On Sexual Diversity in Video Games: “Cheers Love, The Cavalrey’s Queer!” (Part 1)

I’ve always been fascinated about the topic of sexuality. Ever since my father told me he was gay, I’ve really made an effort to understand the intricacies, deeper meanings of sexuality. Doubly so in the emerging medium of video games. Games, as they are, have had a history of sort of shooing LGBTQ stuff to the side. It’s not something for everyone, after all. Not that being gay is bad but some people would rather not engage in that content. And that’s ok!

Specifically I want to talk about Tracer coming out as a lesbian, because I’m quite fascinated in this turn.

“The Typical Lesbian” vs. Lena “Tracer” Oxton

Often in media, especially video games, the lesbian character is always the one you most expect. The tough girl, the tomboy, the sexually promiscuous woman, all stereotypes people associate with gay/bi women. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve had to defend my point-of-view on why I think Vi (League of Legends) is more bi than lesbian, but that’s for another day.

Blizzard had many outs and many choices when it comes to making a lesbian character. The one that would have made me roll my eyes in disappointment would have been Zarya. A tough girl with short, pink hair that is a weight lifter. It screams stereotype. Instead, it turns out Tracer is the one chrono-shifting out of the closet.

Now, roll with me here; to the general public, Tracer isn’t a typical lesbian character. She’s not overtly sexy, she’s not a tough girl,  she’s a peppy, cheery lady. Sure the community likes to ship her with Widowmaker but if we’re bringing that into play, almost everyone is bisexual. Yes, even the omnics.

More importantly, your stereotypical character will be a brazen, unabashed flirt. Not so with Lena. She’s all business and quite sweet as well. Never once does she flirt or tease other characters in a sexual manner. Tracer isn’t a lesbian character. She’s a character who happens to be a lesbian. Weird distinction, I know, but so many characters are just lesbian or gay and THAT is their character.

“Hidden in a Sidequest” vs. On-the-box

As I said earlier in this writing, often times the LGBTQ stuff is hidden in a metaphorical dark corner of the game. Even player made characters like Commander Shepard have to go looking for that specific content. I believe the most egregious example of this was Star Wars: The Old Republic which locked a same-sex romance behind paid content. “Pay 2 Gay” if you will.

With Tracer…you can’t really ignore it. She’s front and center. She’s the titular character and the poster girl of Overwatch. You could argue that nobody would know unless they go lore-delving. To counter this, who would likely be the first character for people to look for and learn about? Yep. Lena Oxton herself.

Most protagonists and cover-feature characters in video games tend to be men. Especially in the FPS genre. Gruff, military badasses in power armor. Instead, for Overwatch, we have a bubbly lesbian with time powers. It’s a far-cry from the norm and not something we’d expect to see at all. Tracer is breaking the mold and normality by checking the opposite of every other main. She’s not a man. She’s not straight. She’s not a (conventional) badass. She’s just who she is.

Thus, Lena becomes front-and-center when it comes to Overwatch. Not in-your-face about it but she does have this aspect while also being a main, lead character in one of the hottest games of 2016.

Loud and Proud vs. Character Trait

Remember earlier how I said Lena is a character who happens to be a lesbian and not a lesbian character?

Time and time again, even the most well-meaning person writes a character where their sexuality is the hook. Where the entire character is defined by being gay/lesbian or it’s the main motivation behind all the things they do. Now, there’s nothing wrong about being proud of yourself but often these things read as stilted. They read as someone jamming sexuality into every nook and cranny of a character to the point where you go “Is there ever a moment where the character ISN’T gushing about other men/women?”

Tracer, however, could very well not be a lesbian and I mean that in the best of ways. In my own life, being around gay and lesbian people, the tired motto of “they’re just like you and me” rings true. They don’t act weird or differently, they just like the same sex. Tracer, if you removed the panels of her with her girlfriend, would still be the same character. You wouldn’t lose much and she’d still be good ol’ Lena Oxton. Just like a straight person and all that.

