In a subculture rife with misogyny and homophobia, a few enterprising players are building a movement around the intersection of gamer culture and LGBTQ pride.
Upon my arrival at the InterContinental San Francisco, I was greeted by an enthusiastic kid no more than 20 years old, in a blue T-shirt with the word “Sprite” on the front (the fairy, not the beverage). He told me to “please feel free to put your preferred gender pronoun on your nametag.” Over the following three days of GaymerX2, the second annual convention for LGTBQ game enthusiasts, the nametags helped fellow gamers refer to my boyfriend and me by our chosen pronouns (him and him), aided us in addressing a young man dressed up as Sheik — an exiled princess from the video game Zelda who dresses as a man — (simply “Sheik”); a masculine lesbian dressed as a cyborg (she/her); an indeterminate person with eye shadow, elf-ears, white hair, facial paint, and suit of armor (unknown); and the other 2,000 genderqueer, trans, transitioning, female, male and androgynous game enthusiasts by their preferred pronouns. Of course, even if I slipped up, the attendees were the sort of crowd who took such missteps in good humor. The gamers — a term which, in addition to video game enthusiasts, covers fans of tabletop games, card games, and a variety of other non-athletic play — I’ve known and met are not prone to taking themselves in a terribly serious matter.
Like the name cards, the opening ceremony, panels and events featured at GaymerX set it apart from similar events like E3, the premier gaming-industry expo, and Comic Con, the well-known, bi-coastal convention. GaymerX began with a communal reading of the “Safe Spaces Pledge.” Led by Toni Rocca, the President of GaymerX, to a room of several hundred coffee huddling gamers at 10 a.m., the pledge promises attendees won’t use slurs or molest anyone; “refrain from using language that can be considered homophobic, sexist, transphobic, racist, ableist, etc…” and “will ask before touching or taking any pictures of somebody.” After the pledge, we were told what we might find in various parts of the convention: on the fifth floor there would be indie games with titles like Depression Quest and Crystal Warrior Ke$hsa, as well as mainstream titles like WWE2K15. There would also be the much anticipated Cosplay Pageant, as well as a variety of panels on themes ranging from “So you want to write a trans character?” to “Finding a Good Fit: on being fat and queer in gaming.” Several keynote speakers discussed queerness, the concept of play, virtual personas, sexuality, the cultural-political aspect of game-creation, and the concept of “microaggression.”
The Gamergate controversy — the maelstrom of online harassment against women that began with a group of gamers (falsely) accusing game designer Zoe Quinn of corrupting ethics in games journalism by courting relationships with writers — has thrown attention on the prevalence of sexism and misogyny in the gaming community and the gamers themselves, as well as on a growing and increasingly vocal community of female gamers. (Quinn was at GaymerX showing her game Depression Quest, as was Anita Sarkeesian, who spoke on a panel about women and the Internet; both have been the focus of Gamergate ire.) Yet, the community that remains less well known is that of gay and queer gamers.
Unlike blatant misogyny, outright homophobia in games is rare. There is a way, though, in which the structure of a game reinforces a series of attitudes in minute but omnipresent ways: It can come from the choices you are offered (propose to the Princess or the local bar wench); the way gay characters are portrayed (comical and feckless); or the way other gamers talk to each other (“You totally just pwnd that fag.”) And the idea of a gaming convention for the queer community strikes many as odd, perhaps because the stereotype of a gamer is discordant with that of gays and lesbians. Our image of a video game nerd is almost invariably a heterosexual, usually white or Asian, young man; a high-tech variant of the comic book nerd or Star Trek obsessive; the sort of person caricatured by shows like The Big Bang Theory or Silicon Valley. With the testosterone-soaked themes of games like Call of Duty, we can also include off-field jocks in our repertoire of what we expect a gamer to be. None of this seems to have much room for a demographic that is typically assumed to be solely interested in fashion, dance music, musical theatre, and re-appropriation of Bette Davis tropes.
But this perception of gaming fandom is quite inaccurate. According to a study released this year by the Entertainment Software Association, 48% of gamers are women, people over 36 years old represent a larger percentage of gamers than those under 18 (and in that youthful category women outnumber men), and most have been playing video games for well over a decade. In terms of hours logged and money spent, a gamer is just as likely to be a woman who works in design or a gay man who is an accountant as a straight man who studies computer engineering.
