The Fight to Get Gay in Video Games
How Ultimate Gay Fighter ended up against the ropes.
Image: Ultimate Gay Fighter
Like a lot of guys growing up in the 1980s, Michael Patrick started playing video games at a young age. He loved Street Fighter, expressing a particular fondness for Chun Li, the first female character to be introduced to the series. He didn’t realize until years later how personal this choice was for him.
"Looking back, I think it was my inner drag queen acting out," Patrick, who's now 33 and works in New York City as a graphic designer, told me over Skype early one morning.
Patrick didn’t come out until he was 19, almost a decade after Street Fighter II (the one that introduced Chun Li) was first released. By that time, he had been won over by another gay icon: Madonna.
"I thought she was the coolest thing ever," he recalled. "And the fact that she would always give shout outs to gays made me feel accepted before I could accept myself."
Patrick isn't an "avid gamer" anymore, but he was reminded of his love of fighting games last June around the time of New York's gay pride parade. Seeing all the over-the-top costumes and floats that make the parade such a legendary event, he began to joke with his friends about what it would be like to have a fighting game—a genre long celebrated for its ridiculousness and camp nature—featuring entirely gay characters. Think Mortal Kombat, but with the cast of RuPaul's Drag Race.
"The idea was: the pride parade, but in a boxing match," Patrick said.
His friend laughed and moved on, but Patrick stuck with it. He hired programmers and sought out investments from friends and family. Not wanting to leave his day job, he'd wake up early in the morning before leaving for the office, and pick it up again once he got home (which is why we spoke over Skype at seven in the morning). And finally, last month, he unveiled his vision to the general public: Ultimate Gay Fighter, described on its website as "the world's first ever gay video game…ever!!!!"
Patrick expected to get some homophobic blowback. What he didn't expect was the shock with which many LGBT-friendly people reacted to the game as well.
"I didn't want it to be taken seriously, but people are taking it very seriously," Patrick said. He joked that he thinks he’s managed to create one of those pieces of work that’s simultaneously under attack by two opposing camps who normally refuse to agree on anything.
“One thinks it's terrible for the LGBT community because of all these negative stereotypes," he said. "And the other is like: You fucking faggots!”
Despite the game not even coming out yet, Ultimate Gay Fighter courted a great deal of controversy based on its trailer alone.
Watching the trailer for the game, one can see why. The game's cast of stereotype-saturated characters are all portrayed with a South Park-like irreverence. Some, like a muscle-bound bronzed Adonis who attacks enemies by trapping them in a tanning salon, seem mostly harmless and fun. Others, like an African American character named "Shawdee Killah" who fights with a giant gold necklace shaped like a noose, strike a nerve. It was perfectly positioned to churn through the internet outrage machine: ambiguously realized, so hastily made that it seemed unclear whether or not it was an actual game or just a hoax meant to raise people's hackles. Really, there's no telling if Ultimate Gay Fighter will ever come out. And even if it does, it may not be very good considering how little experience Patrick has making games. But it still managed to blow up across the gaming-centric part of the internet. Patrick rushed to defend himself, explaining in an interview with the gaming site VG247 that the game is “not meant to be hateful.”
Ironically enough, the controversy around the game brought it so much attention that Patrick delayed its release to consult with curious investors and publishers. It was originally supposed to launch last month, shortly after it was announced. Just last week, UGF announced that it had partnered with the independent mobile game developer Bearded Man Studios to bring a “bigger and better Ultimate Gay Fighter very soon.”
With no game to sink their teeth into, however, gamers and critics have been left wondering what to make of the game. Is it a bad joke made in poor taste? A malicious invocation of regressive, derogatory stereotypes? Or is Patrick right that everybody should just calm down and appreciate its inherent silliness?
Todd Harper, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT's game lab and author of the book The Culture of Digital Fighting Games, told me that part of the challenge Ultimate Gay Fighter faces here is one that a lot of games face on some level, especially in this genre. It’s not like fighting games aren’t colorfully outlandish and ridiculous. Among the playable characters in any given Tekken game, for instance, there’s a velociraptor wearing boxing gloves, a panda bear that can be dressed up in a tutu, and what looks like a giant, bearded dragon. But they’re set up like boxing matches, which means the only real opportunity to tell a story and develop a character happens outside the ring.
"In a narrative heavy game, it's easier to make a character's sexuality matter because the story has an impact on how you play the game, interact with the other characters," Harper said. "In a fighting game, who even cares? Players care about how the character fights, how they function, which is a mechanical thing, not a narrative one."
The Last of Us expansion Left Behind filled out some of the back story of Ellie, one of the game's main characters, including her brief romantic relationship with another young woman.
This puts developers in a tough spot in which they’re left with making highfalutin, cartoonish gestures to make something like a character’s sexuality stand out. Usually, this just amounts to giving all of the female characters in a game massive breasts, dressing them up in skimpy bikinis, and having them prance about like swimsuit models for the enjoyment of a presumably young heterosexual male audience.
