From Bullies to Heroes: Homophobia in Video Games

By Danielle M. Vitali
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 2/3 |

These online communities, although a community in their own right, might not always foster enthusiasm and acceptance when it comes to diversity. The can be a wonderful learning tool, yet as Cole pointed out, it can be a breading ground for harassment and prejudice. On a video game discussion board, a parent, Martin Varsavsky was surprised and upset when a male character proposed to his thirteen-year-old son’s male avatar in the popular video game Fable. Released September 14, 2004 by Big Blue Box and Lionhead Studios to Xbox, Fable was a much anticipated game thanks to Lionhead creator Peter Molyneux's constant publicity. The role playing game (a video game in which the gamer assumes the role of a fictional character) takes place in the fantasy world called, Albion The story centers around an orphan boy who dreams of becoming a hero. Gamers must go on quests that will ultimately tell him the truth about his past. Along the way to achieving these quests, the Hero can explore towns, go on missions to gain weapons, money, and strength as well as commodities such as food, clothes, and even tattoos.  It is the gamer’s decision whether or not his or her avatar is good or evil. Heroes physically change to mirror the choices the gamer has decided for his or her avatar. Thus, if the gamer decides his/her Hero is evil, the gamer’s avatar will have red eyes, dark armor, and horns. If the hero is good, he will don blond hair and bright armor.

Along the quest, the hero meets many townspeople, and is allowed to form friendships and even romance. This is where the controversy begins. The gamer’s male avatar is allowed to court and eventually marry male or female avatars. Varsavsky admits in his post, '“As much as I endorse gay in real life among consenting adults I am not sure that I endorse gay characters proposing to my son.”' This is an attempt to illustrate the binary separating heteronormative society and queer . It is a common trait between heterosexuals to pretend to accept queer culture, yet, when queer culture is proposing to the individual’s thirteen-year-old son, that acceptance disintegrates rather quickly.

Molyneux, the creator of Fable, defended his decision to include same-sex marriages in an interview with Molyneux was congratulated by the website for scripting same-sex marriages into the actual video game. In response, Molyneux declared, “A lot of time when you do things, you do them by accident. It just seemed right-it wasn’t something I sat down and deeply thought about” ( 1). Molyneux’s ability to see past the binary between heteronormative and queer culture, his ability to see the barely visible gray lining that every binary is sure to have, proved a stepping stone to one day fuel the two cultures together to form a culture void of hatred, racism, and homophobia. Although not about homophobia in video games, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s theoretical piece “Sex in Public” (1998), taken from the journal Critical Theory, offers insight on why homophobia is a recurring theme in online gaming communities. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner discuss what it means to be immersed in Queer culture in a heteronormative world.

Berlant and Warner’s essay predominately discusses intimacy in both a public and private setting. They compare heteronormative society’s fixation with private sex and their obsession with public sex that is so many times linked to queer culture. Their argument represents the constant negative attention queer culture has garnered from society. Queer culture is often misrepresented as the counter culture of heteronormative society, even though Berlant an Warner would disagree.  By heteronormative; Berlant and Warner state it is, "...the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make hetero seem not only coherent--this is, organized as a sexuality -- but also privileged…It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine than of a sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations--often unconscious, immanent to practice or to institutions." (Berlant and Warner 548) Heteronormative culture is what society deems normal and is distinct from heterosexuality. These ideals are built around morality and a sense of what is right. These mores encompass everyday tasks such as making your bed in the morning, going to college, or even getting married. As a person living in a heteronormative society, we are expected to believe in these ideals. By practicing these ideals, we are able to be successful, happy, and accepted in life (Berlant and Warner 549). Furthermore these ideals are considered to be the only way to be content with life.  Berlant and Warner argue against this theory. They ask their readers what happens when we don’t take cues from the heteronormative life that surrounds us? As a result, many people are ready to st a discourse on Berlant and Warner’s idea of a combined culture, yet too many are refusing. As a result, heteronormative culture still remains privileged in society while queer culture struggles to break free from its counter-culture label.

Many people recognize queer culture by drag queens flaunting and cruising. But what happens when it is not that easy to differentiate between heteronormative and queer culture? What started out as a private space, video games, continue to develop into a public place where people can interact and play together on the internet. While once the domain of straight white teenagers, families are now bonding over Wii Tennis or the Super Mario Brothers. With games such as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, that cross the threshold of private and public space, the average gamer can now communicate outside their homes to gamers across the world.  With Online Gaming Communities, video games become a public space where heteronormative and queer culture collide.     When queer culture seems to infiltrate heteronormative society, society has a history of pushing it back. This can be seen with same-sex marriages, openly gay athletes, and anybody consumed by queer culture. Berlant and Warner conclude this is because, “National heterosexuality is the mechanism by which a core national culture can be imagined as a sanitized space of sentimental feeling and immaculate behavior, a space of pure citizenship" (Berlant and Warner 549). Those engulfed in a heteronormative society see queer culture as not only a threat socially, but morally. Queer culture must be stopped at all costs, even  if it means censoring queer themes from video games.

