Meghan Blythe Adams is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Her main areas of interest in game studies are player death, difficulty settings, and the submissive elements of play.
This commentary aims to raise questions about the mandatory performance and privileging of particular sexual identities in videogames, first through examining the explicitly heterosexual narratives of classic game series like Super Mario and then the more narratively and performatively diverse romantic side-quests in modern RPGs. In BioWare’s Mass Effect series in particular, the romantic side-quest has progressed, with some difficulty, beyond the compulsive heterosexuality of the classic videogame. Specifically, this compulsive heterosexuality is a particular iteration of Adrienne Rich’s “compulsory heterosexuality”; the key difference between the two is that while compulsory heterosexuality is a privileged societal norm than can be refused, the compulsive heterosexuality of the classic videogame demands that the player perform a heterosexual player-character or cease playing the game altogether. The scope of choice in a videogame literalizes and ultimately closes Gayle S. Rubin’s charmed circle of sexuality, rendering what falls outside the circle impossible for the player to enact, whatever their desires or intention.
Compulsive Heterosexuality & The Charmed Circle
First, I will take a closer look at how the classic videogame’s limited field of choices regarding the performance of sexual identity provides a variation of Adrienne Rich’s “compulsory heterosexuality” defined in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Rich defines compulsory heterosexuality as a privileged norm from which homosexuality is a punishable, but possible, deviation. In the average videogame narrative, however, heterosexuality is not just a prescribed standard that should be followed. A player may be literally unable to perform queerness (or anything other than heterosexuality) in a particular game. While the compulsory can be resisted, the compulsive heterosexuality of the game is impossible to avoid without exiting the game entirely, making games unique spaces in which player actions are either privileged or literally unavailable as an option altogether. This classic gameplay experience differs so radically from everyday experience because, unlike the everyday, the space of the game is completely designed: there is nothing extraneous, save in the case of errors. Every potential choice the player can make is limited by what the game designers see fit to include in the game. It is this submission to the game and its prescribed player identity in order to play it that makes the prescribed heterosexuality of the classic game compulsive rather than compulsory.
Many of the most famous and enduring game franchises heavily rely on heterosexual narratives. In the Super Mario series, the vast majority of its game plots are fuelled by the temporarily interrupted heterosexual union of Mario and Princess Peach Toadstool. To play Mario is to perform a heterosexual role. While one doesn’t think of Mario as a sexual creature, his character is nonetheless functionally heterosexual, based on the trappings of a heterosexual relationship, even to the point of repeatedly rescuing Peach from the prospect of a forced marriage to the reptilian King Bowser. Mario is just one example out of many classic games that enact a compulsive heterosexuality, namely heterosexual performance as a necessary part of game play.
Because of their unique limitations on player choice, games give us an alternate application for Gayle S. Rubin’s “charmed circle”. In her 1984 essay, Rubin uses a model for the sex hierarchy with an inner “charmed circle” of acceptable practices such as monogamy and heterosexuality and, surrounding the charmed circle, the “outer limits” of another circle containing unacceptable practices such as intergenerational sex or BDSM (153). The videogame can seal itself around its particular charmed circle entirely, removing the possibility of performing unacceptable activities. This makes the ‘unacceptable’ activities that we could still choose to practice in our everyday lives not a part of the game narrative at all, hence the compulsive heterosexuality of most games. While Rubin’s societal model can never entirely erase the unacceptable, but only push it to the circle’s periphery, the designed nature of the game can make an unacceptable act impossible. This is why it has never been possible outside of fan-creations for Mario to date and rescue Toad, or his brother Luigi, rather than Princess Peach. Rubin tells us that “consent is a privilege enjoyed only by those who engage in the highest-status sexual behavior” (168). Gaming goes even further: game designers decide player capacity to do things at all, completely prior to being able to consent or not. The privilege of consent is not the player’s to exercise, but the game designer’s to give in carefully selected instances.
Bioware & Relationships
Looking more specifically at the closed circle of sexuality in the Mass Effect series, we should consider its parent company’s use of romantic side-quests. BioWare is known for producing complex game narratives with prominent romantic side-quests. Their games have historically been queer-inclusive to varying degrees, so that the player-character can pursue a same-sex romantic relationship with a non-player-character within the game’s main plot. These side-quests include unique dialogue and voice-acting, and can subtly or significantly affect the main plot. Rather than being a singular relationship that defines the game’s story arc (as in the case of Mario and Peach), the romantic side-quest in BioWare’s games is consistently optional, defined by a choice between several potential candidates, and is supposed to enrich rather than define the player’s in-game experience. If a player so chooses, there is no need to begin any of these side-quests, effectively allowing the player to indirectly perform in-game asexuality.
