When the average person is asked about the content of video games, a common theme that will be described is the idea of a heroic heterosexual masculine white (if human) male protagonist using violence to defeat his enemies in order to prosper over evil and/or save the damsel in distress. Nintendo has had a lot of success with that scenario appearing many times in the Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda games, two of their most successful series. That success does make sense. When developers sit down to design a video game, they often want to make the game accessible and relatable to the majority of game buyers with the hope that doing so will maximize sales. There has however been a queer presence in gaming since before the launch of the original Nintendo. Some characters were blatantly queer while others seemed to represent queer culture without it being clearly stated. There have been various censorship factors that have limited the LGBT presence in console gaming but over time things have lightened up, representations have become more normalized, and players have now been given the freedom to express their sexuality through their avatar in almost way they choose.
Released in Japan as “The Family Computer” (or Famicom), the original Nintendo console had a strict code that prohibited objectionable content with its 1985 release in America. Video games at this time were seen as children’s toys and family entertainment. Nintendo of America would not approve games with religious references, nudity, profanity, graphic violence, references to substance abuse, violence against women, or sexually suggestive content. There was a system in place requiring that the developer would first have to get the approval of Nintendo before releasing a game for their console. This was before the days of the ESRB (Electronic Software Ratings Board), so Nintendo of America saw this method of censorship as the best way to protect their console’s image as a great widget for the entire family. If a game didn’t meet their standards, the creators would have to modify the game or face not receiving the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” as well as not being provided the necessary patented cartridges for their software. Nintendo was so popular that they essentially set the standard for how games would be localized for western consumers.
The game Mortal Kombat on the SNES had to have the red blood changed to white so that it would resemble sweat instead, and as a result it sold wildly on every other console but theirs. This censorship eventually cursed Nintendo with the stigma of being a “kiddy” console that they have been trying to shake off since the mid 90s. Sega has been a bit more liberal since their Genesis was released in 1989 allowing things like graphic violence, female enemies, and sexual themes. LGBT elements were allowed but usually severely toned down. Computer software developers on the other hand have always had much more freedom to be more progressive and present content that these codes would see as morally objectable, but this article will be covering console games exclusively.
Early video games featuring gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered characters I would certainly not refer to as queer media, and it took a little over ten years to start seeing respectful or supportive depictions. Early games often used GLBT characters as comedic relief or sometimes painted them as predatory people that were used to create shock value and to indicate the immorality and seediness of a person or place. Some early depictions seemed to have occurred from naivety as developers created LGBT characters without realizing or by accident.
The 1988 game Super Mario Bros. 2 featured a pink anthropomorphic dinosaur character that wore a red bow on her head named Birdo. The American release’s manual described the character “He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called ‘Birdetta'”. Later printings did away with the second sentence. Though Birdo does play the role of a villain that Mario must defeat to continue his quest, her motivation for wanting to fight Mario is made clear with her one line of dialogue. “Ooh, you are so cute, I am NEVER going to let you go!” This may have been representing transgendered individuals as predatory, but in 2000 she reappears in the game Mario Tennis, this time being presented as a female and the lover of the Yoshi character. Gamers were left asking themselves if this was simply an example of Nintendo’s censorship, if they had decided to respect her desire to be referred to as a female, or if she had made a full physical sexual transition. “Yoshi is supposedly a male, but lays eggs like a female. Birdo is supposedly a female, but was originally called a male. And now the two are a romantic couple? They were both sexually chaotic as individuals — this new pairing just makes your head hurt thinking about it.” (Thomas) Birdo stands as the very first transgendered character in a major video game released in America.
In 1989, an arcade game was created by Capcom titled Final Fight. The game involved picking one of three characters to beat up a ton of people on their way to save the Mayor’s daughter from her kidnappers. Two very similar-looking female characters named Poison and Roxy were among the enemies that the player would have to fight. When the game was developed for the Super Nintendo (SNES) and given to Nintendo of America for review, they said the game was unacceptable in its current state because the Nintendo code prohibits violence against women. Capcom countered by saying that there are no female enemies in the game and that Roxy and Poison are “male transvestites”. According to Capcom, they were originally planned to be women, it seems safe to conclude that they were really just trying to avoid having their game rejected. Nintendo released the game in America in 1991 with those characters replaced by male punks named Sid and Billy. Sega ported the game to their Sega CD console in 1993 with Roxy and Poison wearing more modest clothing.
