Vague Patch Notes: Representation in games matters when you don’t see why it matters

    
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The Quick and the Gay

This is a story about a boy named Michael. Follow along with me for a little bit, if you’d be so kind.

Michael was born in 1983, and he didn’t have a very happy childhood. He was smart, but he didn’t really seem to fit in to basically any social group. He was always a quiet boy, introspective, and he heard the word “gay” applied a lot as a pejorative. Often to Michael himself, and often by Michael himself, because he only had the vaguest idea what the word meant aside from “this is a bad thing.”

As Michael hit puberty, he understood what the term meant. But he knew that it didn’t apply to him. He was definitely attracted to girls. From what little he knew, that meant that he was safe from being gay because gay men followed a very specific set of traits that he did not have. He wasn’t all of the things that he thought signified “gay man,” and that meant that he was straight. And all of the heroes he liked and saw on television, in movies, in video games? They were all straight men. So that’s what he was, even if they weren’t… really like him.

It was hard for Michael to put that sense into words. We’re talking about someone at age 13, after all. But he knew that there was something different about him compared to these people. Frankly, even if he knew that, he kept it to himself. And Michael grew up, and he kept knowing that yes, he was straight, even if sometimes he saw men he thought were cute or handsome, even if he felt like there was still something wrong with him in a way he couldn’t really define.

It was there through his 20s, even as he found a long-term relationship with a woman he loved very much. There was something off, some distance between Michael and everything he thought that he was supposed to be and feel. He couldn’t articulate it, still, because while he was older he still had a picture of what these things meant. And sure, the characters he tended to like most were characters like Starscream from Transformers, characters with outsized personalities that didn’t fit into the hyper-masculine or effeminate stereotypes. But he didn’t think much about it.

Let’s just presuppose that Michael, later in life, realized that he could be attracted to men without being gay. There’s a much larger spectrum of identifications than just “gay” or “straight,” bisexuality is a thing (as is pansexuality and just shrugging about the whole thing), and while it might not have changed Michael being happily married to a woman, it meant that a lot of the major elements of his feelings and attractions up to that point made sense.

Michael’s life probably would have been a lot different if he had been growing up with access to Soldier 76 from Overwatch as a template of what a gay man looked like. If he associated “gay” not with “shallow parody of John Waters” but with this commanding, dignified, intelligent older man who was confident in himself and his skin.

Also, his name wasn’t Michael. If you hadn’t guessed that by now.

It is our differences that make us more unified.

Whenever we get something like the news that a character has been announced to be gay, there’s pushback. That’s fine. But there’s also a lot of pushback from people who say that it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t affect their perspective or experience or anything.

Why make a character gay if it doesn’t affect anything? Why allow same-sex marriages or explicitly state them as non-stigmatized in Final Fantasy XIV if they’re the minority? Why provide a whole lot of lore about the normalization of same-sex relationships in WildStar if it doesn’t come up in quests? Why does this matter?

The reason is because it does matter, of course. It just doesn’t matter to you… except insofar as it does create a pattern. Let’s address both of those in turn.

When it comes to “it doesn’t matter” in terms of your personal preferences, that’s fine. But if it honestly doesn’t matter to you, there’s no need for you to say anything about it. There are a lot of things that happen on a daily basis that don’t really matter to me in any major way. If a major NFL team makes a push to make tickets available at lower prices for fans of a more diverse income range? Well, that doesn’t matter to me; I dislike football and thus don’t actually care.

Except, you know, it does matter. It might not matter to me, but granting more people who do care about it access it is a good thing. And since it doesn’t matter to me personally either way, the only logical response to it would be “oh, well, that’s nice.” Sure, I don’t have any personal skin in the game, but it’s a good thing.

More to the point, it creates a pattern. It makes for a wider pool of templates and references. This goes beyond just people who are growing up today, even though it matters that the Michaels of today can play a game in which they play a cool, confident gay man in the later years of his life. But it contributes to the image that his sexuality has nothing to do with who he is as a person, that his personhood and acceptance of same is not predicated upon orientation or identity.

We're here. We're queer. And it is all right.

If it really doesn’t matter, then having it there takes nothing away from you. In the case of Soldier 76, I assure you that a grand total of zero programmers were taken off of regular Overwatch development in order to confirm this bit of lore. You will not be told that Blizzard really wanted to do more esports events, but they just spent too much money on a short story in which a brief aside revealed that someone is gay. It doesn’t affect you; it gives something to people who do want it.

One of my favorite bits from Mystery Science Theater 3000 was when the writing team was asked if they were ever worried about people not getting the more obscure jokes. The answer, paraphrased, was very simple: “We don’t worry if not everyone gets the joke. The right people will get the joke.”

And that’s the case for everything. For people who don’t care about Overwatch, they will continue to not care. Those who don’t identify as queer in any way will probably not be affected by this. But for the fans who are gay men and had been deeply, personally hoping that this character was in fact like them? This means the world. This is everything.

It creates part of an image. It creates a regular message that this character is like you in some way, and there are other people are like you, and they aren’t freaks or wrong or broken or villains. They’re not punchlines. They’re just people, and it’s about what they do as people rather than who they define themselves as.

So if you’re wondering why this matters? It might not for you. But somewhere out there there’s a Michael who might see this and feel less alone, who can look at this and say “hey, maybe this is more normal than I think.” Who maybe looks back and talks to that first boy he ever has a crush on, who can admit that yes, I have a crush on this boy. And he can be himself, relieved of one burden of trying to find his identity.

I know it would have helped me a lot. But I was born in 1983, and… well, you heard this story.