However, in adding those panels, you add a bit of depth to her. You add a little tweak to her character that changes things up. Lena is still Lena, she just has something important to note about her character. Perhaps it makes her friendship with Overwatch different. Perhaps there’s a story about her realizing herself. There’s so much more that you CAN add but nothing that takes away or messes with the core character.

Criticism and Conclusion (For now)

Not really excited for the incoming hate from both sides, gotta be honest. LGBTQ community saying I don’t get those relationships because I’m not them and the gamer community accusing me of being a pandering bastard. Well, that’s gonna be fun.Still, to me, the overall change to Tracer is…well, good.

While I do approve and think this was a good change, I will say one thing: It’s one of the safest paths you can take. Tracer’s conventionally attractive. She’s had some of the most developed Overwatch lore there is and she’s easily the person who will represent the franchise. Her girlfriend, Emily, is also quite attractive. Now, before you think I’m just gushing and that I’m crushed Tracer x Me isn’t going to happen, hear me out.

You can easily fetishize people in such a way and Tracer is no exception. She’s a character who people know, love and (barring some crushed people who take sexuality too seriously) is a character people could love regardless of what she did. She was the “safe” pick to make an LGBTQ woman. Perhaps if Tracer’s girlfriend wasn’t exactly hot. Perhaps if Tracer herself had this fact stated or revealed from the get-go…but, I’ll be honest, I’m nitpicking.

Tracer’s coming-out marks something semi-important and major. It makes one of the first non-player-created characters of LGBTQ origin who is the titular character of the game. I’d also say this is likely the biggest game in a LONG time when it comes to IP and sheer cultural permeation, making it something of a sign of the times when the star of 2016’s game-of-the-year (in many circles) likes the same sex. Still, all this has got me thinking…what about games that play coy with other character’s sexuality?

Next week, I’ll take a look at another game (League of Legends) and talk about the vacuum of sexuality in it.

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Overwatch and the Power of IPs

I don’t think Overwatch is going to last forever.

Perhaps it’s a controversial opinion, especially considering the popularity right now, but my personal thought is that Overwatch is going to slowly die out over the course of around five years. Sure, it’ll still be played but it won’t remain the mega-blockbuster-hit it is right now. Instead, I want to draw attention to the real success of Overwatch: The IP.

Blizzard and Franchises

Perhaps Blizzard’s greatest strength is their ability to make franchises that transcend single games and become long-lasting phenomenons whose effects are still felt today. Hell, Blizzard is responsible for three of the last genre bubbles (The MMO, the MOBA and the Hero-Shooter) that have transpired. They’re making great games to go along with it…but really, I find their power is in making IPs that last.

For any who don’t know: IP stands for “Intellectual Property” also known as the story, characters and general name-brand nature of a game. Blizzard’s stable include Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo and now Overwatch. All four are what I would consider signature franchises for PC gamers and great examples of how Blizzard can take lightning in a bottle and create long-lasting legacies of video games.

Overwatch’s IP: Dipped in Gold

The first moment I knew that Blizzard had the long-game planned for Overwatch was in the opening of the Warcraft movie. When Blizzard’s logo appeared, iconic characters flashed in the letters. There was Arthas, Diablo…and then Tracer. A game they’d just made was already standing side-by-side to some of their most iconic IPs. “No duh”, you might argue, but to me it was a telling sign of what was to come.

Compare League of Legends for a moment: In talking with others, I’ve found that people who don’t even play the game recognize the characters from conventions, other media (comics, music, fan art, whatever) and influences outside of the core game. So too is Overwatch hitting a point where people can point and say “Oh, that’s Tracer!” even if you don’t play Overwatch.

If Overwatch were to die tomorrow and just get thrown into the dumpster, Blizzard still have a vibrant world with colorful characters to use. Movies, television, animation, comics, everything beyond the core game has immense power simply because of the “Overwatch” logo and title sitting at the top.

Industry Movings

I think this speaks greatly to the video game industry moving more-and-more to trying to establish long-lasting franchises rather than the old “one and done” system. Ages ago, during the NES and Genesis days, games were just single-releases. You made a good game, made some money, that was that. If you were a franchise, that was earned through being damn good at what you did and making a brand through sheer game power.

