Off Topic: My existence shouldn’t be a political statement
In a way, I disagree with the headline of this post — by default my existence is a political statement because everything is political. What I mean by that headline is that my existence shouldn’t be any more a political statement while yours, or another person’s, shouldn’t be less so. There isn’t some baseline state that’s normal, a default we can all accept as apolitical while other states of being are politicizing just by being mentioned or included in a story or movie or game.
I bring this up because for most of my life, I’ve had to accept narratives where nobody lives or acts like me, especially in gaming.
I’m an adult man who has been playing video games for decades now. In that time, I’ve played a lot of games, and there’s a wide variety of difference in the stories those games tell. Some of those games have a story that could be charitably summed up in one sentence. Get a frog across a road safely, for example. I’m not too concerned about that frog’s inner life. Similarly, run into a series of rooms and avoid being killed by robots doesn’t really force me to wonder how much that avatar and I have in common, because no matter what they are like, I find it easy to believe neither of us want to be killed by robots. It’s a shared trait, and one that requires little to be sustained.
Life when you are not the default
But other games have more complex storytelling, and some games even try to bring real world relationships into the mix. Going back to Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn I started to notice that it was very unlikely that the protagonist of said game, the self-generated blank slate I was projecting all of my feelings onto, was going to actually be like me. They weren’t going to approach relationships the way I do.
I really noticed this during Mass Effect, when my relationship options were constrained due to my choosing to play as the male version of Commander Shepard. I got to choose between Ashley — a somewhat bellicose and, let’s be honest, space-racist character whose views on human/alien relations I found unpleasant and off putting — and Liara, a blue but otherwise conventionally attractive alien woman from a species that only had the default ‘looks like a blue human woman except with some head stuff’ option to them. The third potential romance, a guy named Kaidan Alenko who was clearly messed up in all the ways that would normally be my cup of tea? He was only an option for people who played as the female version of Commander Shepard.
Now, this was not a major deal for me. Quite frankly, my Commander Shepard in Mass Effect didn’t end up dating anyone and I was perfectly happy with that choice.
But I noticed it.
Similarly when I played Dragon Age Origins, I was quite aware that I couldn’t romance Alistair on my Warden, although I did also notice that Zevran was available. I also noticed that he was depicted as being, well… let’s just say that he was a lot more liberal with his affections than I am, a depiction I noticed continuing in Dragon Age 2 with Isabela. It’s an old trope, and one I try not to get too upset by, especially when DA2 had made definite strides with several characters being open to my advances no matter which Hawke I was playing. There was variety. Inquisition and Mass Effect 3 definitely improved along those lines, while offering characters that were definitely restricted.
Yes, it matters and here is why
Why does this matter? That’s the question that always gets asked. Why can’t we just play video games and have characters be “normal?”
That’s the thing. Being what I am isn’t a weird, out-there, abnormal choice. Assuming everyone isn’t what I am — or what someone else is — makes a statement.
When Blizzard came out and said that Tracer was gay, it was absolutely a political act, but it’s only a political act because everyone’s default assumption is that all characters are straight. Soldier:76 being gay is only a political statement because you assume a big, square jawed gun shooter dude has to be straight, even though there have been enough gay soldiers over the years that the US Military has repeatedly had to change its standards on how to treat them.
I recently saw an article about Kratos from the God of War series, who is a terrifying death machine in his games. By the end of the original God of War series, he’s wiped out pretty much the entire Greek pantheon, and he spends most of the more recent game doing the same to the Norse pantheon. Recently, God of War director David Jaffe thought for whatever reason it would be funny to tweet that Kratos is bisexual, a tweet he later walked back and explicitly said was a joke. There was the usual back and forth anger on this issue. There were people who called the original tweet virtue signaling and shoehorning in Kratos as bisexual when the original games had him as a swaggering sexer-up of ladies — there’s some questionable scenes in those games, let’s just say — while the idea that it was a joke lead to the predictable response.