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Around 2012, Matt Conn, a twenty-seven-year-old gay man and lifelong gamer, decided that the gaming world needed an alternative to E3, the leading industry event. He recalls that when he went to E3 for the first time, “I was sort of shocked by how…not for me it was. Tons of half-nude ladies. All the parties were focused around being titillating for straight dudes, and stuff like ‘faggot’ and other slurs were thrown around liberally.” He suspected there was a need for a convention geared towards the LGTBQ community. “I wanted to create a space like that, but one that would be open and friendly to all gamers, especially queer ones like me,” he said. So Conn launched a Kickstarter campaign.
Gregarious, earnest and approachable, Conn’s energy is evident whenever he speaks. His eyebrows tilt up to the bridge of his nose, giving him a perpetually surprised and enthusiastic expression that matches his personality. Raised in rural Vermont, Conn was five when he played his first game, Super Mario Bros, on the NES, which his sister got while she had chickenpox: “I remember being so excited and going into her room all the time to play it for hours.” During high school, Conn was “was sort of out, but more gay by omission. I didn’t tell anyone I was straight or lie. But I was still in a shell.”
After high school, he went to the University of Portland, focusing on business administration. But, being a Catholic college, the environment wasn’t entirely queer friendly: dorms had strict rules, there was no gay students association, the faculty weren’t enthusiastic about supporting sexual minorities, and the only person you could talk to about sexual identity “was the school psychologist, which was sort of creepy.” He transferred to Seattle University, also a Catholic school, but was put into an uncomfortable four-person room. “One of my roommates accidentally walked in on me and my boyfriend, and he went to the higher ups and got me kicked out of dorms, basically for having sex in my room…“it really showed me how shitty things can get for gay people.” Put off by the experience, he dropped out and immersed himself in odd jobs and alternative communities throughout the West Coast, before finding a home in San Francisco — “the heart of geek-dom” — in 2007.
Conn quickly became involved with local queer communities such as Reddit’s r/sfgaymers, where it became apparent that “there were thousands of people across the country who wanted to meet each each other and form a community.” In 2012 he took to Kickstarter, posting videos employing his brand of humor: geek references, deliberately hokey sound effects and sales pitches “Oh, hey internet. My name’s Matt” and a liberal application of the word “awesome.” Launched originally under the name Gaymer Con, with the hashtag #EveryoneGames, Conn asked for $25,000. “I really didn’t expect us to exceed our goal,” he says. Before long he had raised more than $90,000. For GaymerX2 Conn launched another Kickstarter, again raising more than double the goal. This year’s GX3, to be held over three days in December, raised close to a hundred thousand dollars.
In its second year, when about 2,100 people attended, Conn noticed a more diverse crowd. “We really pushed the message of inclusivity. The first convention was a lot more gay guys, but [the second year] we had more women, straight guys, people of color. Forty-five percent of our attendees were non-male identifying, which is really cool especially because most conventions don’t even have a fraction of that.” For the next convention, as indicated by changing the name from “GaymerX” to “GX”, Conn wants to continue to increase the convention’s inclusivity: “there are a lot of these people out there who are gamers, but you need to get out there and let them know you want them to come and that they are welcome.” He also learned some lessons about financing. There were rumors that this year would be the convention’s last due to money issues, but Conn wants to focus more on getting a community, sponsors and financing before paying out for venues.
At last year’s convention, people displayed gay-themed science-fiction manga and handmade cyberpunk trinkets. At one table, a bearded man wearing a Pikachu hat displayed old Pokémon trading cards. When I asked if he was selling them he replied that he had “found all these first generation Pokémon stickers in my closet. Take one!” The patter of Nintendo 3DS styluses filled the hallways, where people sat in circles, staring down into their laps as they ventured into each other’s virtual worlds. “Wanna take a look at my town? I have Durian trees!” one said.
