Pong was the first commercially successful video game in history. Its release by Atari in 1972, just a few years after the Stonewall Riots in New York City, came at a time when the gay rights movement was just getting started. The stark table-tennis game using two paddles operated by a controller and displayed in black & white was ingenious in its simplicity. For thousands of American youngsters the game’s incessant “thonk” as the glowing ball careened about the screen it was the birthing sound of the digital revolution. Many of those real world Pong kids would grow up to be gay. Those kids would be adults before virtual gays would appear in video games.
A female debuted as the world’s first homosexual video game character in 1986’s Moonmist. The single player adventure was but the merest blip in vid-game history by selling only 33,000 copies.
Caper in the Castro was distributed in 1986 as “charity ware” to raise funds for AIDS organizations on BBS, for Bulletin Board Systems, the pre-internet forerunner of today’s online forums. The murder mystery problem-solving game featured numerous LGBT characters. “The back story was that the player assumed the role of a lesbian detective investigating the disappearance of a transgender woman in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco,” recounted creator CM Ralph during an interview last year with Paste Magazine. “As the player solved each problem they grew closer to finding the missing woman. The game employed a mixture of text, graphics and sound to create the neighborhood the player would explore.”
Birdo hatched that same year into the nest of Super Mario Bros. 2. The pink critter wearing a red hair bow & diamond ring and who shoots egg projectiles from its mouth has been controversial from first peep. Nintendo’s official game manual describes the character as “a male who believes he is a female and would rather be called Birdetta.” Cute, maybe. But not everyone was charmed. GameDaily squawked, “If Birdo wants to dress like a chick, all the power to him. But eggs from the mouth, however…that’s nasty.”
The ‘90s brought gay stereotypes to video games. Boys were swishy. Girls were butch. Nearly all subjects of ridicule. Transgenderism and cross-dressing became familiar themes. Nonetheless, LGBT characters marked ever greater influences on game play. A standout during the period was Phantasmagoria 2: Puzzle of Flesh. Curtis Craig was an openly bisexual alien creature that never found peace, either in his home world nor amongst humans. Brutal in its depictions of gore and S&M, a motion picture was later developed from the Phantasmagoria franchise. As the first non-straight playable character in a video game Curtis was groundbreaking.
With the new century, new technologies broadened the scope of video games, as did the emergence of more nuanced depictions of gays. Greater bandwidth for internet connectivity made online game play a standard. And certain producers moved to the fore.
Rockstar Games is one production leader. Set in Bullworth Academy, their action adventure game Bully, stars Jimmy Hopkins as a student that rises through various school cliques. The New England boarding school is over-run with violent thugs who confront the young man. Jimmy is taunted about his sexual experimentations with other boys. And an award is granted after the player kisses a boy 20 times.
Grand Theft Auto, the hugely successful Rockstar franchise, features numerous LGBT characters in their crime-ridden world of Liberty City, named after an actual district in Miami, Florida. “So Long Schlong” is the title of one mission in Vice City Stories, during which a transexual porn director goes to the hospital for his umpteenth sex change.
Taking the marquee in 2009 is Anthony Prince in the expansion pack Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony. His character is the cocaine-addicted owner of Hercules and Maisonette 9, popular gay nightclubs in Liberty City. Ass deep in debt to loan sharks and bartering in shady diamond deals has just about everyone trying to kill him. Parallels to the real-world life of Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell are obvious. Ex-model Evan Moss, as Tony’s boyfriend, supplies him with drugs and is killed during a diamond deal gone bad.
Trevor Philips is another GTA main character that brings contemporary cultural controversy to vid-games. A bipolar psychopath, he causes mayhem and pain everywhere he goes. Trevor will bang anybody to get what he wants. In an effort to keep his home, he tries to marry a man. The move makes sense since Trevor is from Canada. That country legalized gay marriage 2005.
The Last of Us: Left Behind, from Naughty Dog, further develops LGBT characters with greater detail and emotional realism. Protagonists Ellie and Riley are interracial lesbian lovers. Exploring their relationship allows a player to unlock special bonus content and add points. Gruff gay guy Bill’s homosexuality is portrayed as simple matter of fact.
“Just as developers, and the kind of people we have around the studio, is diversifying, I think from that aspect people are going to want to explore,” Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann told GayGaymer.net. “As more women become directors and designers, and more gay developers, they’re going to want to explore their history and the things that have inspired and affected them through their lives.”
Undoubtedly the industry leader in LGBT inclusion within video games is Bioware. Series like Mass Effect and Dragon Age have garnered them wide critical praise and numerous awards, along with huge success in the marketplace.
Mass Effect 3 opens as the Earth is burning. The player becomes Lieutenant Commander Shepard who must rally the civilizations of the galaxy to save humankind from a race of terrifying machines. Commander Shepard can be customized; a player chooses the character’s gender, appearance, and first name. Between battles against the Reapers, Geth, and Cerebus, Shepard can be romanced by males and females. One love interest can be Kaidan Alenko, a handsome Marine serving aboard the SSV Normandy.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is at the pinnacle of the LGBT revolution in video games. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, presented Bioware a Special Recognition Award during this year’s ceremony. GLAAD bestowed the honor for “the many complex and unique LGBT characters prominently integrated throughout the game.” It marks a first for the advocacy group.
Dorian Pavus is the series’ first fully gay male character. Intelligent and charming, Dorian was born with magical talents into a prestigious family inhabiting the vast and changeable land called Thedas. Playing “Last Resort of Good Men” in the main hall at Skyhold, will allow a player to romance the dashing character. Also called The Redeemer, Dorian likes to flirt, dance, and play chess. He is voiced by Ramon Tikaram. The 48-year old British actor recently appeared in the motion picture Jupiter Ascending. Also Freddie Prinze Jr. voices Iron Bull, a member of the pansexual Qunaris, a race that does not intermingle love with sexual intercourse.
From Pong to Grand Theft Auto, the digital playground his risen to unimaginable heights for gamers. In that same four decades, the LGBT rights movement has taken society, along with gaymers, to places no one could have dreamed possible when those first bright pixels bounced around on TV screens. In Dragon Age, Dorian makes a prophetic statement, which perfectly sums up life in that place where the virtual world intersects with reality: “Living a lie…it festers inside you like poison. You have to fight for what’s in your heart.”
No2hair is the gaming identity of David Atlanta contributing writer Gregg Wynn.