Overwatch and Apex Legends have both received nominations for Outstanding Video Game at the upcoming 31st annual GLAAD Media Awards. Both games are esports, which means that their inclusive representations reach beyond the game into a community of competition. According to the GLAAD Media Award press release, the nominations represent excellence in presenting “fair, accurate, and inclusive representations of of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community and the issues that affect their lives.” GLAAD is the world’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.
These nominations represent an important mark to achieve for Blizzard, Electronic Arts, and the gaming industry as a whole. This category lays out a challenge to video game companies to provide characters, talent, and spaces that support inclusivity in the increasingly diverse world of video games and esports.
Video games are a storytelling medium and cultural landscape worthy of media criticism alongside television, film, theater, and music. What began as a commercial arcade market, focused on providing entertainment but not necessarily advanced media representations, is now an essential art form with complex and interesting characters, worlds, and media images. This is only the second year that an award has been offered in the Outstanding Video Game category. In 2019, the inaugural award was given to The Elder Scrolls Online for the transgender-focused questline, “Manor of Masques.”
Overwatch was nominated on the basis of two LGBTQ heroes: Tracer and Soldier: 76. In the comic Reflections, we meet Tracer’s girlfriend Emily. In the Bastet comic, Soldier: 76 is revealed to have had a romantic partner named Vincent. Both stories were hailed as organic reveals of the character’s respective sexual preferences.
Apex Legends also has confirmed two LGBTQ champions: Gibraltar and Bloodhound. Gibraltar’s character biography refers to a past relationship with another man. Bloodhound has been confirmed as non-binary, meaning that they do not associate themselves with either male or female pronouns.
The other nominees for Outstanding Video Game are: Borderlands 3 (2k games), The Outer Worlds (Private Division), and The Walking Dead: The Final Season (Skybound Entertainment).
There have been many LGBTQ characters throughout video game media history, even dating back to some of the earliest games. In 1985, an interactive fiction game called Le crime du parking introduced us to Paco, a tailor who is gay and deals drugs in France. In 1986, the game Moonmist told the story of Vivien Pentreath and Deirdre Hallam, who are respectively lesbian and bisexual. More recently, games like Animal Crossing: New Leafhad Isabelle, the apparently pansexual secretary to the town mayor who is attracted to the player regardless of their chosen gender. These examples represent a small portion of the hundreds of LGBT video game characters who have been created by game developers.
Representations are essential to constructing reality. We only know the world through interactions that are contextualized by social and cultural representations shown to us. Faulty representations of LGBTQ people, or any community of people for that matter, will undermine the public’s understanding of those communities.
“Media stories and storylines that shed light on LGBTQ people of different backgrounds, genders, races, religions, and more, are needed to counter the current politically and culturally divisive moment,” stated Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD CEO. “The GLAAD Awards this year not only celebrate new LGBTQ stories that educate, entertain, and affect positive cultural change, but remind LGBTQ people and allies that in an election year, our visibility and voices have never been more important.”
Inclusive representations has been a goal for LGBTQ advocates for a long time, since the exclusion of LGBTQ characters from fair representation has long been used as a tool to exclude LGBTQ folks from society at large. Only five years ago, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in the United States. In many countries around the world, a person can still be put in prison — or worse — for engaging in homosexual activities. Although gay marriage is now legal in the United States, members of the LGBTQ community still face high rates of discrimination, according to a study carried out by the Center for American Progress.
There is still a long way to go on ensuring equal treatment for all people, regardless of their sexuality or gender. Inclusive media representations is one of the many tools that can help break down the barriers to equality.
Moments of inclusion in media create dialogue between the creators of art and their audience. Inclusive characters in video games set a standard of inclusion. Unfortunately, players and Esport organizations attached to these games don’t always follow through on that promise.
The esports community has had some difficult controversies when it comes to inclusion.
Despite the consistent inclusion of women, LGBT folks, and other minority groups in video games themselves, much of the esports community remains staunchly set against inclusivity. Although LGBTQ and female gamers are commonplace, the discursive environment of many esports communities is heavily dominated by overtly-masculine discourses, which can devolve into sexist stereotypes and obscene insults that drive away or silence marginalized folks.
Further complicating the issue, when people point out these discourses and their negative affect on a variety of gamers, many male gamers quickly become upset that we are asking for greater inclusivity. This process can be clearly seen in 2014, when the #Gamergate made national headlines. Gamer Gate started with unfounded accusations that a female game developer had an inappropriate relationship with a games journalist. The debate quickly spiraled out of control, with several female gaming personalities receiving death threats over their criticism of masculine video game culture.
More recently, Riot Games, who created League of Legends, found itself embroiled in a sexism scandal, after female workers came forward to condemn the sexist culture at the gaming studio. An article from Kotaku quotes a female source at Riot saying, “The ‘bro culture’ there is so real. It’s agonizingly real. It’s like working at a giant fraternity.” This issue is likely compounded by the fact that according to Kotaku, 80% of the employees at Riot Games are men. Inclusive representations in your game can’t make up for a non-inclusive studio.
Even when developers try to engender an inclusive community, it doesn’t always work. Overwatch is a good example of the tension between a company who genuinely desires to provide inclusive representations and backlash from their community. On the esports side, Overwatch League has almost no female players, and has disproportionately fewer female talents on their production team than men. In the game itself, Overwatch’s in-game chats and voice channels are filled with sexist and homophobic discourse which makes the video game space feel unsafe for LGBTQ people and women.
It is not uncommon to see homophobic slurs in an Overwatch chat. In fact, it feels like the exception to the rule when there is nothing racist, sexist, or homophobic said in an Overwatch game. Blizzard has not done such a great job in weeding out these violent voices, hiding behind their anonymous usernames screaming hate.
Blizzard and Riot are not the only companies dealing with inclusivity issue — these issues aren’t even specific to the games. Twitch chats are also filled with sexist behavior. In dealing with intolerance, media representations are an essential start to changing the hearts and minds of those who don’t want to accept LGBTQ folks as legitimate. However, representations are only one piece to the puzzle.
To put it bluntly, inclusive representations don’t matter if the people you are representing don’t feel safe to play your game or work at your studio. It’s a good first step to see large publishers taking diversity and inclusion seriously when they develop their games and character arcs, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to promoting inclusion within the video game community.