Author’s Note: This article is not intended as an introduction to asexuality. If you are unfamiliar with asexuality or would like to brush up on your understanding before reading this article, please check out Asexuality 101 and the Asexuality definition on AVEN for more information.
When I was growing up, I believed I was broken. On some fundamental level, I was irreparably damaged and somehow less human than my peers because I had absolute no interest in or desire for sex. Teens and sex are often (very problematically) paired like peanut butter and jelly. Most people find it hard to talk about their experiences as teens without at least briefly mentioning their first forays into sexuality. Similarly, sex is seen as a rite of passage into adulthood, and people who haven’t engaged in sex after a certain age are often viewed as somehow still infantile—less knowledgeable about the world and more naïve than their sexually active peers.
As complicated as humanity’s beliefs on sex are, most non-asexual people see sex as something basic to the human experience. So much so, in fact, that it’s often included on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as important as being loved by friends and family and only a little below physical safety. Declarations of asexual identity are often met with a slew of distressing responses ranging from concern to disbelief to even outright disgust. And asexuals who do engage in sexual activity are often dismissed as “not really asexual,” despite the fact that asexuals might engage in sex with their partners for reasons that have nothing to do with desire. Even older asexual adults can struggle with their identity, as pressure from family, friends, strangers, and even medical personnel consistently reinforces the erroneous notion that not wanting sex is somehow inhuman.
So what does this have to do with video games? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.
The “Why” of Asexual Representation
Often, when asexuals push for more representation in video games, non-asexuals tend to wonder why. After all, if a character doesn’t show any sexual interest or engage in sex in the game, can’t they be considered asexual? Why demand a declaration of asexuality when one could just make it their headcanon? The answer is the same for any group demanding better representation: because seeing aspects of ourselves confirmed in the characters we love is not only needed for individual growth and happiness, but important on a psychological and social level as well.
The question of “why” also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what asexual representation should look like. Most non-asexuals see asexuality as a “lack” of something—lack of sexual desire, sexual activity, etc. They fail to understand that asexuality influences more than just one’s view on sex. Rather, it informs our relationships with people: how we talk to them, how we relate to them, and our culture as a whole, our relationship with our religious affiliations if we hold them, our relationships with our partners if we have them, and so much more. Like any other sexual orientation, it is pervasive in our daily lived experiences.
While asexuality does not define us as people, it is nevertheless an important and intimate part of our personhood. Defining it and presenting it as a “lack” of something is a gross simplification of the asexual experience. If simply lacking canonical evidence of sexual desire were enough representation, then the dishearteningly common story among the asexual community of feeling alien, broken, or inhuman in our own culture would not be so pervasive. As video games continue to play an increasing role in the daily lives of the general public, and as the center of connection and community for many gamers, the need for better representation in games becomes ever more imperative.
How the Gaming Industry Gets It Wrong
Dive into any discussion of asexual characters in video games and the majority of them will always be qualified with the word “possibly.” As in, this character is possibly asexual. There are very few examples of actively-identified asexual characters in video games and what few we have are usually, to put it simply, flat-out terrible. Not necessarily terrible as characters, but terrible as representations of asexuality. Often, what passes for asexuality in video games is just a rehashing of inaccurate asexual stereotypes, including:
- Repressed or medically-induced asexuality.
- Sterility as explanation or cause of asexuality.
- Mistaking autistic tendencies as sign of asexuality.
- Expressed disinterest in the opposite sex (without coming out as homosexual) as asexuality.
- The “sex-free” psychotic and/or genius personality too “focused” for sex.
- Asexuality as evidence of evil or twisted personality.
- Asexual as code for inhuman (i.e. asexual demons, aliens, robots, deities, etc).
- Chastity as a(n erroneous) synonym for asexuality.
While a lack of asexual representation is unfortunate, it is arguably worse when asexual representation is done poorly. Video games that perpetuate the idea that asexuality is one of the above contribute to the continued social view that asexuality is somehow less human, or indicative of something wrong with the individuals in question. Of course, the video game industry isn’t alone in the problem, as general media shares the same concerns. But as a medium in which the player is directly involved with the characters presented, video games have the opportunity to create new understanding and empathy among non-asexual players in ways that other media simply can’t match. Reinforcing stereotypes isn’t just a disservice, but actively (if unintentionally) works to create a hostile environment for asexuals, and can contribute to difficulties that many asexuals experience when coming to terms with their identity.
