Months back, when Bioware came out with the news that finally, finally, a gay-romance option would be included in Mass Effect 3, something stood out to me. It was the way they explained why it was becoming an option: not as a political statement, but as a business decision of sorts. Players asked for it, and we give players what they want sort of deal.
To quote an earlier interview with Kotaku, where they explained that inclusion wasn't a political statement:
"We respond to that feedback and try to make our games better based on what our players are asking for."
"We're neutral," Muzyka says. " It's the player's choice. It's a role-playing game."
We're not pushing any particular direction with most of our stuff."
For comparison's sake, how the writers at both Mass Effect and Dragon Age talk about same-sex romance:
Nevertheless, I'm a straight white male—pretty much the living embodiment of the Patriarchy—and I really wanted to avoid writing something that people saw and went, "That's a straight guy writing lesbians for other straight guys to look at." (Patrick Weekes)
The romances in the game are not for "the straight male gamer". (David Gaider)
The writers use language that sounds political. Words that make it sound like the decision to be inclusive is coming from a progressive place. Words like "patriarchal," "privilege," "political correctness" and so on. Words that the ex head-honchos at Bioware shied away from using, instead opting for "neutral."
Anyone that doesn't perceive there might be a schism between Bioware as a whole and smaller teams at Bioware isn't paying attention.
But even the folks using those words don't pose inclusion as a completely ideological thing. Above all, it's a smart-move sort of thing: metrics say this is wanted, and it doesn't cost much to include, so hey, let's do it.
It's a business; decisions have to be practical. We can't talk about things like inclusion without justification that spans beyond the ideological to come up. It's not uncommon to talk about, say, gay characters, and have someone chime in that they hope it's not needlessly put in the game, that they hope there's a good reason for it—both narrative-wise, and development-wise.
I think we lose sight of this. I think we don't realize there might not politics where we assume there are politics.
As an example that I think is representative of how many people feel, we here at Kotaku have gotten a number of impassioned emails from fans wondering why, at first, Bioware seemed to be ignoring them with same-sex romance options in Star Wars: The Old Republic. To quote one:
Bioware claim to be an LGBT friendly organisation and producer, but their handling of same-sex content in Star Wars: The Old Republic seems to very much put that in doubt.
The call for same-sex romances is no longer being ignored: as we reported before, Bioware plans to bring same-sex romances into the game.
The controversy that has bizarrely popped up now, over a week after the announcement, is that the same sex romance will take place on a specific planet for now—Makeb—and you have to pay money to go there. Some have jokingly dubbed it 'pay-to-gay.'
Most are confused as to why Bioware would do this: aren't they, like, progressive or something? Why are they stumbling? This reaction puzzles me, for it asserts that the actions of one studio will predict the successes or predilections at other studios.
Kotaku's Tina Amini points out that if, for Bioware, inclusion is a business thing, then having to pay to access Makeb should not be surprising. In order to supply fans' desire for the extra content, BioWare would take on the development and resource costs in exchange for a price.
Ultimately I think we focus too much on the outcome of some of Bioware's actions: they have, on occasion, allowed players to pursue same-sex romances, so clearly they're making a statement and clearly they want to be progressive, and since they've done it before, they're always going to get it right.
That's hopeful thinking though. That's what we hope Bioware is saying and doing, what we hope they're taking a stance for. And somehow we've let a small part of the development team—the writers—speak not only for entire games, but for entire studios. That's crazy.
When the Bioware brand has extended to include not only Mass Effect and Dragon Age, assuming that all of the rest of their studios will take a stand in some way, or assuming that what one studio has done should be used as a metric for the other studios is a mistake.
It's especially a mistake now that Bioware has become a 'brand' which may not reflect a unification in ethos across all eight of the studios that are now considered "Bioware."
We've tried reaching out to Bioware for comment a couple of times on the fan-perception and Bioware's ideologies—should they exist—but we've not heard back. For now it seems clear that, even if The Old Republic fixes their mistakes, even if they give fans what they want, we should be cautious about assuming politics at Bioware.