The last decade has brought many changes to minority groups, notably to the Western LGBTQ community who started seeing a drastic difference on how our patriarch society perceives them. Sexuality and identity slowly became a more natural and recurrent topic, as did the discussion of black culture and how women are portrayed by the media. Yet, none of these groups managed to reach their desired utopias.

As a gay man, I see the change. I understand when people say we’re far better now than we were ten or fifteen years ago. But as many in the community, I don’t think it’s time to hang the hat and call it day just yet. Living in Northeastern Brazil, I’ve always had to be very careful when going out with guys. We could chat and look intimately at each other, but so much as holding hands would put our lives in danger. Although that’s changing, no one can say it’s completely safe to hold your partner’s hand in the middle of the street if they happen to be of the same sex as you.

Unfortunately, this reality is not exclusive to Northeastern Brazil and the struggle the LGBTQ community has with representation is not exclusive to movies, TV, and music. Video games are far more relevant now than they were ten years ago, but the industry is still plagued by many issues including its portrayal of minority groups.

“Why should I care?”

That’s usually the sort of question I see in discussions regarding minorities in video games. It’s far less common when the topic revolves around women and black people, yet alarmingly prominent when it involves gay people. Recently, we received a reality check with the news that Russia could ban FIFA 17 from the country should EA not remove the “gay propaganda” present as part of the Rainbow Laces campaign promoted by the Stonewall group. The general mainstream media sided with EA, a company known for its social inclusion. But scrolling down to the comments section of most articles and informative videos, we see different reactions.

Notes along the lines of “It seems Russia got more morals than our country. Homosexuality is wrong.” and “This is football, not a faggot propaganda.” aren’t difficult to find. Most people would say to ignore such behavior, to “stop feeding the troll”, but the fact it exists at all is part of the problem. Although the general public and the mainstream media are very supportive of the cause, discrimination is still a part of our lives. Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re being condescending when they say “we don’t care who you sleep with, but we find it sad that your identity revolves around sex.”, then using freedom of speech as an excuse for the offensive remark.

Everyone has problems no matter who they are or where they come from, but other complications may arise should the person not meet society’s standards. Black people are historically taken for granted because of their skin color and women are expected to behave a certain way due to their stigmatized social role. In the same manner, the LGBTQ community is supposed to hide their opinions and desires because they’re an insult to tradition. It’s important to stress that times are changing for those groups, that their situations are far better now than they were fifteen or twenty years ago, yet not everyone can say their problems are related to their skin color, their gender, or their sexuality.

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Ellie

We have seen a major change in how gay people are portrayed in the media with the aggressively flamboyant man and the extremely masculine woman being replaced by regular personalities and traits. That helps show how normal we are whilst being inclusive. However, not everyone welcomes the change of pace even when it’s meant to help others. Developers have been criticized for including emotional and intimate scenes between two men or by making an NPC be suggestive towards the player.

First released in 2013 exclusively for the PlayStation 3, The Last of Us is considered by many one of the most progressive games of its generation for how the character Ellie (Ashley Johnson) is presented. Players only came to know of her sexuality with the DLC ‘Left Behind’ in which she kisses her friend Riley (Yaani King), whereas in the base game that aspect is subjective. The bonding formed throughout The Last of Us and Ellie being such a regular teenager in both her personality and appearance triggered a very positive reaction in the DLC as players were already attached to her.

Ellie, much like Dorian Pavus (Ramon Tikaram) from 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, is a great solution for the struggles the LGBTQ community faces as a whole. Video games are the only fully interactive form of media, allowing players to experience realities they might never encounter in their regular lives, such as being close to a gay person. This sort of bond helps educate those who would otherwise never know what minorities go through, but it fails at explaining why they should be more conscious.

The good, the bad, the ugly

At one side we have developers and part of the community making a change by helping minorities. At the other, we have those who don’t accept any sort of change at the claim that it will affect their lives directly. In the middle the confused dwell, unsure of what to think or why any of this should be their problem. But what isn’t there to relate? Why is change so difficult to accept when it won’t take any of your privileges away? If we forget about skin color, gender, and sexuality for a moment, most gamers have a very similar story.

