Tamriel: The Gay Gamer's Safe Haven
[Aka Jack screeches about LGBT+ NPCs for 3 hours straight]
By Jack O'Dwyer
I wish I could say that my story was different - that being butch or being “a man without the plumbing” garnered some kind of respect.
But, it doesn’t.
It’s not important how many hours I spent sprinting around the Kanto region with my charmander, trying to hold my hand held under the dim light near the crack of my door at night. My score on Guitar Hero III, knowledge of Dragon Age lore, or hours logged on games like DOTA and League of Legends are barely ever acknowledged, as if I shouted the words directly into Eggman’s left asscheek.
Why? It’s simple, really. Not only am I a girl, but I’m a gay girl.
It doesn’t matter that I was around for the early days when Nintendo’s newest items were the Gameboy Advance Color and the GameCube, when Xbox lacked numbers, and you always had to blow on the inside or back of the game cartridge to make sure it worked properly. Who cares? After all, the only interaction a girl should have with gaming is getting her boyfriend a beer while he no-scopes some n00bs in CS:GO, and I can’t even get that part right! No wonder gamers have such a knee-jerk reaction when they realize what I am. As someone I used to know so eloquently put it: “I’m really only okay with lesbians if they’re hot. Otherwise, what’s the point, you know?”
This, dear reader, is why games like The Elder Scrolls Online are so important.
The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) is a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) based in the world of Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls and developed by ZeniMax Online Studios. It was first released for Windows and OS X in April 2014, making it the sixth major installment in the franchise and the nineteenth title in the franchise overall - including expansions. Since then, there have been over 10 million players registered on the game where approximately 2.5 million are active from month to month. ESO has surpassed over $8.5 million in sales and was the second best selling game in the U.S. in June 2015. So far, it has two major expansion packs - ESO: Morrowind and ESO: Summerset - and eight downloadable content (DLC) packs. IGN.com has given ESO a rating of 8/10 and Metacritic has given the PC version of the game an 80/100.
I’ve found that, since given the platform, Bethesda Softworks handles being LGBT+ absurdly well. It’s incredibly disheartening to see the lack of speech and support around this -- though I’m not surprised given the general collective voice of gamers in general despite the demographic. Many gods - both aedra and daedra - are depicted as either gender. Same-sex marriage wasn’t even a question in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with several characters being very obviously LGBT+ (Mjoll is gay don’t @ me) and available to be married by a same-gender character. I’m completely overjoyed by how far this studio and the developer went to continue this trend. Not only are there openly LGBT+ NPCs in ESO, there are so many that I could literally /trip over them. In everyday questing, every so often, I’ve found female NPCs asking me to rescue their wives and male NPCs worried about their husbands. It was an incredibly encouraging thing to see while adventuring across the wide continent of Tamriel - especially when you don’t expect any kind of representation at all. So, as with most capitalistic displays of support for my community, I assumed this would be some kind of fleeting easter egg to remind us of the openness of marriage in Elder Scrolls.
And then the Thieves’ Guild DLC came out. Not only is one of the major players featured in content an older masculine lesbian, she’s an older masc lesbian in an interracial relationship! This nearly brought tears to my eyes. So often we see feminine queer folks presented only in a way that is alluring to the male gaze -- but this? Bethesda and ZeniMax were able to tell the story of a complicated, loving, realistic romantic relationship between two women. To me, there is no greater symbol of respect to give. Of course, however, again I was a fool to believe they would stop there.
The release of Summerset was something I was particularly excited for. My main faction is the Aldmeri Dominion because I have a huge crush on Queen Ayrenn, so it was awesome to hear that they were revealing a never-before-seen part of Tamriel that was technically in my alliance. Needless to say, I preordered, and dove right in a few hours after the official release. The expansion followed the same path as its predecessor, ESO: Morrowind. In this new region there is an overarching plot lightly punctuated with side quests that help teach you about the lore and life of those who live there. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until I rode my unsuspecting ass into a small town not too far from where I was dropped. There, I met a woman looking for her twin brother who ran off to join the “circus”. No problem, I assumed, until I learned that her twin brother was actually her sister who transitioned while running with the crowd! The game openly acknowledged the fact that this character had fully transitioned in-game, ending with a heartwarming scene between the siblings. The afab twin, upon realizing she now had a sister, demanded that she tell her everything that happened saying: “You best do so at once, little brother -- little sister! If this is what you wanted, why not just tell me? All I want is for you to be happy!” She was actively accepting her sister with arms wide open.
That’s right: Elder Scrolls Online has an openly transgender female character!
I’m not transgender, but as a member of the LGBT+ community, I can definitely understand the need for positive media representation. In fact, I advocate for it. This kind of representation is important because it works as a tool to cast us in a positive and accepted light. From the time we are born, human beings are constantly subjected to messages from the copious amounts of media we absorb on a daily basis. These messages help us inform our opinions -- especially when we’re young. We already know that young humans will imitate what they see. Specifically, this means that if an individual grows up seeing a certain identity in a certain stereotyped role or light, they will always expect to see this identity in this way no matter what. This can lead to discrimination as well as low self-esteem and diminished self-worth in the members of the mocked identity. They start to believe that their role is to be the butt of a joke or to be ashamed of and this is all they can hope to achieve. Essentially: bad representation perpetuates harmful cognitive associations.If you ask me, there is no better target to combat awful social perceptions than the online gaming community.
Thankfully and most likely due to its outward support, the ESO community seems to be more diverse and accepting than others. I’ve been lucky enough to find friends in a guild where the members accept me as whole, rather than the bits and pieces I let through between the Online Gaming Guard™ most women have to put up when we log in. The general chat in any given region has its share of jerks, but I’d much rather be told to just find something myself than be called a “stupid <insert slur here>”.
If you’d like more information about the LGBT+ stuff in The Elder Scrolls, click here! I found this really helpful post about how the theme has evolved throughout the franchise.
The Elder Scrolls Online is available for Windows/OS via its website and Steam. It is also available for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, though Summerset will not have been released on those platforms until June 5.
This is truly a game I’m willing to subscribe to and support (and trust me, my bank account can vouch that I have). I sincerely encourage others to do the same if you’re interested and capable of voting with your dollars. I haven’t regretted my decision to switch subscriptions from other popular MMO’s, and I don’t see myself going back any time soon.