If you thought we had moved past the stereotype that gay men are little more than limp-wristed, leather-wearing fairies who scream “Yaaass queen” and snap at each other, you’d be wrong.
Need proof? Look no further than Smite, an online game with millions of registered players. It recently added a new, unlockable costume for one of its many characters: Chiron, a bow-and-arrow wielding centaur. This alternate costume, which Smite calls a “skin,” is titled “Fabulous.” It looks like this:
Not only does “Fabulous” alter Chiron’s appearance, but it also includes a number of special dialogue lines that he’ll recite in certain contexts. Some are sexual and flirtatious — like “Hello, Daddy,” and “Who do I need to spank?” — but others simply reference random memes that have migrated from gay Twitter to the mainstream over the last decade.
For example, at the beginning of the trailer that announced this skin, Chiron says, “Come on, gods and goddesses, let’s get smiting,” a reference to Laganja Estranja’s iconic workroom debut in season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The memes don’t stop there. Here are a few more lines Chiron says while a player has the “Fabulous” skin equipped:
• “Yaaass queen.”
• “I don’t know her.”
• “Oh em gee, slay.”
• “That’ll cost you, girl.”
• “Oh no baby, what is I doing?”
• “I like my men like I like my cream: whipped.”
• “Ooh, it might look better in leather.”
Seriously. Watch the trailer. It’s worse than you think:
There’s an important difference between “laughing at” and “laughing with”
Hi-Rez Studios, the company that makes Smite, obviously intended for this skin to be funny, but it feels like a case of “laughing at” rather than “laughing with.” And, in the world of gaming, where LGBTQ people often feel like outsiders in worlds that seem designed for heterosexual men, that distinction is an important one.
For example, in the context of RuPaul’s Drag Race — a show that’s very much made by and for gay people — Laganja’s over-the-top, feminine mannerisms aren’t mean-spirited. She’s not attempting to represent an entire subculture. She’s just one of a dozen queens interacting with other queer people, all of whom express their identities in different ways.
But in the context of an online game, it’s not quite that simple. Unlike a show about drag queens, online games very much feel like they’re made by and for straight people. Women, people of color and LGBTQ people are constantly made to feel like they don’t belong by their fellow players — and this sort of gay minstrelsy is just another sign that people like me are not welcome here.
This sort of gay minstrelsy is just another sign that people like me are not welcome here.
Moreover, Hi-Rez’s satirization — a generous word to use, frankly — of gay culture isn’t even particularly clever. It feels like Hi-Rez asked a 13-year-old boy to list out common “gay things,” then filtered his suggestions through a garish Lisa Frank hellscape.
In short, Chiron’s new skin is little more than a commodification of actual gay culture — an insensitive, finger-pointing caricature of what someone on the outside thinks being gay is.
And that’s a shame, because Hi-Rez’s peers in gaming have been doing an increasingly impressive job of depicting thoughtful, multi-faceted queer characters.
In 2017, Smite’s gay caricature feels shockingly outdated
In the adventure game Gone Home, for instance, developer Fullbright managed to paint a picture of a nuanced, young woman coming to terms with her same-sex attractions solely through little scraps of paper and voice recordings hidden around a house.
In Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare wrote the trans character Krem with the help of consultants to make sure he was depicted accurately and tastefully.
It feels like Hi-Rez asked a 13-year-old to list common “gay” things, then filtered his suggestions through a Lisa Frank hellscape.
It’s not as though the medium of an online competitive game was the limiting factor for Hi-Rez. Despite the fact that Blizzard’s multiplayer shooter Overwatch is structured in much the same way as Smite, it managed to reveal that its title character, Tracer, was a lesbian in a surprisingly thoughtful way — through a holiday-themed comic in which you discover the person she’s shopping for is her girlfriend, Emily.
Can you imagine if Blizzard instead had shared this bit of character development through a new costume in which Tracer dons a rainbow jumpsuit, has little vagina-shaped charms dangling from her pistols and zips around quoting Indigo Girls songs?
Who thought this was a good idea?
Perhaps the worst part is that this Chiron skin doesn’t seem to be intended to communicate that the character is actually gay. It’s simply a costume apparently intended to make players laugh and say, “Wow, gay people are wild!”
No, it’s not Hi-Rez’s responsibility to carefully craft the next queer gaming icon. And to be absolutely clear, it’s not as though Chiron’s other skins are thoughtful, nuanced parodies. Hi-Rez, by and large, paints in pretty broad strokes. For example, Chiron also has a Canada-themed skin called “Constable Moosejaw” where he’s dressed as a giant Moose wearing a Mountie’s uniform and says things like, “Sorry for being sorry.”
So, the “Fabulous” skin isn’t so much an example of blatant homophobia as it is an unfortunate side effect of Smite’s simplistic sense of humor. It’s just unfortunate that Hi-Rez decided to move its character design crosshairs from something relatively inoffensive, like “Canadian people say sorry a lot,” to gay men — a group that continues to be the target of hateful violence for simply existing.
The “Fabulous” skin isn’t so much an example of blatant homophobia as it is an unfortunate side effect of Smite’s simplistic sense of humor.
During a Twitch stream where members of the Hi-Rez team showed off the new Chiron skin, art director Chuk Vinson brought up the game Dream Daddy, a dating simulator that’s garnered a lot of positive attention for its tender, earnest depictions of queerness.
“Dream Daddy was not even a thing when we decided to do [the Chiron skin] — just pointing that out,” he said, pre-emptively defending himself against accusations that they copied the idea to include gay people. Hi-Rez might have waited to play the dating sim before releasing this skin, however. Dream Daddy, though imperfect, at least manages not to mock the culture it borrows from.
Hi-Rez did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
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