Homophobia in Video Games: A Response to Mass Effect 3

by: Max Alborn

Video games kick ass. Some (not all) folks who play them need their asses kicked.

I’ve often been called a gamer by those who know me and have seen my shelves. It should be noted that by “gamer,” I mean a “console gamer,” in that I’m not as hardcore as my PC-clad brothers and sisters in-arms. I need a controller in my hands in case I want to throw something that costs $40 rather than $2000+. I wasn’t there for the Atari days (sorry for not being alive), but gaming has been engrained in me since I was 7, ever since my mom brought home my Sega Genesis and I (because “I should know how to, dammit”) set it up next to my Super Nintendo before proceeding with a rousing session of Vectorman on my 10 inch T.V.

Since those days, I’ve gone through a Game Gear, Gameboy, Gameboy Advance, Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, a (very) brief run with the Sega Saturn, Playstation, Playstation 2, Xbox, Gamecube, Nintendo DS, Xbox 360 and Playsation 3.

As I grew along with these developing consoles, not only did the graphics get better but a greater premium on story and player investment grew. This interactive concept has exploded in recent years, the greatest and most ambitious example being Bioware’s “Mass Effect” series. Unlike many that came before it, the “Mass Effect” games featured a main character who was not only tailored to a gamer’s specific style of gameplay but their personality. Commander Shepard could be male or female, have been born on Earth or a spacecraft, be ruthless or a peacemaker, etc. A greater sense of history, personality and individuality influenced by the gamer came with the Commander.

One thing Shepard (at least, my Shepard) could not do for the first two games was fall in love with another man. Like a Wrigleyville bar, there are plenty of ladies and none of them enticing enough to convert a big ‘mo like myself. This exclusion wasn’t uncommon as homosexual characters in gaming are nearly non-existent when they are not being “alluded to.”

Bioware, often taking fans’ feedback to heart, did something that no other major developer had done with any of their titles. They went public that for the third “Mass Effect,” male-male relationships would be an option. Not mandatory. An option. And the fans went batshit. To give perspective, they sounded a lot like these clearly educated individuals—while the video is dated, it still remains relevant to the atmosphere found today:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6alOnuN-wCY

Same-sex attraction wasn’t unheard of for the “Mass Effect” series. From game one, if you chose to play as a female Shepard, you had the opportunity to romance an alien whose race was technically “genderless” but presented as female—a relationship that the gaming community defended vigorously when Fox News came after the game. After all, girl-on-girl is totally acceptable and better there be four boobs (that are never shown) involved in the sex scene.

But many fans reacted as if Bioware had turned their male Shepard gay—naturally making them gay in real life. In reality, Bioware had simply recognized what gamers should have known all along: the gaming community is no longer made up of only straight, white males. Now it goes across economic class, age, nationality, gender and yes, sexual orientation. I’m a gay gamer and I deserve to build a character that reflects me in an RPG story six years in the making, according to Bioware. Even though the ending of Mass Effect 3 left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, I love them for giving me a trilogy as involved, emotionally and technically, as the series was.

Some of my fellow gamers have gone on the attack with some admittedly reasonable gripes about the third entry, then swinging back to spewing hate on the option of a gay Shepard. I won’t re-print much of what was said but one line has stuck out:

“Bioware figured let’s make the hero homosexual now in stark contrast to the first 2 games where he was normal.”

In this singular sentence, the concept of a “normal” Shepard being heterosexual and an abnormal one being gay (not lesbian) is akin to saying there is an abnormality to me and all homosexual relationships—virtual or otherwise. While some who know me might agree that I display abnormal traits, I don’t think they would cite my being gay as one of them.

If the reaction to the gay option in Mass Effect 3 and the above video show anything, it is how toxic the community has become despite advancements in bringing gamers together from all walks of life. Rather than a sense of camaraderie, we have attacks that are not only homophobic, but often racist and sexist.

These gamers are often brushed off, as only being assholes to be ignored. If someone has the decency to say something, they are often met with exclusion, targeted and ultimately told to “get over it”—trying to sell the idea that they are not really homophobic because they use the words “faggot” and “die” in the same sentence.

These gamers are bullies in the greatest sense because they feel protected by the little detail of anonymity. Safe behind their little screens locked away in their parent’s basements, they feel completely safe in spewing their hate speech, knowing that nobody will kick them off the game or say one word in retaliation.

As a community, gamers have to do more. If you witness something homophobic, have the decency to stand against it. It isn’t enough to simply ignore them. Whether it is with your literal words or your virtual assault rifle, you have to be willing to step in and say “you’re an asshole.” Bioware, well ahead of their colleagues, have already done this in defense of another of their games’ inclusion of homosexuality: Dragon Age 2. You can read the original asshole’s post and the lead writer’s very eloquent response on their forum below:

http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/6661775&lf=8

In the end, games, like any other art form (yes, Roger Ebert, they are art), are as much a means of escape as they are expression—and players like “Straight Male Gamer” are dangerous. As if the real world were not hard enough, hateful words (and actions) within the gaming community are just as damaging as they would be if you had the stones to say it to their face. So if you are a gamer and have read this far, don’t be afraid to tell folks off. These kinds of bullies only learn once you’ve stopped running, turned around and rammed your skull into their stomach (personal experience).

Even in gaming, there comes a time when you have to stop playing and start acting for the wellbeing of others, if not yourself.

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