Playing it Safe: Bisexual Representation in Games


Content warnings:
Discussion of sexuality, discrimination, mental health concerns including suicide.

Since the lesbian character Juhani appeared in 2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare has forged a reputation for including queer characters and player choice in the realm of AAA game development. More recently, the ability to engage in queer romances as a player character in their titles has further defined BioWare as a games industry leader in queer representation.

While BioWare deserves praise for including queer characters (romanceable and otherwise), there have been problematic depictions of sexual identities within their games.

Representation of bisexual characters in games is lacking, contributing to the widespread issues in bisexual and non-monosexual communities. Bisexual is the largest self-identified group in the LGBTQIA population, yet bisexuals experience high rates of feeling ignored, discriminated against, demonised, or rendered invisible by both the heterosexual world and the lesbian and gay communities. Being bisexual can feel like you’re a glitch in a game – unintended, invisible to some and annoying to others. A needless complication. Game developers and writers sometimes treat us like this too, intentionally or not.

According to research, bisexual men are 6.3 x more likely to seriously consider (or attempt) suicide than heterosexual men, higher than the 4.1 x increased rate of gay men. Similarly, bisexual women are 5.9 x more likely than heterosexual women to seriously consider or attempt suicide, again higher than the rate of lesbians (3.5 times).

This is at least partially attributable to the pervasive problem of bisexual erasure (a.k.a bisexual invisibility), and an overall lack of representation and diversity in sexuality is present in all modern forms of media.

Games are no exception, and the tendency toward bisexual erasure is demonstrated through the recent rise of ‘playersexual’ characters.

A core issue in recent bisexual representation in games is the conflation between purposefully-written bisexual characters, and characters who are functionally ‘playersexual’. Many companion characters in more recent BioWare games could be described as such.

Playersexual characters are attracted to any player character regardless of gender or race. This is an important difference from a self-identifying bisexual character, who may or may not be romanceable, and is not necessarily sexually and/or emotionally available to any player character.

When ‘playersexual’ companions or characters have their sexual identity discussed or disclosed only in relation to the player character’s desire to romance them, this becomes a problem.

Writing this way frames these characters as defined by the players’ interaction with their sexuality, and not through any other personality characteristics or identity the character may have.

If you remove the viewpoint and interaction of the player character, the NPC’s bisexuality does not exist. This is often similarly true of gay or lesbian characters, whose sexuality often is not visible unless directly related to the player’s actions.

In games, a character’s identity (including sexual orientation) is an element of the narrative, and the purposeful choices of the writer. While the difference may be subtle, writing functionally playersexual characters in games directly contributes to bisexual erasure.

Having playersexual characters is better than having no queer characters, but it is a more powerful, deliberate narrative design choice to have characters who have sexual identities that exist outside of the presence of a romantically or sexually interested player character.

Having a variety of sexual identities among companions and NPCs creates a more engaging, empathetic, challenging and emotionally intelligent experience. Just ask the enthusiastic Dragon Age: Inquisition players who wished their female Inquisitor could romance Cassandra – the ‘disappointment of her heterosexuality’ is one that many queer players could confirm as a more realistic experience, in a world where not everyone is attainable.

An example of a BioWare game companion who is explicitly bisexual (not playersexual) is Isabela from Dragon Age II.

Isabela’s remarks that refer to non-monosexuality in Dragon Age II:

  • (Going near the Qunari Compound) “Oh you don’t want me in there—female troubles.”
  • (Going near the Qunari Compound) “I need a stiff one… and a drink.”
  • (To Zevran, a male character) “You’re leaving? Just like that? What about sex?”
  • Bethany: I guess you’ve been with a lot of men.
    Isabela: Men. Women. Elves…
  • Isabela: “Sister Nightingale,” indeed. I remember it didn’t take much to make you sing.
    Leliana: *laughs awkwardly*
    Merrill: I like singing! Were you in a choir together?
    Isabela: Not exactly, Kitten.

(Note: Isabela is viewed by some as a problematic, trope-y depiction of bisexuality due to being sexually promiscuous, a reductive stereotypical characteristic mentioned earlier.)

When in-game characters exist as functionally heterosexual, the issue of bisexual erasure is compounded by the character revealing their sexual identity only if a same-gender player character flirts with them.

The passive existence of their bisexuality contributes to bisexual erasure, and contributes to the devaluing of people who identify as bisexual.

The BioWare character Anders in Dragon Age II is an example of a companion with partially erased bisexuality.

This quote from lead BioWare writer David Gaider explains:

“….A player’s choices merely reveal their [a companion’s] bisexuality if it exists, rather than defining it. Take Anders, who will reveal to a male Hawke his prior involvement with a man named Karl, but neglect to mention it to a female Hawke.

“No matter who the player is, Karl was always someone [Anders] was romantically involved with,” says Gaider. “The part of him the player is exposed to, however, is different. Anders doesn’t mention Karl to a female Hawke because Jennifer Hepler [Anders’ writer] didn’t think he would – and also because a player who prefers to think of Anders as straight is welcome to do so.”

Voilà – Understanding Anders as a bisexual character can be missed or avoided entirely by players, who are left free to ‘hetero-fy’ this bisexual character. Visibility is important for all minority groups, and it isn’t good enough for it to be incidental or easily missed/ignored (see Oryx in Destiny for another example).

The aim of this article is not to demonise the depictions of queerness in BioWare games, and they do improve on playersexual companion conditions in Dragon Age II. I love and appreciate the work that BioWare does, and arguably they are the AAA leaders in queer representation, but we can do better to address the absence of bisexual character depictions outside of playersexual characters.

Playersexual depictions are problematic, and the difference in perspective and context is an important hurdle that AAA development is yet to fully cross.

Bisexual characters are worthy of respect, acknowledgement and representation outside of player-instigated romance storylines, and we need to go beyond including problematic playersexual companions and NPCs as a way of offering diverse romances.

To those in game development: Make well-written bisexual and/or queer characters, and stand behind these narratives. Consciously choose material and character development that facilitates realistic, genuine disclosure of bisexuality. Practice ways in which the exposition of a companion or NPC are driven by events or conversations without the player character defining the experience.

To players: Engage with queer content in games. Support games with a healthy representation of diverse sexualities with real money, playtime and feedback. Share the material and characters that you love.

A note on language: The term ‘bisexual’ is imperfect at best. It implies a duality or binary of genders (untrue), and can contribute to the erasure of transgender or gender-variant people. The author identifies as ‘queer’, but sometimes selectively chooses to describe their sexuality as ‘bisexual’ to combat the erasure of non-monosexual identities. In the context of this article, ‘bisexual’ is the term used to refer to non-monosexual (hetero or homosexual) identities, with full awareness of its limitations.

1 Comment

Comments are closed.