Something kind of remarkable happened last week in a completely not-that-big-of-a-deal way.
The video game Star Wars: The Old Republic — a giant, massively multiplayer online game (think World of Warcraft) set in the Star Wars universe — introduced “same-gender romance” options for players in its latest content expansion.
This in and of itself is not incredibly remarkable, because there’s a continued push by developer BioWare to include SGR in their games. In Mass Effect 3, for example, players have the option to pursue romantic storylines with a number of characters, including members of the same gender. It’s an interesting and positive, but increasingly common, branch of storytelling in these games.
But take a moment, if you will, and think about what you know about Star Wars. See if maybe you can name a homosexual character of any sort, from any portion of the notably enormous Star Wars universe. I’ll wait.
Unless you’re really, really well-versed in the Star Wars “Expanded Universe,” you’ll soon come to realize it’s a fruitless exercise — there are virtually no gay characters in Star Wars. This seems to have been a mandate by Lucasfilm for the licensing of Star Wars, although it seems less rooted in any kind of homophobia and much more in the fear that a more progressive galaxy far, far away could result in less money constantly pouring in for the franchise.
So this is a pretty huge turning point, and thinking about it now, it’s actually disappointing the Star Wars universe hasn’t been more inclusive. I’ve talked before about how formative Star Wars was in my early life (but at this point, that’s probably more the rule than the exception for people my age), and it’s kind of sad that something so powerful could have potentially been even more so. Imagine young kids not only identifying with Luke Skywalker and the gold standard of Jedi morality, but also seeing more people in the universe who they could identify as being like themselves, during a time when figuring out who you are can be very difficult and alienating. If many or most of us take away something important and meaningful from the adventures of Leia, Luke, Han, Chewie and the rest, I can’t help but wonder how much more influential and important the franchise could be if it reflected more of the world of those young people watching and reading as they struggle to understand who they are, especially given how tough being young and being gay can be in American society. Star Wars could have provided some seriously great positive role models.
The announcement of the new same-gender romance content popping up in The Old Republic kicked off something of a small controversy predicated mostly, I think, on misunderstandings of context. That centers on the way SGRs are being added to the game: as part of a content expansion players have to pay to experience. The expansion adds a new planet to the game, and that planet contains all the SGR content that now exists in the game. Some see that as a form of digital segregation, “exile to the gay planet,” though I don’t buy it — the amount of work to add that content to the entire game has to be enormous. My friend and colleague Phil Owen wrote a smart piece explaining what’s going on and why the game is developing the way it is from the SGR standpoint, and it’s worth a read.
What really bugs me about the whole situation isn’t the controversy of people claiming the game developers have banished gay characters to their own corner of the galaxy (which is kinda ridiculous), it’s the reaction of other people like some of the Game Front readers on Owen’s story. Many echo a strange, awful sentiment: “Star Wars isn’t the place for some progressive political statement.”
Wait, what? Now the very existence of homosexual characters is about politics and agendas?
It has been really disappointing to see fans reacting this way. The SGRs in The Old Republic are absolutely a good thing, if for no other reason than the fact that now players who want to experience that content, content that reflects who they are what their lives are like, are able. That’s the whole point of games such as that one. But from larger viewpoint, I’m excited that something that’s had such a big impact on me is becoming more inclusive. As Kenobi might say, Star Wars is taking its first steps into a larger world.
And yet, we’ve got people who claim a number of goofy things, from the idea that there’s no sex in Star Wars (see: the entire romantic plot of The Empire Strikes Back, without which there would be no movie) to the idea that there’s somehow no need to represent homosexuality in this universe. In a universe that includes all manner of alien species living and working together with humans, there’s no room for gay people? C’mon. (Worth noting: Sex in The Old Republic is merely implied. It’s rare that two characters even kiss; most of the changes are flirtatious dialog options.)
The overall point is that this is a long time coming, even if it’s a minor change to a game that’s only reasonably popular. Star Wars is not only better for it, it’s fully possible that the future of the franchise could continue to affect kids for the better — possibly more kids, and in more ways, than ever before. That people would seek to stall or stonewall that … sucks.