Get a group of gay gamers (a.k.a. "gaymers") together, and the conversation will eventually turn to bullying. Not the schoolyard kind, but the gaming kind — as in Rockstar's "Bully."
The hero of the wildly popular sandbox game can kiss boys as well as girls, depending on how each player chooses to play the game. "The interesting thing about 'Bully' is you've got the choice," said Flynn DeMarco, 39, founder of the popular gaymer Web site GayGamer.net. "And to be able to have that option makes the game more realistic."
But you don't have to be a gay gamer to see the advantage of same-sex smooching in "Bully." "I heard about being able to kiss boys as well as girls," said Melvin Lasky, a gamer who happens to be straight. "And I thought it was a great way to gain more strength, no matter how you look at it."
Gay or straight, every gamer can appreciate the importance of player choice in video games. "Gay gamers are looking for the same things that everyone else is looking for in a game — it's just the concept of inclusion," said Alexander Sliwinski, contributing editor of the blog Joystiq.com. "It's having options. It's playing the game the way you want to play it. Because in a game, you are the star."
Regardless of the type of game being played — from first-person shooters to sports games to open-world games — many gamers feel that the more options a player has in terms of how he or she plays, the better the overall gaming experience will be. "Giving players more permutations is good for both gay and straight players," said Chris Grant, managing editor of Joystiq.com.
Character customization and player choice allow gamers to role-play and experiment with their own identities in ways that would be impossible in their own lives and, in some cases, to better understand how sexual roles are defined in the real world. According to straight gamer Eric Monacelli, "Tomb Raider" made the stereotypically macho adventure-game genre accessible to any gender, from the standpoint of both character and player. "Even a macho guy can enjoy playing as Lara Croft," he said.
Gay and straight gamers are loud and clear when it comes to the advantages of player choice, and the people who make the games are getting the message. "When people play video games, they look for a reflection of their own values and their own experiences, because that's how they connect to the game," said Jeb Havens, lead designer at 1st Playable Productions and one of the few openly gay designers in the industry. "It's our job as developers to make that connection. Players don't want to feel like the game is treating them like an outsider."
Havens would be happy to know that industry legend Peter Molyneux — the mind behind "Fable," a game that allows for gay marriage — shares his philosophy of inclusion.
"I want to allow people to be who they want to be," Molyneux told MTV News at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. "The point is that the game's about you. It's about what you want, what you like, and if the world reacts to that, it gets me excited." When asked about the development of themes in the popular series, Molyneux cited a poll in Germany asking players what feature they were most looking forward to in the game. "At the top of the list was same-sex relationships, because I think it represented a freedom in a game that actually was bigger than just what that one feature was."
Will Wright, creator of "The Sims," sees freedom of choice as a creative challenge that developers ought to embrace. "How do we give the players as much freedom as possible without getting too distracted by the graphics involved?" he asked. "For me, that's the uncharted territory." In this respect, programming greater freedom of choice into games could be just as important to the future of game development as technical innovation.
As more and more developers join the ranks of Molyneux and Wright in advocating for games with more choice, gaymers and gamers alike will reap the benefits. "To allow the player to be whatever he wants in his 'virtual reality' can be the key to a game's success," said Lasky. "It will help sell a game, and the more a game sells, the more the developers publish — and the more developers publish, the more high-quality games they can afford to produce."