From Bullies to Heroes: Homophobia in Video Games

By Danielle M. Vitali
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/3 |

Due to the lack of homosexual characters in mainstream video games, there are very few positive references to . If a homosexual male avatar is present in a video game, he is usually portrayed as flamboyant, feminine, and unable to fend for himself. There are, however, an abundant amount of tough, courageous male avatars who celebrate heterosexuality in the form of saving damsels in distress. These male avatars are not afraid to use , weapons, and curses to win over their true love, which usually ends in the gamer beating the video game. One only has to look so far as Super Mario Brothers, in which the protagonist Mario vies for the safety and love of Princess Peach. If the gamer completes the adventure, Mario and Princess Peach will live happily ever after. But why can’t it be the other way around? Female superheroes rescuing their Prince Charming? Male heroes rescuing and falling in love with other men? Isn’t it safe to assume that various gay gamers could relate to a love between two women or two men? Despite the amount of gay gamers, they are grossly unrepresented in the gaming world.

In a 2006 survey conducted by the University of Illinois, Jason Rockwood wanted to explore the social and behavioral demographics of GLBT video game players (Sliwinski 1). The first of its kind, Rockwood hoped to prove that gay gamers did exist. He insisted that, “Yeah it sounds ridiculous, but that’s where you have to st on something like this. This survey is an attempt to quantify the existence of an invisible minority” (Sliwinki 1). Being an invisible minority, you are often times forgotten; your views, ideals, and concerns are not perceived as legitimate, and are therefore not taken seriously. By conducting this survey, Rockwood unveiled the overwhelming number of gay gamers that otherwise would have been unnoticed. Video games used to predominately be played by heterosexual white males in an effort to find comfort, to escape reality, and be a part of a world where they are celebrated.

These gamers could be found at every corner of the world, every walk of life. They were the nerds, the geeks, and the outcasts. Disillusioned by reality, they were consumed in a fantasy world that became their truth.  Thus, it was not a surprise that the avatars featured in these video games reflected these males in their actions, looks, and style.  As the title suggests, Jason Hsu’s blog found on Live Science entitled, “Video Games Lack Female and Minority Characters (2009),” Hsu questions why there is a lack of minority and female avatars in mainstream video games. He states, “Female and Latino gamers in particular would have a hard time finding their virtual counterparts despite each representing major players of video games” (Hsu 1). Hsu goes on to blame the lack of diverse avatars to video game manufacturers and developers. He writes, “That suggests video game developers could have overlooked a hugely underserved group of customers, especially if they wrongly assume that the average video gamer remains a white male” (Hsu 1). 

As the popularity of video games grow, the average gamer is no longer your stereotypical heterosexual white male. Instead the average gamer comes in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and sexual orientation. It is easy to see this by simply looking at websites such as Gaymer.net, Lesbiangamers.com, and Girlgamer.com which celebrates being different in an otherwise homogeneous society.      In a 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Project, researchers studied the race of several avatars from 150 of the best selling video games. Even though female make up thirty-eight percent of all gamers, just 15% of all avatars are female (Hsu). The survey also concluded 82.9% of avatars are white and just 2.6% of all avatars are Latino, even though Latinos make up 12.5% of gamers (Hsu).

This survey clearly shows a gross misrepresentation when it comes to minorities and females. Although this survey does not discuss queer avatars, just by playing any popular games, one can see how predominately heterosexual the vast majority of avatars are. Once it is proven that there are gay, female, and minority gamers, shouldn’t avatars start reflecting this truth? Yet, Rockwood’s survey was conducted nearly four years ago, while the Pew Internet Project was concluded in 2008. Many gay and minority gamers blame this on game manufacturers who are predominately white heterosexual males. Hsu wonders if this is why white avatars predominate in video games. He also believes the lack of female avatars represent the lack of female game developers in the gaming world (Hsu 1).

Gamers want to be able to relate to the characters they play, so why shouldn‘t it be any different for video game developers and the avatars he or she creates? Although the lack of homosexual representations in video games are common, there are creators and manufacturers out there who appreciate diversity and individuality.  They are creating avatars that are every day people who just happened to like the same sex. In some cases, the public is unaware of their homosexuality until they are starring it straight in the face. In other cases, their homosexuality is visible and unapologetic.

