To say that Religion and Video Games have had a difficult relationship is an understatement. Even worse is the relationship Video Games have had with LGBT characters and themes. In writing this set of articles I hope I can shed a little light on the history of both of these, even though both topics are ridiculously wide in scope. This first article will focus on the popular Xbox & PC video game, Mass Effect.
I have been playing video games since I was 5 years old. Born in 1983 I was able to witness nearly the entire scope of the history of gaming, from Atari to 3DS. However, it feels like only recently have gaming developers realized that some of their audience may also be part of the LGBT community. Sure, LGBT characters have existed pretty much from the get go, but they’ve been kept in a digital closet, hiding behind charactuers.
In 2007 Bioware released the first part of their Mass Effect trilogy, a sci-fi FPS RPG (First Person Shooter Role Playing Game) where you played as Commander Shepard, a male or female human space fighter. In Mass Effect you could also ‘romance’ many of the crew aboard your spaceship. While a female Shepard could choose to romance both male crew and a ‘female’ alien, the male Shepard only got a choice of female crew-mates. The controversy started when it was uncovered that the developers had actually planned for Shepard to be able to be gay (they had gone so far to record the male voice overs to facilitate this) but had scrapped the idea at the last minute due to media pressure.
While this caused a controversy at the time, with anger on both sides of the coin, it was only when Mass Effect 3 came out in 2012 that the real storm began.
The Mass Effect gaming engine holds all your ‘choices’ from previous games in account towards the story line of Mass Effect 3. Apparently, many players had hacked Mass Effect 1 so that the gay story line was still playable. Developers EA and Bioware, aware of this, built in new gay story lines around this hacking, and added brand new gay story lines as well! What should have been a celebration of a gaming developer’s inclusiveness and repentance for previous error (choosing to not include the gay story lines of Mass Effect 1) became an online debate about whether a lead role in a massive gaming franchise could be played as gay.
Some players were frightened of being ‘ninja romanced‘: being forced into gay romances without their consent (something pretty much impossible with the gaming mechanics it should be said), others went the high road and stated that the inclusion of gay romance in Mass Effect 3 altered the canon of the games completely and ‘cheapened the characters’. Either way, as Forbes reported in their article on Mass Effect 3, Male Commander Shepard went down in history as the ‘first gay lead character in a video game’. Of course, they didn’t say this about the outwardly lesbian Commander Shepard who is playable through all three games – a fact disturbingly missing from all discussion on the matter.
As an LGBT gamer, the whole debate on Mass Effect 3 made me incredibly sad. I love video games. I have always championed them as one of the greater forms of modern art and entertainment and it was so upsetting to see so many people angered that ‘video games were being ruined’ by the inclusion of gay characters. However, it was incredibly heartening to see some of the quotes from the developers and writers of Mass Effect. Wonderful quotes like:
“I believe that by the 22nd century, declaring your gender preference will be about as profound as saying, “I like blondes.” It will just be an accepted part of who we are. So I tried to write a meaningful human relationship that just happens to be between two men.”
“I also really wanted the romance with [female character] Traynor to be positive. One of my gay friends has this kind of sad hobby in which she watches every lesbian movie she can find, trying to find ones that actually end up with the women not either dying or breaking up. I wanted to avoid any kind of tragic heartbreak, to make this a fundamentally life-affirming relationship.”
It is sad that homophobia is so rife in the gaming community, but I’m glad that developers like Bioware are challenging this homophobia by making characters like Commander Shepard. Hopefully in the future we will see more games like Mass Effect and maybe even some that don’t need to be set in the 22nd Century to make being gay OK.
Stay tuned for the second part of this article, looking at the history of video games and religion.