Yoda’s observation about the Sith is about to take on a whole new kind of meaning, and let’s not even think about those long lonely nights on the Millennium Falcon. BioWare, Electronic Arts, and LucasArts are set to introduce same-sex romance to the Star Wars universe via their costly flop Star Wars: The Old Republic. In a desperate bid to attract players, the MMO went free-to-play in November following a precipitous drop-off in subscribers, but with some estimates placing the budget in the $200 million territory, the likelihood that it will ever be profitable is minimal.
In the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion, BioWare will allow romantically suggestive encounters with same-sex non-player characters (NPCs: the characters a player meets who are not controlled by other gamers). This falls short of the promised same-sex “companion romances” BioWare had promised. (A “companion” is a more significant NPC who accompanies the player.) If precedent is any indication, what this will mean is that restrictions on gender are (more or less) eliminated, potentially making every non-companion NPC functionally bisexual.
Some will write this off as a desperation measure by BioWare and Lucas, eager to score some cheap free ink. I don’t see it that way. BioWare has been consistent in their efforts to put same-sex romance into their games whether it fits or not, in both the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series. We saw the same thing with Skyrim, with comical results like hulking brutes offering to court male heroes, marry them, and then sit around at home tending the hearth. It reminded me of this:
As games mature, we have to expect that more aspects of the human experience will be drawn into their narratives and design. There’s no reason to assume a fully fleshed-out Star Wars Universe might not include characters with same-sex attraction. The problem with current approaches is that–due to limitations of the medium–they tend to make everyone bisexual. The results are absurd, and role-playing games that include romantic subplots and quests can wind up populated with people who appear to be willing to hook up with anyone and anything. (Did I mention the alien-human romances of Mass Effect?)
If we’re looking (in the US) at a gay population in the neighborhood of 10 million out of a population of about 300 million, we’re looking at a very small population indeed. Let’s be optimistic and say that 500,000 people are still playing SWOR. If we assume that 3% of the population is gay or bisexual, that means BioWare is devoting money, time, and resources for a failing game to cater to about 15,000 gamers. By comparison, there are about 245 million Christians, roughly 78% of the population. If the percentages of the population mirror those of MMO gamers (and, by and large, they do), then that’s 375,000 gamers.
So, something else is clearly going on here, and it’s simply BioWare following cultural trends by catering to a very tiny category of gamer. I won’t fault them for the impulse: as creators, they are tasked with exploring the human condition in its many variations and permutations. The percentage of the population which is, say, Jedi or Wookie is even smaller than the percentage that’s gay. It’s clear that BioWare feels this is necessary in the interest of fairness, but more to the point: they’re being led by the current cultural moment which is placing gay issues front and center in all things, whether they fit or not.
BioWare says this is “broadening” the audience to include gays. Fair enough. I’d argue, however, that it’s narrowing the experience for much-larger audience which has no reference point for, or interest in, same-sex romance. It really wouldn’t take much to implement a “sexual preference” switch to turn-off these same-sex advances for straight gamers, rather than having to field a same-sex proposition and decline it. I somehow managed to get through 3 years at an art school in Greenwich Village in the 1980s without getting propositioned by a single gay person (yeah, yeah: keep your comments about my appearance to yourself), so we’re not talking about a universal experience. Must we assume that no one in the Star Wars universe (full of characters with all sorts of extraordinary powers) posses gaydar, or even a long ago and far far away version of Grindr?
The problem is that the scenarios are just absurd, as are most romantic subplots. Game romance–and game sex–has never risen above merely being awkward, and it’s usually just silly. BioWare has handled it better than most, but even they’ve created some truly eye-rolling moments of pure cheese. Most of the romance in Mass Effect (which included SSA) barely rose above the level of bad Mary Sue fanfic.
A bigger problem–and one not lost on BioWare and Lucas–is that we’re talking about Star Wars, a cultural touchstone. If Star Wars is perceived as “going gay,” that’s one more bastion that falls in the culture wars. In reality, romance in the Star Wars movies has always been either a minor feature (the old-fashioned Hepburn/Tracy romance of Han and Leia) or universally derided (the annoying Anakin and Padme courtship). This has very little to do with the dramatic integrity of the game or the Star Wars universe, or with catering to some kind of overwhelming consumer demand. It feels like yet another cultural “eat your spinach” moment in which we’re being schooled on tolerance for our own good. That’s certainly their right as creators, but could they give the rest of us the option to turn it off?
UPDATE: My wife thought my original title–Star Wars Goes Gay–was too flip and didn’t catch the tone of the piece, so I’ve changed it something more sober. My point–overlong, as usual–is that creating universally bisexual NPCs is bad design, that the majority of people don’t want to experience same-sex propositions, and that some sexual preference switch during character creation would be a welcome feature. There also needs to be content advisory for games that include same-sex romance.