For example:

There once was a boy with an angelic name who always felt left out. His family had a strong opinion on who he should be and the friends he managed to make would sometimes suppress him. He struggled with grades and was always concerned with how he behaved around others lest they’d be offended by his mannerism. After he realized part of what made him so different, his family went on to fight against his nature. People he met along the way, while generally supportive, would still refuse him any moment of glory because of how irrelevant his situation was to them.

And then he found out he could be anyone. Not by watching a film or reading a book, but by taking control over someone else in a video game. All his doubts and struggles seemed like distant thoughts for those two or three hours he would spend in front of the computer, but in the back of his mind a voice would ask “where do you fit in this?” Finally, he had the chance to play The Sims 2. One of the first things his cousin mentioned was that he could be intimate and even marry people of the same gender. After being constantly reminded that he would always play a supportive role, it was time to be the lead of his own story.

Video games were very important for that boy as they helped him understand empathy whilst giving him the opportunity to lead the narrative. They helped him experiment with his social skills and discover the person behind the issues and taboos. Part of what that boy went through is exactly what most other gamers face, be they male or female, black or white, gay or straight. And yet, a large portion of the gaming community can’t relate to his story solely because of their choice of partner in The Sims 2.

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A conundrum

The general public is perfectly fine with a black or a female protagonist. The inclusion of such characters in the leading role may sometimes cause a stir, but at the end of the day, they’re not as controversial as an exclusively gay character. Video game fans throughout the years have been praising the industry for including people of color and women in major parts, but just the thought of a gay character is enough to originate hurtful memes and offensive comments.

Despite Ellie being so well received after the reveal of her sexuality and the fact she’s the main protagonist of The Last of Us Part II, the general consensus is that gay characters other than her don’t deserve the spotlight. Dorian Pavus is a beloved asset, but some consider his sexuality to be forced upon players. Many fans of Rockstar’s Bully refuse to acknowledge that the ‘Scholarship Edition’ offers a relatively large selection of boys who protagonist Jimmy Hopkins (Gerry Rosenthal) can date. Yet, everyone seems on board with the idea that Overwatch‘s Zarya is lesbian given her nationality and manly build–despite the many pejorative jokes the latter triggers.

Developers are left at an impasse. Plenty of them wish to include the LGBTQ community just as much as they include other minorities, nevertheless that often results in a severe backlash and a possible impact on sales. Forcing ideas is not the solution, but forming a bond between player and character also doesn’t seem to do much for the long run. As the first triple-A title to feature an exclusively gay protagonist The Last of Us Part II could be a great help in addressing the issue, but its restricted release for the PlayStation 4 largely limits its transformative capability.

In the end, no one has all the answers. As much as companies try, they can’t reach or be understood by everyone. There are many ways to teach about empathy, respect, and why minorities matter, but that’s not only a developer’s duty. As long as players are open to discussing and understanding the stories they experience through video games, we should someday reach a point where arguments like this are no longer necessary.

  • Oliver Rebbeck

    There was another gay character in The Last Of Us aswell, though I will say I’m not sure that Ellie is definitely gay. That scene is fantastic but she’s also a young kid, lots of people take a long time to find themselves at that age, but hopefully it will be brought up again in the sequel.

    • Gabriel Cavalcanti

      Oh, I had no idea. To be honest, I never had a console my whole life, but I’ve been following some news on TLoU for a few years now. I remember reading somewhere that the person who wrote Ellie wrote her as a gay character, though. I found out I’m gay when I was 12, so it wouldn’t surprise me if someone as young was certain about it, too.

  • Mike Worby

    The organic nature of how Ellie’s sexuality is depicted is powerful simply because it doesn’t effect her identity. It doesn’t matter if Ellie is gay or bi or just a curious teenager, whichever it is, it doesn’t effect her overall character. That’s what allows it to be successful. It doesn’t feel preachy or like a message, it just becomes a part of the narrative.

    • Gabriel Cavalcanti

      I wish more developers did that. It’s still tricky for most of them cuz as I see it, they want to make people conscious. It’s like Read Only Memories. While it is a very fun game and the cast is generally lovely, the developers wrote some of them as aggressive activists to the causes present in the game’s reality, such as hybrids and genderfluid people. I think Naughty Dog’s approach was brilliant, making players bond and then throwing “the L bomb” without making a parade of it. I hope that made some people rethink their standards whether or not Ellie turns out to be exclusively gay in the sequel.

