The Old Republic's "Gay Planet" is a Bad Thing - Why Makeb will make gay players feel more vulnerable and give power to bullies
Does anyone remember Monkey Dust, the dark, hilarious cartoon series that used to be on BBC Three? There was a sketch every week where a forlorn man in a loveless marriage would trudge home to his wife with increasingly implausible explanations of where he'd been:
"An old friend of mine gave me this ring to take the smelters, but I didn't want to get lost on the way so I teamed up with these dwarves and we set off for Mordor," the man would say. "That's the plot of The Lord of the Rings," the wife would reply, "where have you really been?" "I've been the gimp of a German businessman" he'd admit.
Well, that sketch is what popped into my head when I heard about Makeb, the so-called "gay planet" that's about to be added to BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic. The only place in the game where players will be able to explore flirtatious dialogue choices with characters of the same gender, it's easy to imagine curious, but maybe slightly embarrassed people making up stories about what they've been up to:
"So, you've been playing The Old Republic?"
"Yeah! There was this enormous, round, kind of...I dunno, death...star looking thing and I had to fly into the exhaust vent to blow it up."
"That's the plot of A New Hope. What have you really been doing?"
"I went to Makeb and chatted up with a waiter."
Before I go further I should explain that I admire BioWare a great deal. In its game Mass Effect, you can enter same-sex relationships with supporting characters and the virtual sex scenes you have with them play out more or less the same whether you're sleeping with a man or a woman. Mass Effect doesn't draw attention to being gay, is what I'm saying; it includes homosexuality as much as it does heterosexuality and consummates gay relationships with precisely the same awkward cutscenes as the straight ones.
Not only does it strike me as an honest and smart depiction of homosexuality in videogames - nothing short of a miracle in the triple-A market - it also provides a safe, virtual and non-judgemental space for players to explore and develop gay feelings. I think it's helpful, basically. I think it's a good thing.
Makeb isn't a good thing. I understand that homosexual dialogue options might be launched incrementally throughout all of The Old Republic, but even if that is the case, firing the starting pistol before the patch is good and ready has set some ugly precedents.
First it tells gay players that they need to go somewhere special to be who they want to be. It says "what you are is different, so we've made this different place for you." It's admirable that BioWare would consider gay users at all (most developers don't) but in the same way that it's remarkable, Makeb is also self-defeating. If you want to include gay players, then you need to INCLUDE gay players, not isolate them to an exclusive location, otherwise you end up setting precedent number two, by giving haters an easy target.
In the way that the boy at school who maybe prefers drama class to football practice becomes a target for closeted bullies, Makeb is now prey for fatuous internet rednecks everywhere. Already, according to this disheartening report from PC Games N, the anti-gay slurs have started rolling in:
"I love this game so much and I don't want to see it go down the drain... Star Wars is a family based story with nothing to do with SGR (same gender relationships)," wrote one user on BioWare's forums. "BioWare has ruined Star Wars," wrote another.
And now, with Makeb the only place for gay characters to exist in The Old Republic, these gas brains know where to attack. In the same way that Mass Effect's love scenes might provide a controlled outlet for young, gay people, Makeb has the potential to become a larger scale version of the high school playground.
It's plausible that the same kid who felt better watching Shepherd and Cortez in bed together might go to Makeb, only to be confronted by vitriolic chat bubbles and PMs calling him God-knows-what. If BioWare is going to include homosexuality in The Old Republic with Makeb, it needs to at least be properly administrated.
Otherwise, its gay players are all going to feel like that Monkey Dust husband, frightened to be themselves. I'm desperate to see more gay and transgender characters in computer games. What I don't want is for them to become a "thing" in the way that "mage" or "elf" are things. It's why I hate that term "SGR"; it sounds like a customisable character trait ("I've got a level 80 SGR on Makeb") rather than a term for someone's inner sexuality.
I think Makeb might turn gay characters into a "thing", when what's really needed is more games like Mass Effect, where being gay is just as natural as being straight. You know, like in real life. If games place gay characters into a special area of their own they're effectively turning them into a counter-species, a different "race", like World of Warcraft's Pandaria, and that's going to lead to more discrimination and more bullying.
Unlike in Mass Effect, where being gay is weaved naturally into the dialogue options, with Makeb, you have to make a conscious choice and effort to be gay and that throws the door open to all kinds of hateful spiel.
BioWare has spearheaded gayness in mainstream videogames. I really hope it doesn't stumble now.