5 answers about why there is a conference for queer gamers

Over on Polygon there is an article about a conference looking at LGTBQ* gamers’ rights. The site has quite a progressive and liberal readership, and the comments so far are very positive towards the idea.

However, this is the internet, so of course in other places the existence of such an event is causing anger. I’ve seen the same questions/objections come back over and over again in equal rights movements, so I thought it worthwhile putting together a list of the greatest hits and some answers:

1. Can’t there just be gamers? Why do we need to create communities within communities?

Altogether, around 10% of the population is not heterosexual or cisgender** (born the physical sex they feel they are inside) but this group is barely visible in games and gaming communities. In hardcore gaming communities there is often a strongly abusive response to women showing their presence – LGBTQ people are almost invisible compared to women, and derogatory terms for non-heterosexuals are very common as online insults and objecting to these can result in more abuse.

It is scary to go up against these kind of odds by yourself, but it is unpleasant to have to play as characters that you don’t feel reflect your experience of life. There are many stories of black children growing up and never seeing a black hero in a story, or girls growing up and never seeing a strong female character in their films (Colin Stokes did a great TED talk on this topic). Even as an adult, we crave seeing reflections of our lives in the fictions that we enter, but when 90% of the world is apparently happy with a product, how do we start that conversation?

Could LGBTQ communities and conferences not really be necessary? The world is changing and perhaps gamers and games developers will change their attitudes by themselves, but why would they? They have the games that fit their current tastes and they are surrounded by people who appear to be just like them, so there is no immediate incentive for them to change. In other words, without creating a smaller group and some division for a while, there is very little chance that the larger group is going to learn, evolve, and improve for everyone’s benefit. When someone says why can’t there ‘just be be gamers’, and why are divisions needed, that is the answer. It’s complex and requires explanation, especially because ultimately the questioners are right: no-one wants division, but this idea of ‘just gamers’ is really a denial of the status of anyone being different from them.

Division highlights the need for change, and many don’t want that, as the next two objections show, and change is necessary, as the last objections show, but without some division this will never come.

2. Why do you have to bring sexuality into games?

Sexuality is already in games, it’s just that it’s overwhelmingly frequently heterosexual in its nature, and heterosexuality is so much like the background noise of life to most people that they never notice it. It’s like an air-conditioning system that you never hear until it suddenly stops; the sound was always there, but it’s only when something changes that you realise it.

This is called a heteronormative attitude – where there is the assumption that heterosexual attitudes are so much the normal and natural state that anything that conflicts with these assumptions becomes at best weird or unnecessary, and at worst branded as evil, unnatural, or a threat. This was reflected recently in society with the debates about the legalisation and recognition of gay marriage.

From Mario in love with Princess Peach, to Dom and his wife in Gears of War, heterosexual relationships are already present in games, so a LGBTQ conference about games is not bringing sexuality into games, it is only attempting to expand the field of experiences that games can address.

3. It’s not realistic to have a gay love story forced into my future alien warfare simulator – why does there need to be a conference about creating a Gay Agenda for gay stories in everything?

No one is insisting that there should be gay stories in everything, just like no one is insisting that heterosexual love stories should be in everything.

If there is such a thing as a ‘Gay Agenda’ then it is to make queer*** behaviours and lifestyle choices more accepted so that everyone can live peacefully and productively together in society, no matter their preference of their own sex/gender or that of their adult partner. If this can be reflected in games then that is all for the better. (It isn’t about trying to get people to have sex with kids or marry horses, as some conservative politicians and religious leaders like to suggest, but I hope we can all agree that those kind of statements are either malicious attempts to derail the discussion into meaningless territories to stall movement on actual issues that they want to avoid, or simply terrifyingly ignorant.)

Games are not separate from society: they are a medium through which stories and attitudes can be conveyed. It would be irresponsible for television and books to only tell stories about a man in a state of primal fury who kills everyone he sees, just as it would be strange if the stories they tell never included anyone who is gay (for example). Only a couple of decades ago, television programs had no gay characters… Doesn’t that seem so strange now? It’s not like gay characters have been jammed into every series, it’s just that alternative lifestyles are there as part of the menu of character behaviours that writers can use. That diversity of choice has made the stories better.

A conference about equality in games is not about forcing gay stories into inappropriate places, it is about giving developers more choices and showing them that these options are supported by the community.

4. Gay people would be the first to complain if heterosexual gamers were to make a conference just for themselves. It’s so hypocritical!

Again, we’re back in the territory of heteronormative privilege. If this is the first time you’ve heard of the concept then have a read about it because it’s a very powerful tool for understanding these kinds of debates.

Public-facing games conferences like E3 and PAX are heavily oriented towards a non-queer audience – which is fair enough because the majority of society is heterosexual and cisgender… But the weighting is so heavy that anything that does not fit this becomes a problem. Worse than this, the grouping is again overwhelmingly focussed towards men at the moment, leading to further issues when male privilege becomes involved.

Male privilege is the ugly twin of heteronormative privilege. Again, this is an important term, so if it’s new to you then it’s worth reading about. In essence, it talks about a social system where being male (or appearing male) gives rights that women do not have.

Challenges to male privilege in the gaming world have been met with some very extreme responses – threats of violence, murder, and rape are not unknown for even small questions regarding the representation of women in games. Given that women are a little over 50% of the population, you would think that it would be easy for them to get heard… Right? Now amplify that by the smaller community of active queer developers and gamers who want a little more respect and it should become clear what the scale of their problem is.

