Where is the “Authentic” LGBTQ Content in Games?

And who gets rewarded for it?

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) annually awards various types of media for outstanding representations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community and issues. While the awards have previously recognized television, movies, music, and journalism, GLAAD recently introduced a new category for Outstanding Video Game. The organization describes the award as intending to highlight “interactive experiences that include authentic and impactful LGBTQ characters or storylines.” This first year’s nominees were Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset, Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, and The Sims Mobile. This March, The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset won the inaugural award. While the introduction of this award is commendable, I can’t help but be disappointed by the list of nominees. By focusing on the introduction of some minor queer content into otherwise typical titles, these awards risk celebrating safe corporate inclusion at the expense of games created by and for the LGBTQ community.

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Overwatch (Blizzard)

The Limits of Inclusion

While certainly each of the games nominated do feature LGBTQ characters or storylines devoted to LGBTQ issues, none of them center on queerness as the main point of the narrative. GLAAD notes that the “Manor of Masques” quest in Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) is what put the Summerset expansion ahead of the other nominees. The quest features a transgender woman whom the player aids in reuniting with her estranged twin sister. The quest was well-received by the community, and certainly is a welcome change in a genre that typically features more shallow writing for its quest NPCs. In addition, ESO has featured many LGBTQ people as NPCs in their game since it first launched in 2014.

But while ESO does deserve recognition for its part in representing the LGBTQ community, I wonder whether it deserves the label of “outstanding.” Big studios are continuously congratulated for arguably small or retroactive representations of queerness in their games while developers who are queer themselves or who center their games and their narratives on queerness remain largely unrecognized.

In recent years queer games have received more mainstream attention. Games such as Dream Daddy and Ladykiller in a Bind have featured and centered on queer characters and their experiences while also being developed by or involving queer creators directly. But these games are also often subjected to a disproportionate level of scrutiny that far exceeds the harshness of critique levied against games like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey or Guild Wars 2. Rewarding the latter while ignoring the former reinforces the idea that LGBTQ people can only see themselves reflected in corporate media. Recognizing the achievements of games that substantively deal with queerness could instead help reinforce the idea that games can be made both for and by LGBTQ people.

Dream Hard (Robert Yang)

Digging Deeper

Of course, it’s possible that GLAAD simply does not possess the necessary expertise and familiarity with the video game industry to identify smaller queer titles. However, if the Outstanding Video Game Award is meant to highlight authentic and impactful LGBTQ characters and storylines, how does one single quest NPC compare to games like Robert Yang’s Dream Hard, a beat ‘em up game centered on the late 1990s queer politics of resistance within New York City performance spaces?

The GLAAD awards were also limited in their inaugural year by their criteria: only games released in 2018, or those with substantial new additions featuring LGBTQ content, were eligible. However, the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, a constantly expanding and resourceful archive of LGBTQ content in video games, currently lists 55 games that were released in 2018 and featured some degree of queer content. While not all of these games are queer-centered, and the LGBTQ Video Game Archive likely doesn’t cover all such games, it nonetheless points to the fact that there are already resources for those that wish to learn about and feature queer games and their creators.

I am sure that the teams who worked on these nominated games are thrilled to be recognized for their work in highlighting diverse narratives and characters in their games. I am also sure that the presence of this award is a motivating factor on some level for developers to continue thinking about the issue of representation as they move forward on future projects. However, smaller developers arguably have more to gain from these nominations, especially in an industry that rarely highlights independent games, aside from the occasional breakout hit. GLAAD may be attempting to reach the widest audience and appeal to a more mainstream gaming culture, but this seems at odds with their mission of recognizing authentic and meaningful LGBTQ inclusion in games.

ORBTOWN (Juno AM and Josie Brechner)

Authentic Representation

GLAAD has a unique opportunity to give a platform to games that focus on queer issues or are produced by LGBTQ developers. When only larger studios receive nominations for these awards, it continues a trend whereby other games and developers are rendered invisible for consumers, fans, and those seeking out new content. Award nominations are political in nature, insofar as they can represent endorsements of products and can drive sales and attention towards games. In an industry where discoverability in an oversaturated market is a key issue for smaller developers, there should be no question that press and awards matter to the livelihood and success of studios and creators. The GLAAD award for Outstanding Video Game is no different in terms of its potential impact in this respect than any other award.

One might protest that these awards are analogous to the Oscars, which primarily focus on films generated by the big studios. But the GLAAD award isn’t a general games award — it’s about queer representation, and a large proportion (possibly a majority) of LGBTQ content in games is found in indie titles. By not representing these games, GLAAD is potentially misrepresenting queerness in games and doing a disservice to queer creators. My hope is that in the future, GLAAD will recognize games and their creators in a more meaningful way that truly honours authentic and meaningful representation of queerness in games. Not only would this benefit queer developers, it would bring the exciting work they are doing in games to broader LGBTQ audiences.

While I welcome the kinds of characters and narratives that games like ESO have introduced to their worlds, the kind of games I want to be featured and celebrated for their queerness do it better. I want to encourage big studios to push representation further. And I want organizations like GLAAD to play a role by celebrating and awarding those games and developers that represent queerness on a more authentic level.