Why The Gaming Industry Plans To Keep Gay Characters On The Sidelines

We won't see any queer protagonists "for a while," apparently.

Mar 1 2014, 2:35pm
Image: Ubisoft/Far Cry 3

Despite the fact that a legitimate "queer games scene" has developed on the outskirts of the game industry, the mainstream has remained hesitant to create even a single gay protagonist. There are many openly gay developers working at large game companies, however, so why the industry is so loath to introduce these voices into their work remains a mystery.

Ubisoft, one of the 10 largest video game companies in the world, offered an explanation this week in the form of a back-and-forth between two of its writers that touched on the issue.

"What do you think the odds are that we’ll get a mid-30s stubbly-bearded brown-haired white guy with a raspy voice who is gay as a lead character in a AAA title?" Richard Dansky, the company's "Central Clancy Writer" (yes, that's a thing) asked Lucien Soulban, an openly gay man who's worked on blockbuster shooter franchises like Far Cry and Rainbow Six.

"Not for a while, I suspect, because of fears that it'll impact sales," Soulban responded. In his view, commercial constraints are the chief barrier to diversifying video game characters and stories. At best, what AAA game developers can do now is relegate LGBT characters to supporting roles, or pull a sort of "bait-and-switch" on players like Nintendo famously did when it revealed that Metroid star Samus Aran was actually a woman underneath her suit of power armor. Either that, or what BioWare has done with its Dragon Age and Mass Effect games—let players decide the sexuality of their characters and chalk the decision up to player choice.

This isn't the first time that the game industry has held itself back from making greater strides on social issues. Last year in a long interview I conducted with Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett, she said that the game industry has often adopted similar stances against making games with female protagonists, essentially saying that "it would be very difficult putting a female up front and center because female-lead games do not sell as well as male-lead games."

As a result, people like Pratchett, Soulban, and Dansky understandably face a different kind of pressure than the people making a campy indie game like Ultimate Gay Fighter. Like any kind of creative professional, game developers—the artists, writers, designers, and programmers who work to build the best version of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto that they can—are in an intensely competitive field. The publishers that support their work demand high returns. Even successful studios can be shut down at a moment's notice—just this month, BioShock creator Irrational Games announced that it had decided to jettison all but 15 of its employees shortly after releasing one of the best-received games of 2013. So if the people holding the purse strings decide that queer characters won't make any money, many developers feel that they have to agree.

One could make a convincing counter-argument, however, that games with diverse protagonists don't sell as well because those same publishers don't provide as much funding to market them as they do with their dude-centric counterparts. Pratchett made that exact point speaking to me. But when I reached out to her today to hear her thoughts on Soulban's comments, she sounded a more cautionary note, acknowledging, "It's still extremely hard to get a female character heading up a game."

That's coming from the woman who just wrote the reboot of Tomb Raider, probably the most popular franchise to feature a female protagonist ever seen in games. Pratchett remained optimistic about the long-term diversification of AAA games, however.

"I do think we'll start seeing more LGBTQ secondary characters emerging," she added. "For example, although we didn't make a song and dance about it, there is a transgender woman in the Thief world." Critics didn't really highlight the presence of a transgender character in Thief either. But many critics didn't really enjoy the game in the first place, so they might have just thought it wasn't worth celebrating in any case.

Ultimately, Pratchett agreed with Soulban that LGBT voices are only going to be welcomed into games in bits and pieces: "I think folding them in as regular secondary characters who are just part of the fabric of the world will be how things progress."

Not everyone agrees with her analysis, however. One Ubisoft employee who would only speak to me candidly on the condition of anonymity said that whether or not this kind of pressure exists, it shouldn't define a developer's creative work.

"What he's saying is jaded truth," the employee said of Soulban's comments. But even then, "it shouldn't come from an artist, who should be trying to forward the industry and open doors."

"If that kind of negativity comes from the artists then what are we fighting for?" the employee asked.

It's not like capitalism and gay liberation are mortal enemies either. Even if you accept that AAA game companies like Ubisoft decide what kinds of characters to feature based solely on the cold calculations of market research, that doesn't preclude bringing queer characters to the forefront. As some cynics pointed out after Facebook decided to expand its gender-identification options, the $100 billion dollar social media giant's new queer-friendly face could just as easily be seen as a ploy to rake in even more advertising revenue.

Matt Conn, the creative director of the LGBT-focused gaming convention GaymerX and CEO of Midboss (the company that produces it), therefore called the commercial defense against LGBT protagonists "an awful copout thing to say" based on the "fear that the first company that makes a AAA title featuring a gay character will not only fail, but that they will be branded as the 'gay' company who makes 'gay games' and that they'll lose their 18-35 male demographic."

"And to that I say: that is bullshit," Conn told me in an email. "You see Fox Searchlight putting out queer movies, you see Modern Family on ABC. And yet, Fox also puts out Die Hard. And people still go and watch those action movies."

So while AAA game developers may still "continue to let fear reign over their business decisions," Conn said that it's inevitable someone is going to make the leap—and do so very soon. They may even be handsomely rewarded for doing so.

"I would say he is dead wrong," Conn said of Soulban's initial statement about sales and gay characters. "Mark my words, within a few years we will see multiple high profile games with queer leads. 100 pecent positive of that."

*Update 3/3/2014*

Gary Steinman, a communications manager for Ubisoft, issued a response to the press that Soulban's comments were getting with a statement issued over the weekend. Steinman's statement is buried in the comments section of the original Q&A, so here it is reprinted in full:

Hello, all... We’ve seen several news outlets pick up quotes from this lively interview, with a focus on Lucien’s comment that we might not see a gay protagonist in a triple-A game for a while due to concerns about an impact on sales. We want to clarify that Lucien is speaking from the heart and sharing his own personal perspectives and insights. We’d also like to reiterate that fully committed to exploring characters of all races, creeds and orientations, in both supporting and starring roles. The UbiBlog was built to be a place where the creative minds behind our games can talk directly with you, in an open setting, fostering frank and candid discussions about key issues like this one.