However, a brief historical overview of BioWare’s original titles provides a sample of their uneven progress in terms of inclusivity and widening of player choices. Romantic choices have ranged from queer options to polyamourous options in previous game titles like 2005’s Jade Empire. Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise has been much more in line with traditional heterosexist gaming, however. In 2007’s Mass Effect, when playing a male or female Commander Shepard, players can pursue heterosexual romances with human crew members, but can only pursue a perceived homosexual romance as a female Shepard with an alien named Liara. Both human heterosexual relationships are typical charmed circle fare: they are characterized by monogamous, romantic love between partners in a similar age range, which Rubin notes is the gold standard of what falls within the charmed circle (253). These relationships are quite typical of videogame compulsive heterosexuality. The game’s set-up simply sidesteps any homosexual option for a male Shepard, rendering that particular queer performance beyond even the outer limits of Rubin’s circle, excluding it from the game entirely.
The original Mass Effect’s sole queer romance is heavily annotated. Both female and male Shepards can have a romance with Liara. She is explicitly stated to be from a ‘monogendered’ race, the Asari, but she is clearly intended to be ultimately perceived as a blue woman. Liara has a female voice actor and model, and is consistently referred to by female pronouns. Additionally, the majority of Asari-partnered aliens we meet are male, reinscribing heterosexuality as the in-game standard. A lesbian relationship with Liara is literally othered by the fact that she is an alien, but the game verifies the romance’s place within the circle by focusing on romance and child-bearing. The Asari are specifically discouraged from mating with each other, placing such activity within the in-game outer limits of the circle; as we find out later, this is because children with two Asari parents have a higher likelihood of being an “Ardat-Yakshi”, a kind of Asari succubus that murders its partners through sex. At the same time, because all Asari look stereotypically female, this produces what looks like a taboo against lesbianism; if a player performs a male Shepard and romances Liara, the taboo remains in place, effectively making the compulsively heterosexual male Shepard rescue Liara from her lesbian heritage as the child of two Asari herself.
The franchise follow-up, Mass Effect 2, features a reworking of the charmed circle, its outer limits, and the total exclusion of certain possibilities unique to the structure of the game. The sequel took not so much a step backward, but a kind of step sideways, offering a higher number of possible romantic options both resulting and not resulting in Paramour achievements, but still no queer options at all for a male Shepard and no Paramour achievement for a female Shepard unless the player pays for downloadable content that features a quest in which the player can win back Liara if she was previously romanced. A male Shepard remains compulsively heterosexual, if any romantic options are to be pursued. A female Shepard can romance bisexual Yeoman Kelly Chambers, but doing so does not yield a Paramour achievement or an implied sex scene the way that romancing ‘official’ interests does. Similarly, the player can attempt to romance the Asari Samara or her Ardat-Yakshi daughter Morinth, but the former will refuse and sex with the latter will kill Shepard. All official human romance options are solely heterosexual and tend to feature the partially-clothed bodies of the romantic interests more prominently than the alien love interests. Presumably as a response to the charmed circle of the buying public and the likelihood that human rather than alien nudity is closer to that circle’s centre, both heterosexual human love interests, Miranda and Jacob, are seen in states of undress while the alien love interests are clothed even in scenes of intimacy, usually limited to a kiss or touch and a fade to black.
Notably, the human female Jack can be romanced by a male Shepard, but sleeping with her prior to establishing a romantic relationship effectively fails the romantic side-quest and causes Jack to shout obscenities at you if you approach her again. In order to successfully romance Jack, Shepard must get the severely distressed Jack to open up emotionally, to the point that she cries before, during and after their romantic interlude. As Rubin notes, “Virtually all erotic behaviour is considered bad unless a specific reason to exempt it has been established. The most acceptable excuses are marriage, reproduction, and love” (150). This reading of what type of erotic behavior is privileged and why provides a useful method of reading Mass Effect 2’s romances. While the possibility of reproduction and marriage remains largely unsaid, save with Liara in the DLC, romantic, emotionally intimate and specifically monogamous love is the apex of the appropriately named romantic side-quest in Mass Effect 2. Regardless of how serious each relationship is, getting the interest to bare their emotions is key to successfully completing their respective side-quest. Additionally, non-monogamy is firmly in the outer limits of the game’s circle, though not excluded entirely: unlike male homosexuality, attempts at non-monogamy are possible in-game, but characters will confront you and insist you choose between them if you attempt to pursue multiple official relationships. Monogamy in the game is thereby compulsory, rather than compulsive.
