“I’m queer myself. Representation means a lot to me. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s where you had to really read between the lines to find any sort of representation that wasn’t just tragic, terrible, or vilified,” Apex Legends’ lead writer Amanda Doiron tells me. “It made you feel more weird – there was more shame around it. So in Apex, it’s great, because there’s so much there, and there’s different ways to represent it – there’s not one way to be gay. So, it’s quite meaningful to me in that we’re not just continuing to represent a certain group’s experience, we’re creating characters that people can relate to and look up to.”
When I was huddled up at 7pm on a scorching hot Friday night, the type you don’t normally find in the cold wasteland that is northern England, sipping my honey-sweetened cup of coffee, I got onto a Zoom call with Amanda. We said hello, had a little pre-emptive interview chat. It was the usual awkward smalltalk that I’m still adjusting to as a young up and comer 20 year old in the industry. When she began to tell me all about her experiences as an LGBTQ+ person in the gaming biz, what it was like to grow up with that void of representation, it really struck a chord with me. I highlight my age and the young adult angst because it’s still something contemporary and poignant in my own life.
She grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, whereas I was a 2000s and 2010s kid. Yet, what she described still hit close to home despite my experiences stemming from the following two decades. Change has come and things have improved. While there’s no doubt in that, there’s still that void and that struggle with coming to terms with your queer identity that can bring a sense of shame and an anxiety of ostracizing, overwhelming self-deprecation.
Coming out was no small feat. I told the world I was bisexual at only 12 or 13 (the specifics gets fuzzier as the years go by). A lot of people didn’t believe me. They weren’t convinced because I didn’t fit their preconceived notions that they’d conjured up regarding these various sexualities as if we were types of Pokemon with set guidelines and rigid obligations to abide by.
People didn’t know what bisexual, gay, trans, or anything inbetween looked like, because it isn’t shown enough. That’s why games like Apex Legends are crucial and should be celebrated and lauded. They bring that to the table, that vital representation that normalizes LGBTQ+ people, showing the world that we exist, that we don’t fit into these arbitrary boxes of stereotypes, that we’re people like the cis and the heterosexuals of the world. The only differences are how we identify and who we are attracted to.
“I think LGBTQIA+ representation is crucial for normalizing queer experiences,” Mackenzie Galbraith, the associate quality designer at Respawn, says, “When people don’t know you or anyone like you, they have no frame of reference, and even the simplest questions that they have become daunting or awkward. Having positive representation that goes beyond stereotypes and caricatures helps make it feel more normal when you meet a queer person in real life for the first time.”
That’s why I’m so giddy to see so much more of it in the media. I’m not just feeling more accepted, but there’s less of that tumultuous turmoil, that stand-offishness, when telling people I’m bi. Sure, some people are pricks, but a lot of the time, I get more of a, ‘Cool, anyway’ response which I cherish. Yet, there’s still that feeling that I don’t always fit into these boxes of stereotypes, and that’s why I wish more games, shows, movies, or whatever else took the Apex Legends approach to writing queerness.
“Regardless of their background, their orientation, they’re just really cool characters – people you can relate to, even if they don’t necessarily have the exact same background or experience that you have,” Doiron tells me, “They’re still very relatable characters that you’re rooting for or love rooting against. We never make being LGBTQ+ their defining feature. It’s just that in the world of Apex, it’s a given. There’s not that prejudice or that struggle. It’s like, ‘Oh hey, Gibraltar’s gay.’ And when we’re creating the characters, it’s not something we would ever put on a trait list. Gay – what does that mean? It’s not a personality trait. So on those personality descriptions, which don’t include orientation whether that’s bi, pan, ace, lesbian, or gay, we put things like the ex boyfriend being a big part of their backstory. That’s going to be on there, but it’s not about how he acts or how he does that. Being gay isn’t a personality trait. There’s so many different ways to be gay.”
Hearing how Apex Legends’ writers handle sexual orientation is utterly refreshing. It’s one thing to have that representation, but handling it inauthentically or even harmfully by perpetuating tropes can ultimately lead to it feeling like a diversity quota with little meaning, depth, or nuance. Galbraith put it: “Apex has done a pretty good job at being diverse since launch. Having characters who are LGBTQ+ but not tokenized is a difficult tightrope to walk, but Apex has done so successfully by avoiding common offensive stereotypes and tropes. My main hope for other games is that if they want to make queer characters (which I hope they do), they should have actual people on their teams who reflect that to help ensure they are avoiding the pitfalls of tokenization.”
Apex Legends handles it differently to others. There’s a culture at Respawn that’s rare in the triple-A gaming world, a culture that breeds normality with handling queer characters. It’s not something that’s necessarily on display in a blatant way or the epitome of these people’s identities. It’s just who they are, like Bloodhound identifying as non-binary or Gibraltar being gay. It comes off in the comics, the voice lines, and the cinematics, but it does in a seamless way that any hetero depiction does, like seeing Spider-Man with one of his many girlfriends. You don’t look at that and cry, ‘Why are we being forced to witness heterosexuality?’ It’s just an insight into Peter Parker’s ordinary life, and we celebrate that. That normality is what Apex Legends does so well, and that normality is what will ultimately, through representation on these large platform games, help kids, young people, to break out from these bubbles they’re constricted by. Maybe the world will get more welcoming through these depictions and young people won’t have to face the shit we did.