One game was impossible for me to resist, thanks to its title — Depression Quest. Created by Zoe Quinn and played online, it takes the form of a “choose your own adventure” game. The website narrates a story about you, the player, a twenty-something who struggles with depression and is neither medicated nor seeing a therapist, and your partner, Alex. On the first page of the game, below a quote from David Foster Wallace over a gray, static-like background, a warning reads “Depression Quest is a game that deals with living with depression in a very literal way. This game is not meant to be a fun or lighthearted experience. If you are currently suffering from the illness and are easily triggered, please be aware that this game uses stark depictions of people in very dark places. If you are suicidal, please stop playing this game and visit this link to talk to someone.” As I clicked through the pages, lachrymose piano music played, and Polaroids of washed-out porches or cans of PBR indicated my current location. At a party, I chose between options like, “Awkwardly stand in the same spot, unsure of what else to do” and “proceed to drink in earnest, hoping it will make you less uncomfortable.” I signed off after about ten minutes, at which point I had alienated my significant other, worried my mom, and made a fool of myself at the party.
Depression Quest, like most games at the convention, uses features unique to the medium of gaming — the ability to re-draw the contours of reality or the involvement of agency — to isolate and engage the player’s empathy. The same programming that lets you feel indifferent to the slaughter of an opposing army can also, it turns out, help you understand what it is like to feel alien in your own body or struggle with a mental disorder. And while Depression Quest was, in fact, depressing, games like Perfect Woman, where a motion sensing device tracks you as you re-enact the posturing and motions of various stereotypes of women found in our culture (the rich wife, the mother, the sexy club girl), were delightfully awkward and amusing.
Most of the games featured at GaymerX are produced with smaller budgets and marketed to niche audiences. Celia Pearce, a professor of game design at Georgia Tech, says that “the gaming industry can be compared to Hollywood. We’re leaving the big studio phase and entering the indie phase.” “But,” she mused, “in another way gaming is returning to its roots. In ’83 everything was DIY.”
Unlike three decades ago, the conditions now allow games to reach more than a few fellow programmers. Hardware is better than it was a decade ago; anyone with a decent computer can, in theory, design a game that looks good and plays well. The Internet, which every major console now utilizes, also allows games to be downloaded remotely, and as more people buy smartphones the potential audience for cheaper, simpler games increases.
Worried that my activities had been insufficiently gay, I attended an event called “A Queer Oral History of Gaming,” run and moderated by Zoya Street, a historian and journalist with the pacifying demeanor of a therapist.. After earning a degree in Japanese Studies at Cambridge and studying at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Street became interested in looking at video games in the same way a historian or anthropologist might other media; analyzing modes of production, looking for patterns of consumption and socio-cultural associations. Street runs an online magazine about gaming history, Memory Insufficient, and seemed to genuinely enjoy hearing strangers talk about their sexuality, identity and video games. A young woman talked about playing a female protagonist in a game, and realizing the thrill came from interacting with the character herself, rather than the men in the game. A teen named Simon talked about the gay romance he obsessed over in Mass Effect. An enthusiastic straight developer said he was here “just to see what this was all about.”
It occurred to me, just before my turn to speak, that I saw no connection between my playing video games and being gay. When I played video games like Final Fantasy 7 or Super Mario 64 they simply didn’t let me be gay — the characters’ sexuality was muted and already woven into the plot; one doesn’t choose to save Peach, she begins as the damsel in distress. I never enjoyed online gaming, with its coded phrases and cooperative play, which is where many people explored their sexuality. Still, as a teenager I played dozens of games, alone in a basement in Colorado, and avoided thinking about my sexuality at all costs. But when I stood up to speak, I found myself talking about the Saturday afternoons spent playing tabletop games like Warhammer when I was sixteen. It was 2005, the year my school picked Bush in its mock election by a disturbing margin of ninety percent. It was an unwelcoming environment in which to be gay. What I found so inviting about rolling dice and moving miniature elves around all afternoon was that no one else at the table fit in. For once, no one asked why I was wearing girls’ jeans or spoke with a slightly queer vocal intonation. Instead they asked if I wanted pizza or whether I wanted to be defending the castle or staging a woodland ambush in a four-army battle.
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Gaymer culture online is playful and merrily absurd, and much of the convention mirrored this lightheartedness. The epitome was the Cosplay Pageant. An army of die-hard gamers armed themselves with glue guns, glitter and polyester, and set themselves the noble task of queering up the video game mythology. The dark horse of the pageant was a Roy Koopa (a cohort of Bowser from Super Mario World who has reappeared for Mario Kart 8) who had built him or herself (I couldn’t see the nametag) a go-kart replica complete with headlights, wore a disco-ball golden vest over a turtle-belly with leather cuffs studded in silver spikes, and carried a sparkling pink driving-wheel; the effect was equal parts kitsch and awe.
