LGBTQ+ representation in culture and media has grown significantly over the last several years. Companies that when lacked LGBTQ+ visibility in their creations are now considering how to represent this cohort more regularly. Over the past 32 years, the GLAAD Media Awards have recognized stories that bring positive, accurate portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters to life.
Having grown from six original categories to 27, the Awards illustrate how far we’ve come. At only three years old, the Outstanding video game Award, which saw twice the standard number of nominees this year, is exemplary of that progress. albeit mainstream gaming features a way to travel toward ideal LGBTQ+ representation, brands can learn tons from the industry’s strides and mishaps.
Here are three lessons from LGBTQ+ representation in gaming that brands can apply to their marketing.
Consider the big picture
GLAAD announced two winners this year: Dontnod Entertainment’s “Tell Me Why,” a single-player mystery with a trans protagonist voiced by a trans actor, and Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us Part II,” a single-player action-adventure game featuring a lesbian protagonist. (The latter’s relationship is one among the more hopeful notes within the apocalypse-themed game, which was also the year’s fifth most searched.)
Notably, both games must be played from the purpose of view of an LGBTQ+ character. This sets them aside from games that gate LGBTQ+ visibility behind player choices, making LGBTQ+ gamers liable for adding representation to the story. Conversely, this year’s winners assume that each audience is capable of empathizing with a well-written protagonist.
You have to think about the underlying story you’re trying to tell and what kinds of stories you haven’t been telling.Dr. Adrienne Shaw, associate professor, Temple University, and founder of the LGBTQ Video Game Archive
“It’s not like, ‘we checked the box, we’ve got a trans character in our game.’ No, you play because the trans character,” said Blair Durkee, a special consultant on video games to GLAAD. “You get to experience what that’s like. You get to literally put yourself there in the character’s shoes and make decisions and choices.
“At one point in [‘Tell Me Why’], Tyler [the protagonist] meets a personality who confronts him about his identity, and Tyler has got to answer that. For me, as a trans person, I’m wont to this because I affect it a day, except for someone who’s not, which may be something they never considered from a first-person perspective. ‘What would I neutralize that kind of situation? How would that make me feel?’ It’s very different when you’re thinking, ‘oh, that might probably be hurtful.’ But when it’s happening to you, it’s like, omigosh. It takes on a completely different meaning. These are the kinds of things that make these two games really special.”
Dr. Adrienne Shaw, professor at Temple University and founding father of the LGBTQ video game Archive, urges game designers and marketers to believe in diversity in their work holistically.
Documented number of video games containing LGBTQ+ content, by decade
“One of the most important problems with how media industries approach representation generally is that they only represent groups when that group is their audience,” Shaw said. “But there’s an entire wide world out there of individuals who aren’t queer, who want to ascertain queer content. There are people that want to observe movies about Black history who aren’t necessarily Black. That the audience isn’t what’s within the text itself are some things that I’ve tried really hard to elucidate in my work. … If I could tell any media industry anything, but especially the sports industry, it’s that you simply got to stop brooding about representation as a marketing gimmick. you’ve got to believe the underlying story you’re trying to inform and what sorts of stories you haven’t been telling.”
Retire the tropes
Few people consider video games when it involves award-winning LGBTQ+ stories. Far fewer consider Lizbert and Eggabell, the celebs of Young Horses’ single-player adventure game “Bugsnax.” Players feed the bugsnax — half-bug, half-snack creatures — to the villagers, or “Grumpuses,” whose body parts become snacks once they’re fed. Throughout this adventure, the sport also manages to inform two LGBTQ+ love stories, earning it a nomination from GLAAD.
“It’s very rare to ascertain LGBTQ inclusion that’s just happy and celebratory. tons of times, you see the ‘bury your gays’ trope, where, historically, media only had one gay character, and therefore the gay character usually dies,” said Durkee. “In reality, gay people just exist. We exist everywhere. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be during a game about feeding bugsnax to Grumpuses.”
Globally, 2.9 billion people are expected to play video games this year, generating $175.8 billion. But the story those numbers don’t tell is one about who those players really are. In an industry too often defined by the stereotype of the white, straight, 18- to a 35-year-old male gamer, it’s easy to lose sight of the market’s diversity. actually, 10% of gamers identify as LGBTQ+, 46% are women, and Hispanic game enthusiasts are presumably to call themselves “gamers.”
Recognize the community
Even well-intentioned attempts at representation can often slide into tokenism, making it crucially important to inform diverse stories with sensitivity from the beginning. Depicting LGBTQ+ characters pityingly, nuance, and complexity isn’t just how to succeed in new segments or get noticed by award committees. It’s also how to form it unequivocally clear that LGBTQ+ gamers belong.
I’d love to see a world where some of these big blockbuster games have a player base that looks like society.Blair Durkee, a special consultant on video games to GLAAD
Done right, this type of representation matters far beyond the rock bottom line. In response to surveys conducted by the Trevor Project, 58% of LGBTQ+ youth said that brands and corporations that voice support for the LGBTQ+ community positively impact their feelings about being LGBTQ+, and 50% of multisexual youth said an equivalent about brands. For the queerest generation in history, 87% of whom play video games and build tight-knit communities within them, the impact of inclusive gaming content can’t be underestimated.
But growing the addressable marketplace for a game requires new competencies and hiring the proper people, Durkee said. “It’s not something you’ll get overnight, but it’s something to figure towards. And eventually, I’d like to see a world where a number of these big blockbuster games have a player base that appears like society.”