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Coming out of the
virtual closet

Coming out of the
virtual closet


TV stars and preachers aren't the only ones who caused a sensation by coming out in 2006. Enter the increasingly gay world of video games.

It's late on a school night at Bullworth Academy, a boarding school in New England. Young students Jimmy and Trent meet in a dark parking lot. "I've been waiting for this for a long time," Jimmy says, looking into Trent's eyes before telling him he's hot.

The two boys embrace, then kiss. There's a lot of moaning and a little bit of leg action. The scene is cheesy, the kind you might expect from a low-budget indie film about young gay love.

But this is not a film. It's a video game titled Bully--and it has caused a much bigger sensation than many gay-themed movies. As films and television shows increasingly portray gay characters in a positive light, video games--with a sizable and tightly networked gay following--are finally starting to catch up.

Rockstar Games, the notoriously press-shy video game company that makes Bully, hasn't trumpeted the boy-on-boy tongue-twisting. It's simply there--the player's prerogative--and it's making a lot of gay gamers happy. "Hottest. Thing. Ever," read one verdict on

"It's surprising, in a good sort of way, making that option available and not making a big whoop about it," says Jeb Havens, 25, a lead designer for 1st Playable Productions and one of the few openly gay designers in the gaming industry. "Now, if only more games did that."

Indeed, Bully is a promising development in the video game industry: a big title from a big company starring a lead character who, depending on who plays the game, can be gay. It stars a 15-year-old toughie named Jimmy who, like any teen, must carefully navigate Bullworth Academy's social ladder--the jocks, the preppies, the nerds--to survive the year. He can give wedgies. He can befriend a nerd nicknamed Pee Stein. He can fight with a bully, hence the title. And if he so wishes, he can make out with certain boys just as he can make out with girls.

Far-right Christian leaders and "pro-family" groups were quick to condemn Bully. Conservative media watchdog Jack Thompson decried the game's "homosexual content" as "harmful to minors." Michael Patcher, a well-known video game analyst, added that parents might have a problem with their kids playing a game in which two boys can lock lips. And on the popular game site a player commented: "What is wrong with Rockstar? This is morally reprehensible."

While Jimmy may be the first gay game character to draw fire from antigay Christian forces, he joins a small but growing list of explicitly or ambiguously gay characters in video games. Bertram is an openly gay pirate in the port village of Nulb in the Temple of Elemental Evil, a role-playing game. Brad Evans is a tall, dark, and openly gay 30-something in Wild Arms 2, another role-playing game.

The jury's still out on whether Cybil Bennet of the horror game Silent Hill is a lesbian, but the motorcycle cop with leather pants and a don't-mess-with-me gaze has many gay game enthusiasts describing her as something right out of a Dykes on Bikes parade.

America may still be divided on the fight for marriage equality, but the battle was won two years ago in the most popular computer game of all time, The Sims. In the game's sequel, The Sims 2, same-sex Sims couples are allowed to wed without protest from straight Sims. Rod Humble, executive producer of The Sims 2, says the "general philosophy" of the game is "to prohibit as little as we have to." In the virtual world of the game Fable, men can court other men with flowers, chocolate, or even a house, and they can get married as well--but there's no physical contact between them.

While video gamers are not at all a monolithic crowd, gaming is widely perceived as the domain of young heterosexual men. And though it can be argued that games are the supreme form of escapism--on TV, you watch Will Truman; in a game, you are Will Truman--story lines in games have been largely heterocentric.

It may be an issue of who's making the games. According to a report by the International Game Developers Association, a San Francisco-based professional society, fewer than 6% of more than 6,000 recently surveyed game professionals identified as LGBT, and few of them are vocal about it.

Havens is one of those few. He has been speaking out about the importance of diversity in games, advocating the inclusion of gay characters and other progressive measures. Last March he organized the first LGBT round table at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., which brought together a variety of straight and gay people in the video game world, including designers and programmers alongside student enthusiasts.

But despite Havens's efforts the heterocentric nature of video games may simply be a reflection of what is accepted by the majority of those who play and moderate the games. A controversy erupted earlier this year in the online swashbuckling fantasyland of World of Warcraft. Sara Andrews, writing on the game's message board, was trying to recruit members to her gay-friendly club. She was told she couldn't. Recruiting LGBT players was inappropriate, an online moderator for the game told her.

Weeks later, as gamers on sites such as and protested, the makers of World of Warcraft apologized to Andrews and conducted "sensitivity training" workshops for its online moderators. In a phone interview Rob Pardo, the lead designer of the game, deemed the situation a "wake-up call."

There's still a long way to go, say both gay and straight game enthusiasts, in making games more gay-friendly. Says Constance Steinkuehler, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor whose research focuses on online role-playing games: "Fact is, game designers and game companies are largely not comfortable with the topic."

Flynn de Marco, a graphic designer who founded the site, adds, "Gay characters in games are in the same place as gay characters in movies of the 1930s, '40s, '50s, even in the '70s. For the most part, gays are seen as a joke in games. 'Oh, look, I'm in a dress, I'm acting all fruity, ha ha ha!' Sadly, that's where we're at."

Which makes Jimmy, the lead character in Bully--which was released in October as one of the most anticipated games of the year--all the more intriguing. "That was really a risk for Rockstar," says Havens, "and I'm glad they did it."

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Jose Antonio Vargas