In his comments about same-sex marriage that essentially forced President Barack Obama's hand to support same-sex marriage himself, Vice President Joe Biden credited "Will and Grace," a late '90s/early 2000s sitcom that featured gay characters, for educating the country about gay people.
As the Supreme Court hears two cases this week that could turn the tide on same-sex marriage, a number of other television shows, including "Ellen" and "Modern Family," have been cited for the massive shift in public opinion towards gay relationships. But years before being a Democratic senator in favor of same-sex marriage became the cool thing to do (seven have done so this month), the practice was being explored in video games.
A 2004 Slate article by Clive Thompson covered the phenomena. The lede alone—"Even as President Bush tries to squash gay marriage with the Constitution…"—makes the piece worthy of reexamination today. He looks at homosexual exchanges in "The Temple of Elemental Evil," "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic"and "Sims 2," as well as other manifestations of gay elements in video gaming culture.
"Video games have long allowed players to experiment with new and often taboo identities," writes Thompson, noting earlier examples of gender-reversal role playing. "The new generation of gay-positive games presents an interesting test of how far role-playing can stretch. Will straight gamers want to play at being gay?"
But gay characters have existed long before that, as Keza MacDonald writes in her 2012 eminent essay "A Gay History of Gaming." Notably, Super Mario's "Birdo" character, first appearing in the late '80s, was described as transgender in the Japanese game manuals; the reference was wiped out in Western versions, as part of larger Nintendo censorship efforts going on at the time. Since then, the appearance of gay characters has grown and evolved in a variety of video games—from depicting homosexual relationships in a game's narrative, to allowing players to engage in same-sex relationships themselves—including 1998's "Fallout 2," which is known as the first video game to depict a gay marriage.
MacDonald praises the development, firstly because the sexual identity of characters in games should represent the sexual identities of those who play them, and secondly,
It's also worth remembering that young gay and lesbian people need characters that they can relate to just as much as straight teenagers—if not more so, as they're more likely to face persecution in the real world. Games have long been a refuge for people who aren't quite like everyone else."
As other mediums of pop culture—television, movies, music, art—have experienced similar evolutions, the development of gay characters and even same-sex marriage in video games isn't entirely surprising. Yet, video games have long been perceived as the playground of predominantly white, heterosexual males—despite the efforts of cultural critics and game makers alike to convinces us otherwise—making the evolution within the context of video game culture worthy of noting. Interestingly, the first survey taken of a specific subset of gamers was not looking at the attitude of female players, or minority players, but at the attitudes of so called "gaymers" in Jason Rockwood's 2006 University of Illinois survey.
4/5/13: A previous version of this article misstated the publishing date of “Fallout 2.” It was published in 1998.