Queer gaming

This is a thread from Twitter that would not roll out, written in August 2019, and now being published here. I am posting this on the day that big tech companies are, yet again, throwing their weight around by trying to suppress Parler and Twitter has banned Donald Trump permanently. The people involved in tech are very much tied up in queer theory.

I attended an event called “Pass the Controller” about the ‘queering of gaming’.  Incredibly of the handful of games discussed most had incest themes (not mentioned during panel discussion, with one exception).

I know little about gaming so did prep, reading book on gaming and also googling reveal that trans and queer gaming is popular search term and there are a number of articles and youtube videos on the topic, including games which directly address the topic itself as the main focus. So the idea that gaming is an arid area of ‘queer diversity’ is laughable.

There were about 100 seats put out, about 80% filled. Diverse array of nibbles from around the culinary world, crisps, alcohol, soft drinks, artisan sweets. Crockery and cutlery were provided. Location Verizon HQ in London.

Attendees mainly in 20-30 yo bracket, a few a bit older, even fewer >40. Handful of TIFs present. Imagine a fair few turned up simply for the food and networking opportunity. Great food by the way.

Event was introduced by James, leader of Verizon’s LGBT group (called Prism). Verizon media work with blue chip companies (Microsoft, X-box, etc) and provided the space and food for the event.

Out in Tech is a not for profit company. James said more groups in development and quoted statistics. Recently started the “Women and non-binary series” events in London for those working in the tech industry.

Out in Tech have done presentations at many companies and their next one was at head office of the “EAT” food chain. They are not short of financial or big business support. Major sponsors, smaller sponsors, and also members of Out in Tech work at the companies below.

The panel discussion was chaired by Chris Fox, BBC tech correspondent. He began by asking the panel why was it important to include LGBTQ+ characters in video games. (Panel comprised of 1 man, 3 women for clarification).

Izzy responded that marginalised people now have the opportunity to be involved. Bridie said that it helped to “quash nasty ideologies”. Robin felt there needed to be the right mix of people on a creative team in order for LGBT representation to be authentic.