Capcom’s Final Fight arcade game also featured a character named “Sodom” who was a double offender because the name was a biblical reference as well as a nod to anal sex. In the American SNES release, the name was changed to “Katana”. Roxy and Poison have since appeared in later Capcom fighting games such as the Street Fighter series and in the 2005 Capcom Classics Collection released for Playstation 2 and Xbox. The transgender issue is addressed under the character biographies: ” Roxy grew up in the same LA orphanage as Poison. She always looked up to Poison although she doesn’t really dig the cross-dressing thing.” The mixed signals of the two were abundant, but in the January 2008 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, Capcom producer Yoshinori Ono tried to clear it up: ” Let’s set the record straight: In North America, Poison is officially a post-op transsexual. But in Japan, she simply tucks her business away to look female.”
During the girlpower-heavy mid 90s, Eidos introduced America to a action-adventure game hero like nothing that had preceded. Tomb Raider gave us the character of Lara Croft, the British duel-pistol-wielding, self sufficient, rich, archaeologist who shows little interest in men and will kick your ass. Tomb Raider, with its bimodal appeal to both men and women, is one of the best-selling video games series of all time and is one of the titles credited with giving a great boost of success to the Sony Playstation. The player would guide Lara through a 3D world killing dangerous creatures, solving puzzles, ascending obstacles, avoiding booby traps, and collecting helpful objects in order to find an ancient artifact. “There was something refreshing about looking at the screen and seeing myself as a woman. Even if I was performing tasks that were a bit unrealistic… I still felt like, Hey, this is a representation of me, as myself, as a woman. In a game. How long have we waited for that?” (Cassell and Jenkins) Feminists have been unsure of what to think about Lara. On one hand she is an female icon for breaking into a male-dominated position of saving the day using brains and brawn, but on the other, she is designed to be sexualized with unrealistic proportions in order to appeal to the young men who were thought to dominate the market. Despite being an object of sexual desire, over all these years, the series is still without any romantic or sexual sub-plots, so her character’s sexuality is left ambiguous. However, in the film adaptation the part of Lara Croft is played by the openly bisexual Angelina Jolie. In the most recent games, the character model has been redesigned to give her more of an athlete’s body.
The voice actress behind this new Lara is the also openly bisexual British actress Keeley Hawes. So is she the medium’s first lesbian icon? She is certainly in the running. Her influence was so strong in the changing of gender roles that researchers have named it “Lara phenomenon”. A study published in 2001 by Children Now analyzed the content of 70 games and found that 73% of games had the player controlling a male character while only 17% even featured a female character at all. Only 15% of those females were heroic figures. They also found that the female characters were usually “hypersexualized” with giant breasts and small waists emphasized with revealing clothing. Basically these female characters existed to act as eye candy and to appeal to the male players. Females were also very often portrayed as submissive and often in need of saving by the protagonist. Jeroen Jansz and Raynel G. Martis conducted a study in 2007 to find if gender roles had significantly changed post-Lara Croft. Their analysis of a selection of 12 video games found an equal gender distribution for leading characters. Things had clearly changed. ” We labeled this tendency the ‘Lara phenomenon,’ that is, the appearance of a strong, and competent female character in a dominant position.” (Jansz & Martis) Though their selection of games would seem hand-picked specifically to support a particular agenda and they should be criticized for thinking an opening cinematic is an adequate method of analyzing a game; in any case leading roles in video game have become a much more equal playing field.
There is also Samus Arun of Nintendo’s Metroid series. Samus is the very first major dominant female protagonist. In 1986, people played through Metroid assuming that their character was a man in an armored space suit blasting away aliens, but when the game was beat, Samus’ armor bursts off to shockingly reveal that it was a woman the whole time. Though she predates Lara by 10 whole years, I would argue that she didn’t do as much in the way of getting females into games because most of the time people were playing titles from the Metroid series unaware that the ambiguously named Samus was a woman.