The word “presumably” is key here, because market research has shown that the gaming public is becoming increasingly diversified despite the fact that most major publishers continue to market their work to straight white teenage boys. There’s a default assumption of heterosexuality in the vast majority of mainstream games, in other words, which puts developers who actually want to create a more diverse cast of characters than the usually repertoire of buff, stubbly white dudes in a tough spot. Do you call attention to a character’s sexuality? Or is it more empowering to normalize the position of LGBT characters by not making it an issue in the first place? But if you choose that route, isn’t that just inviting many players to ignore the presence of LGBT characters, once again rendering them silent and silenced?
To give an example, I asked Harper how he thought a game like StarCraft could show its players that one character or another was openly and freely gay. It’s hard to pinpoint what, if anything, about a sci-fi game pitting humans and various kinds of extraterrestrials in a bloody struggle for intergalactic domination renders LGBT voices so alien. But the vitriol of the esports community around games like StarCraft shows that they often are. So what’s StarCraft creator Blizzard supposed to do to change that? How could it show that one of the anonymous space marines in the game is gay, for instance, without turning him into a ridiculous caricature?
“That’s part of the problem: I don’t really know,” Harper said. “But now that you mention it, part of me would really love to see the space marines in StarCraft prancing around in stiletto heels...”
Toni Rocca, CEO and president of the LGBT-focused video game convention GaymerX, doesn't think that Patrick's loyalty to genre conventions is to blame here. If anything, Rocca said that he's disturbed by Patrick's ignorance of the LGBT gaming community he's now claiming to represent.
"One of the first things that he said was that it's the 'first gay video game,'" Rocca said. "That's obviously not true, and it's incredibly insulting to the people who have worked so hard to put queer characters in video games. I mean, one quick Google search of 'gay video game' could get you some examples."
While Mass Effect players could pursue lesbian relationships for the entire series, it wasn't until the third game they could be a gay man.
Rocca is right that there are now many positive examples of LGBT voices in video games. In recent years, high-profile developers like BioWare have released blockbuster games such as Mass Effect, which lets players star in their own space opera as openly gay characters who can pursue same-sex relationships (though that didn't happen until the third game in the trilogy).
Played the right way, Dragon Age, another of Bioware's games, contains a Brokeback Mountain-esque subplot about one of its male characters abandoning the player to marry a woman and honor his noble lineage when he's required to assume the throne. Gone Home, an independent game made by a handful of developers who previously worked on the popular Bioshock series, wowed many critics last year with its exploratory narrative centered around a teenage girl coming out to her friends and family. And just this month, Sony and developer Naughty Dog released an expansion to 2013’s critically acclaimed zombie epic The Last of Us which contained a surprising revelation that Ellie, a teenage girl who’s one of the two playable characters, had a brief and tragic romantic tryst with another woman.
In other words, there are enough game developers who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer that the influential gaming site Polygon announced the emergence of a "queer gaming scene” last year.
But compared to other pop culture anchors like music and film, the video game industry is still remarkably homogenous. Works like Mass Effect and The Last of Us are few and far between, and most of the independent work lacks the commercial apparatus of a mainstream publisher to ever reach an audience on the scale of, say, Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Which gets to an important question: if billion dollar companies are having such a hard time welcoming LGBT voices, is the work of one inexperienced gay man the real problem here?
"Maybe we shouldn’t be spending so much time picking on an indie developer who made some poor choices when a mainstream developer is still making the 40th installment in some series that's horribly racist and violent and misogynist," Rocca said.
Dragon Age was one of the first AAA games that allowed players to pursue same-sex relationships, complete with awkward, Enya-fueled sex scenes like the one shown above.
The creative dilemma that Harper highlighted, however, shows just how subtle and endemic this kind of institutionalized homophobia is. In very rare cases, a developer might make some blowhard statements about their disapproval of the LGBT community—like the creator of Earthworm Jim once did. For the most part, mainstream game developers are too smart to make their biases so overtly apparent.
Instead, what gamers are left with a sort of soft power nudging queer characters away from complete acceptance. A recent article on the gaming website Kill Screen, for instance, asked why there still isn’t a single easily identifiable “gay protagonist” in mainstream games. The answer was: there already are, in a certain way. But their sexuality is handled so “indirectly” that it can still be overlooked or plausibly denied.
Just look at The Last of Us. I asked the game scholar Ian Bogost what he thought of the big revelation about Ellie’s sexuality, and he was generally nonplussed. The fact that her “coming out” was framed as a pivotal plot point suggests that it was being actively concealed from the game’s players, however illogically, for the first twenty or so hours it took to play the original game. As a gay character, he suggested, Ellie was being used as “a device,” not as a “representation or a voice.”
I doubt that Ultimate Gay Fighter will have anything like the narrative strength or nuance of The Last of Us. But even in its clumsiness, I can’t help but appreciate how brazen the game is. Patrick’s own ignorance of modern video games shows just how limited the reach of the "queer gaming scene" is, and how outspoken he’s prepared to be. For all of his flaws, there need to be more people in games like him.
“It's extraordinarily new,” Patrick said of LGBT-focused games. “And that's why people are going bananas.”
“But it’s not stopping me,” he added. “This game is going to come out.”
Hopefully, more will too.