SPOILER: This article contains spoilers about Life is Strange and The Last of Us
For decades now the US has had the monopoly of the cultural industry. Most of the music, movies, comics and videogames we consume come from that country or try to imitate their ideology and production values. This presents a twofold issue: First, people who create content give up on any attempts to define, express and share their identity and native characteristics; Second, they reproduce a conservative ideological machine created and sustained by bigoted old men. For instance, the Academy, which gives out the Oscars, is composed by an overwhelming majority of white men over 60.
Other examples of conservatism in the cultural industries of the US are the Hays Code and the Comics Code Authority, codes which defined the moral standards for cinema and comics and that all commercial works had to follow to be distributed. Both codes were created by the heads of their respective industries due to fear that the groups advocating for censorship would give them bad publicity and hurt sales. The Hays Code was adopted in 1934 and the Comics Code Authority in 1954. Although neither is officially enforced today, the ideologies they put forth continue to perpetuate themselves in modern cultural industries, sometimes in the shape of the “Bury Your Gays” trope.
The trope consists of killing off any or all characters who are in non-heterosexual relationships. The less evident the character’s sexuality, the higher their chances of survival. One notable example in popular culture is the death of Tara, Willow’s girlfriend, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the videogame world we have the death of Zoe, Max’s love interest in Life is Strange (Dontnod Entertainment, France, 2015) and the death of Riley, Ellie’s girlfriend in The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, United States, 2014). All of these relationships are treated in a respectful, realistic and emotive way until they stumble into using the trope, either intentionally or by accident.
Another trope that got traction with the implementation of the Hays and the CCA codes was the “Sissy Villain”: male gendered villains characterized with traditionally female attributes. Him from the Powerpuff Girls and most Disney villains are among the most representative examples. As the codes established that all villains must be punished, principally with death, the trope was used to characterize them as homosexuals to further vilify them. In this way it was expected for the punishment to feel doubly deserved. Let’s not forget that many men are afraid of “sounding gay”, that until the ‘90s homosexuality was considered a disease by the WHO and that nowadays, around the world, there are camps where teenagers are tortured to “cure them of their homosexuality”. In a society where we still stigmatize relationships outside of the heterosexual norm, we shouldn’t allow our cultural products to back up that stigma.
Even though games like Life is Strange make us think about issues like bullying and the right to euthanasia from a progressive focus, they also force the player to choose between sacrificing their girlfriend’s life or committing genocide against the town they live in. It’s utter bullshit that in the 21st century we are still sending the message that same-sex couples will fail or are composed by psychopaths.
It is also worrying that whenever the videogames industry takes positive steps towards improvement, a percentage of the public reacts in the same way as the groups who vouched for the creation of the Hays and Comics codes. For instance, every time Bioware launches a more inclusive game than the last, an army of white straight dudes complains because they feel left out. They don’t feel left out because a homosexual character trashes the player for their heterosexuality, but because maybe, if the time is right, a homosexual party member might try to hit on them very respectfully.
While Bioware takes a stand, other companies refused to publish Remember Me (Dontnod Entertainment, France, 2013) because businessmen believe that videogames with female protagonists don’t sell. Even if several artists are still pushing to preserve their creative freedom, the idea that the medium belongs to white heterosexual men is still ingrained in popular culture and in the minds of the businessmen in charge of financing the growth of the videogame industry. The worst part is that when we sit down to analyse the history of other emergent cultural industries, we realize that this bias also existed in the comic book industry, which stopped aiming their publications at diverse audiences with the implementation of the Comics Code.
Experience teaches us that going against diversity sets any medium backward and harms all of us. Plenty of independent publications collapsed because of the Comics Code and for several years comic books beared the stigma of being “just for kids”. In a more recent example, a racist group known as the Sad Puppies tampered with the voting of the Hugo Awards, one of the most recognized awards of SF literature, because they didn’t want it to be more diverse. The consequences were that the award lost prestige and that erotica writer Chuck Tingle was shortlisted for Best Short Story. He trolled the Sad Puppies and said that if he won, he would send Zoe Quinn to receive the Hugo in his place.
It’s important that we, the ones who make or want to make videogames, understand that games are for everyone, that we can’t give up our identity nor stigmatize other human beings to please a market segment. We should take advantage of the medium’s youth to put into question and set aside the toxic ideas other media take for granted. A good place to start is to stop burying our gays.