The Developers Of Bugsnax And The Sims Explain Why LGBT Representation Is So Important For Gaming

When I came out as bisexual, it was a tough experience. I trialled it only a year prior in confidence to somebody on an individual level but was immediately met with opposition, laughter, and mockery. Okay, so it’s ‘wrong’ to be bi, I thought, and I tucked the idea away into the closet for another 12 months. When I mustered up the courage and finally accepted who I was, the reception was mostly disbelief – “You, bi?” – or else people assumed it was a joke. I use sarcasm as a crux to cover up my anxiety a lot, but this still hurt. It wasn’t something people were used to, it wasn’t a part of life, and I felt alone in an orchestra full of heterosexuals. My escape was gaming, and even there I had no feeling of acceptance.

I wasn’t represented whatsoever in gaming, and forget TV or film – bisexuals there were either sexual deviants who fucked everything that moved, villains, or a confused gay person figuring out who they really were. It stung, and it pains me to know that so many other LGBT people go through the same thing – hell, I probably got off easy. But still, not being accepted left a mark, and it’s a problem I still deal with. Gaming is fast growing, a part of most people’s everyday life, and for many, an escape, so it’s important – no, vital – that developers take this on and let people know that they are normal, accepted, not alone, and just as much a human being as anybody else.

Think of a game where you play as a gay man. Not playersexual, where you choose their sexuality, but actually written as gay. I’ll get your either came up blank or landed on Soldier 76, in which case – jinx. Having so few is a touch upsetting, and let’s not forget how many games make LGBT issues the butt of a joke, an insult, or perpetuate ideas of toxic masculinity and other harmful gender stereotypes – for a medium that touts inclusion, it feels a little empty, but it’s getting better in ways, especially the indie scene. That’s why we spoke to the devs of Bugsnax and The Sims to discuss LGBT representation in games.

Bugsnax launched alongside the PS5, and it was free, so I decided to give it a whirl, mainly to try out all the bells and whistles of the next-gen. Sure, those adaptive triggers are sweet, but what caught my attention was how inclusive it felt, with several LGBT characters and couples in the game. This inclusion felt so natural, so seamless – it was normal, a part of life, being LGBT wasn’t their defining characteristics, but it was an integral part of who they were which I could relate to.

After beating the game, I s2poke to Bugsnax’s creative director Kevin Zuhn about this representation, “It was very important [to represent LGBT people in Bugsnax]. We wanted to make sure that our queer characters were interesting, relatable, and significant to the story. It was also important that their queerness be visible but not their defining trait. Mostly this just meant writing good characters and dynamics but with an eye out to avoid stereotyping.”

Things weren’t all smooth sailing, however. “There are some pitfalls I fell directly into [with Bugsnax],” Zuhn admits. “In earlier drafts of the script, Eggabell had died before the events of the game. That is textbook Bury Your Gays and we rewound rewriting the last third of the story to find a different way forward.” More awareness for these issues means the quality of representation will improve along with the quantity. It’s not just about increasing the raw numbers, it’s about making sure players can see themselves on screen.

“Indie games are overflowing with queer characters and creators,” Zuhn says, “Though we’re all fighting against obscurity in a niche industry. Ideally, the result of increasing inclusion is that queer games become less niche and more visible! [But], if we’re talking about the triple-A industry, I think it’s improved in recent years but has a ways to go yet. It’s great seeing queer characters as part of the biggest games of the year. But I think we’re still in a mode of treating that as exceptional when it should just be standard. There’s also still a lack of queer representation when it comes to who’s making the games.”

Zuhn is one of these queer creators, as they are non-binary, as are several of the the other folks who worked on Bugsnax that’s why “it feels normal to me to include queer characters,” suggesting that more representation behind the scenes is the key to seeing it on screen too.

While the triple-A scene has been hit and miss with its representation, those who are pushing for more LGBT inclusion shouldn’t be ignored. I also talked to The Sims 4’s team to get their insight on representation in gaming, the reason for it, how they do it, and why they do it.

“With The Sims, our goal is always to empower players to make themselves or people that they know,” executive producer Phillip Ring says, “We’re always striving for representation for the LGBTQ+ communities to be meaningful in The Sims because it is an important part of someone’s identity in the world.”

