How does one portray sexuality in a video game? As we all know, the rule of thumb for building a character is “show, don’t tell.” It also very much depends on the type of game. An RPG, for example, might have the narrative room that a racing game does not. It depends on the focus of the game, and what story you want to tell.
That said, let’s talk about the genre where sexuality more often influences gameplay in mainstream titles: the RPG. This should be one of the easiest platforms to “show” a character’s sexuality, as these games resemble their book counterparts the most. In a narrative context, sexuality is portrayed successfully when it does not define the character to the point of becoming a token, which happens when we know more about a character’s sexuality than we do their favorite hobby. Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, enjoys reading; Sera (from the same game) likes to play pranks. In the case of Sera, her hobby defines her a lot more than her sexuality does. So much so, that unless you flirt with her, you probably wouldn’t know until the end of the game that she preferred (Qunari) women.
The same cannot be said for Dorian, and thus, he becomes the token “gay guy” in the game. His enjoyment of books is significantly less prominent than his struggle against a family that hates and wishes to alter his sexuality. Though this story of repression and disowning must be told, it should not be the character’s defining conflict. However, I cannot say that Dorian’s character fails in this manner specifically, when all of the characters in Inquisition suffer from one conflict only; one loyalty quest per character, as it were. Heck even Cullen, a reoccurring character, gets just one. BioWare may make great strides in portraying sexuality in video games, but it is not perfect, and we’re hoping to see even more improvement with their upcoming games.
One of the key ways to show an LGBTQ character without suffering from tokenism is for the topic to come up naturally through conversation. Thus far, we’ve had characters like Sera and Dorian who have portrayed their sexuality by coming right out and saying it during conversations with the player. When trying to get to know someone as intimately as one tries to in BioWare games, the topic of one’s sexuality is bound to come around. Either as a warning to stay away, or an invitation to come closer. Being so blunt is fine, especially when in the context of such an intimate conversation.
If you don’t have the option of extended conversations, the second way is through flirtatious behavior or outright sexual activities with the appropriate gender. Take Geralt from the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt; this is a man that oozes his sexuality. He does this through behavior, mannerisms, and even the way he dresses. Every time he speaks to a woman, he always seems to be flirting; it is a simple (yet complex) matter of pitch, tone, and his expressions. Be it his puppy dog eyes when Yennifer dresses him down, or that self-satisfied smirk when he sees Kiera bathing. To take it away, would be to take away a great deal of who Geralt is, but it doesn’t define him. Geralt of Rivia is still a sarcastic dick, no matter what gender he purrs at.
Speaking purely of conveying sexuality through behavior, it is far easier to show the LGBTQ end of the spectrum, but what about asexuality? Asexuality is defined as a disinterest in, or repulsion of, sex and sexual activity. As it’s becoming more prevalent lately, especially online, I feel it should be addressed. If the player’s character is asexual, then they could portray that with something like Geralt’s voiced inner thoughts. If Geralt can tell you the height and weight of a monster by its footprints, he can tell the player how much he does or doesn’t appreciate it when a woman takes off her clothes.
However, I’m not going to lie, this is a tough one — if the asexual in the game is not the player’s character. The required behavior for an asexual being changes depending on what type of asexual the character is. Their reactions to flirting could range anywhere from disgust, to indifference, to genuinely not recognizing it as flirtation. All reactions which could mean many other things besides asexuality. For the moment, I would say with a heavy heart that video games need to come a very long way before they can reach a point where a wider spectrum of sexuality (or asexuality) can be portrayed successfully.
Nonetheless, as long as sexuality is portrayed through a natural progression of conversation and flirtatious behavior, it is successful. The character in question, the player or NPC, will not become a token as long as their sexuality does not define them as their sole conflict or merely the only trait attributed to them.