Shifting societal attitudes are in the press more than ever, and – despite some voicing criticism to the contrary – gaming continues to prove itself the most progressive form of entertainment going.
Sure, Hollywood would love you to believe it’s being run by a liberal elite, and the breadth of choice on offer on the small screen means you can find programming to fit every set of attitudes somewhere. But gaming is the only medium which consistently challenges convention, and does so with as little fuss as possible.
That’s been demonstrated again recently by EA’s decision to remove all gender barriers from The Sims via a free update.
Want to have your male Sims wear a dress? Want your female Sims to have masculine voices? Now you can!
Heck, you don’t even have to assign them a gender if you don’t want to.
It’s just a recent example of gaming’s open attitude that spans the medium’s 40-year long existence.
Leading by example
There have been countless times in the past where games have come ahead of society’s equality curve.
The Fallout series may be set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but there are rays of light when it comes to LGBT attitudes. The second game of the franchise, released way back in 1998, featured a lesbian wedding scene, nearly 20 years before same-sex marriages were made legal across most of the US.
Sure, it’s not all roses – the scene comes bookended with an awkward context in which an angry dad discovers his daughter has become romantically entangled with the main character and forces her into it – but there’s no big deal made of the fact.
No big deal
And that’s perhaps what’s most notable across the gaming landscape: everything is just accepted.
Transgender characters aren’t all that common in mainstream video games, but when they do crop up, nobody makes a big song and dance about it.
BioWare (perhaps gaming’s leaders when it comes to challenging societal ‘norms’) recently included the transgendered Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and actively went out of their way to present the character without the kind of ugly cliches that may have been rife in previous decades.
The character’s transgender status was only referred to when it made absolute sense within the story to do so, and many players probably didn’t even realise.
But it’s not the only instance where the hallowed developers have exuded a modern approach to sexuality: the Mass Effect games allowed the player to romance characters of the same sex
And the very fact you are free to choose whether to play as male or female at the beginning of the game means players are free to express themselves however they see fit.
But it’s not just just a character’s gender or sexuality that’s more diverse in games. Race plays an important part too, and many games allow you to determine your character’s race from the off.
But even games which don’t let you choose the ethnicity of your character are still carrying the flag for racial diversity in entertainment. The Telltale series of episodic adventure games are worth playing for many reasons, but their focus on a more representative range of characters is admirable.
Their video game version of The Walking Dead for instance, features Lee Everett as main protagonist in the first season. He’s a black university professor embroiled in the emerging zombie apocalypse, and while the character has many flaws in his past and crucial vulnerability, he’s presented as a strong, leader type throughout – and a father figure to the young Clementine (herself a non-white character who becomes a protagonist).
This inclusive approach is perhaps exemplified best by juxtaposing the Walking Dead games with the TV show that shares the same universe. A quick internet search for The Walking Dead‘s ethnically diverse characters sprang up all sorts of inflammatory headlines such as “Why Does ‘The Walking Dead’ Keep Killing Off Black Characters?” and “I’ve had it with The Walking Dead over how it portrays Black men“.
It’s clear that the mediums are taking markedly different approaches to race and ethnicity, whether deliberately or not. It’s certainly rarer to find a non-white lead in a major movie or TV show. But why is gaming such a diverse, inclusive pasttime?
A changing audience
It could be down to the audience. Gaming attracts a typically younger audience, and – though we’re of course generalising here – a younger audience usually brings with it more liberal open-minded attitudes.
And as the medium continues to gain popularity, it propagates itself within sections of society who don’t fit in to the white male stereotype that people assume to be gaming’s main demographic.
It’s why we’ve seen a change of approach to women in games: once mindless objects of sexual desire, now strong, self-sufficient characters. With more and more women playing games, the games themselves have to reflect that, and as more and more players of every sexual orientation are recognised as an audience, the industry will respond in kind.
Easy to adapt?
Of all of the forms of entertainment out there, gaming is the only one that can be easily edited after the fact to keep updated.
Once a film is shot, it’s shot – unless you manage to worry the higher-ups at Disney and they order expensive re-shoots – and the same goes for television. Sure, George Lucas made extensive (and divisive) revisions to his beloved Star Wars trilogy, but that was some 20 years later.
EA’s move to remove the gender barriers from The Sims proves just how easily (and cheaply) these things can be done. We’re assuming it wasn’t a big change – perhaps a few lines of code altered – but even a more drastic overhaul could be achieved through the medium of a free patch.