  • prime

    why i don’t care? because i’m playing video games for the simple fact that they are video games, i don’t play a video game because i need justification for something

    • Oliver Rebbeck

      That’s way one to undermine the power of gaming. ‘They are video games’ is a meaningless retort considering video games can be, and represent any thing they want to. Nothing needs to be justified but diversity does need representation.

  • prime

    Why the Representation of Serial Killers Matters

    A look at the struggles the Serial Killer community faces in the video game industry and why their problems matter. The text was written with a broad audience in mind instead of focusing on the minority group in question.

    I found out I’m a serial killer when I was 12, so it wouldn’t surprise me if someone as young was certain about it, too. That’s why i’m glad that NaughtyDog made a game about a 14 year old girl that is a serial killer going in the world with her 40 year old friend why also happens to be a serial killer, now as a serial killer i can relate to not just on but two characters. That’s why the representation of serial killers matters.

    • Oliver Rebbeck

      Great straw man argument. You might also want to look up what defines a serial killer too.

      • prime

        if YOU like something because it does something that YOU like and not because of what IT is then you need to rethink your attachment to that thing, if you like Ellie because she’s a 14 year old lesbian (allegedly, no proof) while she also is a serial killer then you have a big problem, if the most important thing that you took from a character is that she’s lesbian when she is, again, a serial killer then you need to check your priorities, this exposed that dude, and all the damage control in the world won’t save him or you, this is exactly what’s wrong with this new trend of minorities suddenly speaking the loudest

        • Oliver Rebbeck

          So you dropped the strawman for the ‘let’s put words into people’s mouths’ argument. Hmm, not sure which one is more tiring, let me sit on that one. None of what you just proposed is anything close to something I said. Again, look up the definition of Serial Killer, it’s not what you think it means. I’m slightly confused who needs to be saved from what, I did have indigestion earlier but that’s gone now. If you consider people vying for equal rights and representation a ‘trend’ then I think we’ve hit the root of the problem.

          • prime

            from wikipedia : “A serial killer is a person who murders three or more people, …”
            Ellie has killed more than 50 people, maybe more than 100 with the DLC, but it’s ok because she’s lesbian, and don’t even bother naming the other gay character in game, Bill, because he’s gay reveal was too subtle, we need it to be more in the people’s faces, we NEED THEM TO KNOW!!!!!!

  • Sinsi

    What kind of weak minded people need to be represented in a video game to have their existence validated? How pathetic is that?

    • Mike Worby

      What you might not realize is that a persons feeling of inclusiveness in society is representative of how they are depicted in media. We live in a visual society, and people want to see themselves represented. If you’re a straight, white male, I can see why you’ve never experienced this issue but for minorities this is a significant issue.

      • Sinsi

        Nope not a straight white male and I don’t need to be represented in a video game or anywhere else to feel good about myself.

        You might not realize this but if you need external validation to feel good about yourself. You are weak minded and will never be successful. I feel bad for anyone that lacks self worth that you need others to tell you are valuable.

        Successful people don’t care what other people think about them.

        • Mike Worby

          Thanks for the hot tip. I’ll crack open a copy of The Secret and get back to you.

  • John Cal McCormick

    There’s some awesome comments on this article. Don’t even know where to begin.

  • Saul

    why is bowser always kidnapping princess peach?

    why do monsters want to have sex with girls?

    btw gaybriel, how you handle your gay situation?

    • Gabriel Cavalcanti

      I suppose because back when Mario was a nameless character, women were largely seen as a trophy, an object of desire. I haven’t played Nintendo games in ages, so I have no idea if Peach became something besides the damsel in distress.

      Do they? o-o I don’t think I’ve played that or those games, or I missed that completely.

      What exactly do you mean by how I handle my situation? You mean how I deal with possible hardships triggered by my sexuality?

    • John Cal McCormick

      Please tell me you’re just not very good at spelling and you didn’t just seriously use ‘gaybriel’ as some kind of jab…

      • Gabriel Cavalcanti

        I’m so good at reading that I didn’t pay attention to that :/ So we’re getting to that level…

    • Oliver Rebbeck

      Perhaps when you graduate from primary school and learn how to talk to other human beings with the lowest modicum of respect, you’ll realise how immature you sound with the petty use of Gaybriel as some kind of insult. As to your questions I don’t get your point? Monsters are always after girls and we should all strive to be like monsters, because God knows they’re a beacon of integrity?