I remember Bully. The 2006 Rockstar release was not particularly notable when it was first released. It was well reviewed, but also controversial. The game was released on the tail end of the PS2 era, featuring the same engine as Grand Theft Auto(GTA): San Andreas. Set in a different world than San Andreas with a younger cast of characters, Bully offered the same humour, mechanics, and score of a typical Rockstar game.
In most avenues.
I remember Bully for taking a significant risk before being explored by mainstream media. For the first time in my life, I played a video game as a queer character.
The main protagonist, Jimmy Hopkins was never my expected avatar for personal representation. He’s a young, cis white bisexual male. At the time, I was a young, cis white lesbian female. He was brash, angry, and at times savage. I laughed along at his pithy one-liners and sarcastic comebacks. It wasn’t until I stumbled across the ability to kiss a male NPC that I could truly identify with his anger. It was the same anger that I, a heavily closeted lesbian, struggled to hold at bay every day.
I couldn’t shoot a slingshot at the bullies that made fun of the only queer person out at my high school. I couldn’t throw marbles and make them fall over when they hurled homophobic slurs at the straight boy who had an effeminate quality to his voice. I couldn’t huck a stink bomb at them when they took a girl’s clothes from her locker and threw them in the shower to “send a message” to any lesbians who may have been in the room. I couldn’t do anything with my rage, but Jimmy could. And for the first time in my life, I could play a character who could kiss a person of the same sex.
It’s not as though this was particularly overt, either.
In comparison to the mechanics assigned to kissing a female-presenting character, kissing boys was positively chaste. After a certain number of Art classes, Jimmy would be able to receive higher health benefits and the kissing animation would grow from a small peck into a full on makeout session with whatever girl you chose.
Jimmy would always have to work to kiss a male-presenting character. Even if you had maximum benefits from Art class, Jimmy would always have to present a gift to his male partners. His kissing animation would also never escalate to the same level as with female partners. Today, that kind of discrepancy wouldn’t fly. At that time, it was revolutionary.
In 2018, Sam Greer did a study in which she found that at the time, only 179 games had queer representation. Of those, only 83 are playable characters. And of those 83, 8 of those characters are “pre-written as queer as opposed to them being queer as an option.” A significant number of those characters came after Jimmy Hopkins. It’s important to recognize that, to a certain extent, Jimmy paved the way for them.
“He may be one of those 83 rather than the 8, but he laid significant groundwork whilst having no story-related gay content.”
You have to understand this was several years before Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Assassin’s Creed offered queer playable characters. Let alone written-as-queer characters like Ellie from The Last of Us. Jimmy Hopkins was not the first queer character in video games by a long shot. Except he was a character that wasn’t a queer-coded villain, a background character or an NPC with one-off lines that you might miss. Jimmy was you, and so you had the ability to kiss someone of the same gender. You had the ability to only kiss someone of the same gender, if you so chose. And in a world where you’re bullied for your hair, clothes, weight, or any number of identifiers, Rockstar never, ever, bullied Jimmy, and you by extension, for choosing to engage in queer exploration.
In the twelve years between Bully’s release and Sam Greer’s study, same sex marriage went from being legalized in four countries to twenty-one. In the two years since, the total has risen to thirty. Homosexuality is still illegal in most countries in the world. It’s punishable by death in multiple countries. In Canada, which has had legalized same sex marriage since 2005, the Alberta government is still actively arguing against the rights of queer students to live safely and openly. In Alberta, a student like Jimmy would still have to live their life looking over their shoulder, worrying that they can be outed against their will. To live as a queer person, even now, is a transgressive act. To have that represented in 2006, was life-altering.
Jimmy Hopkins is queer. The player may never know it, they may never act upon it, or they may despise it, but that fact will always remain true. Jimmy Hopkins is a queer character.
I remember Bully. And I will be forever grateful for it.