The 1997 Squaresoft game Final Fantasy 7 was a turn-based RPG (Role Playing Game) from Japan released on the Playstation. There’s a section where the character Tifa enters the mansion of the brothel-frequenting Don Corneo and the main character Cloud (male) mistakenly thinks she was taken as a sex slave. He attempts to enter the building but is blocked by the “no males allowed” rule, so he devises a plan to collect female attire and enter the building as a woman. Though Cloud has a specific reason for his gender impersonation, the protagonist is nonetheless cross-dressing in one of the most cherished RPG games of all time.
A popular Nintendo platforming adventure game series called Banjo-Kazooie (developed by Rare)features a character named Jolly Roger (first appearing in Banjo-Tooie of 2000) who is strongly suggested as gay. He is a thin male frog rendered wearing a pink striped belly shirt and purple robe. Jolly runs an inn/bar called Jolly’s with menu specials such as “Salty Dumplings” and “Seaman’s Surprise” and where Wednesdays are “Grab-a-Sailor Night”. In the game Jolly propositions Banjo and Kazooie saying that he will give them a reward if they can safely return his “partner” Merry Maggie. Maggie is a toad who is referred to as a female despite having a deeper voice than Jolly and a large masculine figure. This was a game rated E-for-everyone that nonetheless contained an overtly gay male in a relationship with a transgendered female playing the roles of friendly helpful characters rather than enemies. However, they are portrayed in very stereotypical ways, presumably for comic effect, in a game already loaded with innuendo and hidden adult jokes. It’s hard to say if this is progress.
The cell-shaded 2001 shoot-em-up M-rated action game Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix created some buzz when it was annouced that the main character Hana would be getting a lesbian love interest named Rain, but the relationship, though handled intelligently, was sexualized and geared toward male titillation. This is still worth noting because it’s an very early example of an out queer character in a mainstream game that is allowed sexual expression. All the coverage and controversy about her being a lesbian character resulted in the director saying: “… let me set the record straight. “Hana is not a lesbian! She likes men… and she likes women. Who she chooses to go to bed with at the end of the day IS NOT A BIG DEAL! We are living in the 21st century, this kind of thing happens all the time! Get over it people!! ” (Stan Liu) So according the director, Hana was a bisexual character.
Two years later (2003) Bioware released the RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. This was a game that highly emphasized the player’s ability to choose what to do and what to say and that choice would affect the plot of the game. The game featured a female Jedi by the name of Juhani who could join your party and help you on your quest. If you choose to play as a female, you had the ability to access a sub-plot where Juhani’s falls in love with your character. Balaya, another Jedi, says to your character: “Juhani was a…a dear companion to me for many years. We spent many nights together alone under the stars.” She is one of the earliest examples of a lesbian in a game that is treated with complete respect and vast complexity along with not being sexualized. In addition to this she’s the first lesbian of the Star Wars universe.
Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series is an interesting case because of how queer representation has evolved in their games. GTA is an M-rated open-world game where a male protagonist takes on missions doing criminal dirty work as a means of prospering. As the game has matured, so has its treatment of queer culture. From the original Grand Theft Auto in 1997 to GTA3 in 2001 (not counting the multitude of expansions), gay elements have almost always been involved in the game, but they were never quite handled with much respect. Those characters were often others that served the function of comic relief or reason to dislike someone. Pedestrians who were meant to be gay would say very stereotypical phrases. In GTA3 construction workers are dressed similarly to the character from the Village People and when approached will randomly shout a bit from the song “YMCA” or “In The Navy”. Police are essentially one of the enemies in the game, since they often try to prevent you from completing your mission, and in GTA: San Andreas (a GTA III expansion) cops yell things like “Lets wrestle to submission” and “Drop the soap, honey!” seemingly as a way to make the player either dislike the cops more, or take enjoyment out of laughing at the enemy’s homosexuality. This game does however take place in a fictional California-like city and you can find pro-gay items like rainbow flags. GTA III also has a bi-sexual character though she appears to exist to entice the male players. Asuka Kasen, co-leader of the Yakuza, flirts with your character and then gives you a mission to pick up her friend Maria. After doing so you’re told to leave because they need alone time. The cutscene closes with Maria saying off camera “Oh Asuka, you have a massager!” and Asuka replying “That’s not a massager….” The series did have immature often-satirical stereotype-based humor, but in their defense that style was applied to almost everything from race to American culture as a whole. It was like a dark adult cartoon and the messages were not meant to be taken very seriously. Then in 2008 the fourth generation of GTA hit shelves. This new world was based in a fictional New York City and the game migrated away from the arcade-like physics and cartoonish feel. It featured a new gritty realism and maturity way beyond that of the previous titles. GTA lV featured a handful of queer characters including a closeted bisexual steroid-abusing Brucie Kibbutz, a hypocritical conservative family values deputy mayor Bryce Dawkins, and an old friend of the protagonist Niko named Bernie. In the game, Bernie approaches Niko for help with a guy that’s been harassing him in the park for being “fabulous”. Niko waits and watches until the perpetrator reveals himself by yelling gay slurs at Bernie and then guns the guy down to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The character of Bernie sticks around for a good while in the game and this showed a pretty clear message of how Rockstar’s sensitivity to LGBT content had changed. Queerness is no longer just a punchline and queer people are treated with complexity. A 2009 expansion episode titled “The Ballad of Gay Tony” had queer people as main characters and they were being even more normalized along with character development in the form of well-acted top-notch dialogue without the crutch of femininity to express their sexuality.
Choice is becoming an ever-more prevalent feature in Role Playing Games. It’s not uncommon today to play a game that allows you to customize the gender and physical features of your protagonist. Some games allow you to make choices in what to say and what to do that will have an impact on the storyline and eventually the ending, like a choose your own adventure book on steroids. We are being offered a unique and individual experience that can be customized to how we see fit and that sometimes even includes sexuality.
In Rockstar Games’ 2006 title Bully for the Playstation 2, you play as a tough 15-year-old rebellious boy named Jimmy Hopkins attending boarding school. Shooting people with your slingshot, skateboarding to class, and doing mischievous missions for people to earn various rewards are among the many options for the player. Kissing is also a prevalent theme in the game; giving players the option of kissing both boys and girls. There is even an achievement the player can get called “Over the Rainbow” that is unlocked for kissing a boy twenty times, so the game essentially even encourages the player to make the protagonist explore his sexuality. To make the game even more respectable, the gay and bi-sexual boys you have the option of kissing are virtually devoid of stereotypes. The game was given a T-for-Teen rating by the ESRB for crude humor, language, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence, and sexual themes. A conservative Florida lawyer, Jack Thompson, who made himself notorious amongst gamers as always trying to take Rockstar to court over the content of their games, tried to get the game Bully banned in America. He sent an email to ESRB president Patricia Vance that read, ” Dear Ms. Vance, we just found gay sexual content in Bully, as Jimmy Hopkins makes out with another male student. Good luck with your ‘Teen’ rating now, Patty.” The ESRB responded by announcing “That content was considered in the assignment of the rating.” This was very telling of how progressive the ESRB was and how accepting they were of homosexual content on console games for teenaged audiences.
Lionhead Studios’ 2001 Xbox game Fable is another title that heavily advertised the amount of choice and influence games had on the outcome of the plot. Actions taken affected how people treated the character. For example if players chose to be a hero, people in towns would be delighted to see him/her and offer gifts. On the other hand if players acted evil all the time, people would attack them and fear would make shopkeepers offer lower prices. Interactions with townsfolk could go in whatever direction desired. Fable allowed the player to flirt with characters of either sex, enter into marriages with either (or both), and even have sex with them. If a player married both females and males, their character status would display “bisexual”.
Video games on the home consoles have long been thought of as a medium for children, but as that stigma has changed over the years, room was made for the representation of queer sexual expression. The industry has changed from a medium that uses gays as comedy, transgenders as villains, and lesbians as sex appeal to a place that can treat queer characters like true complex individuals as well as allowing the player to express their sexual preference through their avatar however they wish.
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