I had the honor of attending the IGDA Romance and Sexuality SIG Roundtable last week at GDC 2016, hosted by Karin Weekes, Michelle Clough, and Heidi McDonald (with special guests Patrick Weekes and Squinky). It was a room full of gamers, developers, designers and writers all gathered to discuss Romance and Sexuality in games, and while the talk was greatly amusing at times and involved some discussion of Cullen Rutherford’s butt, we also got down to business-namely, identifying our main concerns about representation and relationships in video games.
And there were lots of concerns, which led to lots of answers. Most without clear answers-yet. But there were plenty of suggestions offered, and plenty more sure to come in the future.
Here are the top nine questions related to romance and sexuality in games that gamers, developers, writers, and designers want to address moving forward.
Disclaimer: We talked about a great many things, ranging from prevalent industry-wide problems to the body parts of various Dragon Age characters. Some things will, regrettably, be left out. That does not make them unimportant or less worth discussing.
How can we get more variety in the standard relationship formula?
We have all seen the formula in action: You supply an NPC copious amounts of useless trinkets, and all of a sudden they are head over heels in love with you. Sometimes, you wanted to be a nice person or just wanted the trash out of your inventory—but you end up hearing wedding bells. It’s an easy system to work with, and understandably your disposition will raise with someone the more that you give them things or talk to them. But as gamers, we want something more nuanced, and perhaps more reflective of what a real-life relationship is like. While the programming may need to evolve with it, there are possible solutions, such as bringing multi-player romance games into the mix.
How can we have more NPC agency?
Relationships in games also tend to be entirely one-sided, protagonist-centered affairs. We want to see some more variety in what kind of relationships games have. Introducing NPC boundaries, and NPCs who could reject the protagonist would include some more reality in the relationships. More NPC agency would also change the way that the protagonist can be seen, moving relationship dynamics in more potentially uncomfortable and interesting ways.
As a developer, how do you work with an entire team and manage many different viewpoints?
Not everyone working on a game has the same background, and as the teams get larger, reconciling all of the possible ideas grows more difficult. We want to know how we can be more inclusive and create more variety in relationships while still working as part of a greater team. And, more particularly, how can we broach sensitive subjects like sex and sexuality while still maintaining a comfortable team atmosphere?
How can a cisgendered, straight person be a proper ally?
This question was approached several different times in a few different ways, but the goal was clear: how can someone without the proper background help in representing those that need the representation? There are many ways to learn more about this, and having a diverse team leads to more diverse games. Part of it is also finding the groups that talk about these issues, getting involved, and learning what can be done.
How can we normalize sex and nudity?
We want to see a more accepting attitude toward both sex and nudity, as well as some more “equal opportunity nudity” across the genders. Sex falls in an odd purgatory of either being incredibly taboo or the inevitable result of a relationship. As much as I am a sucker for Mass Effect romances, after letting off steam with Garrus, he won’t stop calibrating for anything other than the final mission. Having continuity to relationships past the sex, or making sex a more standard part of the world could help normalize it.
How can we work toward better representation and create in-depth romance-able characters?
Better inclusion across the board could really help make more in-depth characters and lead to better quality romancing for all. We want to know how to make a character feel real, representative, and romance-able. By staying away from tropes and creating more gender, sexuality, and body type diversity, we could work toward unique, interesting characters to play as and romance.
How do we get more data on romance and sexuality in games?
We know that audiences are ready for diverse romance and sexuality in their games, but we want to get numbers to back-up our knowledge. One resource mentioned was Quantric Foundry, as well as Heidi McDonald’s archived GDC talks. More resources and video game scholars will only make data gathering easier and support our desire for inclusivity.
How do you balance between a romance game and a game with romance in it?
On the developer’s side, it can also be difficult to justify that much effort on romance for a game that may not classify as a “romance game.” That being said, where does the distinction lie? In other countries, the dating game genre is a full-fledged genre, where as the same cannot necessarily be said for the United States. With the genres so blurred, it can be difficult to apply these distinctions to games that we develop.
Some games like this already exist! How do we get them noticed more, where can we find them?
One of the most important things that we considered: a lot of the things we talked about had already been implemented, only by games we had never heard of. We need a library of games, both great and small, that includes all of the things that we thought we were only dreaming about. These games deserve more than a life of obscurity and it’s ultimately up to interested developers and gamers to make them known. We left the talk with the hopes that such a list will be compiled on the IGDA SIG site.
While it may take some time to remedy or address what we discussed, identifying the issues is always the first step. I hope that the talk continues past GDC and that more developers create with these concerns in mind.