When Electronic Arts pulled together a roomful of journalists, bloggers and gaming industry types, it didn’t look like an historic event. But while it can seem as if we talk a lot about LGBT issues and gaming — at least for those of us who do enough gaming to consider ourselves “gaymers” — this past Thursday morning was a rare thing indeed.
Sponsored by EA, along with the Human Rights Campaign and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the day bit off a little more than it could chew. Frankly, it’s pretty impossible to tackle the issues of LGBT representation in games, the lack of LGBT employees within development teams and the anti-LGBT environment that gamers face when they go online all in the space of about four hours. But as first steps go, it was a good one.
[Full disclosure: EA invited me to moderate one of the two panels and paid for my train fare and a night’s hotel in New York City.]
The first panel, “The State of Hate in Games,” moderated by Hilary Rosen, tried to outline the problem from the point of view of LGBT gamers. The second, “What Is Our Responsibility and How Do We Enact Change?” moderated by yours truly, focused on the corporate role in making games more inclusive and online play less hostile.
Rather than do a rote report, I just want to share a few takeaways from the day, with one important caveat: Because EA was sponsoring the event, we weren’t talking with a broad array of publishers, so that necessarily limits the experiences on the table to basically those from EA. It doesn’t make them less valid, but should the next step be taken, broadening the discussions out would need to be a big part of that.
So, my takeaways:
- Publishers just don’t know how to effectively deal with online verbal harassment and hate speech. Text-based communication is easier to “police” and handle, which is why both Jaap Tuinman, Battlefield Community Manager, and Matt Bromberg, General Manager for BioWare, talked about things like monitoring their online forums. Forums are an important part of the gaming ecosystem — and can be pretty hostile on their own — but the written word is less fleeting and more subject to rules and regulations. When it comes to voice communications in online shooters or other games, there’s no way to monitor at this time, and we’re left with imperfect tools like the “report” button. Personally, I think this is one of the most serious problems, but that may be in large part because I’m bummed I can’t play Gears of War online because I’m beyond the point where I’ll settle for being called a “faggot” by a 12 year old.
- Trash talk isn’t hate speech, and vice versa. As ESA’s Dan Hewitt noted, there’s a fine line between “I’m going to kick your ass” and “I’m going to kick your ass, faggot.” In other words, so much of online gaming is hyper-competitive, so we have to be aware of what we're trying to change. Rosen said her son told her that he brushes off the language because that’s what people say when you’re winning — but he turns off the voice-chat when playing with his twin sister because he doesn’t like her to hear it. So there’s a huge cultural thing going on here that’s going to involve parents of young gamers as much as it involves gamers themselves, I believe. Of course, when some parents are buying their 12-year-old boys “M” rated games like Gears of War, I’m not sure appealing to parental responsibility is a completely viable strategy.
- Bromberg, who heads up BioWare’s massively multiplayer online RPG Star Wars: The Old Republic, immediately brought up the controversy his company stepped into when it didn’t include same-sex romantic options in the game at release time — then responded to criticism by adding a planet where players could travel to in order to be gay. The “gay planet,” unsurprisingly, just pissed of gaymers even more, and it does seem that BioWare gets the message that what LGBT players want is to be included in the fabric of the game, not as a afterthought or plug-in.
But the “gay planet” is a perfect little metaphor for how the industry — I think it’s fair to use that term broadly here, beyond just EA’s empire — is looking at “solutions” for safer environments for LGBT gamers. Namely, encouraging them to form their own communities where they can enjoy the benefits of the games with each other and enforce their own rules for online behavior, etc. As someone pointed out to me after my panel, we have a lot of experience in America telling certain groups that things would be better they would just stay off by themselves. I don’t think game publishers are pushing segregaytion, but focusing too much on LGBT-only spaces is problematic at best.
- Caryl Shaw, a producer for Kixeye (and formerly of EA subsidiary Maxis), called the gaming industry a “white, dudely” place. That’s pretty much the nutshell on why getting LGBT experiences into game stories outside of RPGs remains a challenge. Gordon Bellamy of Tencent pointed out that openly gay military service is the law of the land these days — why can’t that be incorporated into the framing stories of military shooters? It’s a damn good question. I suspect, though, in an industry where the “breast physics” in fighting games like Dead or Alive and Soul Calibur are as big a selling point as the gameplay, getting those sorts of changes through the “dudely” culture is going to be a longer term challenge.
To be fair, Soul Calibur lets me create my own fighters that look like circa-1985 Falcon porn stars, so there is hope.
But, seriously, there need to be more LGBT people working on games who feel comfortable putting forward their experiences and desires as possible stories and scenarios. It’s more complicated than just simple appearances. I’m a white guy — I am more than used to seeing myself represented in video games. But I’m gay guy — I have yet to see something that really conveys that internal experience in the way that games can for straight lives and loves. I don’t want every story to be gay, I just want some of them to be.
- It was nice to hear from (and meet!) Brendon Ayanbadejo, the linebacker for Super Bowl champions the Baltimore Ravens and outspoken advocate for LGBT equality. I wondered though why they hadn’t invited equally outspoken straight ally Chris Kluwe, punter for Minnesota Vikings, since he’s a rabid gamer himself. Then I got out of the conference and saw that Kluwe had spent most of the day ranting on Twitter about the launch disaster that accompanied EA’s new SimCity and realized, yep, that would have been awkward.
- The final point is EA deserves kudos for bringing this group together. I know there are plenty of people in my own age cohort who simply don’t understand why LGBT and gaming is an issue, much less an important one. But games are every bit as important to our culture now as television and movies. It took a lot of work to finally see ourselves represented diversely on television (and we still have a long ways to go for movies). We’ll get there with games sooner rather than later, but it’s going to take work from both us and the industry. So, hat tips to EA, HRC and ESA for starting it off.
Now let’s see who takes the lead on making that giant leap.