Tag Archives: Conferences

The final GaymerX conference

This weekend I have been in the company of a couple of thousand wonderful, creative, supportive gamers and developers. These people also happen to be ‘gaymers’.


The GaymerX conference happened for the second and final time in San Francisco this week, and won’t be happening again… But something will be taking its place. The term ‘gaymer’ was coined as a banner for uniting a group of gay geeks who didn’t fit the mainstream discourse of gaming, but it became something much more broad. This weekend saw people with many expressions of non-mainstream diversity coming together to show the games world that they exist, they matter, they want to see themselves in the games that they play, and that they are happy to put their money behind events and games that recognise them.

That last part is important – GaymerX is a statement that a whole market exists that many games are rarely addressing, or that are being spoken to in ways that are not recognising the real issues faced by the players.

The weekend raised some deep issues of diversity representation in games, such as the subtle balance of the pros and cons of fantasy games where homosexual relationships are available; these games were recognised for being positive for including these options, but there was discussion about whether the absolute in-world acceptance from other characters is a help, or a hindrance, towards the understanding of challenges faced by people in real-world gay relationships. Is it more valuable to have an escapist fantasy or an educational reflection of life? These kinds of discussion provided food for thought, and were good-willed on all sides, which encapsulates the mood of the weekend where the ‘safe space’ attitude was largely undisturbed.

Not only ‘gaymers’

The visitors to the conference were mostly gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender. These are the main groups that you would expect, but the GaymerX conference also welcomed a crowd that embraced diversity in many more respects than sexuality: people with different physical shapes or capabilities, people of colour, genderqueer people, people with social or mental health difficulties, kinky people, and it should not be forgotten that straight people were there and welcomed too.

Straight, white men were absolutely not an ‘enemy’ at the conference; it simply was not focussed on their stories. The stories being told were of queer developers and players expressing their lives through games, or of celebrating the WWE professional wrestler Derren Young (@DarrenYoungWWE the first openly gay pro wrestler in WWE) who was there to talk about his work and meet fans, or about being a gay parent who games, or games dev entrepreneurship when you are non-mainstream in your lifestyle or content, and many other stories that do not regularly make it into mainstream games culture.

The conference featured talks about queer lifestyles, diversity, and equality, but also experimental Oculus Rift projects and defying design conventions in your gameplay mechanics. The mix of content for attendees ranged between feminist discussions with Anita Sarkeesian (@femfreq) to practical games development experience from Bioware’s David Gaider (@davidgaider).

Recognition from major sponsors

The sponsors contributed some very high quality stands to the show: 2K Games showed the first ever playable demo of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. IndieCade and Cards Against Humanity had a strong presence, and League Of Legends helped out cosplayers with a sponsored changing room. Non-gaming sponsors Logo TV and Mailchimp also put their support in financially, but didn’t exhibit.

Ubisoft were a major sponsor of the event, showing that there is a lot of goodwill in the company towards becoming more diversity-sensitive. The staff on their stand talked passionately about their efforts to make Ubisoft a leader in this field. In the light of the recent Assassin’s Creed male-only playable cast controversy, it was heartening to be reassured that the error was not indicative of the whole company, and that genuine efforts are being made elsewhere.

Ubisoft’s presence was a marker of the tone of a lot of the conference: there was a general feeling that improvements are coming in the games industry, but also that mistakes are going to be made. A production judgement call is going to remove representation for women when it shouldn’t: these things are still going to happen, but a growing number of people from the games industry are listening and trying to foment change. The tone recognised a general goodwill towards developers as long as mistakes are recognised and responsibility is taken to try harder in the future. Everyone would rather mistakes were never made, but the feeling at the conference seemed to be one of positivity about progress and not dwelling on errors apart from to learn lessons.

There is a stereotype of feminist/diversity activists that they are always angry and demanding changes. The anger wasn’t there this weekend and those demands were polite. Yes, the attendees and exhibitors all passionately desire change, but the number of voices speaking is changing the tone: instead of demanding change, those voices were saying ‘if you want to get a bigger market, talk to more people in meaningful ways’, and the feeling from the weekend was that games developers are beginning to listen.

There were some notable big publishers absent from the event. In the mode of Nintendo talking about not having gay characters in Tomodachi Life, there was a feeling those other publishers do not want to make ‘a political statement’ by attending. As Matt Conn (@mattconn), one of the key organisers of the event, said in the opening speech: ‘it’s not comfortable to have my identity described as a “political statement”’. Despite some very vocal commenters on the internet, it is increasingly difficult to believe that other publishers will hold off from supporting these kinds of events in future.

Queer lifestyles and awareness in games development and education

For my part, I spoke at a panel on how LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) developers are creating games that in some ways reflect their lifestyles. The panel was headed by Gordon Bellamy (@GordonBellamy), former head of the IGDA, who is both openly gay and a person of colour, and featured a mix of gay, bisexual, and transsexual games developers. We talked about how tropes for gamers are going to be expanded as non-mainstream lifestyles become more recognised.

