The LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD came to the rescue of video-game maker Ubisoft last month in the midst of a social firestorm surrounding a piece of add-on content the developer released for mega-hit “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.”
The game, which dropped in October, gave players a choice of not just which gender to role-play, but whether to pursue same-sex romance. It quickly garnered an LGBTQ following because of its authentic representations.
But in January, Ubisoft released a new episode for the game that placed the player’s character — man or woman — into a heterosexual relationship only. The backlash was immediate.
Ultimately, GLAAD reached out to Ubisoft, and the developer not only apologized but is working more closely with the group to make sure it doesn’t make a similar misstep down the line.
Historically, most of GLAAD’s efforts in media — be they in film, TV, music, comics or video games — have been in response to an action, but the group is working to become less of a watchdog and more of a partner.
“We want to be more proactive and less reactive,” said Blair Durkee, GLAAD’s special projects consultant for gaming.
GLAAD’s increased focus on video gaming started about a year ago, said Jeremy Blacklow, director of entertainment media at the organization.
“It’s been a growing drumbeat internally of the importance of getting much more involved in the gaming sector,” Blacklow told Variety during the recent DICE Summit gathering of video-game industry pros with media and consumers. “One of my priorities, when I started, was increasing our footprint in the gaming world. But we want to be very strategic about our growth and approach, and not come into the room like an 800-pound gorilla.”
The process started last year with what Blacklow called fact-finding missions, meeting with video-game professionals at the DICE Summit and the Game Developers Conference. Then during the summer, GLAAD held its first meeting of advisory council members for the game industry.
Durkee noted that GLAAD’s mission is to achieve 100% “lived acceptance,” not just legal acceptance, for the LGBTQ community, and said that the gaming world is playing an increasingly important role in doing that.
“The biggest way we think that hearts and minds can be changed is through media,” she said. “We’ve got to reach the gaming community because that’s not only a bigger and bigger piece of the pie, that’s the next generation.”
Durkee said the effort is two-pronged. While GLAAD wants developers to make sure their games accurately represent LGBTQ characters and issues, the organization is also eager for companies to understand that their products should be welcoming to LGBTQ gamers.
“There’s this feedback loop of companies marketing their games,” Durkee said. “They’re also doing community management or talking to fans. Are they engaging LGBTQ fans at all? Are they moderating their forums? Are they removing homophobia and transphobia from the forums that they control?”
This year marks the first time in its 30-year history that the GLAAD Media Awards will hand out a video-game honor, for contributing to LGBTQ representation in the medium.
When asked if she thinks LGBTQ representation in video games is improving, Durkee said she has mixed feelings. She noted that it’s been six years since the release of “Gone Home,” the pivotal game that was one of the first successful titles to feature an LGBTQ storyline, and added, “I haven’t seen another game that’s quite measured up to that.” But she sees a promising trend for upcoming releases.
“A big game on our radar is ‘The Last of Us, Part II,” Durkee said, “but we don’t know if it’s coming out this year.”
Naughty Dog’s follow-up to the award-winning PlayStation 4 exclusive, made a big splash last year with its E3 trailer, which showed the game’s protagonist, Ellie, kissing another woman.
“That got covered by mainstream media far and wide beyond gaming,” Blacklow said. “People are excited for this game and it’s exciting to see that it has an out lesbian character.”
Durkee added that GLAAD views the game as the first major release that features an out, gay protagonist as the player’s avatar. “That’s hugely pivotal,” she said. “That’s a moment for the gaming industry that I think will change the industry forever, because it wasn’t too long ago that game publishers wouldn’t even take a risk on a female-led game much less a gay female-led game.”
And it’s not just big, narratively driven games pushing for more diversity in their cast of characters. Earlier this month, Respawn shooter “Apex Legends” launched with eight characters, two of which are gay.
Durkee said that in some ways, having an LGBTQ character in a game that compares with “Fortnite” — one that leans heavily on replayability and is light on story — is almost more important than representation in a role-playing game.
“It might seem like a small thing, but for an LGBTQ kid or teenager who’s just struggling with coming out, that could change their life,” Durkee said. “That’s really the heart of our mission.”
Ultimately, the gaming industry itself is starting to realize that being inclusive can improve sales.
“The commitment to representation is growing much stronger,” Durkee notes. “People are coming out and saying, ‘You know, I’m queer and I’m a gamer.’ And that’s empowering.”
This story appears in the March 5 issue of “Variety.”