Why Are There Still So Few LGBTQ Characters in Gaming? (Guest Blog)

More games are featuring LGBTQ characters in prominent roles but some sectors of the industry still lag behind

The Last of Us II
The Last of Us II

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For LGBTQ gamers hoping to see themselves represented in gaming, 2020 promises to be a watershed year. The release of “The Last of Us Part II” in June and “Tell Me Why” in August, the first major studio titles to include playable lesbian and trans protagonists respectively, will undoubtedly raise the bar for the kinds of stories told in games. Single-player, narrative-driven games like these have long pushed the boundaries of representation — but this type of game constitutes only a fraction of the gaming industry as it stands today. As these groundbreaking LGBTQ character-led stories are rightly celebrated, it is important also to look at the broader picture of how gaming is being harnessed to drive cultural change.

The video games industry, perhaps more than any other sector of entertainment media, is persistently shaped by a feedback loop between creators and consumers. Rapidly growing segments of the industry, like live streaming and esports, blur those lines entirely. Thus, the best way to advance LGBTQ acceptance is to take a holistic approach and advocate on all fronts. Whether it’s more LGBTQ developers at game studios, more LGBTQ competitors in esports, or more LGBTQ characters in games, progress in any area of the industry will have ripple effects throughout the rest. For GLAAD, it’s important to reflect this reality in our programmatic work, and that includes the GLAAD Media Awards, which recognize and honor media for their fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the LGBTQ community and the issues that affect our lives.

The 31st Annual GLAAD Media Awards will be live streamed this Thursday, July 30, and there are five nominees in the Outstanding Video Game category — including three narrative-driven games. “Borderlands 3”, the popular open-world looter-shooter, features beloved same-sex couple Alistair Hammerlock and Wainwright Jakobs, who were married in the game’s recent “Guns, Love, and Tentacles” DLC. “The Outer Worlds” became one of 2019’s most celebrated role-playing games, not in small part due to the game’s breakout fan-favorite character, Parvati Holcomb. Parvati’s authentic representation of asexuality and same-sex romance is especially notable for telling a story with a happy ending, something that too many LGBTQ characters are denied. And “The Walking Dead: The Final Season” broke all kinds of new ground with its leading character Clementine, a young bisexual woman of color. Players who guide Clementine through this gripping post-apocalyptic adventure game will discover intimate, personal moments core to LGBTQ experience that few games (or stories in any medium) have been able to explore.

While it is critical that single-player games tell authentic LGBTQ stories, the world of multiplayer gaming continues to present an intractable challenge, where online discourse remains a hotbed of homophobia and transphobia. In recent years, the gaming industry has seen a tectonic shift toward this space with the emerging dominance of online service-based games. Smash hits like “Fortnite” have changed the landscape of gaming forever, elevating the medium to new heights of cultural disruption and becoming defining touchstones for a new generation of young people. This wide-reaching phenomenon raises the question of what these new types of games are doing to shape views on LGBTQ acceptance and accurately reflect the most LGBTQ-identified generation in history.

GLAAD hopes to emphasize the dire need for authentic representation in this explosive market through two of this year’s nominees. The first, “Apex Legends,” is a free-to-play battle royale game from Electronic Arts and Respawn Entertainment. Set in the critically acclaimed Titanfall universe, “Apex ” features a vibrant cast of characters with a wide variety of ethnicities and genders, two of whom are LGBTQ: Gibraltar, a gay man, and Bloodhound, who is non-binary.

The deliberate choice of Respawn to identify these characters as LGBTQ in a mostly non-story-driven game may seem like a small decision on the surface, but we believe it is subtly powerful and transformative. Players are no longer able to simply assume their chosen characters are straight and cisgender by default, a status quo that has long served to push LGBTQ identities towards being “othered.” Players who choose to play as these characters will come to identify with them, and in doing so, passively work to dispel the stigmas and misunderstandings that are too often associated with members of those communities.

The final nominee, “Overwatch,” is a team-based multiplayer game from Blizzard Entertainment, launched in 2016 and subsequently expanded through new content updates, animated shorts and comics. The cultural impact of “Overwatch” truly cannot be overstated. Characters from the game have become international icons and role models — even symbols for political and feminist movements.

In late 2016, Blizzard released a comic showing Tracer, the game’s most prominently featured character, sharing a romantic holiday kiss with her girlfriend Emily, unveiling her as the first LGBTQ character in the game. Then in 2019, another official comic showed Soldier 76 reminiscing about an old boyfriend, making him the game’s second LGBTQ character. Both Tracer and Soldier 76 are remarkable examples of representation, both for being well-known, original members of the “Overwatch” cast and for subverting many stereotypes. Among all the characters in the “Overwatch” universe, these two didn’t always top the lists of fan speculation about who might be LGBTQ. And that’s important, as more varied and unexpected representations make it possible for more players to see themselves in these characters. Tracer and Soldier 76 have changed LGBTQ people’s lives for the better and that’s what authentic and meaningful representation is all about.

Esports is another booming area of the gaming industry — and one of the least inclusive. The esports scene is embarrassingly homogenous for a competitive activity that has so few intrinsic barriers of accessibility. While women and LGBTQ people are just as likely to be interested and involved in esports, their numbers at the highest levels of competition are vanishingly small, the result of an overwhelming number of cultural barriers.

Fortunately, there are a few pioneers carving a path for marginalized communities in esports: people like Scarlett, a transgender woman renowned for dominating several major “Starcraft II” tournaments. And, of course, there’s SonicFox — a legend in the fighting game community who’s Black and identifies as queer, non-binary, and furry — and who won Best Esports Player at The Game Awards in 2018. These celebrated figures are paving the way toward a more diverse future, but the deeply entrenched culture of misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in esports remains and must be addressed.

Gaming has incredible potential to create positive cultural change for the LGBTQ community, but it requires a comprehensive view of the industry and where inclusion and acceptance lag behind. Through our work, including the GLAAD Media Awards, we hope to encourage leaders in the industry to think bigger. Ultimately, the authentic stories told through games must lead to change in the real world and GLAAD’s mission will not end until we achieve 100% acceptance for the LGBTQ community, in gaming and elsewhere.