The game design mediates between the societal placement of sex with aliens in the outer limits of the circle and the game designer’s choice to include it as a player option by validating alien romantic interests in specific ways. Like Liara in the original Mass Effect, the alien Tali is heavily implied to be sexually inexperienced. Tali and Liara are initially introduced as female-glossed romantic options with a focus on their youth, innocence and relatively untouched bodies. This seems to be intended to counteract the basic societal taboo against interspecies sex, balancing an outer limit characteristic with one from the charmed circle’s heart. Similarly, Thane and Garrus, both male alien heterosexual love interests who recount their heterosexual history to a female Shepard in the course of the completion of their respective romantic side-quests, are specified to be emotionally vulnerable. However, where Tali and Liara’s alien natures are downplayed by the appeal of their seeming virginity, the same effect comes about for Thane and Garrus as a result of their established heterosexual history. Thane describes how he met his late wife; Garrus describes a casual sexual encounter with a female crew member on a previous assignment. In both cases, a female Shepard is described in terms similar to the alien love interest’s previous heterosexual partner. While open to interpretation, this does seem to indicate sharp gender differences regarding what game designers felt a male Shepard and female Shepard would presumably want from alien partners. Their particular charmed circles are assumed to differ and the game adjusts its romantic offerings accordingly. It’s worth noting that Jacob, another potential love interest, also recounts his heterosexual history.
The series’ most recent installment and its DLC have expanded the charmed circle considerably, though again there are key differences between the options available for a female and male Shepard. 2012’s Mass Effect 3 includes both heterosexual and homosexual romance options for both male and female Shepards for the first time in the series’ history. Perhaps in a nod to the fact that wider romance options were often planned and even partially produced but ultimately not present in the final versions of the two previous Mass Effect titles, human character Kaiden Alenko’s romantic potential is expanded from a solely heterosexual option to a romantic option for either Shepard. However, the charmed circle still differs from one gendered Shepard to another: in the Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC, a romantically unattached female Shepard can engage in casual sex with the alien Javik or the human James Vega, both male. A male Shepard simply cannot have similar encounters.
Ultimately, this commentary’s application of Adrienne Rich’s model of compulsory heterosexuality and Gayle S. Rubin’s charmed circle and outer limits of sexuality to the Mass Effect series and videogames more generally is intended to be a launching pad for further investigation and critical response regarding sexuality, choice and representation in games. What are the ethics of compulsive heterosexuality in gaming and how can designers balance narrative strength with player choice and identity? While it is unreasonable to expect game designers to program every possible sexual identity and act into their products even where such content is relevant, game consumers and critics should continue agitating for a widening of gaming’s charmed circles and reflect on their own biases and limits [foot]For three examples of critical engagement with the sexual limitations of particular game franchises, see Adrienne Shaw’s blog post “The Lost Queer Potential of Fable” , Todd Harper’s presentation “Dragon Gay-ge?: Same-sex Romance Options in Bioware Games” and Stephen Greer’s article “Playing Queer: Affordances for Sexuality in Fable and Dragon Age: Origins” in the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds[/foot]. Games that invite the player to experience and ask questions about the supposed outer limits of sexuality like Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and follow-up Hate Plus (AI/human relationships) and Merrit Kopas’ Consensual Torture Simulator (BDSM) expand the conversation bravely. It may be too late for Commander Shepard to have any new experiences now, but players have a lot to look forward to thinking about.
Mass Effect. Edmonton, Alberta: Bioware, 2007. Videogame.
Mass Effect 2. Edmonton, Alberta: Bioware, 2010. Videogame.
Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker. Edmonton, Alberta: Bioware, 2010. Videogame.
Mass Effect 3. Edmonton, Alberta: Bioware, 2012. Videogame.
Mass Effect 3: Citadel. Edmonton, Alberta: Bioware, 2013. Videogame.
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Rubin, Gayle S. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.”
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