Valorant is a viral free-to-play shooting game made by Riot Games, the same company responsible for the popular multiplayer online battle arena League of Legends and hit Netflix series Arcane, and they have released a new playable agent, Clove, into their roster that has been making waves in the community. During the latest — and now most watched — Valorant Champions Tournament Masters Madrid (VCT Masters Madrid), a gameplay trailer, cinematic and official audio were released for Clove, alongside a streamer showcase where popular Valorant personalities got to try out the Scottish agent, demonstrating their new abilities with fun low-stakes gameplay.

Gameplay-wise, Clove is incredibly innovative, bringing in a fun, fresh take to the game. Each agent is designed to fit certain roles and take on specific responsibilities, and Clove is the newest addition to the Controller archetype. Controllers are tasked with obscuring vision from the opposing team and are perceived by many as the most difficult role insofar as successful Controller players must keep various tactics in mind while mapping positions of the enemies. As such, this archetype is the least popular role as it demands the most awareness out of a player and forces them to play in the most supportive and coordinated manner.

Clove’s designed abilities are a great remedy for the unpopularity of the role since they are more offense-oriented. This allows Clove players to take on more agency with their abilities, taking charge in the frontlines rather than typically staying in the back to stay alive and make use of their valuable kit. It also helps that some of their utilities incorporate elements from the most popular role in the game, the Duelist role. With an exciting and approachable playstyle, Clove reinvigorates the Controller role.

Despite the positive reception to their innovative gameplay design from players, they received a lot of controversy because of their gender identity. They are the first nonbinary character to be added to the roster and go by they/them pronouns. This has been met with both support and backlash from the player base, producing interesting discourse from the community response to Clove’s introduction.

Popular Valorant YouTuber and personality, WestJett, has come out to lead the charge against how both Clove’s identity and pronouns will affect gameplay — or, rather, Riot Game’s choice to make Clove a nonbinary character. He presents his case in multiple YouTube videos making various arguments against introducing gender politics into Riot’s tactical shooter that include valuing the escapism of video games, criticizing possible capitalistic intentions and outlining the confusion caused by their pronouns.

Firstly, there is the argument of how Clove’s pronouns affect gameplay. Since Valorant requires coordination and is relatively fast-paced, communication via voice chat is crucial to teamplay using “callouts,” quick phrases that efficiently relay information. Thus, when players call out an opposing Clove’s positioning or plays, players using the proper pronouns, they/them, can potentially cause confusion as “they” implies plurality and that multiple agents are included in the callout. This can force some players to make wrong decisions.

However, this line of reasoning avoids the fact that these kinds of callouts were already inefficient. Attaching a pronoun to a callout is already confusing as it raises the question of whether it is addressing the character or player — as many assume other players to go by he/him pronouns due to the gaming community being predominantly male — and it is more effective to address the callout with the name of the agent (ex: “Clove is there”). Therefore, gameplay-wise, players should already be learning to recognize agents by names if they feel that it is important to their success in the game.

Another argument against the new agent is that Clove’s inclusion is a form of pandering and is stained by capitalistic intentions. This postures their addition to the cast to be seen as catering to the queer community by some, implying that Riot Game’s choice to make Clove nonbinary was one to exploit the said community. This rhetoric can also be seen in how people perceive other media supporting inclusion in ways that seem superficial, such as Ariel’s race-swap in Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” or DC Comics’ Pride Month “Nightwing” comic book cover.

What this argument ignores is that Valorant has always had a very inclusive cast, featuring characters that hail from a diverse set of backgrounds. Not only do most agents hail from many different regions of the world, but Valorant also already has two LGBTQ+ representatives in agents Killjoy and Raze, which makes Clove’s inclusion all the more unsurprising. Another strong point is that Valorant is also owned and heavily invested by Tencent, a Chinese corporation where, in China, there’s a negative attitude towards LGBTQ+ characters, demonstrating how important Clove being nonbinary is.

The most interesting argument against the new Controller agent is that Valorant, a violent action-packed game, is not a suitable environment to incorporate gender politics. Especially as the game is notorious for toxic behavior amongst competitive players (a common trait of competitive games), many do not see the point of trying to express the need for diversity and inclusion. This also stems from a strong urge to keep games as an escape from reality — a comfort that people value so very much.

Pulitzer Prize winner and respected film critic Roger Ebert corroborates this in his 2010 blog post titled “Video games can never be art,” stating that games that try to be art ignore their mechanical premises in their rules, points, objectives and outcomes, “[the game] ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film.” Thus, Valorant expressing itself as an art form can be seen as antithetical to its competitive premise, and politicizing its mechanics with gender politics can be distracting — pitting the mechanics of the game against the motif of the character narratives.

However, Riot Games’ choice to be inclusive is a powerful one that demonstrates how far video games have come as an art form, unchained and unrestrained by its medium. Stories that infuse game mechanics with the stakes of the narrative games, such as Naughty Dog’s “Last of Us” or Insomniac Games’ “Spider-Man” collection, are incredible experiences that show that there doesn’t need to be sacrifice in either motif or mechanics. 

Considering Valorant as an art form and the importance of Clove’s queer identity is paramount to recognizing how important games have become to popular culture. The mechanics and motifs can make up the entire gaming experience. American artist Makoto describes the difference between art and entertainment: “Entertainment gives you a predictable pleasure. Art leads to transformation.” Video games can be the future, and it starts with respecting the stories that they can tell.