How Video Games Can Help Players Explore Their Sexuality

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Believe it or not, Catholic school wasn’t the best place to come to terms with one’s sexual identity. For years, I believed I was simply an ally, one of few outspoken allies in the entire school, whose family had queer history and whose politics always leaned left. Although we were not religious ourselves, and the choice of school was purely academic, it still didn’t leave me with a lot of room to question myself further. 

But then, a video game called Life is Strange was released in my senior year, and with it came a natural narrative of sapphic love—completely unknown to me, yet at the same time, somehow familiar. For the first time in my life, I sat down and asked myself, Are you really straight? And the more I thought about it, the more I found myself unable to say, Yes

Suddenly, it all made sense. Why else did I only wear the masculine version of the school uniform? Why else did I get nervous around some girls, the way I got nervous around boys? Why else did queer rep matter to me so much, as an “ally”? Even if I couldn’t figure out what my exact label was, I knew, suddenly and wondrously, that I was queer. 

And it was pretty much thanks to video games.

The Egalitarian Playground

The Inquisitor meets Dorian Pavus, one of the very few Asian characters in a western fantasy RPG
(EA)

For those of us who exist in a relatively progressive bubble, it can be hard to imagine feeling this sort of inner turmoil regarding one’s identity. But much of the world is still tragically un-hip, and it can therefore be unsafe for many queer youths to explore their sexuality in a way that’s safe and nurturing.

Therefore, as strange as it may sound, video games can provide that sort of safe and nurturing environment. If the game is written in a way that’s compassionate, informative, and explorative in nature, then it can provide a controlled experience for queer kids to try something new. There’s nothing to lose if the player goes one way or another: for instance, in Life is Strange, if you decide not to kiss Chloe, she’ll still be gay, and she’ll still be very gay in your interpersonal orbit. But if you do kiss Chloe, a new path opens up for you to explore, with absolutely no risk posed as a result. Yes, the world as the characters know it is collapsing, but it would have collapsed anyway—having a gay old time won’t change that.

Now, of course, there’s a way to do this wrong. Just putting queer characters in a game isn’t enough as far as positive representation goes, and making them suffer unduly without a course of survival can be harmful for sensitive players to experience. Nobody wants to see someone like them be the only one to not make it out (i.e. the “bury your gays” trope). And even when one’s life isn’t on the line, it’s important to make sure that your queer characters are allowed to remain queer. Games like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Dreamfall Chapters both fell short of this when they wrote in various moments and plot points where your character’s identity was ignored for the sake of moving the plot forward (the DLC, and Anna hitting on Kian, respectively).

To do it right, I believe that you not only have to place your queer characters on equal footing: you also have to give them options, and allow them to fully experience the game’s content as a queer character. In other words, let people be people. RPGs are great for this, especially those with well-written romance options. But linear adventure games can also provide a positive experience for players, who can watch a queer story unfold without having to risk their own input.

Examples of Positive Games

Screenshot from Night in the Woods: Bea and Mae, dancing at a party.
(Infinite Fall)

I’ve already mentioned Life is Strange, but to fully expand on why that game is so uplifting: it’s rare to see a narrative (games or otherwise) that allows teen girls to exist, de-sexualized, while freely exploring who they are. Max is still a sprout of a person, barely on the cusp of blooming, and she doesn’t know who she is or what she wants yet. Then there’s Chloe, who also doesn’t know these things for herself, yet has more experience in experimentation, and therefore is a few steps closer. Regardless of our choices, we as the player get to see them fully embody who they are, which can be revolutionary for those of us who aren’t allowed to be anywhere remotely close to self-realized.

Another game that does this type of embodiment well is Night in the Woods, where players take control of a pansexual cat named Mae. Mae is a college dropout who’s only ever kissed one person, but she’s fairly certain she can be attracted to pretty much anyone. On top of this, one of her best friends is a gay coyote named Gregg, who is in a long-term domestic partnership with a literal bear. And while the story is a fairly chaotic romp through rural absurdity, these particular aspects of its story are treated with respect, humor, and authenticity. I’ve met a lot of Maes in my time, and I’ve met a lot of Greggs, and I think we tend to forget that queer kids can run a spectrum of experiences. It’s very cool to see two opposite ends of that spectrum interact in a positive, uplifting way.

Of course, I did also mention RPGs, where you can be an elf whose primary motivation is hopping into as many beds as you please. Yes, that’s a grossly simplistic way of putting it, but having that kind of choice can be a game-changer for all sorts of players. Oftentimes in the comments of a game with a hot dude in it, you’ll see someone say something like, “Oh I’m straight, but I’d totally go gay for Dimitri.” And hey, I’m not here to debate whether or not that’s actually an insanely gay thing to say (and good on you for it!), but what I am trying to say is that it’s IMPORTANT to have that kind of fluidity in a game’s experiences. Nobody’s forcing players to return a queer character’s affections, but having the option is liberation in and of itself.

Off the top of my head? I can think of the Dragon Age series, where you have NPCs of varying sexualities who are unapologetically themselves. The Mass Effect series is similar, albeit slightly more simplified (and with aliens instead of wizards). Baldur’s Gate 3 is a recent example I’m very fond of, if only because the wizard Gale reminds me of my ex-boyfriend, and I get a kick out of rubbing it in his face that I’m not choosing him—I’m choosing Shadowheart, the hot goth half-elf with trust issues. Bi Pride, baby!

However, there are a plethora of other games that can do all of this and then some. VA-11 Hall-A is Queer with a capital Q, Gone Home is a gorgeously crafted narrative of young sapphic love, even The Sims 4 allows you to bend the rules of gender and conformity. The list goes on, and on, and on, which tells me this: even if the world is in chaos, and the gaming industry continues to strain under the yoke of toxic heteronormativity, I think things are moving in a positive direction for young queer players. At the very least, I’m pleased to know that my experiences aren’t unique.

Is there a game that helped you explore your identity? Let us know down in the comments!

(Featured Image: Square Enix)

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How Video Games Can Help Players Explore Their Sexuality

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