Now look at us today: Mighty No. 9, for all its faults, tried desperately to be a massive franchise before a single game was even out. Comics, movies, sequels, the rumors swirled that this would be a game franchise for the AGES. Sure, it flopped, but you can see it in other games as well. Name brands are power and long-running franchises are the goal, not a dream in the eyes of a dev.

Even if Overwatch were to die tomorrow, as I said, I’m confident in its longevity as an IP. For me, I don’t care about the game so much as reading the stories, watching the movies and hearing the tales of a world worth fighting for. Kudos to Blizzard for making yet another powerhouse that can stand alongside Arthas, Diablo and Kerrigan.

 

Creating Champions in League of Legends: Breaking Rules

It was around 2012 that I took my first stab at creating a champion concept for League of Legends. Suffice to say, I’ve been working on it and others ever since. Almost five years old I think? Either way, I learned very quickly on that making champion concepts for League of Legends forces players and creators to break unspoken rules related to OCs (Original Characters) in canonical universes.

The “Rules”

Generally, many of these rules are not explicitly enforced or stated.. However, play any MMO in an RP community (as I did for around ten or more years with World of Warcraft) and you’ll quickly see things that are OK or not-ok to common players. Some of these rules include:

  • Not being related or involved with canonical characters.
  • Your work or job being toned down. (You’re not the best warrior in Azeroth.)
  • Separating your character from the canonical events of the game, such as major raids.
  • Not directly affecting major events that occurred in the game.

There are always people who break these rules, sure, but I’ve often found them to be pushed to the side or ignored. Roleplay communities seem to thrive on original characters who are downplayed or are one of many, as any world would allow. Not everyone can be the heroic titan who stands head-and-shoulders above others.

Do be aware that these rules are quite often enforced in RP communities when they’re related to League but not directly related to champion creation or design. That said, when you put champion creation into the mix, things become increasingly messy and break further and further rules.

Breaking Conventional Rules

In every champion release or new character, regardless of if it’s League, DOTA, or otherwise, you have a character who has to compete with or excel against the best warriors, mages and assassins in their respective worlds. You can have normal soldiers but even then, they are above and beyond those who serve alongside them. We’ve already had to break one rule in giving that character the power to face a cavalcade of others.

A staple of these characters are being related or connected to others in some way. Be it rivalry, implied love interest or otherwise. Even if your character is completely unconnected, he/she/it will need lines in relation to encountering other characters in the game. This includes events in the story. After all, if your champion is important enough to be a champion, they likely did something of note.

These facts alone force you, if you want to create a champion, to create someone of major significance in the League universe and beyond. Which also might be why so many creators are looked down upon when it comes to these rules. Yes, you can be the greatest warrior the Freljord has ever known but many will shake their heads and be disappointed in how much importance you’re putting into your character. Same goes for any other major point of note be it romance, relationship or legendary weaponry.

Of course, you can make original characters separate from champion concepts but those characters cannot be heroes in the game itself. You have a clear divide between someone strong enough to be a hero/champion and someone who is merely strong enough to get by in the world they live in.

A Standout Crowd

The purpose of this wasn’t to make people go “Ugh yeah I hate those dumb people who do that” or to somehow get sympathy for character creators who want to be the greatest samurai Ionia has ever known. What I merely wish to point out is that League is a game where creating playable characters requires you to bend the rules of original character creation, even if they are unspoken.

It’s certainly not for everyone either. You will get people criticizing your character because they are far too important or far too powerful. There will be critiques made at how your character is related to or interacts with a character who is canonical. At the end of the day, everyone is vying for the same goal: Get their creation noticed and perhaps one day work at these studios to put their pride-and-joy in the game.

No matter what, these jobs are rife with critique and will always have someone questioning the character’s inclusion in the game unless they’re the first there ever was. All one can do is maintain an open mind when looking at champion concepts and to understand that players aren’t the cause of these characters: it’s the environment.