It is these games that are paving the way for a more homosexual equality in video games. Lesbian game designer, Anna Anthropy states in an interview with Lesbiangamers.com, “Right now amateur game developers are gaining more and more avenues for telling their own stories; if there are going to be more stories about queer women in games, they’re going to be written by queer women in an environment where their visions aren’t tempered by the demands of marketing” (Lesbiangamers.com 1). Although these games might stir up controversy by mainstream society, it does not stop the game from winning prestigious gaming awards and widespread success. Bully, also known as Canis Canem Edit (Dog Eat Dog) outside of North America is a third person action-adventure video game released by RockStar Vancouver on October 17, 2006 for Playstation II. Created by Jeronimo Barrera, Bully focuses on Jimmy Hopkins, your everyday boy who must earn his way through a fake New England boarding school called Bullsworth Academy. The gamer must complete a series of missions and mini-games in order to advance in the game.

The games represent popular high school classes such as English and Chemistry. Achieving high grades in these classes allow Jimmy to gain abilities such as being able to make stink bombs and itching powder or being able to apologize to cops. Some of the missions are socially driven, such as getting chocolates for a girl. If you succeed you get to kiss her. Recently, a controversy surrounding Bully occurred when Jimmy Hopkins was able to kiss a male student. Parents and gamers alike were upset that the creators and manufacturers would allow a same-sex kiss on a rated T (for teen) video game. Anti-video game activist and lawyer, Jack Thompson, tried unsuccessfully to prevent Bully from reaching Florida gamers, while Yahoo! Games listed it as one of the top ten controversial games of all time (Silverman 1). When Thompson attempted to prevent Bully from reaching gamers in Florida one of his main concerns was the homosexual kiss. Although at this time gay was legal in Massachusetts, Thompson had a very hard time accepting a gay kiss in a mainstream video game that would be distributed to a vast majority of gamers around the country.

Neither the creators or manufacturer of Bully expected the instant controversy the game received immediately after it’s release. In an interview with gaming website 1up.com Barrera explained, "You know we didn’t think it was going to make such a big stir. It’s one of those things where we treat the ability to give the player as many choices as they can in the game. It’s one of those things we felt balanced the game out. So we put it in. We didn’t think people were going to go so crazy for it. Honestly it was like, '“If you can kiss the girls, why not be able to kiss another boy?"' Unfortunately, Barrera is one of the few creators who feels this way. Who can blame them when there is a mass of homophobia sweeping the gaming world? In a survey featured by Whattheyplay.com (Table 1A), an American gaming website geared towards parents, asked its participants what they as parents find most offensive in video games. The four choices the parents could choose from were; A graphically severed human head, A man and woman having sex, Multiple use of the F-word, and Two Men Kissing. Although (Table 1A) parents agreed sexual intercourse was the most offensive act in a video game (37%), two men kissing beat out a graphically severed head by 1%. Parents did not want their children to witness two men kissing, but found death, violence, and gore slightly more appropriate for their children.

What was more alarming was a Norwegian gaming site posing the same question (Table 1B) for Norwegian parents. The choices were the same but the outcome extremely different. Results showed an overwhelming 65.8% found a graphically (Table 1B) severed head to be the most offensive act in a video game. Two men kissing came in second with 24.9%. It is as if parents are so desensitized to violence and gore in video games that a severed head is a common occurrence. It is as though violence in movies, comic books, and video games are acceptable, while two men kissing are not nearly as visible in these outlets and therefore seen as strange and baffling. Gamers used to play video games in the comfort of their own home, but in the past few years a surge in online gaming communities have soared due to the internet. Blogs on video games have become popular as well as forums and message boards discussing video games. In an article entitled, “Impact of Homophobia in Virtual Communities” featured on Kotaku.com by Justin J. Cole, Cole states, "…similar to other forms of mass medium entertainment-like music, books, and movies-the new frontier create by advances in , especially Internet technology, has increased ability to transmit our voices, images, and ideas. But it has also come with a great capacity to harass, bully, and spread prejudices- often times with little-to-no repercussions."  (Cole 1)

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