Have you ever walked into a room, and then realised that, even though you might have been allowed – or even asked – to enter that room, that nobody expected you to actually do it? Or has it ever been painfully clear that you were only invited to a party because someone’s mother made them invite the whole class, and that had to include you? Maybe not. Maybe you’re an endlessly cool and accepted person who is welcome, invited, and encouraged into any room. In which case, lucky you. But sadly, most of society doesn’t function that way. The accepted ‘norms’ of the world we live in – one that is binary-coded, heteronormative, and cisnormative – mean that most queer people know exactly how it feels to be the kid with the token invite, and to always feel like they are slightly on the outside.
For a long time, we’ve felt on the outside in games, too. Conventionally, games were thought to be – primarily or even exclusively – for a straight, cis, largely male audience. Thankfully, as creators become more aware, both of the importance of diversity in games (as it is in all mediums) and the diverse range of people actually playing those games, the number of games that include queer (and other non-normative) characters has increased. Not only can we now adventure with, assist, and appease queer companions and NPCs, we can now romance some of them. Interactive stories now allow for the player to disclose their sexuality, and sometimes even provide the player with dating options accordingly. When this goes well, it can be a great way for people to shake off some of that feeling of being the ‘Other’ that will never see themselves represented, or who isn’t really the target audience. However, it isn’t yet time to start yelling ‘hooray! The golden age has come!’ from the rooftops. When inclusion is done well, it feels amazing, but when done poorly, it can reinforce that ‘Othering’ that society is so good at.
Let me tell you a story.
Recently, I was playing the Desperate Housewives game (as one does), rejoicing in the fact that the game allowed my character, who is a woman, to choose to date another woman: Rachel. Rachel is fun and outdoorsy, optimistic, and a bit of a gym junkie. She’s not at all the kind of person I’d actually date in real life, but as the only woman among five available love interests, I set my bar pretty low and was ready to take it as a win. Things were going well between Rachel and I, but a few times I noticed that the game would refer to her using ‘he/him’ pronouns, which I initially dismissed as a little coding error, and continued on. But then, when discussing our marriage, it became a bigger problem: ‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world,’ Rachel said to me. It was then that I realised why these little errors were bugging me – they made me feel like this wasn’t the path I was supposed to choose. Rachel’s dialogue hadn’t been coded differently, because Rachel was the ‘Other’. I was supposed to choose a male love interest with whom I’d be in this situation.
The moral of the story is, that if you’re going to include queer romance options for people, you need to actually plan for people to take advantage of those options. To some, it may just feel like a small bug, or a tiny coding error, but for queer people, mistakes like this reinforce the idea that they are different, that they do not belong, and that inviting them in is some kind of token gesture. It’s hard to feel normal and accepted in a space like that, even when it’s a fictional one. So, if you’re going to invite queer people to your game – make sure they’re welcome. Roll out the red (or rainbow) carpet. Because everyone deserves to feel celebrated, and not just tolerated.