Civil and equal rights has been a hot topic of debate for longer than most people are probably aware of. You may think that civil and equal rights were first openly discussed in the 60’s, but that is not entirely true. The reason our minds always gravitate to the 1960’s is because, by and large, that was the time when the fight for civil and equal rights was the most successful and most heated, and not only in the case of African-Americans. The 60’s was a decade of social revolution for all minorities: African-Americans saw the desegregation of public institutions, the LGBT community was involved in the Stonewall Riots, and women saw the first wave of real feminism. Today, it’s hard to believe that our own grandparents or great grandparents lived in a world where it was illegal for a minority to attend public schools that were “designed for the majority,” or to think that they lived in a time period where women were not allowed to finish college educations and get degrees, or a time when being gay was seen as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. To a lot of us, especially the newer generations, inclusion and tolerance has become the common ideal. But the reality doesn’t always match. For all we have done to push forth for equality, equal rights, and equal opportunity for the world, we are still not quite where we should be. Homophobia, racism, and sexism still abound.

Discussion of difficult social topics such as those mentioned above are not only relegated to scientific and peer reviewed journals, but are expressed in art. Art teaches something, art tackles difficult subject matter that can be either very personal or very general. With the growth of the video game industry and the fact that gamers, as mentioned in my L.A. Noire review, are getting older, it was only a matter of time before video games began to take on such subjects and make statements about them. With the gaming industry changing from mostly young, white, teenage males to an almost even split between males and females (40% of all gamers are female), the advent of worldwide gaming for all cultures, and the recent rise of the self-titled “gaymers” (i.e. gay gamers), it was only a matter of time before video games changed. See, the video game industry is worth billions of dollars and it’s, in fact, larger than the film industry at this point. That means that developers who previously had to cater to one specific group can now find an extensive audience and that allows artistic freedom and freedom of expression. Not all video games take the chance to make a political or social statement, and I don’t personally mind that. Sometimes, I just wanna’ shoot sh!t and have fun. But when video games do take on difficult subjects, it’s surprising how much they tend to outpace our own reality. This article (one of hopefully many) is to discuss how games are working towards goals of equality, how tastefully and honestly these subjects are being handled, and how these subjects in the game world compare to the real world the players encounter on a day-to-day basis. Specifically, this week I will be focusing on LGBT subjects, and will focus on a different subject relating to equality in video games each new week.

LGBT Rights and Equality:

Art of Male Hawke and Anders by sandara of DeviantArt.

In Our World- This has to be biggest “hot button topic” of our generation, with debates raging about equal rights for homosexuals, gay marriage, whether or not homosexuality is genetic or learned, etc. In our real world there are a few places where equal rights for homosexuals and protection under laws of discrimination exist. But unfortunately, these places tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Most nations neither allow nor recognize same sex marriage, or even some form of civil union. Protection against hate crimes of homosexuals is hard to find, and in some cases, it’s even possible to find laws to criminalize homosexuality with a penalty of life in prison or death. In most of Western society, especially in the more populated areas of the U.S.A., homosexuality has become a non-issue, but again, these areas tend to be the exception.

Concerning the media, it is very rare to encounter progressive and well written gay characters. Mind you, this isn’t entirely to be blamed on heterosexuals: certain gay writers have been known create some pretty bad gay characters that do nothing to advance the cause of equality. It’s true that lately, gay characters have become more visible and gay role models have started to popup here and there. But you have to keep in mind that as far as non-video gaming media is concerned, most of these venues are much older (films, and particularly literature) and it shouldn’t be taking this long. This is so true, in fact, that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling caused a bit of a stir when she stated in one of her interviews that Albus Dumbledore, one of her best written and more complex characters, was, in fact, gay. It’s a bit mind-boggling that people still have issues with this when it comes to literature. Unlike the other forms of art, literature has always been the grounds for social progression and change. Yet, gay characters are rare in popular literature of today.

