In May 2016, I conducted a survey across social media that encouraged respondents to discuss their favorite and least favorite representations of sexuality, gender, and relationships in games, as well as examples of pronoun use and character creation systems. The survey received over 150 responses, the data from which has been used to inform this five-part series for FemHype, as well as the ongoing development of the Queerly Represent Me database.
It is important to note that many of the same games were discussed in both the ‘favorite’ and ‘least favorite’ sections of the survey—often for the same type of representation and sometimes even by the same respondent. For example, the Dragon Age series featured in the top five most common responses across all ten of these questions. It is difficult to represent diversity in a way that works for everybody, and as such, you may disagree with the opinions of those who suggested the below games as positive examples. If you have your own favorite representations that have not been featured in this series, I’d love to hear about them!
Respondents to the survey had strong opinions regarding representation of sexuality, expressing exhaustion with the overwhelmingly heteronormative themes that have been prevalent in games until quite recently. Many respondents wrote paragraphs explaining why particular representations were important to them and their own identity, and expressed a desire to see more characters who resembled themselves or people they know, or identities that they simply felt were under-represented in media more generally.
When asked what forms of representation people would like to see more of, asexuality was the most-mentioned sexuality. A general desire to see more characters who have their own assigned sexualities rather than being ‘playersexual’ was also frequently expressed.
An interesting point to note is the frequency with which ‘headcanons’ were mentioned when respondents were asked about their favorite representations of sexuality in games. Although the more prominent and frequently discussed responses contained characters who were confirmed to have a particular identity, many of the lesser discussed representations were favorites because of the headcanons that respondents had associated with them.
For those who aren’t aware, a “headcanon” is the backstory that a person assigns to a character that may not be confirmed by the source material or by the creators of that source material, such as one respondent’s headcanon that Lara Croft and Samantha Nishimura are “more than friends.”
Survey respondents’ favorite representations of sexuality are listed below, ordered by most common response to least common.
It will probably come as no surprise that almost a third of respondents listed the Dragon Age series as featuring their favorite representation of sexuality in games. Dragon Age features many characters who have their own sexualities, rather than relying on playersexuality as a way to increase diversity within the series.
One of respondents’ favorite characters in terms of representation was Dorian in Dragon Age: Inquisition, whose questline is related to his sexuality, which he is completely unapologetic about. However, his flirtatious nature didn’t please all players, with some feeling that Dorian’s representation was too in-their-face. These respondents said that they would rather more subtle approaches to the representation of sexuality than Dragon Age generally features.
Mixed feelings are also had towards Cole in Inquisition, who could be considered representative of asexuality within the game. Some respondents mentioned him positively and praised the way he is presented, though others who had played the “Trespasser” DLC felt less positively towards him.
Life Is Strange was adored by many respondents for its realistic portrayal of a relationship as it forms between two women, as well as its representation of lesbianism and bisexuality. One of the key positives about the relationship between Max and Chloe in Life Is Strange was its relatability, as the companionship developed organically. Max’s own understanding of her sexuality progressed naturally without an ‘aha’ realization moment. However, some respondents did have issues with the narrative’s reliance on tropes and negative messages derived from how the narrative ends.
Primarily, respondents’ interest in the Mass Effect series stemmed from the variety of sexualities and expressions that the player can have as John or Jane Shepard. One respondent praised the fact that you can be an asexual Shepard who focuses on the mission or does not pursue sexual relationships; you can be gay or bisexual depending on which characters you are interested in; you can pursue multiple relationships; or you can simply have sex without emotional investment if you desire.
Mass Effect has traditionally included same-gender relationship options that were only accessible by Jane Shepard. However, Mass Effect 3 introduced two gay characters—Samantha Traynor and Steve Cortez—who are only romanceable if you play as the character they are attracted to. In addition, Kaiden Alenko is bisexual in Mass Effect 3 and romanceable by John and Jane Shepard (despite only being a romance option for Jane in previous iterations). His coming out story was noted by respondents as being interesting and positive.
Creating characters in Mass Effect 3 who have their own unique sexualities has helped the Mass Effect series steer away from the enforced heteronormative partnerships common in the earlier Mass Effect games that respondents did not enjoy without creating playersexual characters. The primary complaint regarding Mass Effect’s ongoing representation of sexuality was in regards to harmful stereotypes being perpetuated in regards to pansexual characters, as they are often depicted as promiscuous or sex-driven.
Representation of sexuality in Undertale is part of the narrative, and respondents praised the relationship that unfolds between Undyne and Alphys. This relationship was applauded for its positive representation of two strong, standalone characters coming together in a naturally forming and healthy ongoing relationship.
Respondents who praised the representation in The Last of Us primarily discussed the “Left Behind” DLC, where Ellie’s sexuality is explored in her relationship with Riley. This relationship develops naturally and realistically, creating a scenario that respondents found relatable. The way Ellie’s own sexuality is developed also received praise, and the subtle approach to the writing was a favorite for players. Respondents also mentioned Bill, liking his inclusion and the straightforward suggestion that he is gay; it is not surrounded by fanfare, but simply exists.
Still, many respondents who enjoyed the representation of Bill, as well as Ellie and Riley’s relationship, were disappointed by the way The Last of Us fell into common tropes. Although the setting and subject matter of the game are inescapably tragic, respondents wished that the game explored these areas of sexuality further without relying on narrative stereotypes.
Gone Home was loved by respondents, with praise given to its slow, drawn-out narrative and the gradual reveal of the subject matter. While it was often the subtle inclusion of sexuality that respondents enjoyed, lovers of Gone Home were particularly taken with the fact that sexuality and a same-gender relationship were central to this game’s narrative. One respondent referred to Gone Home as “amazing and poignant,” saying that they “will remember it forever.”
There was high praise for the Borderlands series due to both the quality and quantity of the representation featured. In the first Borderlands game, Moxxi is vocal about her bisexuality and discusses her boyfriends and girlfriends with the player character. This continues in later games, with a number of other representations becoming part of the narrative.
Borderlands 2 features Sir Hammerlock and his number of ex-boyfriends; Tiny Tina and her lesbian crushes; Mister Torgue and his bisexuality; and Maya and her asexuality. Tiny Tina’s sexuality was of particular interest to respondents. Her certainty of her identity without a direct connection to sexual relationships or behavior is rarely represented in games.
Respondents praised the flexibility and freedom of the Fallout series in terms of relationships, with many characters romanceable regardless of gender. However, this was also a frequently criticized trait, with respondents preferring characters to have their own sexualities rather than exhibiting playersexuality. Fallout 4 was praised for attempting to address this; Piper and Cait have exchanges and occasional dialogue that implies their bisexuality outside of their interactions and attractions to the player specifically.
One respondent also praised Fallout: New Vegas for the number of queer characters inhabiting the setting, discovered once unlocking the ‘Confirmed Bachelor’ perk, which reveals new and interesting dialogue options. However, this almost-hidden queer representation is not necessarily sufficient.