GaymerX: Why We Need a Gay Gaming Convention

gaymerxAugust 3rd and 4th at the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco marked the first GaymerX, a gay-oriented gaming convention. For the first time a convention was created, run, and devoted to gay gamers, as well as gay game industry insiders. The convention featured multiple panels, artist booths, rooms dedicated to gaming, game journalists, fan cosplay, and celebrities such as Ellen McLain (the voice of GLaDOS) and Pandora Boxxx from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Matt Conn and Kayce Brown started the convention after a successful Kickstarter campaign to create a safe place for the LGBTQ community of gamers to congregate. The event was small in comparison to other conventions but feelings of pure excitement, togetherness, and acceptance permeated the rooms of the Japantown hotel. While most coverage has been positive, the most common question to reappear is: “Why do you need a gay gaming convention? Conventions are about games, not sexuality.”

Well dear commenter, thanks for asking. We need a gay gaming convention for large gaming companies to hear our voice and also to hear what they have to say. Two such large companies were present. EA and BioWare sent representatives to participate in multiple panels. In the kickoff panel “EA: Why We think it is important to create more LGBTQ inclusive games” a panel discussed the challenge of incorporating LGBTQ characters and themes in video games. EA is responsible for producing The Sims, which has featured same-sex relationships since its inception in 2000. BioWare has produced various series, most notably the Knights of the Old Republic, the Dragon Age series, and the Mass Effect series, that have featured LGBTQ characters and offered the possibility for same-sex relationships. David Gaider, lead writer for the Dragon Age series, recalled the process of writing a lesbian character for the Knights of the Old Republic. At the time Gaider and his team, a gay man himself, had to hide her sexual identity with innuendo. “Not every game is going to address sexuality,” says Gaider but because BioWare games have sexual situations “it seemed like a very obvious exclusion.” Since that time BioWare has included LGBTQ characters in all of it’s major franchises. BioWare community manager Jessica Merizan reassured the audience that BioWare was aware of homophobic and hate speech in the BioWare forums and was actively working to make the forums a safer place. And both Gaider and Merizan confirmed that well-written comments that addressed LGBTQ concerns are heard and considered, even if they are taken down from flame wars.

The video game industry is also a business, big business in fact. Companies have been becoming increasingly aware of so-called “pink money” and likewise have become growingly conscious of the homosexual market. BioWare faced some public backlash when Dragon Age 2 announced they were going to allow all romance-able characters open to either gender. While some companies might be afraid to include gay and lesbian character options, Gaider confirmed that same-sex inclusion didn’t “affected our sales in no way whatsoever.” Gaider went on to add maybe there were people who said “they weren’t going to buy a BioWare game because it has optional gay romances that they don’t have to use, but other people might,” but they have “equal evidence that there are people who bought the game specifically because we included that.” While developers are there to make art, they are also there to survive and make money Gaider iterated and it’s important to make your voice heard. Jessica Merizan added that she didn’t believe that the people on top were “inherently bigots; they’re inherently capitalists.” They are also copycats. When a game mechanic is successful other companies follow suit. Which calls back to the importance of the gay community voting with it’s wallet. If companies aren’t hearing our voice or are making harmful portrayals of LGBTQ characters, we need to not support those companies. David Graham, AI programmer from EA Maxis, quipped “our official stance at EA if you don’t want to buy our games because they have LGBT content is: well fuck you then,” which received a round of applause.

We need a gay gaming convention to discuss issues of gender and minority representation in games and journalism. Games have long thought to be a straight white male, age 18 and under, demographic. Statistics now show that the average gamer is 30. The percentage of women playing games is 45%, and that the percentage of women game players over 18 is higher than male at 31%. Still, there is little to no statistical tracking of LGBTQ individuals and racial minorities. Journalist and consultant Mattie Brice gave an inspiring talk titled: “How Queerness is Changing Game Media.” Brice analyzed the current industry landscape and how minority, queer, and lower class gamers are often under represented in game development and journalism because they are considered too marginal. Brice addressed that while her game Mainichi, which translates to every day in Japanese, has recently been featured in an exhibit at the Museum of Design Atlanta, it has never received a write up. Mainichi is a deeply personal – day in the life of – experience in which the player is faced with the anxiety over how much effort to put into her appearance, being harassed and mocked while walking down the street, and how she will deal with rejection when addressed as both miss and mister.