Albus Dumbledore, seen here dueling series villain Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix, is gay according to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

In films, it’s even more rare: it was only recently (five or six years ago, I believe) that we saw the first truly gay-themed film hit nationwide theaters in the form of Brokeback Mountain. But since, not even a peep has been heard, and the situation has reached a point where gay-themed films are even being banned/not given funding for distribution (“I Love You Philip Morris” is a perfect example). Television, on the other hand, has become more progressive on the subject, and believe it or not, it’s not the gay/gay-friendly channels like LOGO, Bravo, and MTV that have been at the forefront of this change. It’s daytime television that has, mysteriously (and not so mysteriously), been implementing deep, well written gay characters and storylines into their shows. The biggest trendsetters of all are American daytime soap operas.

Oliver Fish and Kyle Lewis were a gay couple in daytime soap opera "One Life to Live."

But all in all, the laws that protect homosexuals from hate crimes, that provide equal rights as a citizen, etc. are not as widely implemented as they should be. The non-gaming media is falling severely behind, and gay role models are hard to find. This can be problematic for today’s gay youth, who has to struggle with fear of their own sexuality.

In the Gaming World- Not everything in the gaming world is peachy, either, but lately, video game developers have been coming out in support of LGBT rights, creating deeply developed and likeable gay characters, and in the case of some developers, allowing the player to express his or her sexuality at will within the game universe. No other company is at the forefront of video game LGBT rights more than Canadian based developer, Bioware. Originally a small company, Bioware is now one of Electronic Arts’ biggest assets and their games are guaranteed multimillion sellers. You would imagine that this would force restrictions on the creative minds at Bioware that require pandering to a majority, but Bioware has done anything but. This isn’t new, mind you, as for their games of last generation (Xbox, PS2, and Gamecube era), they released Jade Empire where you were able to romance another male character if you were male and romance another female character if you were female. Their immensely popular Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic too has gay content, as it features a lesbian Jedi as a possible party member for the player. But these efforts, though ahead of their time, were superficial.

Back in 2007, Bioware made the decision to release Mass Effect, a spectacular game set in a Star Wars-like, futuristic universe, and despite getting immense critical acclaim and gaining worldwide financial success, it was attacked by the conservative media for its inclusion of a somewhat graphic sex scene. Oddly enough, while Fox News ran an entire segment on the game, most of the conservative and even liberal press completely ignored Bioware’s next release: Dragon Age: Origins. Unlike Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins actually allows both the male or female protagonist to meet and romance characters of the same sex, culminating in a scene that is probably twice as graphic as the one found in the original ME. I played DA: O and I loved it, but even then, it wasn’t quite what I had hoped in the sense of equality. The biggest problem was that the male/male option was Zevran, a sexually open elf who is probably less gay/bisexual and more of a sexual opportunist than anything. The female protagonist definitely got the better end of the deal, having the chance to romance Leliana, a much better character than Zevran. This is also true of the Mass Effect series where, up to now, only the female Commander Shepard has been allowed to romance a partner of the same sex.

Dr. Liara T'Soni, the same-sex romance option for females in Mass Effect.

It was early this year where Bioware really went the distance with the sequel to Dragon Age, Dragon Age II. Wanting to step up their game, the Dragon Age team included two possible same-sex partners for each protagonist (both the male and the female), giving gay gamers the power of choice. For me, I played the male Hawke and had him become involved with the brooding, dark mage Anders, who, like my protagonist, was also male. What made it the most interesting was how tastefully it was all implemented into the game’s world: nobody in the Dragon Age universe seems to have an issue with homosexuality. In fact, the only time anyone ever complained about my main character dating Anders was when one of the other main characters stated that Anders was “unstable.” It wasn’t about his sexuality, it was about his personality, which is something that we in our real world still sometimes don’t get. Better yet, I found something I had never found before: a gay hero. Being able to play as Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall and have him be gay was a world of difference from playing Commander Shepard in Bioware’s other series, Mass Effect. I’ll be honest and admit that I like Mass Effect more than I like Dragon Age as a whole, but Commander Shepard never felt quite “mine.” I had all these choices that I could make, to alter the protagonist right down to his facial features, all in the hopes of creating a deeply personal, engaging story and yet I had a disconnect with Shepard that I never had with Hawke. Shepard’s inability to be gay kept me, at parts, from being able to relate to him. That’s a bit problematic for a series whose biggest selling point is immersion of the player into Shepard’s shoes. My version of Hawke was a whole ‘nother game, however. Hawke is simply a more well rounded option between the two protagonists.