Cinematics lead and global comms lead Chloe Carter also spoke about the importance of this representation in The Sims, “Anytime I tell someone I work on The Sims, chances are their first response is a request to make their specific hairstyle in the game, or something to that affect,” Carter says. “People want to be able to see themselves in the game, and that’s a freedom we talk about a lot in The Sims. There are also no shortage of LGBTQ+ folks who have used The Sims to live out a life they couldn’t yet achieve publicly. Perhaps it isn’t safe to be out, where they are, perhaps they’re uncertain and need a playground to figure things out. I think it’s beautiful that our game can provide this.”

Like with Bugsnax, The Sims 4 is diverse behind the camera as well as in front “Being trans is a big motivator,” Carter says. “One thing that often bugs me about (what little) trans representation we have is that it skews to cisgender-normative body types. That’s what folks find palatable. But there are things about my body that will never fit that mold, even if I wanted to change it. There are no surgeries for my ribcage circumference, hand size, foot size, shoulder width, etc. I wanna make space for the broad shouldered girls. I want to make space for the women with pronounced brow ridges, the short curvy guys, and everyone else! Growing up in the 90s trans representation was 99% of the time [being] the butt of a joke, or a similar target of disgust. Hell, it still is. I sat down to watch a random comedy special the other night and in the first five minutes, there was a transphobic joke. This was a recently filmed special too. Like… what the fuck?”

That’s what The Sims does exceptionally well. It not only gives players the means to represent themselves and to be themselves, but it gives a platform to LGBT people behind the scenes who importantly understand these issues. I can’t speak for transgender people – that’s not my place – but when it comes to bisexuality, my experience is that I don’t fit into the boxes the media portrays. Having an outlet such as The Sims 4 would’ve been a game-changer for my early teen days, as it does branch beyond stereotypes into the normal, mundane, and less glamorous parts of these identities that aren’t always on display in the media.

“It’s just everywhere,” Carter says. “I want to see more trans bodies that look trans, whatever that means. Not to shame cis-passing trans bodies as a reaction, but to make space for the beauty of all trans bodies. I mean big shoulders are hot, c’mon.” This rings true with my own thoughts on my bisexuality too. I’m not out there flaunting that I like guys and girls at every turn, trying to get with them like some hypersexual time traveller in a trench coat, and I’m certainly not confused about who I am. It’s important to hit a level of realism with all aspects of LGBT life.

But talking about this and pushing for change brings with it a big fear: backlash. It’s disheartening, but Carter puts it best, “We tried [hiding] as a community for a long time and certainly weren’t treated any better for it. We need to be out in the open, we need to be “normalized”, although I’m not in love with that word. People need to get used to us. We exist and have every right to do so. For me, I feel it as both a moral obligation and a matter of survival. As a moderately cis-passing white trans woman, I’m vastly more privileged than most trans folk. I see it as my job to be visible and make noise for people who can’t.”

However, with more in the industry pushing for this change, perhaps Carter’s wishes aren’t too far-fetched – I certainly hope not. “I have been very heartened and encouraged to continue to see the rise of LGBTQ+ representation in games and entertainment,” Ring says. “We live in a world full of rich & interesting individuals with unique stories, personalities, and identities – why wouldn’t our entertainment reflect that?” Hopefully, in only a few years, we’ll be leaps ahead of where we are now, at a point where a kid growing up at school can feel comfortable to be themselves, where people of all ages don’t feel like they have to hide and put on an act to be more “palatable.” One of the best ways to do that is to increase visibility in media, but gaming is huge, so it needs to be at the forefront so that it can make LGBT people a natural, seamless part of life, to show people that we are here and that we’re just living our lives like they are. Maybe it’s naïve, but I’d like to think there are enough of us being naïve that it’ll be made into reality.

Next: Bugsnax Was Inspired By Adventure Time And Undertale

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James Troughton is a writer at TheGamer. He’s worked at the Nintendo-based site Switchaboo and newspaper TheCourierOnline and can be found on Twitter @JDTroughton.

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