Gaming’s shortsighted pay-to-be-gay strategy

Charging to allow users access to gay characters negates the whole concept of equality

September 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

In June the United States Supreme Court made history by legalizing marriage for same-sex couples nationwide. Just a few days earlier, Nintendo and video game developer Intelligent Systems announced that same-sex marriage would be an option in “Fire Emblem Fates,” the forthcoming installment of their popular role-playing game series.

The decision came fast on the heels of a campaign that took Nintendo to task for declining to include same-sex marriages in its forthcoming game “Tomodachi Life.” Nintendo’s statement explaining the about-face suggests that the company is sensitive to consumer demands for greater inclusiveness in gaming:

We believe that our gameplay experiences should reflect the diversity of the communities in which we operate and, at the same time, we will always design the game specifications of each title by considering a variety of factors, such as the game’s scenario and the nature of the game play.

It’s certainly an occasion to celebrate when a major player in gaming culture, such as Nintendo, takes steps toward diversifying games. However, it is also important to look at how these changes are being implemented. A closer review of the way the same-sex marriage option works in “Fire Emblem Fates” reveals that although our world is becoming increasingly tolerant of sexual differences, there are still some common assumptions made about queer families that need examining.

The most obvious difference between straight couples and gay and lesbian couples in the game is that only straight couples can have children. Having children is the mechanism by which you expand your army, so it is a vital aspect of strategic game play and not just a bit of character-building backstory. Instead of generating children, same-sex couples “unlock special combat ratings,” augmenting your army’s usefulness but not its numbers.

The obvious explanation for this omission is biological. However, there is no reason that the game has to limit the concept of having children to creating biological offspring. The plot could allow couples to adopt; after all, it’s not as though the conception and birth of the children of straight couples is depicted. If the biology of how children are made is not central to the plot, then why design the game so that same-sex couples cannot start families?

Sure, users can finally see themselves represented in a beloved game, but they have to pay a little bit extra for the privilege.

Another, subtler issue reflects a worrying trend in video game developers’ treatment of requests for diverse casts. “Fire Emblem Fates” can be purchased in two editions: “Conquest” and “Birthright.” Unlike previous Nintendo games, such as the original Pokémon, in which two available versions of the game — “Red” and “Blue” — are identical in terms of plot, Chris Pereira writes at Gamespot, “‘Fates’ consists of two distinct, complete stories,” and “the way you play and the manner in which your story unfolds will be different.”

Each version makes only one of the two possible same-sex marriage paths available to players. As IGN reports,

In the “Conquest” edition of the game, there is a male character that the game’s player may have his/her male main character marry after they bond in battle. Similarly, the “Birthright” edition features a female character that a female main character may marry after bonding in battle.

This means that players will be forced to choose between a set of roles that they are interested in playing. For example, they are out of luck if they would like to create a gay male couple in “Birthright.” Such a pairing is possible only by buying a special edition of the game that has both paths unlocked or paying extra to download the extra downloadable content (DLC) scenario, “Invisible Kingdom.” This practice of limiting players to part of a complete game and making them pay to unlock content is called on-disc DLC, and it is widely reviled by gamers who think that it is a greedy way for the industry to nickel-and-dime their customers.

In other words, the push toward inclusivity in “Fire Emblem Fates” can be read as yet another gimmick designed to extract extra profit from users — a way to artificially divide a complete game experience into discrete parts that can be sold piecemeal. This most recent iteration of the practice is especially foul because it functions as a kind of tax on gamers who have largely been marginalized in the gaming community. Sure, they can finally see someone such as themselves represented in a beloved game, but they have to pay a little bit extra for the privilege.

BioWare pulled a similar stunt with its massively multiplayer online role-playing game “Star Wars: The Old Republic.” After players clamored for same-sex romances in the game, they finally got their wish — for a price. Gay characters were added to the game, but they are accessible only in an expansion that players must pay extra to unlock. Critics dubbed the practice pay to gay. Such marketing strategies reaffirm the notion that straightness is normal or the default.

It’s great that games are starting to include more diverse types of characters. But fans should keep examining the processes through which people are included in gaming and online culture and the extra hurdles that some groups still have to jump in order to participate.

Megan Condis got her Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the fall she will be joining the faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She writes about masculinity and sexuality in gaming culture. A video game version of her dissertation is available to play for free at her website.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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