Gayming: LGBTQ representation still missing or hidden in video games
Transgender character Pelagos, right, in World of Warcraft, is an exception in an otherwise hidden world of LGBTQ figures in gaming. But even in this case, players have to put in a lot of work before they ever find out Pelagos's gender identity.

There are 2.5 billion gamers worldwide, and the games they play can shape the way they see and interact with the world and also how they treat people.

There is a growing body of research that shows that if you don’t see certain people in the media you interact with, games included, you start to believe that those people are somehow unimportant. This is known as “symbolic annihilation,” thus the representation of minority groups is important, even if games take place in fantasy realms.

So when the developers of Hogwarts Legacy, the new Harry Potter game, announced that it will include transgender characters, it seemed like a great step towards better representation in an industry that has been lagging.

The decision has been interpreted by some as a potential olive branch to those unhappy with Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling for her views on sex and gender. But not all representation is equal. It has been reported that players will be able to select their character’s voice, dormitory (boys’ or girls’), and body type, and the look and sound of the player’s character do not have to match what would be expected of a “male” or “female.”

While attempts to diversify gaming and improve representation should be commended, this initiative does not totally include transgender characters in a meaningful way that equates to proper representation.

When it comes to the representation of transgender people, the new Harry Potter game relies on the player to do the heavy lifting. Transgender characters are optional, and this resonates with what game designer Anna Anthropy calls “the gay button”—the idea that such representations can be turned on or off at the whim of the player.

By making such representations optional, rather than the default, game designers performatively claim inclusive representation while not doing the work required to create normalized and nuanced transgender characters.

In the wider gaming landscape, there is LGBTQ representation in some games, but it might be, and regularly is, hidden. Sometimes this is behind a series of optional dialogue choices, as in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, in a short quest where the player is accompanied by a hunter.

The player can ask the hunter a series of questions about the beast they are tracking and if the player selects the correct series of questions, it is revealed that the hunter is gay. This example also speaks to a related problem—it is usually only minor characters who are LGBTQ.

If the player blinks, presses the wrong dialogue option, or doesn’t go on some elaborate goose-chase, they will never see such representations. So, when the only way we can learn about a character’s identity is through a series of optional dialogue options, this is not an adequate representation of these identities.

Representation in gaming is getting better, with games no longer relying on stereotypical representations, and LGBTQ characters are gaining a greater presence. But there is still a long way to go, and optional representation is not a sufficiently meaningful change.

Representation for LGBTQ characters has remained sparse in the gaming world. 2017’s Mass Effect: Andromeda featured options for the player to pursue same-sex relationships, but choices were still limited.

Decisions to include or exclude characters of a certain identity entirely rests on the development team’s shoulders. Communication and digital media academic Andrea Brathwaite explored how players reacted to the inclusion of a lesbian character in World of Warcraft, one of the most successful online video games, and her analysis demonstrated an overwhelmingly negative view of sexuality in online forums.

This was also the case in more recent forum posts about World of Warcraft’s first transgender character, added last year. Pelagos is a character who players can talk to, though players are not required to learn that he is transgender. The revelation that he is led to some vitriol in forum posts about him, and looking at reviews of almost any video game with an LGBTQ character tends to yield similar views towards such characters.

There may be some hesitancy to incorporate LGBTQ characters into video games due to the potential for online backlash. But if all gaming companies and writers continue to shy away from making such representation explicit, the cycle will just continue.

Yet there is evidence that more people are beginning to welcome the addition of LGBTQ characters. In the same World of Warcraft discussion forums, there were plenty of players who vehemently defended Pelagos and used the correct pronouns for him.

Morning Star


CONTRIBUTOR

Frazer Heritage
Frazer Heritage

Frazer Heritage is assistant lecturer in digital media at Birmingham City University. Research: corpora, gender, sexuality, videogames, and online misogyny.

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