Video games let players be who they want, uninhibited by looks, genetics or geography. They let players foster new friendships, set personal goals and represent their perfect self in a supportive community. But while the games industry has taken many positive strides towards representing LGBTQIA+ gamers and supporting diversity in the modern era, there’s still a long way to go according to community advocates.
The Power Of Community
A desire for freedom and community has drawn many LGBTQIA+ gamers to popular MMOs like Final Fantasy XIV, where constant updates, feedback and visible support have led to a fantasy world where queer gamers can feel free to be themselves.
Rather than just focusing on diversity as tokenism, the game includes strong representation of LGBTQIA+ characters across multiple quests and locations. Players can marry other characters of the same gender, equip gender-neutral clothing, and customise their avatars however they like. FFXIV is filled with queer-positive groups with an active and helpful presence, and the game has made great strides over the years in elevating its diverse community.
As Final Fantasy XIV lead producer and director Naoki Yoshida explained to Kotaku Australia via email, freedom was always at the core of developing Final Fantasy XIV.
“FFXIV is set in the world of Hydaelyn, a virtual online environment. During the course of recreating it from the ground up and running it on a day-to-day basis, I felt that the people who inhabit it should have freedom from real-life societal expectations,” Yoshida said.
That freedom of self-expression, as one FFXIV fan, Tomasz Swierczynski, explained to Kotaku Australia over Discord, is what has really come to define Square’s MMO. “It lets me see myself in ways that I might not otherwise give myself permission to see,” Swierczynski told Kotaku Australia. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there’s an element of femininity in myself that I get to know through these games.”
“MMOS .. [represent] a chance to build up a community and digital family, which can be so crucial for vulnerable queer youth who may otherwise not have opportunities to express themselves or talk with like-minded peers,” Peak Distapan, Director of Partnerships at Sydney Gaymers told Kotaku Australia via email.
Subsequently, Final Fantasy XIV has attracted a vibrant LGBTQIA+ community that’s well-supported by the developers. In 2019, a collaboration between FFXIV and the Sydney Gaymers group, who champion LGBTQIA+ video game players, led to the sponsoring of a Final Fantasy XIV-themed float in the Sydney Mardi Gras.
We had a fabulous night at the @sydneymardigras parade! We can’t wait till next year.
— Sydney Gaymers (@SydneyGaymers) March 4, 2019
“Having Final Fantasy XIV support Sydney Gaymers for our 2019 Mardi Gras float was an incredible experience,” said Distapan, who was involved with the creation of the float. “It meant so much to us for such a well-known company put their name on one of the largest Pride festivals in the world. I was over the moon to see support from a company whose games I grew up playing … So many of our community members felt a similar glee seeing familiar characters on our parade float. “
That visibility is essential for LGBTQIA+ audiences to feel represented, according to Queerly Represent Me’s Jess Zammit, and the Mardi Gras float was an important step in supporting LGBTQIA+ gamers from all walks of life. In 2020, this support continued with a major fundraising night set up around Mardi Gras.
Queerly Represent Me is a research organisation and consultancy agency that focuses on LGBTQIA+ representation in the games industry. Director Jess Zammit spoke to Kotaku Australia via email and phone about the importance of this support and how it helps to create inclusivity and safety in gaming communities.
“Every time a larger organisation shows their support for the LGBTQIA+ community, it feels like a form of validation,” Zammit said. “It’s a bit of a weight off our chests, because it helps us to feel like we can exist in the industry that we all love, even though for so long often invisible barriers have been telling us the opposite.”
Zammit was able to march on the Final Fantasy XIV float in 2019 and described the moment as invigorating. “Square Enix is an incredibly well-known and well-respected company, and knowing that they stand for us and are happy to show that in such a visible way is empowering … having Square Enix back us allows us to feel like they’re on our side, not the side of bullies and bigots. It was a great way to celebrate something we all loved, and for it to celebrate us back.”
