Gay in Game: A Rhetorical Analysis of Gay Identity Through Varus and Sett/Aphelios in League of Legends

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This study investigates how the company Riot Games represents gay identity in the video game League of Legends (LoL) but reifies negative frames historically associated to gay individuals. Riot Games’ history of harassment and discrimination in the workplace, as well as the gaming industry’s overall history, informs the company’s public relations (PR) move to celebrate diversity and inclusion as an act that benefits Riot’s reputation. I conduct a rhetorical analysis of how Riot Games’ stylistic choices for the character Varus and the relationship between Sett and Aphelios (i.e., Settphelios) embed them with the tropes of sick, sinful, deviant, and criminal simultaneously as the characters embody gay identity, contextualized by literature on Edmund White’s description of four ideas attributed to gay individuals, Henry Jenkin’s transmedia storytelling, Kenneth Burke’s terministic screen, and Gayatri Spivak’s othering. My inquiry illuminates that Riot Games’ attempts at gay representation in League of Legends repeat harmful worldviews about gay people; concurrently, Riot Games’ approach to gay representation with Varus and Settphelios cause the othering of gay identity by establishing queer content in the margins of the story and neglecting it from gameplay, or placing gay romance behind a paywall, expecting players to pay to embody gay identity—reifying heteronormativity and othering gay people to the margins. The implication of this study is that representation in media helps humanize LGBTQ+ people, which includes children playing video games or consuming other digital media. However, the company’s use of negative stereotypes for gay characters and stories advances anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation that seeks to censor queer people and experiences under the idea that queer topics are intrinsically “inappropriate.”

video game, rhetoric, sinful, sick, gay, league of legends, criminal, deviant