux, the inclusion of gay characters and relationship options in his games was a non-issue. “Adult sexual preference is part of the choice of who you are and what you want to experiment with. That fitted perfectly with what Fable II was and so enhanced the gameplay.”

Fable II is a game which allows people to be themselves,” Molyneux continues. “For me, as a designer, it was not a case of ‘should we include this feature?’ as it was obvious that we should include it. It was a very natural process as we felt you should be able to flirt with any consenting adult of either the same sex or the opposite sex. There was never any debate about this; we just felt it was a natural part of creating a world. The key thing here is to offer the player the choice.”

Vizzini says the best games don’t turn the gay options into a huge deal. He cites Sims 2 as a brilliant example of this, because it allowed two men or two women to get together as a matter of course; homosexual choices did not affect the rules of the game one way or another. “Unlike in real life, you could get married or have kids. It was great!” Vizzini enthuses. “You better believe there was an Eric and Chris couple shacked up in a 5000-square-foot mansion.”

“I think the inclusion of same-sex relationships and marriage in The Sims and Fable II shows the industry is becoming more inclusive,” says Skleres. “The player is free to create their own story and their character’s sexuality by the choices they make. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say we have a positive representation of homosexuality – I have yet to see a game with a developer-designed, openly gay protagonist.”

That doesn’t mean designers have shied away from gay NPCs and supporting characters, however. Skleres cites Grand Theft Auto IV as a positive example: “There is a mission you have to undertake to save Florian, an openly gay character, from a homophobe that keeps harassing him in the park when he is running. I am really proud of Rockstar Games for including this content in their game. It shows that even bad-ass mercenary hitmen can be tolerant and supportive of gays. Not only that, but the next episode in their series is titled The Ballad of Gay Tony, which should prove to be interesting.”

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For Molyneux, the future of game design will inevitably be more diverse and inclusive. “The better we get at making games, the more opportunities there are to feature more characters from different backgrounds and cultures. Most of the characters in games up until recently have been very iconic – the iconic hero, the iconic villain and the iconic victim – and it’s only now we can add many more aspects and personality to those characters,” he says.

Skleres argues that bringing new perspectives into the development process will have a big impact on the types of games the industry produces. “Overall, I think the industry has matured enough to where everyone recognizes having a diverse team can only help make a better product” he says. “Entertainment professionals put into their creations a bit of their own personal experiences and beliefs whether they realize it or not. As a result, when you get a more diverse set of professionals, their experiences and beliefs diversify too.”

“There are still echoing remnants of the ‘macho’ culture left, but companies are no longer putting up with the testosterone-overloaded work environment that used to dominate the industry,” says Skleres. “They want to maximize their human resources and tap into demographic markets that aren’t typical mainstream gamers, and to do this they need game creators that can think like their target audience.”

While Skleres and Vizzini have both made a place for themselves in the industry and the gamer community, respectively, there are still problems to confront and barriers to break down. Every minority that does not fit the white-male-heterosexual mold has had to claw and bite its way toward acceptance and representation, and gay gamers are no exception. The general trend in gaming, however, is toward more honest and realistic representations of people in all their diversity, which makes gay developers and players alike more optimistic about the future.

“The perception of a macho culture in the games industry is slowly dwindling and will probably fade away entirely in the near future. I’m glad games are growing up,” says Skleres. Hopefully we’ll soon be enjoying games where all races, creeds, genders and sexual orientations are represented, and not just as token gestures or caricatures. For gay gamers, that time can’t come soon enough.

Alice Bonasio is based in Bath, England, and is a regular contributor to GamesTM and 360 magazines, as well as www.the10poundhorrorfilm.com.

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