As a small postscript, this was inspired by and in expansion to Jack Kerras writing an excellent and eloquent comment covering much of the same ground on the aforementioned announcement post. If you’ve not already read his post, I encourage you to do so.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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elenie

Thank you Eliot.

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Maggie May

I can’t speak for other people, but as a female, I will play a game where I am treated equally like ESO. We just need to even get better than that … Representation means reflecting the people who exist in the world and not marginalizing. People I know tell me just how especially important it is in the LGBTQ community. We also need to get away from the typical tropes, people are all different.

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zoward

Great article! Vague Patch Notes has really been hitting the right notes lately, starting to become one of those “can’t miss it” columns.

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Hikari Kenzaki

This is just downright amazing. For those of us who grew up KNOWING that everything about us was wrong and evil and against what was normal, we understand this too well.

When I have looked back on my life at all the times I was trying to “act out” (my own term for it) and got punished or told to ‘be a man’ or all the times I tried to live a life that was never meant for me. It makes me wish that there were characters when I was a kid who were actually like me. That it wasn’t just the strong man who got the girl.

And it took 40 years to understand that wasn’t the case. I don’t regret my life, but I know it would have been a lot less stressful if I’d been able to accept this stuff in my teens. Or heck… in my 20s.

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sophiskiai

Brilliant article, thankyou for writing this.

I stopped being in self-denial about my sexuality in my early 20s, but it wasn’t until well into my 30s that I discovered there were even words to describe or identify as being non-binary, and suddenly so much of who I was and how I’d spent decades feeling started to make sense. Having diverse role models in media back in the 80s or 90s would’ve meant the world to me and saved countless hours of angst and confusion and heartbreak.

It warms my heart how much progress we’ve made, and I do believe that a great deal of that is thanks to the internet letting people from marginalised groups of all types share information and connect with each other and have a public voice. But there’s still so much pushback and hatred in the world and so, so much further to go. Every article and conversation like this one gets us just that little bit further along the road.

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Alex Willis

Wonderful stuff, thank you for writing it.

If it really doesn’t matter, then having it there takes nothing away from you. … It doesn’t affect you; it gives something to people who do want it.

There is something broken in the human mind that says, “allowing a thing that is not me reflects a judgment on me.” So many people who object to inclusion perceive it as a threat, either as tokenism or as a silent judgment on what they hitherto thought as “normalcy” (which they, presumably, were part of).

Humans are wired to fear difference. It’s one of our ugliest qualities.

But we’re changing — for the better, I want to believe. I’m a utopianist when it comes to the perfectibility of culture. I don’t think we’ll get there, but it’s worth aspiring to. And it’s for damned sure that we won’t get there by perceiving difference suspiciously. We are only going to see it multiply, as younger people learn — as they should — that so many of their internalized differences are, and should be, embraced.

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Alex Willis

(I wrote “internalized” there without thinking about markers of external difference. Obviously those need to be on the table too — I was just thinking about the sexuality piece when I wrote this.)

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zerohunt

It was a great article. I would say that a character’s sexual orientation should only matter if it also means something to the story. The best created stories in movies, games, and books always need to put reasons for almost anything being described. From books describing the sweet scent of roses in a quiet, a busy street in a neighborhood before it is blown up, or two lovers holding hands while walking down the street: it should be doing something for that story.

In the case of Soldier 76, I would say it showed he had to lose someone close to him to become the person he is today. Story wise, I honestly think it works well and gives Soldier 76 backstory.

I completely understand that some people would like to be represented in stories in some form, but in order for these stories to be good stories, it needs to be reasoning to it and not just a label you slap on a character. Games like Mass Effect (except for three’s ending) and Dragon Age are loved not because you can make a gay character but the characters you can fall in love with have a good stories attached to them.

On the opposite end, we’ll have instances of stupidity with things like the original God of War where you can have Kratos bang some random chicks at some point. Does it matter? No. Does it add to Kratos other than he’s a straight man? No. Does it provide any good plot point in the stories? No. I would say it devalues the story slightly as he is supposed to be haunted by his dead wife and child. It was only put in there for the shock value. That is something I definitely don’t want to see in story telling for any form of representation (gay, straight, anything.) It is only seen as a shallow jester at best and a plot hole at worst.

TL;DR: I understand representation is important but it should also matter to the story to make it worth something more than just a label.

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luxundae

This sort of piece is why I keep coming back to MOP. Thank you!

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IronSalamander8 .

Well said, I like this article a lot.

It is very hard for those that aren’t part of a underrepresented group to know what’s it like to be in that group. We just don’t see it like those that feel left out do. It takes an effort to see it and many don’t want to make that effort or even worse, create an outcry over it.

I graduated high school in 1988, I’m significantly older and you imagine how much worse it was back then for people not considered mainstream, it was a common insult in my high school days, even if not applicable to the individual in question and makes me glad I was in the ‘nerd’ group so wasn’t a ‘cool kid’ and never had to try to fit in by being nasty towards other students, but it happened a lot back then.

I do like seeing a variety of characters to play, diversity has become a dirty word in some circles, but I think it’s important as it can create better understanding and hopefully less online toxicity.

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Maggie May

I graduated in 1976 and the world we lived in was significantly different in many ways to the world now. I am proud that my kids generation is changing the conversation about so many things but I also know these are things that we need to keep fighting for. Games are only a small part of a wider sometimes very nasty world. (Ok Mom talk over … :)

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vgees

Wow, thank you for writing this Elliot! You hit it right on the head, representation does matter! I’ve experienced this personally as a Black person somewhere in the T part of the LGBTQ spectrum. I never knew until recently that anyone was paying attention to how I was expressing myself, much less that it was inspiring them to action in their own lives. So yes, it really does matter!