Final Fantasy XIV continues to attract LGBTQIA+ gamers because it’s become a space that champions diversity and freedom of expression for players like Tomasz Swierczynski. The freedom of expression that players feel when playing the game has extended past character creation and gameplay to how they interact with other players and the game’s community.
Whether it be travelling with overtly LGBTQIA+ friendly players or making their own way in the world, the support of the Final Fantasy XIV development team has meant that LGBTQIA+ gamers have the support and confidence in the game they deserve.
LGBT Representation In The Wider Games Industry
Importantly, these values are being instilled in all corners of the gaming world. At their heart, video games have always been about having fun, and highlighting diversity is essential for making that escapism inclusive.
Prominent AAA games like the Borderlands and Last Of Us franchises are leading the charge for positive LGBTQIA+ representation and provide strong, relatable characters for LGBTQIA+ people to embrace and embody. They’re important because they don’t just include LGBTQIA+ characters, they celebrate their everyday existence.
Portraying LGBTQIA+ characters in as realistic and nuanced a manner is important, Queerly Represent Me’s Jess Zammit told Kotaku Australia. Life is Strange is one game that she noted as doing this well. The game’s subtle representation of Max and Chloe’s queer relationship proved deeply relatable for her as a bisexual woman.
“Bisexual characters — while present [in games] — are these wild, rougish, promiscious, rebellious characters. I think [Life is Strange] was the first game I played with a bi character that was quieter, more relatable,” she told Kotaku Australia over the phone. This subtlety helped her connect more with these queer characters.
Gearbox Software’s recently released Borderlands 3 DLC, Guns, Love, and Tentacles: The Marriage of Wainwright & Hammerlock is another great example of a mainstream company visibly championing diverse representation.
While the crux of the DLC is about killing monsters, the story is centred on the marriage of a gay male couple. It’s not the first time that the series has highlighted diversity, with many prominent characters being overtly part of the LGBTQIA+ community and being referenced as such in-game. Lesbian couple Athena and Janey feature prominently in Tales from the Borderlands, Mad Moxxi references her bisexuality in subtle dialogue and both Tiny Tina and Axton are also confirmed to be bisexual during gameplay.
“We always strive to make the most entertaining experience possible, but if we can make more people feel seen, represented, and loved in the process, we feel that’s something we can really be proud of,” Maxime Babin, Borderlands 3 DLC creative director at Gearbox Software, told Kotaku Australia via email.
Meanwhile, Sony’s (now ‘delayed indefinitely‘) The Last Of Us Part II is forging ahead with Ellie’s tale, who was originally revealed as a lesbian in the first game’s critically-acclaimed Left Behind DLC. Sony’s continued commitment to positive LGBTQIA+ representation was confirmed with the first trailers for The Last Of Us Part II, which gave a spotlight to Ellie’s loving relationship with partner Dina.
Destiny developer Bungie is another company pushing for better diversity in games to encourage LGBTQIA+ gamers to feel safe in their communities. In addition to the significant presence of diverse characters in the world of Destiny, Bungie has also taken on a visible role in promoting diversity with projects like the exclusive Bungie collectable Pride pin released in 2019. All profits from the sale of the pin went towards the ‘It Gets Better Project’, a nonprofit that aims to prevent suicide among LGBTQIA+ youth.
“It shows that we’re not just about words, it’s a part of who we are and what we believe in,” Kelsey Wesley, Diversity, Inclusion & Learning Lead at Bungie told Kotaku Australia via email. “Inclusivity and diversity has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go. We support the LGBTQI gaming community because we want to stand with our friends and family who face challenges being their true self, and let them know that we’re with them.”
Having such visible and vocal support in the games industry is essential. The gaming community is built around a love for games and everyone should feel welcome and free to make friends in these spaces. “Friendship celebrates differences and values uniqueness. True friendship to us is about people coming together and supporting one another from all walks of life,” Wesley said.
