After a few minutes on Xbox Live, you're likely to be convinced that the gaming community is rabidly homophobic. The frequency with which players casually fling around words like "fag," "homo" and "gay" as insults is enough to deter all but the most thick-skinned gay gamers from joining in the fun. But there's a more subtle bias against homosexuality that's long been the norm in the games industry: the near absence of gay characters in single-player games.
It's an issue that has come into greater focus as videogames have aspired to tell more complex stories with more nuanced characters. But despite these goals, the experiences that designers have created for players are too often limited to a heterosexual male perspective. It's a double-edged sword: Designers are reluctant to include homosexuality in their games because many people would object to being forced to play a gay character. Flip that issue around, though, and you realize how unfair this is to gay gamers, who must play as heterosexual characters if they want to play at all.
"I can't recall off the top of my head any games that blatantly expressed homophobic comments or ideals. But the fact that there were no games depicting gays was a milder form of silent homophobia that the industry suffered from as a whole," says George Skleres, a game designer who happens to be gay. "It definitely sends a message to people who play a lot of games that 'normalcy' is being white and heterosexual, because the hero is always white and heterosexual."
Chris Vizzini, founder of gaymer.org, echoes Skleres' sentiments. "I would like to have the option to choose to be a gay character and have it smoothly integrate into the storyline," he says. "We just want to be included without ridicule."
Unfortunately, such characters are a rarity. When games do feature gay characters, it's often in a harmful light. "Sometimes we are negatively stereotyped," says Vizzini. "Case and point would be Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. There is a guy depicted as a swishy queen roller-skating down the street in hot pants and leg warmers. No one I know is like that."
This lack of sensitivity is partly due to the lack of openly gay developers at most studios. "The game industry in its infancy was very homophobic. It's not that gay people weren't employed, but the anti-gay tendencies that permeated the industry kept most of them in the closet," Skleres says. "For a long time, because the developers were primarily white, heterosexual men, the games were made for white, heterosexual men. Anyone outside of the 18-to-25 male demographic was completely untapped."