How's this for virtual reality? Even as President Bush tries to squash gay marriage with the Constitution, same-sex unions are beginning to crop up in video games. Recently, Atari released The Temple of Elemental Evil, a computer game based with nerdish precision on the actual dice-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons rules. It has the requisite elf magic and fighting orcs—but it also has a gay wedding, as Matthew D. Barton described in his (rather stunned) online review of the game. Barton brought his scrappy band of adventurers into a town where they met a slave character named Bertram. He explained that if Barton could defeat Bertram's master in battle, Bertram would repay him by marrying one of the male members of his group. Barton duly won Bertram's freedom and watched as two male characters were cheerfully wed.
"A portrait is displayed with two men embraced, and the narrator levelly explains that you and Bertram were married and lived, as they say, happily ever after," he wrote. And Elemental Evil isn't the only place where gamers can find gay romance. Players of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic discovered that while playing a female Jedi, they get hit on by another female Jedi. Later this year, virtual gay wedlock will hit the mainstream when The Sims 2, the long-awaited sequel to the most popular PC title of all time, allows marriages between same-sex Sims.
Video games have long allowed players to experiment with new and often taboo identities. In online games such as Everquest, almost half of the women characters are actually men—guys who prefer to cross-dress when they play. In the '90s, Tomb Raider and its imitators were so popular that for several years, American teenage boys played almost exclusively as buxom, wasp-waisted women. But for young men, the bulk of these games' audience, experiencing life as an ass-kicking action chick is probably less threatening than adopting the role of a homosexual man. The new generation of gay-positive games presents an interesting test of how far role-playing can stretch. Will straight gamers want to play at being gay?
For years, the reverse has been true: Gay gamers have had no choice but to play as straight characters. Ian Wilson, one gay player I talked to online, says one of his favorite games is Metal Gear Solid, except for the parts where his character has to interact with women. "They're always trying to hit on you," he says. And it's true: In most games, the romance plots are pure boilerplate, endless tales of square-jawed guys hooking up with attractive dames. This is why family-values critics have targeted the violence in video games but never complained about the sexual politics. The gender roles in games are practically lifted from Father Knows Best.
If you squint, though, you can spot a few bits of queer culture lurking among the pixels. The super-buff characters in the Street Fighter arcade games seemed like something from a Gay Pride Day float—particularly Guile, a military fighter so deeply devoted to his soldier partner Charlie that, as one blogger noted, it was practically a "don't ask, don't tell" situation. (The same blogger cited the Darkstalkers character Victor, who fights by whipping around enemies using his butt cheeks, as another example: "In gay wrestling porn, that counts as foreplay.") Over at the "gaymers" site gamers experimentations, gay players sometimes post mash notes about their favorite "cute guy" characters, who include Ryu Hyabusa, a brooding hottie from Ninja Gaiden, or Balflear from Final Fantasy, who kind of looks like Orlando Bloom.
Guile, Ryu Hyabusa, and Balflear all hail from Japanese games, which is what's really significant here: The world of games is strongly influenced by Japanese pop culture, where gender is a lot blurrier. Male heroes are often "bishounen," that strikingly feminine anime look you see so often, with long hair and soft features. (Ten years ago, I spent months playing Samurai Showdown before finding out that Amakusa, a woman with flowing red hair and long nails, was, whoops, a guy.) This style reached its apotheosis with the Final Fantasy series. At one point in Final Fantasy VII, you actually have to cross-dress the character Cloud (and get him to flirt with a male enemy) to complete a mission. Even the Japanese butchcharacters read as gay, such as the bearded tough guy Barrett—"a bear love poster child," as another gay gamer joked to me.
Still, while gamers enjoy campy characters, not everyone is comfortable with openly gay ones. When news of the marriage in Temple of Elemental Evil spread online, several discussion boards exploded, with a few players complaining that the Elemental Evil game was "trying to force this gay crap down our throats." It will be interesting to see the reaction when The Sims 2 launches because while The Temple of Elemental Evil and Final Fantasy are certainly path-breaking, they're still niche games aimed at the geek-core audience. Middle America doesn't know they exist. The Sims, in contrast, is the biggest family-friendly game of all time. Soccer moms in Idaho play it, and so do their kids. What happens when little Johnny wants to have his boy Sim marry the neighbor's son?
Not much, I bet. Nobody inveighs against "liberal game-makers" the way they demonize "liberal Hollywood." While the majority of straight, young-guy gamers in the United States will probably never prefer to play as gay men, they know this is a fantasy world in which anything goes, including sexuality. They'll be shocked, surprised, then they'll move on to kill orcs elsewhere. In the world of games, that's tolerance.