It’s hard to understand that for people who have been represented their entire lives because it’s so normal and ingrained that they don’t even realize that they have been represented. That’s just how games are. The straight white macho dudes with guns going pew pew as they take on hordes of demons or robots or zombies. Galbraith, discussing the importance of it in gaming, told me: “I think it’s more important than ever. Someone who is white, able-bodied, male, and heterosexual may not see that a lot of gaming communities are safe spaces for them almost by default, while those same communities can be hostile or toxic toward the many people who play games that don’t fit that description. Making statements that racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia have no place in our games is critical for making our games’ communities a safe space for everyone.”
Doiron adds: “It means a lot to me that somebody can feel more comfortable being their authentic self, and that we’ve helped in any way is a great feeling.” That’s a vital point for representation. It not only normalizes these different identities, but it shows that they’re accepted, that they’re okay, that it’s not a bad thing. That makes it a more welcoming environment – I know that seeing the slew of LGBTQ+ flags during Apex Legends’ celebration of Pride Month made me feel unbelievably welcomed, personally – but it also helps us that are queer feel at home in our own skin. Not only is the community more open to it, with those who aren’t being shunned and pushed out – deservedly – but it makes me feel less wrong for being who I am.
I’ve often felt excluded from normality because I like guys, but god damn it, guys are hot too, and there’s nothing wrong with thinking that. If that tiny little detail of my life is enough to insight burning hatred in your heart, then you’ve got some big problems to work through, and maybe it’s best you don’t get online and interact with strangers. By having Respawn tell them that this isn’t a place for them, that they aren’t welcome, it feels unbelievably warm and coddled, rather than cold and corporate.
I wanted to see if others in the LGBTQ+ community felt the same, so I reached out to GaymingMagazine’s editor Aimee Hart, TheGamer editor Jade King, and MaximumPC writer Christian Guyton. Jade told me that it’s “not just lip service to queer communities because the team is naturally part of it,” and that’s something I talked at length to with Doiron as well. See, that business-like feeling of inauthenticity can be easily combated by employing the people you’re aiming to represent, involving them in the conversations. With that, you can avoid blatant fuck ups like when Injustice 2’s mobile game celebrated Pride Month by having us… beat up a queer character. Yikes. That would not have slipped by so nonchalantly if they’d put it past literally any LGBTQ+ person. Doiron tells me, ”It’s important to have diversity on teams, because it’s good to be informed by other people with similar experiences. If you’re just hiring everyone who has the same – not just orientation, race, or ethnicity, but also life experiences – everything will feel like the same idea. Hiring diverse teams allows for greater creativity because you get way more ideas coming through.”
It’s that behind the scenes hiring in conjunction with the representation and public stances that makes Apex Legends feel intrinsically different in its handling of queerness when compared to the many businesses and studios that feel faux, like it’s a quick way to get some brownie points on social media. Hart expressed similar feelings: “Apex Legends doesn’t just declare a character LGBTQ and leave it that, expecting to reap the rewards, like they’ve done us a service by merely acknowledging we exist. They see it as a chance to create meaningful stories about these queer characters. The recent comic with Loba, Bangalore, and Valkyrie: I’ve very rarely seen a same-sex love triangle before, and it excited me in a way that my straight friends must have felt when they watched literally every romantic movie ever. It was handled with respect and sincerity and even gets acknowledged in-game via voice lines instead of pushed aside so people can pretend the Legends are straight.
If your LGBTQ+ characters are hidden, then you’re doing the community a disservice.” Guyton adds: “Apex not only contains wonderful, three-dimensional LGBTQ+ characters, but its representation is far more tangible; voice lines, in-game comics, animated shorts, everything contributing to building well-rounded queer characters who are allowed to display their love and affection. Respawn made a battle royale FPS with chunky guns and big explosions, but it means a lot to me that they also committed to showing queer characters as genuine people with interesting lives, rather than just slapping sexuality onto a character in a post-launch interview and waiting to reel in the gay clout points.”
Apex resonates with its audience, and it does that because it’s unlike any other gigantic triple-A game in a domineering genre. It’s as diverse behind the scenes as it is in front of the camera, something typically left to the indies of the industry, while it’s also so normal, avoiding tragedy, something that so many LGBTQ+ stories end in. These people are just a part of the world, true to reality, and that’s unseen elsewhere. I can’t think of many other games that really feel that way. The Last of Us and Life is Strange are bogged down by that tragedy trope, something so common it has a name – bury your gays – and others like Overwatch have troubling behind the scenes, barely scratching the surface of potential that Apex otherwise basks in. It’s a fantastic game for its depiction of queerness, and if it inspires anything at all in the gaming world, I hope it’s how to handle these vital, important representations. It’s one thing to acknowledge and to stand in solidarity, it’s another when it comes to the actual execution, to bring it to fruition.
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