Pride Flags in Video Games Aren’t Enough to Show Queer History

It's not enough to just include queer symbols; they need to be part of the world.

The Pride flag is more than a piece of cloth. It’s a symbol of identity, of rebellion, and a tribute to the activists who fought so hard for LGBTQ+ people to be able to openly show their Pride today. You can find the flag on pins, wristbands, or draped over the shoulders of a young queer person embracing their identity. During Pride Month, you’ll also find it on Coca-Cola cans, mouthwash, and on the Twitter logo of almost every major brand. That’s the problem with the flag’s current iconic status: it’s so recognizable that it can be instantly stripped of its meaning, voice, and history, to be slapped on soda cans. It belongs to the LGBTQ+ community, but not in any legal sense, so corporations are free to use it as a convenient fashion statement during Pride month. Then it’s just as easily discarded for the rest of the year. Now video games are getting in on the act.

We’re seeing an increased presence of Pride flags in video games, but not the kind you see around someone’s shoulders at their first march; it’s the Coke can Pride flag. Games as individual works aren’t necessarily as cynical as the corporations who often make them — though that’s part of it — but they are inspired by the Twitter logo allies. They only know the colors, the stripes, and the vague idea that “this flag = gay.”

They look at the flag and see a piece of cloth.

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The Last Of Us Part II offers a strong example of this. Ellie, the game’s first lead, is a lesbian. Bisexual and transgender characters also feature prominently. While the game’s presentation of these queer identities is not perfect, it does center queerness more than most games. Unfortunately, it often does so through a cishet, voyeuristic lens. The best example being when Ellie and her girlfriend Dina stumble across the Pride flag in an abandoned, queer bookstore in post-apocalyptic Seattle.

Ellie and Dina don’t recognize the flags in the store. Dina even inquires “What’s with all the rainbows?” At first it’s a nice glimpse of a world without labels. Except Dina is also hatefully called a dyke early on — something implied at the start and demonstrated with ferocity in the epilogue. So this is a world where homophobia clearly still exists. Terms like “dyke” still exist. People remember Pearl Jam and Jurassic Park, but the rainbow flag has been erased from existence? In 2039, when the game is set, I’ll be 46; it’s ridiculous to think that the queer community will entirely disappear in any recognizable form, especially not in large, diverse communities which still have access to even less ubiquitous movies, literature, music, and porn. It’s cute to see Ellie and Dina so free, thumbing through queer literature from the first time in their lives, especially when Dina holds up a lesbian novella and jokes “It’s us.” At the same time, it’s a scene in a vacuum. With context, it steals away queer identities, history, iconography, and pride, all while specifically centering homophobia as a storytelling device instead.

The Last Of Us Part II is not alone in giving the Pride flag prominent screen time while stripping away its essence. Cyberpunk 2077 features a transgender character, Claire, who has a trans flag decal on her truck. Claire is voiced by a trans woman, discusses her transition in realistic ways, and is generally a bright spot in the game’s representation of queer people. However, like The Last Of Us bookshop scene, she’s let down by the world around her.

Cyberpunk 2077 features a character creator with genital choice not tied to gender. Yet it still genders voice, hairstyles, makeup, and clothes, while offering no they/them option altogether. Before the game proper even starts, it’s two steps forward, three steps back. Then in Night City itself, the only trans character aside from Claire is a transfeminine model with the infamous penis bulge on a soft drink poster. Meanwhile, amongst the neon signs scattered about the world, there are several of the male and female gender symbols; transgender signage, along with transgender people, is entirely absent. V’s romantic options — including four narrative choices, two “dolls” at the cyberpunk sex shop Clouds, and red light district Jig Jig Street Joy Toys — all clearly belong to the gender binary, too. Body modification is everywhere in Night City, but gender modification is nowhere to be seen.

This is a world where transness is fetishized on posters, but where gender nonconformity is suppressed. The gender binary is upheld everywhere from boardrooms to back alleys. Claire and her trans flag feel airdropped into this world, not an organic part of it. In a smaller game, set in the present day, with less focus on body mod as a core theme, Claire’s truck might pass for a minor win. Given the scope of Cyberpunk 2077, though, it feels like table scraps at worst and one overlooked writer’s small addition at best.

There are a few games where the Pride flag is mere background filler, and these do feel more like minor wins. Infamous: Second Son and Marvel’s Spider-Man both have smatterings of iconography around their world, as part of the natural backdrop of Seattle and New York City, respectively. Since neither of these games center queerness, these nods in the background feel like enough. Meanwhile, Watch Dogs 2 also decorates its setting (San Francisco) with Pride flags, but follows up by including San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community in the main plot, and even giving the protagonist the option to wear a Pride T-shirt.

Watch Dogs 2 also encounters some common pitfalls, though. On the plus side it features a gay married couple working with a surrogate mother, minor asexual and polyamorous characters, and a trans woman (although said woman is voiced by a cis man). But while it attempts to include the LGBTQ+ community actively, rather than the passive inclusion in Spider-Man , it doesn’t really address any real life issues surrounding the queer community meaningfully. Across three games, the Watch Dogs series has never really decided how politically charged it wants to be, but it especially leans away from the politics of the LGBTQ+ community. It seems simply having us in the game is political enough.

Watch Dogs’ themes of phone hacking and hyper surveillance are particularly iffy when turned on queer folk too; there’s one minor character whose phone can be hacked revealing they’re saving up for gender reassignment surgery. While this is a realistic thing for a trans person to do, it still feels like an uncomfortable invasion of privacy, even for a fictional character who only exists in the game to have their privacy invaded.

For gay and straight people alike, the Pride flag is useful shorthand for queerness. It’s encouraging to see more games include it — even if I wish The Last Of Us respected it more, Cyberpunk, Infamous, and Spidey included the community in their worlds more, and Watch Dogs better understood the struggle behind it. It’s more than a piece of cloth. That means if you want to include it, you need to be aware of what it represents, and be willing to live up to its ideals. We’re never going to celebrate the Uber logo using the Pride flag, but if they can iron out the creases, we’ll be able to celebrate video games using it.