It is a time of civil war. Once again, game forums are afire with controversy. The target: BioWare’s decision to include long-promised same-gender relationships (SGR) on Makeb, one of the new planets in the latest expansion to Star Wars: The Old Republic. Makeb, to put it mildly, is a big problem. Dubbed “the gay planet,” (a term that is inaccurate and I will not repeat) Makeb is one of those temporary measures that pleases no one while offending everyone. Those that want the option to have gay relationships in SWTOR dislike it because the romance options are shallow and confined to a single location, while opponents feel affronted that the option exists at all. What’s extraordinary about this particular controversy is the strength of the pro-SGR crowd’s reaction, which I believe is due to a very specific reason: The drama over including same-gender relationships in SWTOR mirrors America’s ongoing debate about LGBT rights, and touches on open wounds and unresolved frustration in the LGBT community.
Looking back, it’s difficult to see this controversy as anything but a self-inflicted wound on BioWare’s part. Players started requesting gay relationship options as early as SWTOR‘s beta, and BioWare confirmed it as a post-launch feature in September 2011. According to the statement, BioWare excluded same-gender romance arcs in the original release due to the “design constraints of a fully-voiced MMO,” but promised to add “more companion characters who will have additional romance options.” That seemed understandable, since the game contained 200,000 recorded lines of dialogue.
That December, SWTOR released to solid critical acclaim and sales of 2 million units. By February, the game clocked 1.7 million subscribers, some of whom bought the game looking forward to SGR options. Those players waited.
They waited more than a year – assuming they bought the game at launch – all the while paying subscriptions, supporting the game even as it lost subscribers and went free-to-play, and occasionally asking on the forums when BioWare might get to the post-launch features they had promised. Finally, on January 2nd, they received their answer from Executive Producer Jeff Hickman. First, Hickman apologized that the implementation was taking so long, and said SGR companion characters would “take a lot more work” than the team realized. Next, he said the team was focused on converting the game to the free-to-play model, meaning all promised post-launch features had to take a backseat for the overall good of the game. Hickman then reiterated BioWare’s support for SGRs and – as a sign of good faith – announced that there would be some SGR options on Makeb. Full implementation of SGR companion arcs, he claimed, would come at a later date.
To understand why this announcement caused a stir you have to know a few things: First, players can only access Makeb in the new expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, which costs $9.99 for subscribers and $19.99 at regular price, meaning players who want SGRs have to pay for the features they were promised with the original game. Second, limiting gay relationships to only Makeb seems on the surface like it’s segregating players who want to pursue SGRs. (It’s important to note that this isn’t the case: Makeb is the only new planet in the expansion, meaning that it’s where much of the action takes place. It doesn’t solely exist for SGR-seekers.) Finally, the “relationships” aren’t companion arcs as originally promised, and are little more than flirty dialogue options with NPCs.
In many ways, it’s understandable why BioWare Austin took this approach. A great deal of things have happened in the year since the game launched, including a massive fall off in subscriptions that forced the game into its free-to-play model. Staff layoffs after the game’s release no doubt compounded the difficulty of this changeover, meaning that Hickman’s claim that the team is swamped seems plausible in context. Moreover, we must remember that BioWare doesn’t own the IP for Star Wars, and I’m guessing that convincing LucasArts/Disney – both of whom are notoriously protective of their brands – to allow gay relationships in their ostensibly family-friendly galaxy was a lengthy process in itself. Given all this, plus BioWare’s history of designing SGRs into both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, I feel comfortable saying that the SWTOR team was making a sincere gesture with the SGR options in Makeb.
Unfortunately, that gesture is too little, too late for a player base that’s rapidly losing its patience. And that loss of patience is understandable when you consider that in the real world, waiting for recognition and settling for poor stopgap measures is practically a way of life for the LGBT community.
First there’s the waiting. The LGBT organizations, and those of us that support them, have been waiting twenty years for politicians to find a convenient time to uphold their rights as human beings. And here’s a secret: It’s never a convenient time.
On top of all the stalling, downplaying, and postponements, what progress the LGBT community has made is littered with disappointments and ill-designed temporary fixes. When LGBT activists pushed for gays to serve openly in the military, Clinton instead gave them “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a poor compromise that forced gay service members to stay closeted or risk being fired. Then Clinton, in fear of losing reelection, signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which is still the largest impediment to marriage equality. At the state level, legislators championed civil unions over the more risky marriage equality – a compromise that gave some, or in some cases all, of the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples while avoiding calling it “marriage.” This measure would’ve been adequate if marriage equality was just about tax breaks and hospital visits, but it’s not – it’s about treating people equally before the law. While they indicated progress, civil unions inherently hold members of the LGBT community apart from the rest of the populace by creating a separate, and therefore unequal, category for them. It’s a baby-step victory, but it’s also a bitter pill. Another consequence of fighting for equality in state legislatures is that it carves the country up into safe zones for gay Americans, sometimes often literally. Only 21 states and the District of Columbia ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity, and the same number ban housing discrimination. Only 31 states have statutes dealing with hate crimes against LGBT individuals. Marriages between same-sex couples that are honored in one state won’t be recognized across the border.
I point out these issues not to get up on a soapbox about the state of LGBT rights in America (and certainly not to speak for a community I’m not a part of), but to point out why LGBT persons may be hypersensitive to the dynamics at play in the current SWTOR controversy. The Makeb controversy serves as a microcosm of the emotionally-charged situation of LGBT politics. Much like the politicians of the last twenty years, BioWare promised the LGBT members of its community a chance at recognition, then shifted the issue to the back burner and focused on other priorities. In all likelihood BioWare is sincere in its wish to see SGRs implemented game-wide, despite the vocal opposition against doing so – just as Democrats sincerely want to move LGBT rights forward – but in both cases more pressing matters have made them kick the can down the road while putting forth imperfect, some would say insulting, temporary measures. After such a long period of inattention, half-measures just won’t do. Putting a pot on the back-burner is fine, but it’s only a matter of time before that pot will boil over.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King wrote the following words: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” It’s a message that’s applicable to America’s current situation with LGBT rights, and in an abstract sense, describes how – according to my observations at least – LGBT players feel about BioWare’s response.
Players aren’t angry at BioWare so much as they’re frustrated and bewildered. From my view, that frustration doesn’t just stem from the wait, and the poorly thought-out stopgap, and the unfulfilled promises – deep down, I think the aggravation comes from re-fighting the same battles in digital space that they’re already fighting in the real world. It’s a disappointment that the old struggles, and prejudices, and minimization of their needs will even follow them to a galaxy far, far away.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.