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What games can learn from fan fiction websites about representing sexuality

Students and industry folks join forces in the name of romantic diversity

"Are tentacles in games going to make people uncomfortable?"

A group of game design students, industry veterans and everyone in between had been sitting on the floor in the North Hall of the Moscone Center for nearly half an hour when Michelle Clough, a narrative designer and localization editor whose resume includes Death Note and Mass Effect 3, asked this question. They'd been talking about different sexual kinks, practices and relationships in gaming with total candor, addressing subjects like, well, tentacle porn — among myriad other sexual preferences and portrayals.

The impromptu roundtable assembled after being shut out of a packed Game Developers Conference 2016 panel hosted by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) on how to portray romance and sexuality in gaming. Clough served as co-moderator alongside writers Patrick Weekes and Sylvia Feketekuty of BioWare (both writers on the Dragon Age franchise), posing questions and fielding responses on subjects.

The moderators' goal was to carve out ground rules for a possible special interest group that IGDA would sponsor to keep having these conversations. There's a lot to talk about on the topic, they said — which the group proved to be true right away.

"Fuck men, more femmes"

Before discussing more fringe romantic relationships like the controversial tentacle-monster-meets-schoolgirl trope, students and designers had impassioned things to say about other brands of sexuality. These included Weekes, who discussed the impact that the pansexual Dragon Age: Inquisition character Iron Bull had on players and the writer himself.

"It raised some eyebrows in the studio," he said of including the beefy minotaur with a predilection for BDSM.

"There were a lot of developers outside of the studio who were not familiar with that lifestyle," Weekes explained, adding that some members of BioWare thought that the character's taste for "consensual power exchange" might make people uncomfortable. But if anyone was uncomfortable, it was people at the studio, not the audience, Weekes said.

Based on the various requests made and debates had by participants of the provocative and fascinating discussion, this certainly seemed true. To the opening question of what gamers wanted to see more of in terms of how romance and sexuality are represented, a student shot her hand up in the air:

"I want to see femme-on-femme relationships," she answered. "Basically, 'fuck men, more femmes' — or don't fuck men, more specifically."

Others said they'd like to see more relationships like that of Iron Bull's or the bisexual Josephine, also from Inquisition, whose storyline Feketekuty designed. They also talked about diversity not just in sexual representations in games, but in the body types of these marginalized characters. Many expressed their desires to see queer characters of all shapes and sizes.

"some people are offended by women. Some people are offended by penises"

These discussions and suggestions were thoughtful and thought-provoking, but the moderators didn't want to limit the conversation to the small group seated on the floor. The goal was to launch a special interest group dedicated to this subject. There, members could have these conversations in safe spaces with even more fans who have ideas of how games can continue to get more diverse in all manners, but especially in how they depict relationships.

The conversation had been powerful and refreshing up to the point that Clough asked how some might feel about a game including tentacle porn as a romantic option. But even the moderator recognized that there are some lifestyles that many just can't get comfortable with — including herself.

To answer the question, though, the same student who called for more lesbians in games vouched for those who are interested in kinks on the fringe.

"Yes, some people are offended by schoolgirls and tentacles," she said. "But some people are offended by women. Some people are offended by penises."

Counterarguments like this were what made the discussion one of GDC's hidden highlights. But although everyone there was comfortable talking about what some might consider taboo topics, the group conceded that the spectrum of kinks and sexual preferences doesn't necessarily appeal to everyone. So how can games give people a heads-up about the relationships included within as they get more diverse — in order to reach out to fans of these kinks and warn those who are decidedly not interested?

how tagging content could help fans find the stories they're looking for

Someone proposed a tagging system that could take cues from fan fiction sites like Archive of Our Own. These websites feature writing on a plethora of romantic relationships and characters, including stories based on characters from games.

These sites use tagging systems that detail the content readers will discover within. If a story features explicit content depicting two underage female leads in a sexual relationship, that will be noted appropriately. Games could include a similar system to benefit players, the group suggested.

Tagging content made sense to these fans of a wide array of sexual material — and, they said, they were likely not alone in thinking this. While the members of BioWare, whose games often let players have queer relationships as a standard option, didn't have hard numbers on how many straight fans played as gay characters and vice versa, they said they'd heard from many people on how this content appeals to a broad set of players.

"Gay relationships don't just appeal to gay people," Clough said. Talking openly about these relationships with wider groups of people — in safe, dedicated spaces — could only help make that more apparent.

While the floor of a busy convention center might not be what the group had in mind, it was certainly a great start.

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