The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) recently ran into difficulties because one of the founders of Penny Arcade posted a string of Tweets that increasingly showed a lack of awareness of transsexuality. This resulted in one of the exhibitors making the following statement:

We are a four-person team. Two of us are women and one of us is gay. Gone Home deals in part with LGBT issues. This stuff is important to us, on a lot of different levels. And Penny Arcade is not an entity that we feel welcomed by or comfortable operating alongside.

Back to the original question about why queer people need a LGBTQ conference – when the major conferences feel so unwelcoming and that they misunderstand queer issues so massively, it is hard to create anything new or unique outside of heteronormativity and male privilege. All LGBTQ conferences welcome ‘allies’ from those outside the LGBTQ groups, just as E3 ostensibly welcomes diversity too, but when booth babes (women in small outfits solely designed to attract the dominantly male visitors to exhibitors’ stalls) are still permitted it is hard to feel that the event is anything but oriented towards a heterosexual male audience. That is the reality of the business model at the moment, so it is understandable, if sad, that these are the tactics being used, but it is equally understandable that a LGBTQ audience might feel that they are not wholly welcome in that environment.

5. Games don’t need queer people or ideas.

I lied at little at the start – this isn’t something I’ve seen said so openly, but it is the essence of every other argument I’ve heard, and in the end it is deeply flawed.

We are supposed to be working in an industry that values the creation of new and exciting ideas, but we are facing a problem: as the money spent to improve graphics begins to have smaller and smaller effects on the final game, the search for innovation must come from other areas. Gameplay mechanics are one area where innovation is possible, but new genres and really significant changes are becoming rare. Visual experimentation away from realism is another path we are taking, but most of all we are in a position where innovation is frequently being pushed onto the game’s narrative. This is a place where historically games have performed very poorly, but where there are proven examples of the same story being retold in new ways for hundreds of years…

And yet we are limiting ourselves. Time and time again, we are making the same story with exactly the same characters in near identical settings: a late-twenties to mid-thirties heterosexual man is on a quest of revenge for the death of his wife, set in a post-apocalyptic world (or building sites and sewers if it is the modern day).

The idea of ‘queer’ is very powerful here. In society, ‘queer’ means people who do not conform to ‘normal’ heterosexual behaviours and gender representations, but in games, where normal is even more restrictive, being queer becomes something more. It would be ‘queer’ to have an old person as the protagonist. It would be ‘queer’ to be gay. Or to not want to fight. Or to be a child. Or to be fat. Or black. Or Russian and not a criminal, Middle-Eastern and not a violent extremist, or Japanese and not a computer genius who is into robots. Or in a wheelchair. Sadly, it is often still queer to even be a woman.

I will always remember an anecdote from an essay by female queer theorist:

She was presenting at a conference on gay and queer issues in literature and had mentioned during her talk that she had a boyfriend. At the end of the talk a person in the audience asked ‘you’re in a straight relationship so what gives you the right to talk about queer stuff?’. She replied: ‘When I fuck my boyfriend with a strap-on it feels pretty queer to me.’****

Queer equality isn’t just there to improve the lives of people who are LGBTQ, it has effects on the quality of the whole industry’s output. In a situation where the prevailing attitudes of games culture is frequently aggressively heteronormative and male-oriented, even women become queer in the eyes of many gamers.

Like any good equality movement, progress in this area will be hard and there will be opposition, but in the end everyone benefits from a greater diversity of characters and relationships in our games. Getting this right will also not only make our stories better, but maybe the the story of the bisexual, polyamorous, black, Brazilian woman who works in a graphic design office will inspire some new gameplay mechanics too. What happens to games when we take away stories of men with guns out for revenge? What happens when pulling a trigger doesn’t fit with a character? When their movement is slow or limited? How do we tell the stories of the women, the downtrodden, the unusual, the people that we’ve never played, and people never dreamed of playing yet?

In other words, how do we play the stories of the queer? This sounds like the way to find new gameplay and make the industry better for everyone.

You know… That sounds so good, I think that someone should organise a conference about that.

*LGBTQ = Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer
**Cisgender = Your self-perceived gender is the same as your physical sex, for example a cisgender person would be cismale if they were born in a male body and feel male inside too, but a transgender person would be transmale if they were born in a female body but feel male inside. Also, I know there is controversy about the 10% figure, but by all admissions the research data on this topic is extremely hard to collect reliably.
*** Queer = over the past couple of decades, ‘queer’ has been increasingly claimed by individuals, groups, and academics as a catch-all term for people whose attitudes and expressions of sexuality do not fit the heterosexual and cisgender thought and behaviour model.
**** Sadly, I don’t have the book any more so I cannot look up the name of the writer or exact quote. To my surprise, Googling for queer women with strap-ons did not produce relevant research data.

New Fragments of Him video review from CinnamonToastKen

A prominent YouTube video game blogger has reviewed Fragments of Him. It’s nice that his entire coverage of the gay relationship is ‘So… You’ve got a male couple’, and that’s it, exactly as it should be. Thanks CinnamonToastKen!

Also, a very amusing namecheck for Fragments of Him in a video he posted a week later:

“I played Fragments of Him, which was about a homosexual couple, and it really didn’t have anything homosexual about it other than it said ‘him’ in the story, and that seemed to have bothered a lot of people… So I figured I’d just go and find the gayest game that I could since you’re a bunch of homophobes.”

(Starts about 10 seconds in.)