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Questions are raised about how video games represent the LGBTQ community

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just like movies, many video games have intricate storylines and characters, and as in Hollywood, there are conversations about how video games represent the LGBTQ community. Less than 2% of all games feature LGBTQ characters or storylines, even though a study by Nielsen and the advocacy group GLAAD found that 1 in 5 American gamers identify that way. NPR's Kaity Kline looked into the disparity.

KAITY KLINE, BYLINE: Veronica Ripley plays video games for a living, streaming for a live audience on Twitch. She created an online community for trans gamers called Transmission Gaming. She wanted trans people to have a safe place to play Overwatch, a multiplayer shooting game.

VERONICA RIPLEY: It's difficult when you're trans to hop on voice chat with random people because you open yourself up to criticism or potential harassment.

KLINE: But according to GLAAD, the anti-LGBTQ gamers are in the minority. Ripley said video games were critical in her understanding of gender. One game that made a big impact was The Sims.

RIPLEY: You can make an avatar and explore what it's like to try on a different gender for a little while. Games that allow people to do that are some of the best games for queer folks, in my opinion.

KLINE: Ripley has a similar story to a growing number of gamers who identify as LGBTQ, which is 17% of people who game an hour or more a week and 19% of gamers who play 10 or more hours a week, according to that GLAAD study. Adrienne Shaw is one of the study's head researchers.

ADRIENNE SHAW: For decades now, popular understandings of the gaming audience have made people really think it's a core small group of adolescent, cisgender, white, heterosexual males playing video games. And that hasn't been true for a long time.

KLINE: And GLAAD says there's an idea among game developers and the public that audiences are more resistant to LGBTQ characters than they actually are. Here's Tristan Marra, GLAAD's head of research.

TRISTAN MARRA: The large majority of non-LGBTQ gamers are not dissuaded by LGBTQ representation. It makes no difference in their likelihood to buy or play.

KLINE: Recently, there have been a handful of major games with prominent LGBTQ characters, like Ellie from The Last of Us, who's lesbian...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANNON WOODWARD: (As Dina) I shouldn't have kissed you in front of all of those people.

ASHLEY JOHNSON: (As Ellie) No, you were drunk. It's fine.

WOODWARD: (As Dina) Well, still, I just - I don't want you to think...

JOHNSON: (As Ellie) No, I'm not reading into it or anything.

KLINE: ...Or the 2015 game Life Is Strange, developed by Dontnod Entertainment, where the main female characters, Max and Chloe, could end up together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHLY BURCH: (As Chloe) You can afford to take chances whenever and whatever you want to try. For example, I dare you to kiss me.

HANNAH TELLE: (As Max) What?

KLINE: Michel Koch is the co-creator of Life is Strange. He said Dontnod started as an independent game studio, so they had creative control.

MICHEL KOCH: And at that point we needed funding, so we went to meet publishers. We got some feedback from some publishers that, oh, no, this won't sell. We cannot publish this game even if it looks cool.

KLINE: But they did find a major game studio that would take that chance. Square Enix published Life Is Strange with no changes. They say it went on to have over 20 million players. But many companies are still reluctant, and Koch says in the end, video games are a business.

KOCH: Everybody is making calculation and wants to know the numbers, want to know if there is too much risk by adding more LGBTQ themes or not.

KLINE: The risk is significant in overseas markets, where that content could get a game banned.

KOCH: If we were to release the game in Russia, for example, we wouldn't have been able to include this romance, this arc.

KLINE: GLAAD hopes their new data will encourage companies, and maybe even the world, to embrace LGBTQ representation in games.

Kaity Kline, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS' "MOUNTAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kaity Kline
Kaity Kline is an Assistant Producer at Morning Edition and Up First. She started at NPR in 2019 as a Here & Now intern and has worked at nearly every NPR news magazine show since.