As some games strive for the utmost realism, it's surprising that only a handful have explored sexual orientation. In fact, very few games explore love at all with the noteworthy exception of the love of killing space invaders.

Standouts have been titles from Rockstar Games; whose "Grand Theft Auto" franchise has introduced players to characters of varying sexuality while franchises like Lionhead's "Fable" series and EA's "The Sims" have taken the concept a step further, allowing players to choose the sexual orientation of their virtual avatar. As for other titles, developers tend to feel comfortable letting gamers choose between elves and orcs, but not being a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender character.

"I think the real failure is that story-driven games generally fail to acknowledge sexual orientation at all. And I am mostly OK with that," says Kevin VanOrd, Associate Editor at CNet's GameSpot. "No one needs to know who Sonic the Hedgehog sleeps with -- though some enterprising storytellers have explored this territory nonetheless."

While openly gay characters have existed throughout video game history, VanOrd believes select developers, such as Lionhead and Rockstar, are equipped to handle a project of such magnitude with required "wit and fearlessness." According to Lionhead, they're up to the task. "To advance we need our audience to start becoming more emotionally involved with our characters," says Josh Atkins, senior design director of "Fable III." "Love and sex are fundamental parts of humanity and are fundamental parts of empathy." While the "Fable" franchise has taken a lighthearted approach to sex in its series, Atkins hopes the franchise will build on the players' emotional responses, allowing them to feel "a bit more connected" to their partners in future "Fable" titles.

"Virtual Orgasmic Rape"

In Bioware's 2007 smash hit "Mass Effect," male avatars had the option of bedding female characters while female avatars were able to engage in tame sexual scenes with either a man or a woman. While not imperative to complete the game's epic quest, it was an option tangled within the confines of "Mass Effect's" engaging story, not an additional choice presented in games like "Fable."

Following its release, Town Hall columnist Kevin McCullough called the tame love scenes in Mass Effect, "virtual orgasmic rape," and claimed the game intended to push the "next generation of young men through the gates of hell as fast as is humanly possible." Later, McCoullough recanted his statements. But McCoullough shined a light on the title, prompting Fox News to discuss the matter with a panel of journalists, one of whom called Mass Effect, "Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas." Bioware followed "Mass Effect" up with "Dragon Age: Origins," a game that allows sexual interaction between any gender group.

But, perhaps as a result of media backlash, some developers are afraid to further explore adult themes in storytelling. "I think many publishers still shy away from covering including [GLBT] characters fearing negative responses and poor sales that could occur from any backlash," Chris Schroyer, a producer at developer n-Space says. "That said, people are still buying 'Mass Effect' and 'Dragon Age.' We're moving slowly but surely to the point where this won't be a big deal down the road."

For other developers, characters with sexual preferences allow the industry to grow and shed the stigma that video games are, by extension, toys for children. "No one wants sex in their toys," said industry veteran John Davison, during a Sex and Violence panel at the Penny Arcade Expo in 2008.

Does Sexuality in Games Matter?

As gamers, we can slaughter zombies and explore tombs for hours and never give a character's orientation a second thought (although you probably did think about Lara Croft's sexual preferences). It doesn't necessarily affect the gameplay experience. But as the gaming community expands, so should the games. Communities like and prove that there are large groups of dedicated gay gamers. But as online multiplayer gaming popularity grows, GLBT gamers are now faced with two different sides of the industry that either refuse to acknowledge them or accept who they are: developers and fellow gamers. "Up to this point the character development in the games industry most closely models a Hollywood action movie where the roller coaster ride matters more than the characters," says Atkins.

As some developers take steps to change the video game industry's image, many of its hardcore fans aren't interested in change. "Some players are ready for a mature take on sexuality, both same-sex and heterosexual," VanOrd concludes. "But a major developer willing to take this risk should be prepared for backlash, from both the less mature players as well as the mainstream media."

In November 2007, GayGamer reported on a YouTube clip of an openly gay Xbox Live user who played "Halo 3" online under the Gamertag XXX GayBoy XXX. Nearly 10 minutes of footage from one multiplayer session shows him being bombarded with hateful, homophobic, racist and even murderous rage. "I want to hang you because you're gay," one gamer tells XXX GayBoy XXX.

Online hate mongering has become so prevalent and expected that Activison's Infinity Ward purposefully utilized the acronym F.A.G.S. in a short online viral advertisement for "Modern Warfare 2."

Later, after much attempted explanation the acronym's inclusion was intended as a joke, the video was removed. "Infinity Ward essentially validated the rampant homophobia amongst those that play IW's games online," VanOrd says. "Perhaps more shockingly, Infinity Ward removed the video but failed to apologize." "Modern Warfare 2" went on to sell 4.7 million units in its first week of release.

Rockstar Games recently released an expansion to the hit 2008 title "Grand Theft Auto IV," titled "The Ballad of Gay Tony." While the series is known for bathing its characters in satire, the expansion marks a new frontier for the industry. It features a slew of characters from all walks of life rarely seen in games and it allows willing players to care for and defend them, while leaving them open to violence within the confines of the game's open world. "It's great that now you get to see more 'minority-driven' characters in games," says Danny 'Godfree' Pena, founder of the urban-culture blog Gamertag Radio, who says a correlation between racism and homophobia in games does exist. "It's a good thing that we are getting to see more diverse changes in the gaming industry, but now it is time to see the same with [gay] characters."

"It's all about context," says Schroyer. "I wouldn't necessarily expect most of the fans of "Gears of War" to be mature about Epic shoehorning Marcus Fenix's coming-out story into 'Gears 3.'" While Fenix seems the unlikely candidate, the revelation that a major franchise character is gay would be as important as the moment gamers realized Samus Aran was a woman at the end of Nintendo's "Metroid" -- it would be a game changer.

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