Anders about to meet male Hawke for the first time.

Bioware isn’t the only developer pushing the boundaries, mind you. UK-based developer Lionhead Studios included gay marriage as an option in Fable and Fable II, and they upped the ante for Fable III by including gay adoption (which I can guarantee you will be the next subject of discussion once the pointless gay marriage panic passes). The not-so-recently released Fallout: New Vegas allows for the protagonist to play as either gay or straight and to engage in special conversations/romance with members of either sex. This isn’t exclusive to western developers either, however. Konami, most famously known for publishing Hideo Kojima’s multimillion selling series, Metal Gear Solid, did it much earlier. The 2001 release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty saw the introduction of openly bisexual character Vamp, and the relationship between Solid Snake and his “friend” Otacon borders on something more than platonic with each new addition to the series. The Persona series which became more well known last gaming generation on the PS2 featured gay content in its 1999 release of Persona 2: Innocent Sin. This trend continues onto the fourth installment of the Persona series, which features a character that struggles with his sexuality. Even Grand Theft Auto, a series notorious for its over-the-top violence created to appease the straight male demographic, not-so-recently released a piece of downloadable content called “The Ballad of Gay Tony,” which centers around – you guessed it – a gay character.

Openly bisexual character Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

This isn’t all completely secluded to male/male homosexuality. Female/female homosexuality has seen a growth in video games that involve less pandering to straight male audiences and give us more well developed characters. Liara T’Soni from Mass Effect is a well written, incredibly deep character who female Commander Shepard can romance (don’t try to argue with me that she’s “monogendered” because you won’t win). On the Japanese side of the market, the recently released Final Fantasy XIII hints at the likely possibility that two of its female protagonists, Fang and Vanille, are a romantic couple. Transgender issues are a more obscure subject, unfortunately, but transgender characters do exist in video games. The issue with that last part, however, isn’t the existence but how transgenderism is usually handled in the gaming medium. So far, it’s not quite where it should be, but hopefully we will see the gaming industry making great strides in the future.

Fang and Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII are almost certainly a lesbian couple.

As for what the future holds in LGBT rights for video games? The future only looks brighter. Previously unable to make male Commander Shepard in Mass Effect gay, the development team behind the ME series recently confirmed that male Shepard can romance another male character in Mass Effect 3. The critical and commercial success of Dragon Age II despite its strong gay content is probably the reason the Mass Effect team feels safe enough to push the boundaries yet again. The rumor is that Mass Effect 3 will even tackle the subject of gay marriage, but don’t quote me on that. With developers adding more and more content that blends the preferences of both straight and gay video game players and successfully manage to make money, you can bet that the gaming industry is getting the message of inclusion.

Video games are no longer only for children, and as such, it’s time they developed and gave our less perfect reality a concrete message about human equality. This is something that not only developers understand but that game reviewers and critics alike are picking up on. Same-sex relationships in Dragon Age II became a subject of heated discussion in the Bioware forums, prompting Ben “Yahtzee” of Zero Punctuation fame (and if you don’t watch Zero Punction, start now!) to throw in his two cents. Eloquent as always, he wrote a wonderful article on the importance of equality in video games and his experience, as a straight male gamer, with the gay relationship of his male Hawke with male Anders. Not everyone in the gaming media is as progressive, but Yahtzee sets a wonderful precedent on critically examining a video game when it comes to difficult subject matter.

All in all, although somewhat slow to get the ball rolling, video games are starting to outpace even popular literature in the subject of LGBT rights, and that’s a huge achievement if there was one for a medium that is barely thirty years old.

Tune in next week as I tackle the subject of feminism in video games.

Faith, from Mirror's Edge, kicking ass.