For myself, I don’t find it a particularly funny joke. Moreover, the idea that Kratos, the titular God of War and a character who is canonically born and raised in ancient Sparta was straight is almost as laughable as the supposed joke paints him being bisexual assumes.
I mean, seriously. The very idea that an ancient Spartan warrior would absolutely hew to the same sexual ideas and assumptions we make erroneously today seems really funny to me. Sparta — indeed the entire Peloponnesian region that Sparta was a part of — was legendarily founded by Pelops, son of Tantalus. Pelops gained his throne through the direct intercession of the god Poseidon, who was explicitly his lover. That’s how the entire royal line of Pelops was founded — Pelops said to Poseidon hey, remember all that sex we had? Help me get a wife and Poseidon was like okay, makes sense to me. That’s the story of a cultural hero who was considered to have founded the Olympic games and the concept of pan-Hellenic unity that led in some ways to the successful defense of Greece against the Persians in two wars.
But sure, the idea that Kratos might not have been straight is a hilarious joke.
What we think of as normal defines what is
This is why it matters. Because the very idea that a character in a game might be like me is considered a political act. You can’t just have a character be a lesbian or gay or trans, just have that be part of their character and move on — no, it is, it has to be a political decision.
But having that character be straight or cis is never considered political, because it’s normal, but being anything else is abnormal.
It’s not the default. There has to be a reason for it. I’m sorry to inform you, I don’t have a reason for what I am — I simply am. It’s not a joke. It’s not a plot point. It’s simply me, my existence. It’s not a decision I made to be political, and I wouldn’t even call it a decision at all — I just realized as I grew up that I could feel romantic or sexual towards people of both genders. I suffered for years trying to understand it because it was treated — if it was treated at all — like a joke or a weird, strange, bizarre way to be.
Going into writing this, I expected I might get some negative responses. I expect I’ll be told that making a character in a game be like me is pushing an agenda, and I suppose it is. It’s pushing the agenda that people like me exist. It’s making the political statement that people like me are here, that we’re alive, that we deserve to exist. I often hear that it’s forcing children to deal with concepts they’re not ready for. Well, we force kids to deal with the concept of heterosexual cisgender people all the time — they’re in all our TV shows, our movies, our novels and our video games. All of our storytelling has them, and I don’t recall once reading a novel with a straight guy that bothered to even think about why he was there, why he was straight, why he was male. Why is Marcus Fenix a cis man? We don’t ask that question. It’s an absurd question. It’s understood to be absurd. It should be understood to be absurd. Marcus just is, we don’t have to explain or justify him. And that should go for everyone.
We should all be seen as normal
Being what I am isn’t a political decision because it wasn’t a decision, and representing me shouldn’t have to be political. It only is because its assumed that only a few things people can be are normal and accepted and everything else is weird and if it’s presented at all, it should always be for a reason — and really, wouldn’t everything be better without that controversial stuff? Wouldn’t games be better if everyone was normal?
In a way, I agree. Games would be better if everyone was treated as normal, even the Soldier:76s and Tracers out there being gay. Them being who they are should, indeed, be normal.
The fact that it isn’t normal — the fact that Kratos being bi is a big joke instead of a non-story, the fact that players getting to choose who their Kassandra romances and being able to play her as ace or lesbian or bisexual as they want is still considered shocking in 2019 — is the problem. The fact that being like me is seen as political, but not being like me isn’t.
My name is Matthew Rossi. I play video games. I’m married to a beautiful, wonderful woman I love. I’m bisexual.
My existence shouldn’t have to be a political act. The fact that it still is seen as one isn’t my fault, and every time a game or a movie or a book or a show decides to just present someone as being like me, or being like someone else who isn’t like me but who isn’t the default, it chips away at the idea that only some of us are normal. Being a woman isn’t abnormal and it absolutely baffles me when half of the human race is treated like a weird outlier when we have the option to play a game as one of them. These things, all these permutations of being human, are normal and should be presented. We’re still not there, and we likely won’t ever get there in my lifetime. But that’s why it matters.
So that someday, people can just be and it won’t have to be a political statement.
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