There’s something that’s been bugging me for a while, and I’ve only recently managed to figure out what it is. The recent news that a sexual relationship in Star Wars: The Old Republic will be enough to earn your character Dark Side points has upset me. The ‘sex is evil’ meme is such a strange (and potentially damaging) one, and it’s sad to see it rear its prudish head in such an unexpected place. Even worse is the news that SWTOR will not allow same-sex relationships.
That’s a real line in the sand, as far as I’m concerned. You may think I’m over-dramatizing the issue – and I’ll admit that the title of this editorial is deliberately inflammatory – but I think it’s important. There’s a serious point at issue here, which is perhaps not immediately apparent.
Blizzard have already made this mistake, in a less obvious way, with World of Warcraft. The storyline for each new Goblin character dictates a relationship with another goblin of the opposite sex. If you create a male goblin character, you will automatically have a ‘girlfriend’ in the form of Candy Cane. If your character is female, she will have a boyfriend – Chip Endale. The silly names distract from the issue, but the fact is that (if one abides by the storyline Blizzard have set out, and from which no character has the capacity to deviate) every single goblin player character in the game is heterosexual, at least ostensibly so.
Is that such a big deal? Sex is rarely important in mainstream MMOs, sexuality even less so. The goblin storyline was overshadowed by another piece of controversy anyway – namely, that the goblin starting zone plot later forces you to murder your cheating boyfriend or girlfriend, literally ripping their beating heart out of their chest as vengeance for their treachery, which understandably made a few people slightly uncomfortable.
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Blizzard have always shied away from any explicit sexuality in their games. The realism of the game world, such as it is, is more often played for laughs than for serious intent. The few relationships that do pose a danger of provoking some genuine discourse (such as one of WoW’s very rare potential multi-racial relationships) are often erased from the game (in this case with a very heavy-handed center-stage plotline, which saw Thrall marrying a fellow Orc in an in-game marriage ceremony with the player as a witness). As for SWTOR, Jedi hardly have a great track-record as far as romance goes, with Anakin Skywalker’s doomed love ultimately driving him to asthmatic villainy, and his son coming within a hair’s breadth of sleeping with his own sister – there’s a case to be made to say that Jedi shouldn’t be allowed to have any relationships until they learn to do it properly.
These implicit statements of sexual normality are massively important, though, to me at least. They’re important because they mark a default. They lay down a set of parameters, saying “Here is a normal, standard situation. Any differentiation from this norm is deviant, different and (most importantly) not normal.”. That’s simply not good enough. It’s a very dangerous statement to leave unchallenged. Silence on a subject is all too often taken as assent, especially by bigots and idiots who hold the erroneous belief that the majority of people share their views.
It’s not as if I don’t understand the reasoning behind it – some of it, at least. Blizzard and Bioware are merely picking one path, to make things as simple as they possibly can. The sexuality of characters in the game, PC and NPC alike, is just not important. Indeed, focusing on it would detract from the core of the game (that being, in essence, ‘killing things and taking their stuff’). I understand that, and I’m sympathetic. The problem is that the wrong decision has been made. Instead of removing explicit sexuality from the game world, they have instead made sexuality a definite part of the game world – but only in a very specific flavor. Like it or not, that sends the message that only one type of sexuality is necessary in order to create a believable, fully-sustained world and background. As we all know, that’s not the case.
My main in WoW is gay, as are most of my other characters.. It’s not as if I’ve spent hours plotting out an intricate sexual history for each of my toons, but as a tabletop roleplayer and storyteller in real life, I can’t help but invest each of my characters with some basic personality and simple backstory. A lot of them – it turns out – are gay, including my main. It’s not something that makes a big difference to the way I interact with the world and the other players within it, but it’s something that makes a difference to my enjoyment of the game. More significantly, it’s a choice that I’ve made, and I’m glad that Blizzard have left any such decision – as none of them are Goblins – entirely up to me.
I’m not suggesting that Blizzard add a Sexuality drop-down menu to the character creation screen, and I certainly don’t propose making MMOs a flashpoint for sexual politics. I would have been happy to leave the question of sexuality to the individual interpretation of each player. Unfortunately, by adding an openly-stated ‘default’, Blizzard and Bioware are forcing players to either accept the decisions imposed by the game, or to actively stand in opposition to them. When a personal choice is singled out as so far outside the bounds of normality that the system simply doesn’t have the capacity to implement it, a dangerous and falacious statement is being made. Gay or straight, game or no game, that’s not something we can afford to tolerate.