Back in May 2014, hundreds of news outlets reported on Nintendo’s decision not to allow gamers to play as gay characters and form same-sex relationships in the life-simulation game Tomodachi Life. Understandably, there was disquiet and outrage from a number of quarters despite Nintendo’s statement that “Tomodachi Life was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game [and] not trying to provide social commentary”. Their statement at the time appeared to fan the flames rather than silence the critics.
I have been researching video game play for almost three decades and I’ve always found issues surrounding character formation, sexuality, and gender in gaming of great psychological interest. In one of our studies we found that a majority of gamers (57%) had gender-swapped their game character with female gamers (68%) being more likely to gender swap than male gamers (54%). We argued that gender swapping enabled gamers to play around and experiment with various aspects of their in-game character that are not so easy to do in real life. For others it was just fun to see if they felt any different playing a different gendered character. What makes our findings interesting is that in most instances, the gamers had the opportunity to choose the gender of their character and to develop other aspects of their character before they began to play. Choosing to gender swap may have had an effect on the gamers’ styles of play and interaction with other gamers. Whatever the reasons, it was clear from our research that the development of gamers’ online characters and avatars was important to them.
One of the reasons for the importance of online gaming identities may be because it subverts traditional parasocial interaction (PI). PI is a concept used by psychologists that has traditionally described one-sided, parasocial interpersonal relationships in situations where one individual knows a great deal about someone else, but where the other person knows little about the other (the most common being the relationship between celebrities and their fans).
A study led by Nicholas Bowman (and published in a 2012 issue of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking [CPBSN]) argued that the playing of video games challenges this concept “as the distance between game players and characters is greatly reduced, if not completely removed, in virtual environments.” The study claimed that online gaming encourages the “psychological merging of a player’s and a character’s mind” and is critical in the development of character attachment. In this context, the sexuality of a character for a player may be of fundamental psychological importance.
This appears to be confirmed in a paper by Melissa Lewis and colleagues (also published in CPBSN) who developed a scale to assess ‘character attachment’ (“the connection felt by a video game player toward a video game character”). They found that character attachment had a significant relationship with self-esteem, addiction, game enjoyment, and time spent playing games.
American researcher Dr. Adrienne Shaw has carried out a number of studies into lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) representation in video games from a cultural production perspective. She was one of the first academics in the gaming studies field to note that there was a relative lack of LGBT representation in video games. Other areas of the entertainment media (e.g., music, film, and television) appear to have much greater LGBT representation than in video games so it does beg the question of why the gaming industry appears to be behind in this respect. I recall writing a paper back in 1993 (in The Psychologist) where I argued that most video games at the time were designed by males for other males. This arguably alienated female gamers but eventually led to developers introducing strong female characters into video games (the most notable being Lara Croft in Tomb Raider). Maybe the appearance of LGBT characters and role models within games will increase over time but I’m not holding my breath.
In a more recent paper in a 2012 paper in the journal New Media and Society, Dr. Shaw claimed that the demand for minority representation in video games “often focuses on proving that members of marginalized groups are gamers” and that the gaming industry should focus on appealing to such players via targeted content. However, she argues that an individual’s identity as a gamer will intersect with “other identities like gender, race, and sexuality.” She then goes on to say that the negative connotations about being an online gamer may lead to such marginalized groups not wanting to engage in gaming. She concluded that “those invested in diversity in video games must focus their attention on the construction of the medium, and not the construction of the audience…[This] is necessary to develop arguments for representation in games that do not rely on marking groups as specific kinds of gaming markets via identifiers like gender, race, and sexuality.”
Nintendo’s decision not to allow gay relationships to form within Tomodachi Life was ill-judged, ill-informed, and outdated. Games in which identity content can be generated by its users needs to reflect the world in which the gamers’ live. In short, there should be no compromise when it comes to allowing gamers to choose their sexuality within the game.
(N.B. A version of this article first appeared in The Conversation)
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Bowman, N. D., Schultheiss, D., & Schumann, C. (2012). “I’m attached, and I’m a good guy/gal!”: how character attachment influences pro-and anti-social motivations to play massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(3), 169-174
Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Are computer games bad for children? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 6, 401-407.
Griffiths, M.D., Arcelus, J. & Bouman, W.P. (2016). Video gaming and gender dysphoria: Some case study evidence. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 34(2), 59-66.
Hussain, Z., & Griffiths, M. D. (2008). Gender swapping and socializing in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11(1), 47-53.
Lewis, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Confronting gender representation: A qualitative study of the experiences and motivations of female casual-gamers. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 28, 245-272.
Lewis, M. L., Weber, R., & Bowman, N. D. (2008). “They may be pixels, but they’re MY pixels:” Developing a metric of character attachment in role-playing video games. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11(4), 515-518.
McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Female gamers: A thematic analysis of their gaming experience. International Journal of Games-Based Learning, 3(3), 54-71.
Shaw, A. (2009). Putting the gay in games cultural production and GLBT content in video games. Games and Culture, 4(3), 228-253.
Shaw, A. (2012). Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, race, sexuality, and gamer identity. New Media and Society, 14(1), 28-44.
Shaw, A. (2015). Gaming at the edge: Sexuality and gender at the margins of gamer culture. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.