Many would not see the video game industry, which is widely viewed as a masculine market due to its focus on violence and heroism, as a battleground for sexual equality. However, game franchises such as the Mass Effect series have helped stir a dialogue over the freedom of player choice and what that means for the representation of sexuality and gender in this medium. Role-playing games like Mass Effect are modeled around the ability for the game’s player to choose their own path. Players can create their own character, pick their own clothing and interact with other non-player characters in whatever way they choose. Set in a galactic future, Mass Effect and its sequels have pushed this boundary to a point where players can develop romantic and sexual relationships with characters of any sexual orientation and even non-human characters.
The first Mass Effect game allowed for male or female characters to engage sexually with characters of the opposite gender. Both genders also had the option to develop a relationship with a ‘mono-gender’ alien character with feminine features. The uproar the first game created was less about this ‘lesbian’ sex scene, however, and focused more on the fact that ‘pornography’ was being marketed to children. This was despite the fact that the game was given a Mature rating and that the two-minute sex scene (in a 30+ hour game) shows little more flesh than an edgier prime time network drama, which children have much easier access to.
The second game in the franchise was more of the same, with a little more availability of lesbian options, but still no representation of gay relationships. It wasn’t until the third game that players were finally able to be truly gay or lesbian, and choose their own partner freely.
Ignoring the obvious controversy this created in the straight community, it is more interesting to look at how the player community reacted. Concerns from fans were not cultural or personal objections against homosexuality, but fears that the realism of the narrative would be lost if characters that seemed clearly heterosexual in past games were suddenly switching teams. Wanting to get it right, the writers of the romance scenes felt challenged to write homosexual characters who did not fall victim to the tropes of queer literature, in which the characters’ struggle with their sexual identity was the most important aspect of their personality. Rather than have it be shouted from the rooftops, they worked on creating real, complex characters.
There was also fear from male players that they would not be able to interact with male characters platonically without getting ‘ninja-romanced’ into homosexual interactions. In real life people can make their intentions clearer, but the game does not allow you to use body language to convey interest or disinterest, meaning characters of both genders might try and engage you in ways you don’t expect. Some players suggested it would be better to state your orientation as part of the character creation process, with options for gay, straight, bi, undisclosed and asexual. Someone even asked for polyamorous.
As it turns out, Bioware, the company responsible for the Mass Effect franchise, had planned the homosexual option from the release of the first game, but the backlash was too great. This didn’t stop consumers from modding the content back into the game, however. Throughout this process, in fact, Bioware has seen that players of all backgrounds prefer a wider availability of player choice, which to the gaming community allows for greater realism.
What is most interesting to me is how little debate there has been over the inclusion of inter-species romance and sexuality. I would expect this to be a point of controversy for the conservative side of the market, but it has gone by largely unnoticed. It astonishes me that people can get upset about the inclusion of homosexuality; an act some consider to be ‘inhuman’, when sexual engagement with something that is literally non-human is not even a point of debate. It is also an important victory that people were unconcerned with the inclusion of a ‘mono-gender’ character, regardless of her clearly feminine features. Hopefully this is a positive sign for the future of sexuality, though I am sure if our race does ever make contact with an extraterrestrial species there will be a controversy when man and our new neighbors inevitably begin seeking more than platonic interactions with each other. Still, the makers of Mass Effect have proven that maybe sometimes, deep in the emptiness of space, sexuality can indeed exist in a vacuum.