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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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
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.