Close, But No Cigar
Considering the general attitude towards asexuality in our highly sexualized culture, it’s telling, then, that one of the most human depictions of asexuality in video games is an alien. Mass Effect’s frog-like Salarian race is a species in which individuals experience little to no sexual desire. Intimacy, romance, and relationships are culturally separated from sex, and while some Salarians express interest in members of other species, it is implied that they are almost strictly romantic in nature. In ME2, if the player’s character talks to the Salarian scientist Mordin Solas enough, Mordin will eventually be compelled to explain that he is incapable of returning the attraction.
As an asexual, Mordin’s explanation was one of those bright moments in gaming when I really clicked with a character. I recognized my asexuality in Mordin, and it was lovely. He was a complex character: not just a dedicated scientist (as he is often reduced to), but caring, curious, witty, and flawed. Such moments are disappointingly rare for asexual representation in games. Yet despite this, Mordin and Salarians in general are still inadequate. For one, because they are almost exclusively male (the estimated ratio is that roughly 70% of asexuals are women). But also, you simply can’t escape the fact that they aren’t human. Salarian asexuality is used as a means to further distinguish them from humanity. It’s just another way of reinforcing the idea that asexuality just isn’t a part of human nature. This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if any human characters were presented as identifiably asexual, but such is not the case.
Similar issues come to mind with the characterization of Cole from Dragon Age: Inquisition. Like Mordin, Cole is a complex character that quickly became a fan favorite and is often depicted as asexual. According to the Dragon Age novels, he knows what sex is and how it works, but has no interest in engaging in it himself. But like Mordin, Cole’s asexuality falls back on some unfortunate stereotypes. Despite looks, Cole is a spirit of the Fade, again reinforcing the idea that asexuality isn’t human. His spiritual nature also lends him an air of innocence and naivety, and he’s often referred to as “kid” by the other characters, despite his possible immortality. In a society that often depicts sex as an indicator of adulthood, creating older asexual characters that are intentionally treated in a regressive manner does little to combat the idea that asexuality is part of an infantile mindset.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Asexual representation can seem like a Mobius-style problem, one that loops in on itself and repeats ad infinitum. If well-developed asexual characters are what’s needed to combat the negative or misrepresentative characterizations of asexuals in video games, and those characters are missing, then how can we break the cycle of bad asexual representation? The answer, of course, is research. There are plenty of credible online resources on asexuality. There are books written by actual asexuals about asexuality that you can buy on Amazon right this moment. There are videos on YouTube by actual asexuals talking about their asexuality that developers can go and watch this very second. Moreover, there are plenty of actual asexuals in the world that developers and writers can simply talk to in order to learn more about the asexual experience and community.
Asexuality, like any orientation, is complicated and varies from person to person. Learning to understand the intricacies of asexuality can go a long way in writing asexual characters who are rich, true-to-life representations rather than two-dimensional stereotypes. But for any developers or game writers struggling to create good asexual characters right now, here are some basic ideas for creating better asexual representation in your game:
- Create asexual characters who are not one or more of the above-mentioned stereotypes.
- Create asexual characters who are explicitly human.
- Create asexual characters who are adults, not only in their responsibilities and manners, but also shown by the way others treat them.
- Create asexual characters who are women, especially adult women who are not infantilized or hyper-sexualized by other characters.
- Create asexual characters in warm, loving relationships who are not centered around sex or the lack thereof.
- Create asexual characters who are well-developed people in their own right, not just defined by their asexuality.
But most importantly, simply have your asexual characters express their asexuality out loud to the audience. Whether you decide to use modern terminology or not, hearing characters vocalize their asexuality can be a life-changing experience for asexual gamers. For some people, it can be that “a-ha!” moment, the realization that they’re not broken, weird, or alone. For others, it can help them come to understand asexuality and give it a face they can recognize, empathize with, and carry out into the world with them to facilitate any future interactions they have with real-life asexuals.
For better or worse, games have the power to change how people view their world and the people in it. Creating asexual characters who can help asexuals and non-asexuals alike understand and accept asexuality as part of the vast human spectrum is not only a worthy goal, but a necessary step towards better diversity in games.