I remember how important it was for me to be able to speak to my mom when I encountered something that frightened me or I didn’t know how to process. She would also do something that I plan to do when I have kids—she asked me to make an argument for why I thought the content in question would enrich me, even if the rating meant I should be a bit older. She was incredibly patient with 7-year-old me when I explained that Tomb Raider would help me learn about mythology, and she was patient when I asked for a game called Evil Zone because it was supposed to have such a good story. What was important for her was that I made a case for spending my money. Other people have different criteria. When I ran into content that confused or scared me: like the first time I accidentally read a romance novel at 11 or 12, she was more than willing to talk through the content with me. For that, I’m hugely grateful.One of the most difficult responsibilities parents have is figuring out ways to control, filter, or have conversations about the media their children consume. This is particularly challenging with video games. In a medium swimming with toxic messages, it can be difficult to contextualize and make judgement calls about what content children are and are not ready for.
However, I’ll admit a little punch in my gut every time I hear family members, friends, or even strangers talk about controlling the content their children engage with. Once, I was talking with a friend—a person I trust implicitly to be inclusive to LGBTQ themes and know what her children are ready for—talking about all the harmful images they could be exposed to, but I still felt a gut-punch. I know that’s not fair, because it’s the right and responsibility of parents to do so, and there are a lot of harmful images in media. I know there are a lot of messages floating around that encourage violence, sexism, and any number of other ‘isms’. Parents make the best choices they can doing a difficult job, and I hugely respect that.
As a bisexual woman, though, I always end up feeling guarded in that conversation and asking myself, “What content are you controlling?”
It took me a long time to figure out my identity. I mean, maybe a part of me knew I was different when I was 7, 12, or 15. Hindsight is 20/20, but it really wasn’t apparent to me until was 18 and playing the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. Dragon Age (the second game in particular) was eye-opening for me. It was the first time I’d been able to romance a male character and a female character in the same playthrough, and the satisfaction of seeing that evolve felt like it filled in a puzzle piece about myself I had been missing. I don’t know who I would be today without it. Since I already didn’t come out to my mom until I was 21 (and didn’t come out to my dad until I was 23), and felt like my life had only just begun afterwards, I’m not sure I’d be as happy.
Certain adult figures in my life, as I was growing up, unfortunately made that process difficult because of the nature of the things that would always be taken away. Any mention of girls kissing was reprimanded. I wasn’t allowed to see a friend from another school anymore after I mentioned wanting to marry her. Any media with a hint of same-gender attraction was suspect, and was either removed or mocked. I didn’t stop consuming it; I only got more careful about my means of obtaining it. I remember watching Ellen and Xena: Warrior Princess with my finger on the channel switch button, and with the volume low, just in case I heard someone coming upstairs. I remember my hands shaking on the controller and turning down the volume when I made the decision to romance Liara in Mass Effect, then later Isabela in Dragon Age II.
I am not the only person in the LGBTQ community with the experience of understanding myself better through media—particularly games.
Not all children who experiment with gender and sexuality will develop divergent identities. But even if they don’t, I would argue it’s still equally important to cultivate an accepting, open environment. With the increasing freedom for LGBTQ people. It is increasingly likely that kids will encounter, well, LGBTQ people who desperately need friends, allies, and acceptance.
Speaking from my own experiences, I cannot understate the importance of this.
I remember ‘gay’ being used as an insult, or a joke, when I was as young as 10. This only became more frequent in junior high and high school, and almost daily as I signed up for game design classes and clubs. It wasn’t until my radically inclusive design job at the university that I encountered space for people like me in the gaming community. I wonder how much of that prejudice was because of situations like mine, where well-meaning parents tried to remove content that seemed atypical or even dangerous.
Every parent wants their child to be safe and happy, and sometimes the idea of a divergent identity is terrifying. I actually empathize with that reaction, and many LGBTQ people do. Many of us feel that same fear the moment we realize we may be different. It’s often treated (and seen) as more sex-focused than the G-rated romance of Mario and Peach. Ultimately, it’s not surprising when parents react negatively to romantic content they view as innately sexual.
Games are special. They are interactive, often with stories that we can dictate ourselves. Unfortunately, examples of teen-friendly rated games with same-gender/LGBTQ content are rare. It can be difficult to distinguish between barring a game for characters with divergent identities and barring it for other themes, such as violence and drug use. According to the ESRB—games that reference sexuality (which tends to be a term unfairly balanced against any same-gender content) must carry a rating of at least T.
That being said, there are some gems. The Sims is a great place to let kids experiment and explore their identity and others’. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is rated T and features a romanceable lesbian character. Games like Gone Home, which contain same-gender attraction as part of the story, have not undergone ESRB approval. One potential promising outlet is the mobile game Avengers Academy, which has Loki (who is canonically bisexual and gender fluid—neither straight nor cisgender.) The developer has said they will include other characters like him. Avengers Academy is introducing a dating mechanic in the near future, and many people have hope that same-gender dating will be available. Given the game’s fun aesthetic and non-sexual nature, it could be a good boon to availability of LGBTQ themes for kids who aren’t ready for an M-rated game yet.
People only want the best for the ones they love, and I’m happy to say that my parents were both incredibly supportive after I came out, but we have a lot of reactions hard-coded into us about what it means to be LGBTQ. For a long time, the reactions of my parents and other adult caretakers unwittingly made the process of discovering myself much harder by withdrawing games with LGBTQ themes.
I’m defensive of them for others because I know the ability to choose my own story was essential to my discovery of my sexuality. Games helped me experiment in the safest way possible. Likewise, they can be a valuable tool for your children too. For that reason: I implore you to consider your own biases, remember that your kids are experimenting, and—above all else—don’t panic!