I also ran a panel on how queer lifestyles and diversity awareness can be included into games development education. I am a senior lecturer at NHTV University in the Netherlands, where I teach games design at IGAD (the games development department). It is a Bachelors-level programme that is highly rated in Europe, and part of the training given to the students is in ethics. Alongside concepts of understanding the possible links between violence and video games, responsibility for gamer addiction, and other serious topics of social importance, I teach about diversity awareness and sensitivity towards queer lifestyles.

The term ‘queer’ scares a lot of people, but it is being reclaimed. It is a term that has long been used as an insult, and still is sometimes, but many people who do not comfortably fit the stereotype of a mainstream gamer are also not gay: they may be heterosexual but also transgender; they may be heterosexual but they are also polyamorous (they can love and have supportive meaningful relationships with multiple people); they may be bisexual; they may be cross-dressers, or furries, or kinky, or many other expressions of humanity that are not precisely encapsulated by the term ‘gay’. Rather than a person saying ‘I am a kinky heterosexual cross-dresser in a polyamorous triad’ sometimes the term ‘queer’ is enough!

I’m not exactly sure what I was doing with my right hand here…

In my panel, like in my classes, I talked about how awareness of simple modern feminist critical tools can make games development and content much more diversity-aware, using four main topics: privilege, micro-aggressions, victim-blaming, and tone policing.

Also in my panel, I talked about some of the challenges that can be brought on by these subjects for students, teachers, and educational institutions. I am very lucky that my colleagues and my university are supportive of the overall drive towards diversity-awareness. Of course, there are always going to be areas where students and colleagues occasionally feel some discomfort as their boundaries are pushed, but with consideration and conversation on both sides, NHTV is proving that games programmes can make progress towards very good consideration of diversity issues. Like Ubisoft, NHTV is making progress: we are all going to make mistakes sometimes (including myself, I’m sure!), but the general drive is for better treatment of everyone, and there is a genuine goodwill towards making this happen.

Fragments of Him at GaymerX

For the other part of my time at GaymerX, I was showing Fragments of Him. I am the game and narrative designer for the game, collaborating with the NHTV alumni games development team SassyBot Studio (@SassyBotStudio), and this weekend truly showed me that we are making something very special. We premiered the first ever trailer for the full game, and we also had a polished version of the prototype available to play for the visitors.

To say that this was an emotional weekend for us would be an understatement: the outpouring of positivity from players was overwhelming. We always warned people that the prototype deals with the grieving process but, even with this, almost every player was visibly moved by the experience. We kept a pile of tissues on standby, just in case, and nearly finished the whole pile by the end of the weekend! A huge thank you to everyone who visited our stall, don’t forget to pre-order soon! http://www.fragmentsofhim.com

Conclusion – the future of the GaymerX movement

Although this was the final GaymerX, Matt Conn, Toni Rocca, and the other organisers all made it increasingly clear that there would be a rebirth of the conference. In Matt Conn’s closing speech he said that ‘the term “gaymer” was useful but it doesn’t reflect the diversity of people that I see in this room’. The speech was a moving and passionate statement of his belief that the future is very bright for diversity-awareness in games content and games development. The conference was incredibly positive in its tone: it wasn’t about negging straight lifestyles, it was about saying ‘and this is also cool and interesting too’. It was about telling stories outside of the usual topics, and by doing that finding new inspiration for games’ stories and gameplay mechanics.

There was a political tone at times, with a shared hope that queer content in games might lead to more tolerance in the real world for people whose lives turn out to not be in the mainstream, but this did not feel like the push of the event. Instead it felt like a celebration of what diversity can bring to games to make them even better for everyone, whether they are straight or queer, regardless of skin colour, mental health, or body shape. It was about embracing love and acceptance, and adding more awesome content to games.

GaymerX burned brightly for two years, but the changes it heralded are continuing. Matt Conn was clear that this was not the end of the GaymerX movement, only the name. There will be more events in the future, in some form, and they will celebrate and recognise even more people’s stories, and they will keep on saying ‘we are here, we are your audience too, and together we will make everyone’s games even better’.

About Dr. Mata Haggis:

I am not affiliated with the GaymerX organisation. All views are personal impressions from the event.

I am a senior lecturer and games & narrative designer with over ten years of experience of making both indie and AAA games, and writing for games, television, webcomics, and print. I occasionally blog about games on my own website (http://games.matazone.co.uk/) and reblog onto Gamastura here.

Since 2010, I have been teaching the next generation of games developers on the IGAD (International Games Architecture & Design) programme at NHTV University in Breda, The Netherlands. It is a very highly rated course, taught entirely in English. If you are interested in learning more about games development then I highly recommend it: http://made.nhtv.nl/

When not teaching, I am the consultant games & narrative designer on Fragments of Him, collaborating with the alumni company SassyBot Studios.

This blog originally posted here.

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.