There are things that I read that I do not know how to respond to, that I would like to speak about but cannot articulate anything more than a simple, “Yes, you are right.” Such was the case when I read Opinion: Awful Lot Of Heterosexuals Around Here Sunday morning. While reading Andrew Meade’s article, I could not help but nod and frown in equal amounts. It’s true. We do “need a respectable cadre of characters that entertain and enlighten”, “characters that just happen to lead alternate lifestyles.” I agree with him. We, as developers and writers, should be doing more.
But, as is my practice, I moved on to read other things.
I next came across Mattie Brice’s piece. In An Escape of One’s Own. I read over the following paragraph twice:
“The problem is games aren’t an escape for everyone looking for one. In fact, they provide an escape for a very particular identity that only sometimes overlaps with others’. As children, we didn’t really notice this dissonance, but growing up as a gamer, you notice something doesn’t feel quite right. This is evident by the demographic of those who would self-identify as a gamer and the image the industry continues to portray to attract and distance certain identities. The way our community is structured, games will often jolt minorities out of their escape and back into the reality they wanted a break from. This isn’t only from the offensive and dismissive depictions of minority identities in games, but also from gaming journalism and social gatherings. How could this be? Shouldn’t everyone be used to it by now? We all know everyone isn’t an 18-24-year-old straight guy, so just ignore it and look to the content we do enjoy.” (emphasis added)
Most media is designed, marketed and sold to that demographic, 18-24-year-old straight males. Don’t believe me? Here is an example I saw just yesterday as I was playing Dragon Age: Origins:
Above is the Desire Demon from Dragon Age: Origins. This single creature says more about the world of Dragon Age than I could in thousands of words. In their mythology, Desire Demons appear as females. It’s so utterly simple that it took me hours of play and several different encounters to pick it out. In fact, let me type it again with the right emphasis for you to catch what I am saying about this: Desire Demons are female.
The gender, proportions and placement says everything about how the developers saw their audience. Even if it was done on a sub-conscious level, it is still there. The creature that represents temptation, desire and lust is a woman. And, to make matters worse, it’s that way for all players too. No matter if the player is straight, gay or some other label. For every single player, no matter their own preferences or that of the character that are playing, the manifestation of desire — for both characters and player — is that of a woman. Simply put, the game expects you to be attracted to women.
Now, yes, you might be able to explain it from the game’s lore. You might be able to say that because demons are related to how the various races interact with the Fade, how their dreams and magics interact with that realm, that maybe, just maybe, it gave rise to forms that relate to those that first touched it. You could say that. I certainly tried to find some reductionist way to fit it into the lore, that some magics might have given birth to that particular form. I tried several different ideas. Eventually, I gave up and went with Occam’s Razor.
It’s all very simple really. If the power of a demon is to present itself relative to their name — that Sloth offers lathery, Rage offers power, Hunger offers thirsts — then Desire, if she is to match her name, must be in a form that is desirable. And, if we are to believe that all characters, no matter their preferences or tastes, find women desirable, then we must question the very purpose of that image. Why is the Desire Demon limited to female form? Can she change? Would she, if she even could, change form to match what the characters wanted to see?
That is what bothered me more than anything else. We are told that demons appear as pleasurable things, that they offer you images and dreams of things you want. So, do you want a woman? Do you? I was pretty sure my character didn’t. She was going to marry Alistair and find a good place in society — yes, I know the end but my character doesn’t. She, when faced with the temptation with the Desire Demon stroking herself, laughed — well, I laughed for her. We weren’t tempted by this female demon. For my character, a muscular man would have been something more desirable.
Yet, I was forced, in a moment of “dissonance” that Mattie talked about, to consider the collision of what I thought as player and what I thought as character. Me, as player, found the demon attractive, but my character did not. She had the hots for Alistair, although, yes, there might have been a fling with Zevran that one time. Who was the game talking to with this image? Me as assumed audience or me as combination player-character?
I want to know the answer. If it was the audience, then they fell into catering to the male gaze [See Kate Cox's series for a primer: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3]. If not, then… how does it makes sense for players and characters that might not be attracted to women? Wouldn’t it have been easier to shape the Desire Demon in such a way that it was a temptation for any player? Why not have it morph between male and female shapes? Why not have it wear more clothing? There are ways to be sexy without being rather naked and having bits mostly hanging out. Shifting robes and curved shapes could be interpreted by any player as their own form of lust. There are so many other choices, better choices.
Let’s return to Mattie for a moment:
“When journalists, developers, and average gamers tell me gaming is for just for people who play games, looking for that escape, what they are actually doing is requesting me to settle for someone else’s escape, where I am still marginalized. They are telling me to sacrifice my enjoyment and my safe place for the hedonism of others. I know journalists, writers, and developers are reading this: can you still tell me everything is just fine?” (emphasis added)
No, it’s not fine. Yes, we should be more inclusive in our worlds, our works and our writing. We need “characters that just happen to lead alternate lifestyles.” Developers and writers need to think about what images they are putting forth in games, what that says about their own audiences. We need to consider what stories we are telling and what stories, more importantly, we are limiting by which pieces of the narrative picture we are drawing for the player.
BioWare, with the characters in Dragon Age: Origins, normally present sexuality not as a defining label but as a a mere momentary mask for the player. They can pick and choose and few comment or judge. It’s a safe space to be subversive if wanted. In most of the occasions where I have come across characters who have expressed some type or flavor of sexuality, I just accept it as everyone else in the world does too. But there is a major problem right in front of us here. The game states what shape desire is: Desire Demons are female.