“Queer culture, especially gay male culture, discourages geekiness. It puts emphasis on physicality and mainstream pop culture. You almost have to be closeted twice.”
This is the experience of Seattle queer geek community organiser Charles Logan, as expressed in a panel at GaymerX this weekend. The event, part conference and part convention, was a tantalising taste of what the queer scene and games culture could be like; a small hint that maybe one day I won’t feel alienated or isolated.
It was an extraordinary event; while it had precedents in Seattle’s Queer Geek community and the existing Gaymer scene in San Francisco, many attendees had never before had a venue for being openly queer and geeky. I hadn’t seen anything like this before. To look down a conference schedule and see it packed with topics such as ‘Gender in Interactive Fiction’ and ‘How Queerness is changing games media’ was uniquely thrilling and fundamentally affirming.
More than a couple of panelists acknowledged in different contexts that safe spaces are only ever ‘safer spaces’; the creation of a safe space takes ongoing effort, and mistakes will be made. There were certainly eye-roll moments for me: the EA panel calling male femininity an “extreme stereotype” of homosexuality (cringe), or the partner of a trans guy saying, in front of their spouse, on stage and on camera, that they are “not into cis guys” (not cool) [edit: many thanks to the panelist for apologising in the comments (12th August)], or the moment in a panel called ‘Knowing your roots’ where Uncharted’s Nathan Drake was described as someone “everyone can relate to” (perhaps a white, cis, male vision of ‘everyone’).
We’re all still learning how to get this right, but I personally feel optimistic that events like GaymerX will give us more opportunities to learn together.
Watch me hit the gay button
One issue raised in relation to mainstream games was that even though some studios within large publishers like EA are getting the greenlight to include same-sex romance options, there are tight restrictions on how this can be implemented: an engineer working on The Sims 4 recounted an occasion when a test build sometimes showed gay couples cuddling on park benches in the background; they were instructed to change it, because, “the rule is that you don’t get a homosexual encounter unless the player initiates it.” In an interview with the San Francisco Examiner, Anna Anthropy described this as the ‘gay button’.
Jessica Merizan, community manager for BioWare, said that she wanted to see gender options become non-binary in more games. “People don’t trust that community managers actually do anything, but I do advise on what our fans want. I really want to help reshape the misconceptions. Gender and sex are not the same thing, and neither are binary. Unfortunately, because of tech limitations, you always pick male or female. I hope that some day we will get through that milestone–that you don’t have to pick male or female–because that’s not how the world is.”
When queer romances have to be kept out of sight and out of mind, and with each BioWare game having a limited ‘word budget’, it’s hard to imagine EA allowing gender diversity any time soon, but it’s encouraging to know that the intention is there in its studios. The higher-ups may be worried that their bottom line relies on traditional boundaries of sex and gender, those on the EA panel at GaymerX left no doubt about what the bottom line is to them: “If you don’t want to buy our games because they have gay characters, then fuck you.”
Meanwhile, queer indie games are doing great work pushing far beyond the publishers’ comfort zones. Some of the best loved boundary-pushing work was well-represented, with panels on interactive fiction by Porpentine and Christine Love as well as Anthropy herself.
BioWare’s David Gaider put his weight behind the indie scene, arguing, “the publishers aren’t just capitalists; they’re copycats. As soon as one indie game breaks out they will jump on that bandwagon so fast. The best thing you can do is support the indie games that do what you want to see more of.”
The publishers may be keeping queer relationships hidden from view, but it’s clear that one way to ‘hit the gay button’ in the industry as a whole is to put your dollars behind queer indies.