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 a 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!
The opinion of respondents to the queer representation survey was mixed when people considered their favorite relationship management systems. Some respondents prioritized systems that mirrored reality with unmarked flirtation options and invisible systems that were challenging to figure out. Others sought the opposite—praising games with relationship systems that were clearly defined and that warned when you accidentally made decisions that would have negative impacts on the relationships you were pursuing.
Still, respondents mostly agreed on two key points. Firstly, they were unhappy at even the strongest relationship management system if there was inadequate representation of queer relationships or poorly handled representation of polyamory.
Secondly, respondents were disappointed in what has become known as the ‘kindness coins’ style of relationship system, based on a quote commonly misattributed to Sylvia Plath:
“Girls are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.”
Basically, any relationship management system where you continually give the same gifts or repeat the same action until suddenly you are in a romantic relationship with the character you are pursuing is oversimplified and promotes problematic ideals.
Survey respondents’ favorite representations of relationships and relationship management systems are listed below—ordered from most common response to least common.
When asked about their favorite relationship management systems in games, the Dragon Age series was mentioned by the most respondents. Commonly listed justifications included the diversity of NPCs and the way they interact with the player character. The representation of sexuality in Dragon Age ensures that there is a variety of relationship dynamics available for players to explore, but without the simplification of making all romanceable characters playersexual.
The complexity and realism of the relationship system was also praised. Some people didn’t like that there were restrictions placed on who you could romance based on factors like gender and sexuality, feeling as though you should be able to romance anybody. Others disliked the realism, preferring less complex systems with clearer feedback when the player attempts to interact within it.
Respondents who loved the way relationships are handled in Mass Effect praised the nuanced reminders that you were in a romantic relationship with the characters you chose to date, and the way relationships with varied races had subtle—but noticeable—differences. The necessity of managing platonic relationships with crew members was also praised for its added realism and complexity. The quality of Mass Effect’s narrative was highlighted as important.
Some respondents, however, dislike the ‘questline’ approach to relationships that Mass Effect presents and felt ostracized by the physical focus of these relationships, suggesting that sex seems prioritized over emotional intimacy. Others spoke of frustration regarding the heteronormative tendency of relationships in the series, seeking more options in terms of sexuality and relationship dynamics.
Respondents praised many aspects of the relationship management systems in the Fallout series. Fallout 4 was specifically mentioned a number of times, as players enjoyed the shared experiences that were had between characters to build relationships, rather than there being a reliance on material gift-giving.
Respondents also enjoyed being able to pursue polyamorous relationship structures, dating many companions simultaneously without negative effects, although some would have liked for these dynamics to be explored further. In addition, the fact that perks can be gained from close platonic relationships—not necessarily romances—was praised by respondents, as it allowed players to assign sexualities and identities to their player characters.
Other respondents discussed relationships in Fallout: New Vegas because, although the game lacks a relationship management system, you are still able to flirt with characters through nuanced communication that feels organic and realistic.
Stardew Valley’s relationship management system was praised by a number of respondents for its detailed writing, including unique and adorable cutscenes for the stages of relationships with each romanceable (and even non-romanceable) character.
Respondents also appreciated that there was no pressure to be heterosexual within Stardew Valley’s relationship management system, as romance options are open regardless of the player character’s gender; embarking on a same-gender relationship was handled well during the cutscenes and marriage ceremony, and allowed for child adoption. Some respondents did criticize Stardew Valley’s system, however, having issues with the playersexual characters and the materialism of the gift-giving mechanic.
The relationship management system in the The Sims series was loved because it is unconfined by monogamy or linear progression. Relationships were available to be pursued simultaneously and through a diverse range of actions.
The ability to date multiple characters was a highly praised feature, and many respondents were disappointed that the jealousy mechanic introduced to the game removed the ability for characters to have polyamorous relationships. Respondents also enjoyed that The Sims series allows you to watch a relationship unfold from its beginning to its end.
Respondents enjoyed the time management aspects of romancing characters in the Persona series. The player needs to spend their limited free time with the character or characters they want to date, as relationships are built through time investment and experiences. One respondent enjoyed the idea that relationships in the Persona series took many in-game months to establish, as this is a closer reflection on real life than games that allow connections to progress “from ‘acquaintance’ to ‘soulmate’ over a few days.”
The Persona series considers the feelings of those you romance, which one respondent loved, as not seeing someone for a long time or attempting to have multiple romantic relationships could be problematic in real life. In contrast, another respondent liked that they could date multiple characters in Persona 4 and still connect with all of them (even if some were sad after special romance events that required the respondent to select only one girl to spend time with).
Fire Emblem: Fates introduced some queer options into its relationship management system compared to previous games in the series, which prompted a number of respondents to list the game series as their favorite. Although this is an improvement on the typically heteronormative relationships in Fire Emblem, some respondents were still bothered by the typical lack of options in previous games and the still-limited options that Fates offers, with some queer relationships restricted only to Birthright or Conquest.
Respondents gave additional praise to the way relationships are developed in the Fire Emblem series. Fighting alongside companions and building trust was considered better than systems that involve repeated gift-giving mechanics.
Same-gender relationships in The Elder Scrolls series are treated as normal, which is a quality respondents loved, particularly in Elder Scrolls Online, where these relationships become part of the environment. Respondents mentioned liking the freedom of Skyrim’s marriage system, as all romanceable characters could be pursued regardless of the player character’s gender.
Respondents liked that relationships were not forced upon players in Skyrim. The narrative remained separate from the relationship management system while still influencing it, and it was possible to date a range of characters who were pertinent to the story and questlines. Some respondents disliked this lack of depth, however, preferring relationship management systems that involve more nuance and time investment in the pursuit of a particular romantic interest.