Q: Was it ever right if a company were to avoid LGBTQ+ characters completely?
  • Ria said risk was worth taking to include queer representation.
  • Bridie said het relationship would never be questioned or shied away from & was wrong question to ask.
  • Izzy said it was about elevating voices, voices that you don’t hear very often.
Q: “How was the industry doing?”
  • Izzy said that the indie games were better at queer representation, and that having queer rep affects society at large.
  • Robin agreed that the indie market had more scope to do address such issues as they didn’t have big investors calling the shots. He felt that allowing more diverse characters would allow gamers to experience what it feels like to be gay. (IMO Robin could only be referring to stereotypes.)
Q: Does the indie market do a good enough job of promoting LGBTQ+ games?
  • Izzy, in contradiction to 5 mins previous, now said that she found LGBT characters in games all the time and felt that there should be a directory of character names (already exists on wiki!).
  • Robin felt that Xbox could create a separate category for LGBTQ+, so that gaymers can find these more easily when searching. ‘Gayming’ (Robin’s mag) of course champions games with LGBT interests. Because indie games don’t have such good marketing it is often difficult to give a heads-up on game characters and narratives ahead of time.
  • Chris said that BBC had just created a ‘public service’ algorithm to encourage website users to look at stories and programmes they may not normally show an interest in (like an anti-cookie) – could be helpful here too?
  • Ria said that having LGBTQ+ characters helped them come to terms with themselves and akin to a therapeutic experience & ‘The House in Fata Morgana’ had provided the same as it had an intersex character which she liked very much. (Review of The House in Fata Morgana here – USA rating 17+, it is an extremely explicit visual novel, including mass murder, rape, attempted incest.)
  • Izzy said queer people were naturally more adaptive to like gaming as being gender fluid meant you had a better understanding of gender performance and were better able to dismantle the performative aspects of gender and sexuality.
  • Bridie said it enables LGBTQ+ people to live in a virtual world, and gave example of 14 year old living in the Mid West wouldn’t feel so alone and would better understand their own feelings and provides a community.
  • Chris Fox made the point that most RPGs the 1st choice gamer faces is whether to play as male or female.
  • Izzy said that the new Sims game had recently done away with choosing M/F and you can now build your own character from assigned characteristics (i.e. sexist stereotypes). Apparently this is a lot more “freeing” as every aspect of your avatar can be personalised.
  • Sims in mid-90s was first game to allow possibility of same sex interactions. It came about because the coding was changed, but it was very much incidental rather than planned design element.
  • Bridie told her “favourite anecdote” – she was at a storyboard meeting – teenage girl who masturbated in the story went from thinking about a man to a woman. She had to explain to the men what female masturbation was all about. (The gaming nerds must have had great poker faces.)
  • Ria said that the LGBT group at her company was 22 strong and that she always included LGBT suggestions in all her pitches.
  • Izzy said that Saatchi has an LGBT network called ‘Proud’.
  • Robin said that the infamous bisexual character Axton in ‘Borderlands’ was accidentally bisexual because the coding how the character interacted with males and females wasn’t coded to distinguish, but there was no time to fix. In particular, it was how the character reacted to a dying person – if it was a woman he would compliment her on her body, but because coding wasn’t done correctly, he would also compliment a dying man on his body too. (Cute story element, huh?
Q: Name good LGBTQ games?
  • Bridie said ‘Borderlands’ and felt that the incidental nature of Axton being bisexual lent it an authenticity.
  • Izzy felt that narrative games were best and that, in particular, ‘Gone Home’ was esp good as it had a lesbian love story. Reviews of Gone Home (PEGI rated 16) state that the focus of lesbian love story is on ‘your sister Sam’ (incest again) exploring her lesbian sexuality – see here. (Izzy did not mention that the perspective was of the player fixating on the sister.)
  • ‘Overwatch’ was recommended, but the panel also felt that the company had mentioned the LGBT character *after* release as a way of generating publicity. The lesbian character is apparently on the front cover of the game, and isn’t that empowering?
  • Robin complained about the game ‘Fire Emblem’, as during marketing period there were rampant suggestions that there was going to be a strong gay element. In eventuality was only one poss. gay pairing coded for, yet had many options for incest. Robin unhappy with the “gay baiting” from the company.
  • A google search shows that gamers attest to this incest function and it rather struck me that Robin, and tbf the rest of the panel, and indeed audience was profoundly unbothered by the enabling of ‘virtual’ incest.
  • Fox stated that Japan is a very conservative culture and that a Japanese company developed ‘Fire Emblem’.
  • A panel member acknowledged age ratings do play a factor (this was the only time anyone on the panel actually acknowledged that games do carry age ratings) and that were important for the size of the market it could reach (i.e. an equivalent PG rating would capture a greater number of ages, and would mean it could be sold in the Middle East). No LGBTQ+ content would be allowed in Russia because obviously money talks, so there is no way LGBTQ+ issues will be spread into those particular markets. However, it was felt the more LGBTQ+ narratives there are, the more it would eventually spread out.

Questions were then opened up to the audience.

Q: Could games fill in the gaps currently made by parents withdrawing their kids from sex education lessons at primary schools (i.e. No Outsiders programme) and gave the example of the protests in Birmingham and compared it to section 28 (probably before he was born).
  • Izzy said that some storybooks for kids had been absolutely amazing and recommended “My Princess Boy” and that the gaming industry should “make things for kids”.
  • Robin agreed that kids should be exposed to LGBT issues but not explicit content and recommended the Steven Universe cartoon series (shown on the Cartoon Network, created by a bisexual non-binary woman). I looked Steven Universe up on youtube, characters ‘fuse’ together to become a bigger entity. (Is there twerking in this clip, IDK?)
  • An audience member said they were reading the book ‘Video Games Have Always Been Queer‘ by Bonnie Ruberg and then said, slightly hysterically it has to be said, “video games *will* always be queer” and then recommended the game “Octodad”. (The trailer for Octodad comletely freaks me out. I don’t know, are these people just broke, or am I reading too much into this? I want to be wrong, but I don’t think I am.) Pegi rating 7 I think.
  • Bridie, in direction contradiction to an earlier point she’d made, said that there should always be authorial intent in writing LGBT characters. Oh, and she also mentioned she was bisexual. Again.
  • Robin said that his partner had been helped as a kid by Animal Crossing and that gaming was a good form of escapism.