What Still Needs To Change
While the games industry is already changing for the better, there are still necessary steps to make sure that all LGBTQIA+ people feel genuine support and inclusion. Gestures like 2019’s Final Fantasy XIV-themed float are necessary to demonstrate visible and proud support for LGBTQIA+ people, but too often these gestures can feel hollow.
“It’s becoming quite in vogue for companies to look progressive and inclusive especially regarding LGBTQIA+ issues. For the most part, that’s a good thing!” said Sydney Gaymers’ Peak Distapan. “It raises the bar for what is acceptable in media and sets precedents for the future. Problems arise, however, when displays of such support are empty gestures. Supporting the community means considering LGBTQI+ perspectives and addressing their concerns, not just slapping a rainbow on your logo for one month a year.”
A core concern when it comes to LGBTQIA+ representation in mainstream titles is that while AAA companies are taking positive strides towards realistic and meaningful representation, they’re often hamstrung by their mainstream status.
“A lot of the representation exists in secondary canon outside of the game, like with Tracer’s sexuality being revealed in a companion comic to [Overwatch],” Distapan explained. “They perform diversity as minimally as they can, to minimise risking their existing fanbase, but then try to profit off of the social capital.”
Jess Zammit of Queerly Represent Me echoed these views. “There is so much more effort needed. We’re still at the stage where it feels like companies are putting in the token amount of effort,” she said. “In order to do LGBTQIA+ representation well, the best way to do it is to have queer voices in the room informing the characters that you’re creating.”
Zammit also cited Overwatch‘s reveal that main character Tracer was gay as an oversight from AAA games. While she noted that games like The Sims, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are doing great things for LGBTQIA+ representation in non-tokenistic ways (such as including a diverse main cast and allowing gender diversity in character customisation), she believes there are still major hurdles to overcome in the wider games industry, particularly when it comes to representing LGBTQIA+ gamers well.
“You need to include representation in the main game — where it can’t be avoided,” Zammit told Kotaku Australia.
Agency was also a core consideration, Zammit noted. While characters like Ellie from The Last Of Us have agency over and ownership of their sexuality, too often companies attempt to shoehorn diversity into their games without the nuance and understanding needed. Rather than a character’s LGBTQIA+ identity being an essential part of their story and history, sexuality is often treated as throaway or unimportant.
“The problems arise when companies try to include queer representation. They want to do a good thing and want to include more people, but they don’t know how to do it — so they rely on tokenism or stereotypes,” she explained over the phone. “You find those better stories in smaller games, where it’s more likely that a queer person has created it and been in the room.”
As Zammit explained, this reliance on stereotypes often leads to misconceptions about LGBTQIA+ people, for example, that all gay men are flamboyant and overtly sexual. To better represent queer people, Zammit believes what companies should do is clear. “You just need to ask people,” she said. “You really need to get queer people involved with telling their stories, rather than trying to tell their stories for them.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Distapan. “Games that best support and represent the LGBTQIA+ community are those that are made by people from the community itself. The most genuine and authentic expressions of our lived experiences come from living it,” he told us. “Within the industry itself, gaming should continue to uplift LGBTQIA+ voices and creators, which allows games to tell more diverse and interesting stories.”
Telling LGBTQIA+ stories is essential, but more important is listening, supporting and elevating the voices of the LGBTQIA+ community. Representation is an important facet of creating diverse and inclusive spaces, but it’s at its most powerful when it’s backed by meaningful and visible support.
To improve, games companies will need to look towards their communities. “Represent more people, for example trans people and non-binary people. Consult and hire more LGBTQIA+ people to ensure authenticity,” said Distapan. “One of the most important things games companies can do is realise how large of a social platform they have.”
“If these companies wanted to create meaningful representation and change things for the better, they would consider that they have the power to influence the narratives being told in the games industry and set an example for other companies. Instead of caving to market pressure, they could lead the charge and establish the market standard,” he said.
It’s a challenge the games industry is still working on addressing. Everybody deserves to see themselves represented in games, and while there are important, positive strides currently being made, it’s clear from talking to the LGBTQIA+ community there’s still a long way to go yet.