When the nerd-worship began to feel stuffy, I went to a talk titled “Internetting while female,” held by Anita Sarkeesian, Carolyn Petit and Katherine Cross. All three women are prominent experts in gaming culture, but have been notably absent from traditional conventions like E3 and Comic Con, and all have been objects of intense and relentless harassment. Sarkeesian founded a website called “The Feminist Frequency,” where she compiles footage from games to show how markedly different the representations of women and men are. She has become a particular lightning rod for the anti-feminist anger surrounding the Gamergate controversy. Her adversaries portray her as a fun-hating shrew who has never played a game in her life, and claim that taking misogyny out of games would nullify the games altogether. “Men’s rights” websites have accused her of manufacturing her abuse, and there is a website where users can punch a likeness of Sarkeesian in the face until the screen goes red. At the panel, she mentioned the many rape and death threats she receives. Cross, whose profile at R.H. Reality Check reads “a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center” is a columnist at Feministing and writes about online communities and harassment for Bitch magazine and Kotaku. Until this year, Petit, also a transwoman, was a reviewer for GameSpot, where she wrote about morality, misogyny, representation and psychology in gaming.
At GaymerX, their talk attracted a modest but enraptured crowd. The panel sought to give the speakers “a space for us to interpret our experience” rather than merely “bear our scars” as victims of online animosity. They discussed why they cared so much about games despite all the maltreatment. For Sarkeesian, it was “when games [like Gone Home and Papo & Yo] really catch you and remind you of what games can be, that they can address deeper issues in a personal and systemic way. Those give me so much hope.” When someone in the audience asked if they ever fell prey to cynicism Sarkeesian admitted, “With games and women I’m incredibly cynical. This sucks. And it’s okay to be angry about it and take that and do something with it.” Petit confessed “there are days when it breaks me down” but quoted Manohla Dargis: “If I were hung up about every predatory director or every degrading image of a woman, I couldn’t be a film critic. So I watch, loving movies that don’t necessarily love or even like women.”
Back in New York, I met up with Katherine Cross at a bar in midtown. She wore thick-rimmed glasses, a suit and pearls, and drank cosmopolitans. Cross was born in Manhattan and grew up in the South Bronx. I asked if she was bullied as a child. Cross shrugged and said “nothing to the degree of a lot of other people. In seventh grade I was once body slammed into a gym floor, but that’s it. I was mostly mocked for being a nerd or teacher’s pet or a sissy. I’ve always had an antipathy for sports.” In ninth grade, she transferred to the prestigious Bronx High School for Science and she was more accepted by her classmates. “We were all nerds” she said, but also noted that at the time she dressed “more or less gender-normative.”
To Cross, the hysteria and panic that conversations about equality in gaming have provoked suggests that one small demographic — straight, often socially anxious, men — are in the throes of a “male gamer terror dream” which stems from “a pervasive deep-seated fear that at any moment culture is going to take games away from them, whether it be Christian conservatives or censorious government officials.” Any form of criticism is interpreted as an existential threat, and “when this interlaces with extant cultures of sexism, transphobia, and racism, anyone belonging to those categories becomes a representation of this existential threat.”
Paradoxically, for Cross, online anonymity meant having a safe space to come out as a transwoman, and a social environment in which to develop an identity. “In gaming you are not bound by the will of the developer: you can use them in ways they were not intended,” Cross said. “And so in a game like World of Warcraft that by all appearances was stiflingly heteronormative, I could be this strong female character that I wanted to be in real life.”
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Walking back to my hotel in San Francisco one afternoon, I happened to see a pair of trans women dressed up very colorfully for the convention holding hands. A blond woman holding a Venti Starbucks cup turned to her friend and blurted out, audible from ten feet away, “oh my gawd.” A foursome of men wearing Stanford sweaters laughed riotously the moment the couple passed them. A mother with a toddler made a face. Yet the couple seemed to take no notice. Perhaps on the other end of their walk there was a warm couch, a laptop, and a virtual family waiting for them.