During a minute spell of gaming myself I considered buying Animal Crossing, but the review below put me off and has stuck in my mind ever since.

From Amazon website, PEGI rating aged 3 years old and upwards

Games are so utterly immersive to children. I remember that well with those role-playing adventure books. Even on a relative basic graphic hand held device, like a Nintendo DS, for a child’s imagination small things can become incredibly intense. Therefore exposing kids to queer-theme storylines is actually incredibly powerful.

Q: Where should games go next?
  • Izzy complained that queer people were over-sexualised but also didn’t want to see LGBT strive to be palatable or be presented as the ‘safe’ options. (!!!)
  • Bridie said she wanted to see an asexual romance. (AKA ‘friendships’ to us normies)
  • Fox made a joke about a type of gender identity (thought he said ‘ariopeach’ but could not cross-reference) and apologised for “lowering the tone” (no one got the joke I think, he was probably relieved).
Q: How do we stop toxic behaviour of other gamers?
  • Izzy said that platforms needed to take responsibility for behaviour. Robin said that there must be a way of spotting this behaviour and that it needed to come from the top.
  • Bridie said that gamers should be challenged on their behaviour (though it occurred to me in an online world it’s impossible to know if you’re talking with a 14 or 40 yo).
  • Fox encouraged gamers to meet up IRL and runs his own gaming society.
Q: Where should the focus be next?
  • Robin said that focus should be on the + (plus sign) as that has ‘yet to be told’ (i.e. the QIA part).
  • Bridie said that women-on-women had been done.
  • Izzy felt that gender identity and trans-ness needs further exploration and is a very rich topic & also that it attracts a lot of toxicity.

And then the event was wrapped up by James again – more food and drink to finish, further networking opportunities after that at a pub nearby.

On reflection it reminded me so much of the organisation Pride AM, its marketing world compatriot On reflection it reminded me so much of the organisation Pride AM, its marketing world compatriot, which I wrote about recently https://twitter.com/i/moments/1149377935998181377?s=13

Same age, same function, staffed by similar aged people – no one ever mentioned Stonewall but it seems obvious to me that there must be a connecting factor somewhere. (Since writing this, Network LGBT groups like this, is very much the bedrock of Stonewall’s success.) It is enormously successful for such a young enterprise.

It is odd and concerning that of handful of games discussed, four had blatant incest themes, or else could be construed as such (the Octodad trailer rang alarm bells for me).  Is this indicative of what the queer genre is like, or gaming generally? I genuinely have not a clue.

Panel was vapid and inconsistent.  At times it was clear the audience being discussed was teen market, yet panel gave examples of games which obviously had adult-only content and adult ratings.  The panel despite having no apparent awareness of the importance of age-appropriate content, were however fully aware of power & potential of LGBTQ+ content within games/wider society. Panel had absolutely no reflection at all on the responsibility of game developers to produce games within recognised guidelines. 

The panel was unable to acknowledge that any LGBTQ+ character, in order to be identifiable as such, has to have either: a) some sort of sexual content, or b) revert to recognised stereotypes in order to flag that up.

This is what happens when LGBTQ+ people are treated as ‘experts’, invited onto a panel to talk about their mundane experiences, rather than discussing well thought out policies or innovative ideas.

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