Video games and, for all intents and purposes, all forms of media have been a vital part of the human experience. Everyone needs a few hours to escape from their daily lives. It wasn’t until the invention of video games did this need for escape became all of the beautiful digital worlds that millions of people around the globe could truly feed their hunger. However, something to note about these fictionalized worlds is that they are at their core a representation of the real world — and the various types of people who inhabit it.
The Call of Duty franchise shows gamers a version of real-world geopolitics and an experience of what it is like to be a special operation soldier (even if it is a bit biased). The Uncharted series lets players be the sauve, smart-mouthed treasure hunters of the ancient world. The important fact remains: real-life people make up these games, and for the LGBTQ+ communities of the world, they have been widely missed in these representations.
LGBTQ+ Representation in Modern Games
On its face, it is puzzling as to why certain publishers avoid adding in this community of people. Naturally, it doesn’t always make sense to give characters in specific games a sexual or gender orientation at all. Some games don’t have a serious storyline or a romance arc, and to shoehorn in a character’s orientation can feel cheap or pandering.
On the other hand, there are a number of games with more serious storylines that actively benefit from the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters. These characters make the game feel more real and alive. There are several standout characters and games featuring queer people in the modern context. The Last of Us Part 1 and 2, Life is Strange: True Colors, and even God of War Ragnarök all have playable or important queer characters in their main storylines. It is important to note that all of the games are vastly different from one another and these inclusions feel natural in their respective game worlds.
Some argue that the inclusion of these details is irrelevant or doesn’t add anything to the storylines. This argument ignores an entire group of people who have been the subject of oppression, violence, and untold hate for decades in the United States. Regardless of what anyone chooses to believe, queer people have existed since people existed. The first recorded history of homosexuality was found on rocks in Sicily, Italy dated to around 9,600 BCE – 5,000 BCE.
The importance of these inclusions is twofold. One, if art and media are supposed to represent the human experience, cutting out an entire experience of life feels nearsighted. People of different sexual orientations and identities have existed forever, and the creators and publishers of games need to show proper inclusion, as their art has influence over the masses of people who play their creations. The second part of these inclusions is to teach tolerance.
As mentioned above the queer community has faced intense violence and discrimination for decades. It wasn’t long ago that a deadly disease was wreaking havoc on this community and the powers that be let it happen because the queer population was seen as subhuman at worst and not worth saving at best. By having queer characters in video games, the masses can gain a more empathetic perspective and a higher tolerance for people who were presented as dangerous after years of negative propaganda.
Despite the Hate, The Queer Community is a Massive Section of the Gaming Community
The facts are simple: The queer community is a truly massive part of the gaming world. Despite making up only 7% of the U.S. population, the Nielson Group reported in 2020 that roughly 10% of all U.S. adults who identify as queer play video games in some kind of way. Just for reference, there are roughly 212 million gamers in the United States according to Statista. Over 20 million gamers identify as queer. That’s roughly the same population as the state of Florida.
Even though the representation is becoming better in modern games, and the queer community makes up a massive section of the gaming community, anti-queer hate speech is still rampant in online gaming spaces. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found in 2022 that one in ten gamers aged 13-17 were exposed to radical hate speech at some point during their sessions.
The ADL report was mainly focusing on white supremacy hate speech but their report shows that toxic and hateful speech is rampant in the gaming community. Medium writer @BFoundAPen offers a more personalized view of what it means to be a queer gamer.
“Homophobia is huge in this community. It’s everywhere. Every time someone gets killed in Call of Duty and they get mad, 6 times out of 10 they’re going to use a homophobic slur. This makes LGBTQ members cringe. It makes us feel unwelcome, as if we’re still on the outside looking in. It makes us shy away from big gaming community events. It also forces us to make our own communities inside the community.”— @BFoundAPen
This is why proper representation is so vital in the gaming space. Gamers in years past were often considered outcasts or socially awkward people. If the gaming community wants to continue to carry that torch of inclusivity for the misfits, then it needs to be inclusive for all and not a place for toxic bigots to create an echo chamber of hate.
There’s Still Backlash, But It’s Getting Better
The Last of Us: Part 2 won 46 awards in 2020 and was nominated for 96. Despite receiving numerous awards, this game divided the community. Story elements aside, the inclusion of queer characters that showed the world as more real and alive set the internet alight with mountains of hate. Here are a few user reviews from Metacritic to better illustrate the point.
Usernames have been redacted and reviews edited for clarity
“They sh*t on the characters and ruined the story. Then added gay stuff so they can blame homophobia for bad reviews.
Graphics are great: 10/10” – Aug. 30th 2023
“The woke of us part 2 is straight trash. Horrible gameplay mechanics , horrible graphics , disgusting rape scenes, and other nasty things . Horrible, this is not for little kids nor is this game appropriate . It’s only appropriate for gross lgbt people” – Aug. 31 2023
“Too much gay propaganda to appreciate, this game was the beginning of the gay station we see now.” Sept. 3 2023
Now, obviously, these reviews are not all-encompassing of The Last of Us: Part 2 but it does give the community a very interesting question: Why was this game hated for its queer characters when The Last of Us (2013) still had queer characters and themes, yet Metacritic reports it as a universally liked game?
Unfortunately, there isn’t exactly a clear answer. It could be from shifting culture wars and politics in the wider scope of American culture. It could be that simply more people played The Last of Us: Part 2 due to COVID-19 in 2020. Maybe it was that Naughty Dog’s marketing campaign worked beyond their original estimates and the wrong subsection of the gaming community decided to play the game.
What matters here is that even though retro games that had queer people portrayed as villains or enemies in one way or another, it is getting better. Modern games with playable queer characters are not getting torn to shreds because they feature some form of homosexuality or choosing a different gender than one assigned at birth.
The cultural shift happening in the gaming space is one of tolerance and acceptance of all people and those they choose to love. However, The Last of Us: Part 2 shows us that the road is far from over. The bottom line is that the more representation of queer people as heroes and “normal” being displayed in video games, the more the gaming community can heal from its past bigotry and hate.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©The Last of Us Part II cover..