The Gaying of Video Games

Bill and Joel from the video game The Last of Us
Bill (left) and Joel in the video game The Last of Us.

Courtesy of Naughty Dog

*Editor’s Note: This article may contain spoilers for some game-playing readers. 

Somewhere in the ruins of a small Massachusetts town, two men are staring at a pair of feet that hover just above their heads. One man, a gruff survivalist, is struck with a ghostly expression of horror. The Hawaiian-shirted corpse dangling from a noose is not nearly so affecting to the other man, who asks, “Somebody you know?” Bill, the survivalist, has a haunted look in his eyes. He turns to the other man and says, with great inflection on the final word, “He was my partner.”

All this occurs in Naughty Dog’s 2013 video game The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic action title that explores a world ravaged by disease. Bill, a battle-hardened tough guy, has just confirmed what the player may already have begun to suspect: that he is gay and that the partner to whom he has alluded briefly was a romantic one. A letter found shortly after this exchange cements the connection, but it’s the sadness with which Bill affirms, “He was the only idiot that would wear a shirt like that” that exposes his pain.

Not only is Bill’s surprising revelation a twist that enriches the game’s narrative, it’s also part of a trend in the video-gaming world. Gay characters are being woven into the stories of games, and production companies are increasingly reaching out to LGBT gamers in their marketing. Even though The Last of Us’ Bill suggests that romance “is good for one thing: getting you killed,” video-gaming companies are starting to realize that it might also be good for business.

But can pressing the X button to initiate a relationship with a bunch of polygons and pixels really make a difference? In 2012, writer John Scalzi blogged that the life experiences of straight, white men are easy mode, “the lowest difficulty setting there is.” Using a gaming concept, Scalzi was suggesting that for minorities, life’s battles are fought with tougher bad guys. Recognizing that those struggles occur within the industry, too, the first GaymerX convention was held in San Francisco in 2012.

The convention’s existence caused some people to scratch their heads and ask why gay gamers would want to cloister themselves away from the mainstream. In a medium known for playful aggression and trash-talking, gay gamers make for easy targets when lazy homophobic epithets are thrown around. For some, the insults are part of a roguish camaraderie, but for others, events like GaymerX provide a safe space to talk about the gayer side of gaming, to make friends, and to dress up in goofy costumes.

Niche gaming sites like GayGamer and Lesbian Gamers have grown in popularity, and now gay gamers are seeing more queer characters integrated into games. But does the gender and sexuality of a video-game character really matter? And should we care whether it’s a damsel in distress or a gentleman in jeopardy if the rescue mission is fun?

An era that has seen the striking down of DOMA and the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, has also witnessed a wave of suicides by gay teens, a phenomenon that highlights the lonely plight of many isolated young people. Games that incorporate gay and lesbian characters and story lines can provide comfort to young people questioning their sexuality. If they encounter a gay hero while forging a quest to reclaim the realm, they might take heart in seeing that even tough guys fall in love. And for those who play online, gaming can even be a way to interact with other gay people and build a support network.

Andrew Morrison, a 28-year-old gay gamer, is especially fond of role-playing games, which allow the player to embark on adventures using a character they create. He noted that some recent games, such as the Dragon Age and Fable titles, have included an opportunity to pursue gay romances. “The best thing about those games is that you have choices,” Morrison said, “It’s nice when you can feel like another aspect of yourself is being realized in video games.”

During the 1980s and ’90s, gay characters appeared in several games, but they were ususally minor characters; mostly predatory or lecherous men included for comedic effect. It was rare to find a nuanced take on sexuality and romance, although a few titles did attempt it. (Phantasmagoria 2 even had a bisexual protagonist back in 1997.)  But now that gamers hunger for meatier morsels, and video games look more like Hollywood blockbusters, some companies have taken a decidedly gayer path.

In 2009, Rockstar Games published a downloadable add-on to their smash hit Grand Theft Auto 4 called The Ballad of Gay Tony. The equally popular spinoff followed the exploits of a gay mobster, and although the titular character was a criminal, his sexuality was presented matter-of-factly. In a world of disco balls and ritzy nightclubs, being gay gave the character depth beyond villainy and grounded the outlandish story. Elsewhere, indie gaming studio the Fullbright Company took a less shocking route with its 2013 release Gone Home. A low-key exploration of a runaway lesbian teenager’s struggle with her sexuality, it earned critical acclaim for tackling a sensitive subject with levity.

The first two entries in the blockbuster Mass Effect series included lesbian romances but ignored gay men, an omission that Morrison saw as a misstep in a series otherwise praised for its narrative complexity. “It’s interesting that the producers thought they had a masculine audience that might be turned off” by gay-male content, he said. “Of course, having a lesbian sex scene did the opposite!”

After fans—both gay and straight—complained, the third title in the Mass Effect series included two gay-male romance options. Suddenly the narrative opened up to new possibilities, a positive development in a game that is all about choice and consequences. Awkward scenes of shirtless kissing aside, gay-male gamers had new reasons to connect with the characters. The increased range of options made the closing chapter of the trilogy all the more epic, no matter whom the player chose to smooch.

But besides allowing gamers more freedom to choose their own adventures, featuring gay narratives can be good for business. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us was a huge commercial success, selling more than 3.4 million units, making it the second-most successful and second-fastest-selling game of 2013, behind Grand Theft Auto V. It was the game’s bold and uncompromising story that earned its creators respect—and a lot of money. And at a time when games are so expensive to produce, (a high-profile game can cost tens of millions of dollars), getting attention from inside and outside the industry is critical. The Last of Us did just that.

Heather Cerlan, a texture artist at Naughty Dog who worked on the visual design for the environments within The Last of Us, is also a lesbian gamer. She says she was thrilled and surprised when she learned that the game included a gay character. Referring to Bill’s portly silhouette and tough attitude, Cerlan said, “I like that he didn’t fit the typical stereotype of a gay man. I’m really happy they didn’t play into the flamboyant characteristics that most people in society associate with that.”

Bill’s love life in The Last of Us and manly moments in Mass Effect did nothing to detract from the fun to be had in those games. Instead, they opened up the titles to better stories, and they made those worlds personal to more gamers. That gay survivalist might be the straight gamer’s brother, that runaway teen his sister. And that space marine might be the tough-guy teen afraid to admit he is gay but ready to live that life virtually, to start a new story.