Sunday, May 8, 2016

Magical Sex and Gender Outlaws: Studying Sexuality and Gender in Digital Games, Pt 1

This week for my independent study, I chose to read Mia Consalvo’s “Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances: Studying Sexuality in Video Games.” Written in 2003, Consalvo’s piece was included in The Video Game Theory Reader and is one of the earliest essays that tackles examining sexuality in video games. Consalvo chooses two popular games from the early 2000s—Final Fantasy IX and The Sims—and analyzes each using theoretical approaches from feminism, queer studies, and cinema studies. However, one concern studying technology and video games is the speed at which technology develops and changes. Therefore, Consalvo’s piece could be considered dated and less applicable to the current state of gaming. Nonetheless, Consalvo’s “Hot Dates” opens the door for contemporary sexuality scholars to take video games as their texts. It is in this fashion that I revisit Consalvo’s call to “explor[e] more systematically how these varying sexualities are expressed [in games]” (191). Below I draw on two contemporary games (as of 2016)—BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) and Midboss’s Read Only Memories (2015)—to discuss the importance of attending to gender and sexuality in games. Part 1 focuses on queer and trans representation in Dragon Age: Inquisition, whereas part 2 focuses on queer subtlety and gender affirmative practices in Read Only Memories.

Queer and Trans Subjectivity in BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition
BioWare’s Dragon Age series is known for its inclusion of romance and sexuality in its games. Since the first Dragon Age game, players have had the option to develop romantic and sexual relationships with various companions, with both same- and opposite-gender possibilities. In 2014 BioWare released Dragon Age: Inquisition, announcing that the game would include the series’ first exclusively gay character. Dorian Pavus, a male human mage and companion in Inquisition, is a romance option for anyone playing a male character. Before Inquition’s Dorian, all of the same-gender romance options are coded as bisexual—i.e., any character who is romanceable by someone of the same gender is also a romance option for someone of the opposite gender. Dorian’s exclusive sexuality marks a pivotal point in the series, in that Dorian’s queerness is written, coded, and actively engaged with in the story. The only relationships Dorian can pursue are with men, which many LGBT gamers read as a step in the right direction for queer representation and diversity in games.

While Dorian is only a romance option for male characters, any player who chooses to progress Dorian’s plot arc will encounter his queerness; part of Dorian’s backstory revolves around his father’s intolerance of his gay identity. After gaining Dorian’s trust, optionally progressing his story arc leads to a scene between him and his father. Upset and angry with his father, Dorian tells you that his father never approved of Dorian’s preference for “the company of men.” Because Dorian chose not to marry a woman and keep his queerness closeted, his father plotted to use blood magic to, as Dorian says, “Alter my mind. Make me…acceptable.” What’s striking about this scene is that Dorian’s sexuality (and his father’s homophobia) becomes an element of the plot, rather than just a sexual outlet for LGBT gamers who desire queer romance options. This desexualization of queerness provides a narrative that includes sexuality without the sex, offering an example of new ways that AAA game titles can grapple with issues of queerness and sexuality. (Though if you play a male, you have the possibility in this scene to romantically respond to him and receive a kiss.) Dorian’s history with his father also becomes a moment where players, queer or not, can empathize with his traumatic past, creating the opportunity for affective connection despite the player’s gender or sexual orientation.

Even if the player doesn’t progress Dorian’s plot arc, there are still opportunities for Dorian’s queerness to be brought up. If the player does not pursue romantic or sexual relations with Dorian or Iron Bull (another party member in the game who is romanceable by any player), the two have the possibility to develop their own relationship, illustrative through their party banter. Having both members active in the party will result in Iron Bull teasing and flirting with Dorian. Sexual banter (e.g. Iron Bull asking Dorian “Spend a lot of time polishing your staff?”) and references to their sexual affairs fill the out of combat silence, and befriending either of them and asking about the other confirms their relationship. As stated before, Dorian’s queerness becomes a possible encounter, even if the player doesn’t actively choose to play as a male character and pursue Dorian as a romantic interest.

(I do also want to point out that while Dorian was the character that received most of the media attention when the game was announced, he isn’t the only exclusively queer character. Sera, a female elf rogue, is another party member and companion who is only romanceable by female characters. I interpret Dorian’s hype by the mainstream media as indicative of the gendered hierarchies that exist in the LGBT community; it’s could also be argued that the media perceive gamers as male, so the possibility for Sera’s character to also be heralded seems less likely.)

 In addition to the diverse content of sexuality in Inquisition, the game also offers important insights into the life experiences of Krem, a trans non-playable character in the game. Krem serves as lieutenant in Iron Bull’s mercenary company known as the Chargers. Rather than me tell you all about Krem, I think it is more powerful to actually watch some of the dialogue regarding Krem in the game.

Iron Bull: In Qunandar, Krem’d be an aqun-athlok. That’s what we call someone born one gender but living like another. 
Krem: And Qunari don’t treat those… aqun people any differently than a real man.
Iron Bull: They are real men. Just like you are. 
Krem: Maybe your people aren’t so bad after all. 
In the first half of the video, we see the player responds somewhat poorly to learning about Krem being trans. Even though you are given the option to not respond the most appropriately, the game creates a learning opportunity for those less versed in trans issues. The dialogue between Krem and Iron Bull affirms Krem’s gender identity as a man, as Iron Bull implies that being a trans man doesn’t make you any less than a cisgender man. In the second half the video, we see the assumingly ignorant player-character make another insensitive remark that “Him being a her isn’t a problem?” With skipping a beat, Iron Bull metaphorically slaps the player-character’s hand and reiterates that “[Krem] is not a woman,” further reaffirming Krem’s identity to the player-character. Iron Bull’s adamancy functions as a response to the player-character’s misunderstanding, actively grappling with transphobia and issues of gender identity. Both Iron Bull and the game itself behoove you to take Krem’s gender identity seriously, which is one of the first AAA games to actively grapple with the lives and experiences of trans characters. And while the games allows you to explore more of Krem’s history later in the plot (which you can watch below), the game decidedly only makes a big deal about Krem’s trans identity to address transphobia and ignorance—otherwise, the game goes on to develop Krem is other ways.

Queer and trans content in Dragon Age: Inquisition is more abundant than any other AAA game that has preceded it. There are several other ways that Inquisition grapples with romance, sexuality, and gender, including heterosexual pairings for some companions and other queer relationship possibilities, as I briefly mention above with Sera or Iron Bull. While Dragon Age: Inquisition does an excellent job moving the game industry toward more gendered and sexual diversity in mainstream games, it isn’t without its faults. For instance, all of the examples I discuss above are completely optional and sometimes are happenstance. Therefore, not every player will be confronted with sexual and gendered diversity in the game, making it easy for normative gamers to never experience the subversive potential of the game. What would it look like if the character had to develop their relationship with either Dorian or Sera? What would it feel like for the game to write a quest where the player-character learns to apologize and empathize with an offended a party member after the player-character uses insensitive (e.g. transphobic, homophobic, or racist) language? These are a few options for more transformative potential that could be found Inquisition specifically and in digital games more broadly.

Nonetheless, BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition offers several possibilities for game designers and developers to take sex, sexuality, and gender seriously in digital games. Examining the roles that gender and sexuality play in Inquisition partially responds to Consalvo’s call to action for game studies scholars. In the next post, I look at an indie game made by a queer gaming company and look at the possibilities available there for studying sexuality and gender in digital games. Stay tuned!

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