In 1988, Super Mario Brothers 2 included a character called Birdo. In the instruction manual for the game the character Birdo is described as being a male who wants to be female. Furthermores he wishes to be called Birdetta. When the game was distributed by Nintendo, Birdo was nowhere to be found in the game. In 1991, Sega released Streets of Rage 3. A gay villian was removed from the game and a transsexual villain was changed to male and given long hair. Video developers and manufacturers attempted and often times succeeded in eliminating queer themes and culture from video games, afraid of the reaction from the heteronormative gamers, investors, and advertisers. By removing all traces of queer culture from these games, gay gamers are alienated not only from public spaces such as online video game communities but also private spaces such as their homes.

Video games appeal to numerous gay gamers because the individual’s avatar allows the gay gamer to hide his or her true identity. Avatars allow the gamer to be who ever he or she wants to be. The gamer can conquer worlds, put curses on villains, or score the winning touchdown, regardless of his or her sexuality. These fantasy worlds provide the gamer with a temporary way out of their lives. Unfortunately, video game communities are a different story. Video game communities are known to be not only homophobic, but racist as well. In the same survey from the University of  Illinois, homophobic gamers were found in  online gaming communities. A overwhelming 52.7% of the study concluded that gaming communities are “somewhat hostile” to gay and lesbian gamers while 14% would say the communities are “very hostile.” When asked how frequent players experienced homophobia, 42% said “Always” or “Frequently” while 32.5% answered “Sometimes.” Furthermore, when asked what forms of homophobia the gamer has experienced in the online gaming community the majority of responses included fellow gamers saying, '“that’s so gay”' and making derogatory comments pertaining to homosexuals (Cole 1). These statistics are a solid indication that homophobia does exist in the online gaming community.  Berlant and Warner believe that if heteronormative society knew the emotional pain these derogatory comments, such as “Faggot” and “Queer”, caused gay gamers, they might think twice before articulating them. They argue a person cannot imagine cruelty that he or she has never and will never experience (Berlant and Warner 556). When almost half of the gamers surveyed say they persistently experience homophobia in gaming communities, there is a problem. Furthermore, 25% of all gamers are younger than eighteen (Cole 1).

Teenagers are very impressionable, so it is not a surprise that when a teenager hears a multitude of fellow gamers use words such as “gay” and “queer” in derogatory ways, homophobia will set in. In order to socially fit in with his or her peers, the gamer will include these derogatory words in their every day vocabulary. The gamer is ultimately afraid if he or she does not, they will be targeted and these words will be directed at them.  If a solution is not acted upon quickly, homophobia will rapidly spread through not only the online gaming community but into every day discourse.

Many gaming communities and forums attempt to discourage the use of derogatory words, but due to their inadequate efforts, homophobia is free to run rampant and can often cause . Berlant and Warner argue if gamers in the heteronormative society experienced these threats and harassment, those in charge of the online gaming communities would adapt stricter harassment policies. In reality, there are numerous laws to protect families, a direct result of the heteronormative institution of marriage. Berlant and Warner give the example of senators refusing to endorse amendments that, “promote, disseminate, or produce materials that are obscene or that depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual or excretory sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sexual intercourse“ (Berlant and Warner 550). These senators hoping to further secure the heteronormative culture smother out any alternative way of sex that is not solely for reproduction- the only form of sex that is moral acceptable in a heteronormative society.

Online gaming communities mirror reality, for although there are many policies in place, these policies are not enough to curb homophobia and hatred inside an online community. Cole states getting rid of homophobia is not an easy task, yet something must be done. In his Guest Op/Ed in  entitled “The Impact of Homophobia in Virtual Communities (2009),” Cole states, "…similar to other forms of mass medium entertainment-like music, books, and movies-the new frontier created by advances in , especially internet technology, has increased ability to transmit our voices, images, and ideas. But it has also come with a greater capacity to harass, bully, and spread prejudices- often times with little-to-no repercussions (nap)." Using the internet allows a visibility cloak to users. They can be themselves or adapt a personality opposite of their own without running the risk of other users finding out their true identities. The down side is that these voice transmitters allow threats, hostile remarks, and derogatory discourse. Gay gamers have little options. They can either appear “normal” and well adapted in this heteronormative culture, or be forced to create their own communities- one of acceptance and void of threats and bullying.