N.B. For lack of any confusion, this post is only concerned with, at this time, the first Gears of War. The sequel is another post in the future.
For months I have seen and heard assertions that Gears of War is a pile of homoerotic gonads rubbing against themselves. Before playing the game, I believed much of this and felt that in a story that included a homosocial environment and battlefield with brawny soldiers this had to be the case. Mistake number one; I dare say it’s a mistake into which the gaming community has fallen.
Sure, the achievements have references to a tongue-in-cheek homosexual overtone: when playing co-op with someone as Dom you can earn ‘Dom-curious’ and ‘I can’t quit you, Dom.’ The former seemingly a play on bicurious and the latter alluding to Brokeback Mountain. Even in versus matches there exists an achievement for the first ranked match: ‘Always remember your first.’ Time and again the game pokes fun at its audience and gives a little wink to the assumptions we have of those jocks and homosocial environments–you know: circle jerks, mutual porn watching, et cetera.
The thing is, the rest of the game doesn’t fall through. Many people have bandied about the term ludonarrative dissonance for the fact that the game is constantly on the aggressive, asking you to be macho and push forward while you are instead seeking cover and taking shots from a safe location. You can’t run in guns blazing and hope to survive. Which is the linchpin of the entire game–a conflicted message. The game builds itself out of tension and its execution in many different aspects–but there isn’t really any sexual tension among Delta squad.
At no point while I was playing this supposedly homoerotic game did I ever have that knowing eyebrow raise that denotes I found something scintillating. There was no surreptitious giggle over a puerile fantasy of men in a locker room in nothing but towels. What we’re seeing is a community filling in for something that does not exist in the text or even in between the lines while playing the game itself.
In fact, reading various pieces, forum discussions, and banter on this game, homoeroticism is almost thrown around as a dirty word in some corners. They seem to ask: how can all these (assumed) men players who are seeing this as a pinnacle for masculinity actually like this ‘so obviously’ homoerotic game unless they have possible homoerotic tendencies themselves, in an effort to rile up the core player of this title. It seems to be a path of denigration using homoeroticism as its weapon. Now my eyebrow is raised and my lips pursed in an effort to not say something off-color.
What we’ve managed to do is conflate homosocial and homoerotic, though this is hardly new to videogames, or even this particular videogame. There exists a cultural standard that a single-sex environment is rife with sexual tension in some way that will release itself in homoerotic and lusty propositions of which no one will ever speak. Whenever I, as a gay male, mention I attended an all-male college, people will laugh and say they know why I went there (those four years were perhaps among the loneliest of my openly gay life in terms of sex or romance, actually). That environment did have homoerotic under- and overtones, but the context afforded such.
In the context of Gears of War, we’re barely given fully fleshed personalities that aren’t riddled with stereotype and cliché. Cliff Bleszinski himself admitted in an interview he was not seeking to reinvent characters or push forward a new standard. The focus was on the game, and the plot was to remain ancillary with plenty of one-liners and quips, being more focused on presenting an action game that played on previous sci-fi mainstays or newcomers (ranging from Pitch Black to Alien and Predator). Nowhere in this action or in these one-liners is it implied that this homosocial environment will cross over into any risky business, even as a joke. There wasn’t even anyone in a state of undress.
If anything, the homoeroticism seemingly evident is one on which I didn’t pick up because I never played it with other people. The homoerotic titled achievements all require playing with a buddy, and the design team seems pretty self-assured that this buddy will not be your girlfriend (which made me wonder what the point of the end credits thanking female significant others was–beyond saying one did so). After all, this game fills that niche for a market of men hungry for masculine media made available to the inner-man who does manly things in a manner of man-like activity. In fact, the game seems to push its homoeroticism in a seeming wink at the social aspects of our gaming culture.
The game is not so much homoerotic as our enjoyment of it is. It isn’t even my or your enjoyment, it would be instead dedicated to our shared, collective experience of the title that suggests something illicit. Now, I’m going to disagree with an earlier post (though my recent starting of Devil May Cry 4 assures me that it’s homoerotic within the first half hour), as we’re never even given a body which we can admire in unarmored fashion. So, if I dare say it, Gears of War is not homoerotic.
We are. (Assuming we’re all males and playing an all-male cast.)