However, Brice sees the antidote as a new sort of “gonzo” journalism, in which traditionally marginalized voices participate in telling their stories through an alternative type of journalism. The Border House, is one of these alternative resources. Brice encouraged the audience to share their favorite authors as widely and frequently as possible and if they are in a position to: donate. When an ally asked how best to help, Brice encouraged more people to share their experience of “privilege”, and how their views have changed over time. Brice acknowledged not everyone can be an activist but simply making your opinion heard can help change game journalism.

We need a gay gaming convention so that we can see that gay game journalists do exist in major publications and they still face harassment. In the “Journalism 101” panel Kevin VanOrd, senior editor for Gamespot, Chuck Osborn, managing editor at IGN, and freelance editor Rob Galbreath, the three discussed getting their start in the industry feeling completely alienated. Each described the experience as thinking that they were the only gay journalists in the business. Kevin VanOrd touchingly admitted to looking up to Osborn since his early days at PC Gamer. After receiving a letter from Osborn and finding out he was gay, VanOrd was inspired to follow his dream as a game writer. These are the types or feelings we can all relate to whether we write about games or not. Before and GaymerConnect we all felt like we were the “only one.” This is why it’s important to hear such stories so that we know that we are not alone, and the possibility to be a successful writer for a for-profit organization does exist. However, being out doesn’t come without its costs. VanOrd also expressed there is an abundance of homophobic hate mail he receives and the “vitriol” spewed in forums over his reviews and columns. VanOrd was told that he just doesn’t “understand” certain games he’s given bad reviews because, he isn’t straight, not because the game was – I don’t know, bad. It is still an uphill battle in a traditionally homophobic and sexist industry but change is happening.

We also need a gaming convention for the gaming fans to express themselves freely and without fear. Cosplayers were free to dress as their favorite characters, chocobos, Pokemon, without fear of repercussion or the threat of violence. Female cosplayers are frequently sexually harassed at larger conventions and gays and lesbians alike are afraid to express themselves freely in this cis male dominated environment. And while San Francisco is a progressive city, some gamers came from less gay friendly places. The LGBTQ community is prone to physical attack under normal circumstances let alone when dressed in costume. There is also the existential fear we all face being judged for being ourselves. Cosplayers, and “crossplayers”, were free to roam the convention in whatever attire they felt comfortable, without fear of judgment. There was even a panel dedicated to how to best capture a crossplayer on camera.

We need a gay gaming convention to discover indie game developers that we might not find otherwise. Australian indie designer Luke Miller was present promoting his game “My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant!” “My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant!” is a gay-themed point-and-click adventure game coded in python. It appears campy in style and theme and I can’t wait to play it. The problem is: I would have likely never heard of it if it weren’t featured at GaymerX. Another indie designer, Anna Anthropy, was in attendence at GaymerX and also a “Boss of Honor.” Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia explores the intimately personal process of transgender hormone replacement therapy in a way that only a game can. While Anna Anthropy is well known in the indie design community there many people who only pay attention to AAA games; GaymerX may open people’s eyes to what smaller scale, more personal games have to offer.

Lastly, we need a gay gaming convention because we want one. We need a gay gaming convention for the same reason we need gay pride, or an Asian American film festival, or a black history month. We need events like these to acknowledge our diversity and celebrate it, not shy away from it. Some claim a gay-themed convention is exclusionary. This couldn’t be further from the truth. No one was turned away at the door if they didn’t have their gay card. There were quite a few people wandering around the convention wearing t-shirts that read “ally” or “straight but not narrow.” GaymerX was also not a straight white male bash either. One of the most honest and poignant questions came from the straight white male himself, asking how to engage in conversation and debate when topics included homosexuality and sexism. He was also welcomed with a round applause during the last panel on LGBQT journalism.

So, if games and game conventions have nothing to do with sexuality then there should be no reason (and in my opinion there isn’t) to hire scantily clad women to promote AAA games at E3. We need a gay gaming convention so that we don’t have to be the token gay friend at a gamer party. We need a gay gaming convention to feel that we belong among our fellow gay geeks. We need a gay gaming convention because people keep asking us why we need a gay gaming convention. This only proves all the more that a gay-themed convention is necessary in the same way males who deny that sexism doesn’t exist further proves that it does.

And while we might not need to have actress Ellen McClain sing “Still Alive” from Portal with amended pro-marriage lyrics to a surprise proposal, it’s still pretty damn cool.