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Queer Representation in Video Games – A Q&A with Sacha Coward

Video games are not only a passion for many in the tech industry, but also an increasingly important medium for shaping how we understand and interact with the world

As gaming becomes one of the most influential media, for young people in particular, the question of queer representation has become especially important.

To understand how the industry is responding, F5’s EMEA Pride Employee Inclusion Group (EIG) recently hosted a talk by Sacha Coward, a museum and heritage professional, queer historian, escape room designer and life-long gamer. We caught up with him after the event to get his views on what game developers are getting right and wrong, why we should be optimistic about the future, and what can be done do to ensure a more realistic and inclusive representation of queer and minority characters.

Why are video games so important to you?

I’ve been playing video games probably since I was six or seven years old. I describe myself as a gamer. I spend a lot of my time playing video games and I have wonderful, meaningful memories associated with the medium. I build escape rooms in real life and that’s partly influenced by the fact that I love games and I think that they’re wonderful experiences.

On the other side, I still don’t think there’s a huge amount of respect for video games as a higher art form. I work in museums, around paintings, heritage, culture, and collections. In comparison, games are often seen as just a form of entertainment without any depth. From my perspective, that’s slightly sad because I know there’s a lot more to them than that.

I also think it’s very dangerous. Today, video games make more money than the film and music industries combined. Young people are growing up with gaming as a ubiquitous part of their lives.

Games influence us, tell stories of how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen. Most importantly, and unlike a painting or a movie, you control and inhabit a character in a game. You’re in the story. The power to influence is so much greater. Increasingly, we cannot overlook that.

Why is representation of queer characters and other minorities so important?

A phrase that gets used a lot is, “you can’t be it until you can see it”. That’s a concept I think applies across identity boundaries. When representation is missing, you aren’t telling the real story of humanity. The danger of that is we end up with a revisionist version of history—usually told from the perspective of the winners—and everyone starts to believe this hetero and cisnormative story.

If you don’t tell the stories of LGBTQ+ people, then you come to the conclusion that we don’t exist. We know that LGBTQ+ people have existed since the dawn of time but, as a historian, I have to work so hard to find those breadcrumb trails of evidence of people’s lives, because those stories are not preserved.

So, if we see video games as being a new form of art, a medium that will probably exist forever, we need to assert the presence of all kinds of people and all kinds of identities in the stories we tell. Otherwise, people looking back will be able to say that we didn’t exist, or we weren’t important or relevant. That’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous. We need to start caring about the medium and our representation in it. If we don't start telling our stories, other people are going to write them for us. 

What is the current state of representation in the industry?

Video gaming is still a nascent industry, one that’s going through its adolescence and having to grow up very fast. In the past, video games were made by cisgender straight men for cisgender straight men. Remember, it was called the Game Boy.

Now we’re seeing so much change and development. There’s a huge movement where people are identifying where the stories are lacking or wrong or offensive, and addressing those issues. Over the last decade there has been a growing force for progression and better representation, but there’s also been an old-school defensiveness pushing back. That’s created a huge amount of conflict.

Today, many mainstream blockbusters have representation of all kinds of identities and minorities, some with some really deep storylines. I’m thinking for example of The Last of Us Part II, a zombie game famous for having a queer, lesbian lead character. There’s been huge push-back, even to the extent that when the game came out it was being bombed with one-star user reviews by people that hadn’t even played it.

Overall, we’re in a time where pretty much every big new game is getting kickback both for having too much representation, and not enough. If you go to the comments section in any YouTube video or Amazon review for one of the big-selling games, you will see these arguments playing out around identity. As an industry, we’re at that often weird and painful stage of adolescent growth.

Do you expect that to change?

I’m very optimistic because we are seeing big developers take risks and have them pay off. The Last of Us Part II is selling like hot cakes and it doesn’t matter that it’s being review-bombed. In the end, I don’t think most gamers are either queer activists or their opponents—they just want to play good games with good stories. Though it's achingly slow, we are seeing this type of progress in most media, from cartoon to superhero films, and video games are following that trend. We can't be complacent, but I think the media we consume is getting more inclusive in general. If it's a game with strong representation and identity, you won't get complaints from most gamers.

Does representation matter even more in video games because of how influential they are?

Gaming is a very special medium because you are in it and part of the world that you are playing. For LGBTQ+ people, a lot of us used video games from an early age to escape into when we were not out, or perhaps struggling with our identity. I could play The Sims and have two characters that would have a same-sex marriage before that existed in the real world!

There’s an element of going into these worlds, playing characters and acting out storylines and identities. For example, it’s possible for a person who’s thinking about transitioning to create a character in a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition that is the gender they want to live. They can then experience that through the game and interact with other people as their avatar.

There is so much power in video games to shape how we think about the world we live in, and to explore both our own and other peoples’ identities. Representation isn’t just about queer people seeing themselves in games either. It’s also good for anyone to play as characters that aren’t like them in order to gain more understanding and empathy. It's all about making sure the worlds we escape into are making our real world better—not smaller and less accepting.  

What are your tips for designing games that are more realistic about the identities they represent?

Talk to the people that you want to depict in your game. If you have, or want to have, a trans, intersex or non-binary character, you’d better be talking in depth to, and directly collaborating with, a number of people with that experience.

As part of that, you need to understand that peoples’ lived experiences may go against your artistic vision and you may have to change some ideas. If you want to have a diverse cast of people, you need to have those people reading your scripts and giving feedback. They also need to feel empowered to do so, which means you need to pay them. Don’t tell a person’s story for them. Tell it with them.

Personally, I think we need to stop the idea that being gay or trans or bisexual or intersex is the big, dramatic plot point—the big secret that you must deal with. It is also tiring to have a constant narrative that the gay character, the queer character, the trans character is always in terrible pain, very unhappy, and often ends up dead. Basically, a character of pure tragedy rather than someone that just lives their life. They should have the same storylines as any other character, where their queerness is visible but incidental. More of that would be fantastic.

Additional perspective from F5: