Why can't gay dwarves get married in Middle-earth?

Video games have been ahead of the real world in accepting same-sex marriage. Why doesn't a new online "Lord of the Rings" game allow it?

Published April 28, 2007 10:00AM (EDT)

I can vouch for my stepbrother -- he's a big supporter of equal rights for the gay and lesbian community. But when the issue of gay marriage came up at work, he voted against it. Same-sex marriage for U.S. citizens is one thing, but same-sex marriage for gay dwarves in Middle-earth is quite another.

Nik Davidson is a game designer at Turbine, the Westwood, Mass., company producing "The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar." The game has been in beta (a test version) since September, and during discussions of new features for the game, which was officially released Tuesday, the design team wound up in a heated discussion over what restrictions should be placed on marriage. They debated not only gay marriage but also marriage between members of different species. Finally, the game's executive producer settled the matter by pulling the entire marriage feature.

The controversy over whether hobbits should be able to marry dwarves may be unique to Turbine, but the issue of in-game relationships is not. Most American households have some form of single-player video or computer games; in addition, at least 12.5 million people subscribe to multiplayer online games, going online to interact with other game players in elaborate virtual worlds, many with sword and sorcery themes. Games like "The Lord of the Rings Online" -- often referred to as MMORPGs, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games -- don't just allow players to create life in the form of their characters; increasingly, they take over the lives of the players themselves. Perhaps the quintessential example is "EverQuest," launched in 1999, and so addictive it came to be known as "EverCrack." Once the most popular MMORPG, it has been displaced by "World of Warcraft," which boasts an estimated 8.5 million users. One study estimated that the average player was on "EverQuest" some 20 hours per week; of course, that number is skewed by casual users -- some hard-core gamers spend more like eight to 12 hours per day on the game.

Players devoting that much time and energy to their games will naturally want to live part of their life inside the game, and that includes developing committed relationships, sometimes with ceremonies. According to a study by Haverford College student Nick Yee, now a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, 23 percent of "EverQuest" players surveyed had role-played at falling in love within the game. Gay players, an increasingly visible demographic in a scene once known as the preserve of young and not necessarily enlightened males, often want the same thing. These players don't want to be shunted off to the side, either, or given "gay" games marketed to gay audiences; they just want to see themselves reflected in the games they play and to have safe spaces within the games, free of the homophobia that comes freely from the other players.

Largely due to the uniquely libertarian culture of game design, games are ahead of the real world in terms of acceptance of same-sex marriage -- the first game reported to have allowed same-sex marriage debuted in 1998, two years before Vermont recognized civil unions and six years before Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage. Today, the discussion of same-sex marriage in games redraws the battle lines over the issue, making it not a fight over marriage but an issue of the philosophy of video games themselves.

Last fall, with "The Lord of the Rings Online" in beta, Turbine did a survey to determine the major reasons people played MMORPGs. It turned out that what players ranked as most important weren't beautiful graphics or compelling storylines. They said they played because their friends were playing.

"The relationships that are being formed in-game are more important than anything we can provide to them," says Jeff Anderson, Turbine's CEO.

Erin Davison, a veteran game player from San Diego, says some of her oldest friends are people she met in a text-based online fantasy game in the 1990s. "I was a military child," she explains. The game was a way for her to stay in touch with the same people as she moved from place to place. One of the people she met in that game is now her husband; they've been married for six years.

Even that game -- "NannyMUD," a fantasy-based game that Davison describes as "basically like 'EverQuest,' but no pictures" -- had methods of coupling. "There are lockets that tell you when your other person is logged on, and wedding rings that glow when the other person is logged on," Davison says.

"Virtual worlds have always had marriage," Anderson says, "whether it's people staging an event in a town, or whether it's people meeting online and then getting married in real life."

But over the years since "NannyMUD" and other similarly primitive games premiered, gaming demographics have changed. It still skews male, for example, but not as male as it did even six years ago, when Yee's study showed that only 16 percent of "EverQuest's" players were female. Some of the games that are currently popular, like "The Sims," actually skew female.

"Gaming has become more socially acceptable. It's not just the bastion of geeks and nerds anymore," says Alexander Sliwinski, who writes about gay issues in video games for In Newsweekly and Joystiq.

There isn't a whole lot of information about the gay gaming demographic, but Flynn De Marco, aka Fruit Brute, the editor of GayGamer.net, says his site gets between 12,000 and 15,000 visitors a day.

De Marco and some friends started GayGamer.net last summer to provide a site where gay gamers could congregate and talk about their obsession. "Most game sites," De Marco says, "while they're great, they are definitely heavily slated towards the straight male: lots of pictures of scantily clad girls and lots of that kind of thing." And the atmosphere in a lot of these sites' forums, De Marco says, is "extremely homophobic."

Last year the first survey on sexual orientation and video games was launched at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, directed and independently funded by former student Jason Rockwood.

"My research suggests that gay gamers don't want games that are made for a 'gay audience,' Rockwood says. "They simply want to be able to play games that everyone else is playing, but they want to have inclusion; they want the option to have gay characters."

Rockwood says some gay players were upset about his survey because they were afraid it would lead to companies targeting the gay demographic by creating ridiculously stereotyped characters. "Gay gamers do not want 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: The Video Game,'" Rockwood says.

Rockwood posted the survey online and got responses from almost 10,000 people. Two-thirds of the respondents -- gay, straight and bisexual gamers -- said they felt the gaming community was either somewhat hostile or very hostile toward gay people. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said that during online game-play chat, other players had used the phrase, "That's so gay." Eighty-three percent had experienced other players using "gay" or "queer" in a derogatory fashion, and 52 percent felt that the depiction of homosexual characters in games was stereotypical.

It was this kind of hostility that in January 2006 led Sara Andrews to create an LGBT-friendly guild within "World of Warcraft." She wanted a space where people, queer or not, could play without having to contend with insults like "fag" being tossed around by other players.

But a moderator at Blizzard Entertainment, "WoW's" manufacturer, gave Andrews a warning, saying the guild violated the company's harassment policy by mentioning sexual orientation.

Andrews fought back, gaining media attention and prompting others to write letters in support of the guild. Blizzard quickly issued Andrews an apology and said it would review its harassment policy. The new policy bans only language that refers to any aspect of sexual orientation "insultingly." Representatives for Blizzard didn't respond to a request for comment on the issue.

Game players often improvise their own weddings in games that have no official "marriage" commands embedded in the game, and some of those unions, of course, have been same-sex. The first known game to deal with the issue of same-sex marriage head on, and officially allow it, was "Fallout 2," a role-playing game set in a post-apocalyptic America that was released in 1998. Timothy Cain, then a designer and producer with Interplay, the maker of the game, says the idea to allow players the option of a same-sex marriage was his.

"A big part of the 'Fallout' series was that we wanted it to be as open-ended as possible," Cain says. "We had no way of knowing whether you were going to be a man or a woman, so we decided to write all the different dialogue combinations."

Asked whether he was concerned that the core audience for role-playing games would be turned off by the possibility of a same-sex marriage within "Fallout 2," Cain was dismissive.

"I've always kind of said I made the games for myself and didn't think too much of the audience," Cain said, "but even though the primary demographic is males, it's also young males, and I would like to think this isn't an issue for males in their 20s anymore."

Cain says the same-sex marriage in "Fallout 2" didn't even receive much attention, and he's not surprised by that -- he thinks the option of a same-sex marriage is a natural thing in a role-playing game. He draws a distinction between role-playing games, which he thinks should be as open-ended as possible, and an adventure game, in which a character's actions are more carefully proscribed.

"To me, it's not surprising that a role-playing game would do this," he says. "A role-playing game, you invent your character at the beginning, so you should get to determine what they do, and if we're going to put any romantic element in, we should cover all the bases."

That's what Cain did when he moved to the now-defunct Troika Games, which he co-founded. He tells Salon that all three of the games Troika produced had some element of a same-sex relationship in them. Most notable was "The Temple of Elemental Evil," an adaptation of a 1980s "Dungeons & Dragons" game, which allowed players to marry a gay pirate named Bertram if they chose. That option did attract some attention, which Cain says he was surprised by, given that "Fallout 2" had already had the option. He adds that Wizards of the Coast, which owns the rights to "Dungeons & Dragons," had asked him to remove the option for same-sex marriage from the game, as they did other elements -- such as a brothel and alcohol -- that might keep the game from getting a T (Teen) rating.

"I told [Wizards of the Coast] I'd remove [the same-sex marriage] if they gave me something in writing explaining their reasons for removing it," Cain says. "That one seemed so ambiguous as to why they wanted it removed, so I asked for clarification in writing." After that, Cain says, Wizards of the Coast dropped their request that the same-sex marriage be removed.

However, despite its predecessors, and perhaps because of its wider reach, the game often credited with breaking down the barriers to same-sex relationships in gaming, is "The Sims." Originally released by Electronic Arts in 2000, the game allowed players to manage, with few restrictions, the day-to-day activities of one or more virtual characters. Included in that was the option for relationships, including same-sex relationships. "The Sims" became the best-selling PC game of all time, a feat widely attributed to its attraction for women, a largely underserved segment of the market that has exploded since "The Sims" debuted. Up to 60 percent of "Sims" players are female.

When "The Sims 2" came out in 2004, it allowed characters to marry and again did not discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual marriage.

"Players should be able to do whatever they want within their own game, and it's not our business to stop them," Rod Humble, head of the Sims Studio, says, explaining Electronic Arts' decision. "If you have two regular plastic dolls, you wouldn't expect someone to come along and tell you what positions you could and couldn't put them in. That's generally our philosophy."

"Fable," released in 2004 by Lionhead Studios, also incorporates same-sex marriage. The designers never intended to create this feature, according to a 2006 interview in Gamasutra.

"It was not so much a question of overt inclusion as a reluctance to remove something that occurred naturally in the course of creating our villagers' artificial intelligence," Dene Carter, "Fable's: creative director, told Gamasutra at the time. "Our villagers each had a simple concept of 'attraction to the hero.' We'd have had to write extra code to remove that in the case of same-sex interactions. This seemed like a ridiculous waste of time."

"Second Life," the popular user-run virtual world, also allows gay marriage. Joyce Bettencourt, known in "Second Life" as Rhiannon Chatnoir, owns a cathedral within the game and performs marriage ceremonies there for all kinds of couples.

Bettencourt says there isn't as much stigma online as in the real world. She met a lesbian couple within the game and found out months later that one of them was a man. "People can pick what they want to be, or even if they want to be human," Bettencourt says.

Catherine Smith, the director of marketing for Linden Lab, which produces "Second Life," says the decision to allow players the option of same-sex marriage came out of the game's generally libertarian philosophy.

"Environment and tools, that's what we provide," Smith says. "We're not legislating anything."

The question of same-sex marriage within "Second Life" wasn't completely separated from the political realities of the outside world, however. Smith noted that the Linden Lab press release announcing the feature that allows players to marry proudly proclaimed, "Can't be married in real life? Try Second Life."

Actually, other than that, the message from the makers of these games is nearly identical: They see their mission as providing space for users to create what is, in essence, their own reality. Within that mission, the question as a game is developed is not what users will be allowed to do but what they'll be stopped from doing.

"I think for us the general message is, as a creativity tool, we've never forced any kind of relationship or marriage on any of our players," Humble says. "We just allowed it, and people who aren't interested in it would never think to do it."

That philosophy is echoed by Rockstar Games, the controversial makers of such games as the "Grand Theft Auto" series and "Bully," which allows users to play the character of a teenage boy dropped into a boarding school gone wrong. Before it was even released, "Bully" was already the subject of much heated discussion; more fuel was added to that fire when users discovered last year that Rockstar had allowed gamers the option of same-sex kissing.

Rodney Walker, a spokesman for Rockstar, says the Rockstar team thinks of their games not like films, with static storylines, but as worlds that allow players to make their own choices, and Rockstar tries to shut down as few of those choices as possible. "If you're planning to take a vacation to California, you don't say to yourself, 'Where am I not going?'" Walker says. "When people talk about what's allowed in a video game, it's not about permission, it's about experience ... The thing that's so exciting about video games, which is why we think the medium is so popular right now, is because ... you can have an actual individual experience."

The difference for "The Lord of the Rings Online," according to Nik, is that for Turbine the idea was all about keeping Middle-earth, the world in which the story takes place, authentic.

The team at Turbine is serious about staying true to the source material. Several Turbine employees can speak Elvish, Tolkien scholars have been hired as consultants, and Nik was even asked to do research on Middle-earth plants and minerals so that clothing colors in the game could correspond to available dyes.

When fans complained on the message board about an erroneous squirrel color, Turbine promptly corrected the mistake. Turbine had released a screen shot of a forest scene featuring a gray squirrel, but Tolkien once wrote in a letter that he hated gray squirrels.

Authenticity isn't Turbine's only concern, though, according to CEO Jeff Anderson.

"We don't want to just create something that's truly authentic and no fun," Anderson says. "Our main goal is making a great game."

In order to make something fun and build on the online relationship trend, Turbine's design team came up with a pedigree system whereby a player can offer to "adopt" another player. "Tom" can become "Tom son of Jonathan," in the spirit of Tolkien's original "Gimli son of Glóin" and "Aragorn son of Arathorn."

The team had also originally planned to introduce a way for characters to marry other characters -- within certain guidelines.

"The rule that we tried to follow across the board was: if there's an example of it in the book, the door is open to explore it," Nik says. "Very rarely will you see an elf and a human hook up, but it does happen; the door is open. Dwarves don't intermarry with hobbits; that door is shut ... Did two male hobbits ever hook up in the shire and have little hobbit civil unions? No. The door is shut."

More than that, Nik says, it seemed as if same-sex marriage would simply not have fit with Tolkien's vision for the worlds he created.

"Tolkien was a conservative Catholic," Nik says. "He went out drinking with C.S. Lewis every night, and the two of them had a worldview that was -- well, let's just say it clashes a little bit with the sensibilities of East Coast liberals who make up the largest population of Turbine."

Brenda Brathwaite, a game designer and a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design who wrote the book "Sex in Video Games," says she doesn't think a desire for authenticity gets Turbine completely off the hook for its decision. Brathwaite says a video game, by its nature, sacrifices some authenticity because of its interactivity.

"Players are still creating their own experience," Brathwaite says. "In a video game, it's about abdicating authorship and letting a player explore a world."

The concerns Brathwaite raises, not to mention the development philosophy of the other game developers, were raised internally at Turbine. When the "Lord of the Rings Online" design team released its patch notes to the entire development team, Nik says, the restrictions caused a shouting match in the office, and opposition to the decision to restrict in-game marriage came from some surprising quarters.

Nik says there were a couple of conservative Christian people on the team who oppose gay marriage in real life but argued in favor of allowing same-sex marriage within the game. Their opposition grew out of that libertarian streak in game design.

"They felt that we should be removing interaction barriers, just as a design philosophy," Nik says.

Jeffrey Steefel, the game's executive producer, says he hasn't ruled out introducing marriage into the game at some point in the future. "I just couldn't figure out how to get it all done with all the other things we had to get finished," he says. "I think we're waiting to see how the players react."

By Katherine Glover

Katherine Glover is a freelance writer from Minnesota.

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Gay Marriage J.r.r. Tolkien Video Games