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A closer look at Bioware’s progressive sexual politics

This article was adapted from an episode of PBS Game/Show.

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Sonic Chronicles was the exception to the rule, thankfully, but BioWare has earned the reputation as the RPG studio who lets you go to bed with your party. The tradition goes back to the inception of the stone-cold classic Baldur’s Gate in the ‘90s and has continued into the modern day, as we saw with last month’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. They haven’t always gotten this right, as we witnessed when queer players were exiled to their own remote gay planet in Star Wars: The Old Republic, but there is a refrain of sexual liberation that you don’t find in other big studios’ games. Players are free to live out any sexual orientation they want, including, gay, lesbian, or bi.

Still, there is always room for games to be more gay-friendly. Previously, being gay was an opt-in activity in BioWare titles. If you weren’t interested, homosexuality was totally off the table and you didn’t see it in your game. But for Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare included two exclusively gay characters: the mustachioed and chiseled elemental mage Dorian, and his female counterpart Sera, an elf raised by humans who only dates other women. No longer do your love interests waffle between sexualities depending on your inclination. These characters are decisively gay.

There is always room for games to be more gay-friendly. 

This has put some non-gay players in shall we say, precarious territory. Mike Rougeau of Kotaku, for instance, opined that he was surprised that his in-game match was neither of Dragon Age’s two female love interests, but the male. “It turns out there is a Right Person for me. I knew it the second I saw him, even though it took me by surprise: that person is Dorian, and my Herald of Andraste is gay,” he wrote. This is a beautiful example of why it is important for BioWare to include authentically gay characters, even if playing a gay role falls outside of your comfort zone as someone who is straight.

Of course, having more fully realized gay characters is only fair. I mean, think about all the gay players who are forced to play straight roles in every single game. In games—especially games of the big blockbuster variety—almost no characters are gay. There’s Ellie in The Last of Us and Gay Tony in Grand Theft Auto 4, but the subject is only broached in additional downloadable content. As we’ve talked about before, representation in games is valuable because it gives the LGBT community characters they can to relate to, but it also gives people outside of the community gay characters they can relate to.

This may go against the grain, but even if you’re not gay, the inclusion of gay characters makes games better. One of the biggest strengths of videogames as a medium is that they allow you to try on different roles that deviate from who you are in real-life. If that role can be a fearless treasure hunter like Nathan Drake who kills hundreds of people, albeit in a dashing manner, why can’t it be something more nuanced and realistic, like occupying the consciousness of a gay character who, uh, also kills hundreds of people?

While there have been few instances of yet, videogames have the potential to helping us understand human sexuality, as Mike Rougeau’s vicariously gay playthrough of Dragon Age illustrates. He writes that the experience helped him “empathize with people whose life experiences are not [his] own,” something at which videogames can trump other mediums. Of course you can empathize with LGBT people by watching shows like Glee or Transparent, or hanging out with your gay friends. But because you are potentially playing as a gay character in Dragon Age, it’s much more potent.

Videogames have the potential to helping us understand human sexuality. 

This goes a long way towards understand fellow human beings. According to research, the act of inhabiting other perspectives in virtual environments like videogames reduces negative stereotypes and may increase empathy. There is some evidence that experiencing empathy involves simulating the experiences of others in our neural circuits, such as MIT’s The Machine to be Another VR project, in which can do wicked things like gender swapping. So in the case of Dragon’s Age, you might find yourself more sympathetic to what gay people have to go through every day, like the fear of being estranged from their families because they came out, which happened to Dorian.

Of course not every hero, sidekick, and innkeeper should be gay, but BioWare is an island unto itself in the world of giant studios. Part of the reason BioWare is the exception to the rule, I think, is their commitment to the RPG ethos. And by that I mean they want you to be able to do whatever you want. BioWare’s earliest games like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights hail from the Dungeons and Dragons rulebook. In the early days of BioWare, Greg Zeschuk and company were heavily inspired by pen-and-paper games. Around the tabletops of yore, one of the big lures was that the dungeon master could make the story anything she wanted, and players followed suit by roleplaying as a character in this world.

At their heart, RPGs are about living out fantasies. 

At their heart, RPGs are about living out fantasies, and while most of those fantasies involved killing hideous deformities in search of treasure and adventure, romance also played a part. According to Nick Yee, a prominent social scientist of virtual worlds, romantic relationships flourish in RPG environments. “About 50% of female players and 22% of male players have developed romantic feelings for another player,” he says. Naturally, that includes both straight and non-straight relationships. In fact, many players would mod Baldur’s Gate to add in gay and lesbian relationships.

It’s this tabletop culture of making your own rules and romantic role-play that has allowed gay characters like Dorian to find their way into mainstream games. BioWare is merely delivering the most authentic RPG experience available, and that includes human sexuality. It’s not surprising, then, that the inclusion of gay characters is making BioWare’s games more rich and varied.