“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.
Engagement and assimilation
Still, Gaider’s comments ignore the passionate anti-capitalism that underpins much of the work being done in queer indie gaming. The goal of queer game designers is not always to make AAA publishers change their ways. Porpentine made her relationship to the mainstream crystal clear:
“We will always be asked to assimilate and compromise and let other people create those depictions of our identities for us [...] I want to give space and tools to marginalised people, not wait around for big corporations or privileged people to throw us scraps under the table.”
The conflict between assimilationism and separatism was bridged to some extent in the ‘Awkward Silences’ panel on trying to make fan communities more inclusive. There is always a balancing act to be struck between venturing out into shared spaces, and respecting your own personal limits.
“You don’t have to engage, but change is often borne of engagement,” said one panelist. Engagement does not mean giving up personal space. “You don’t owe anyone your forgiveness, your politeness or your time,” said another, who also poignantly described the experience of being excluded by a fandom’s culture: “You think, maybe I’m not so into this thing that I’m going to put up with this bullshit all the time.”
The same goes for queer geek culture of course; all communities will be excluding at times, whether they are mainstream or on the margins. In a talk about building a queer geek community in Seattle, Ben Williams cautioned against complacency:
“Don’t assume that you are the community. Geek culture in general is dominated by the straight white male perspective, and just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re not still excluding people. And you can’t just invite women and trans people and then go ‘oh they didn’t come’, because they might assume it’s going to be dominated by cis men.”
Despite the best efforts of Gaymer Con’s organisers, there were certain panels that were dominated not simply by cis white men, but by the kind of ideas that only make sense in a culture dominated by cis white men. In ‘Know your roots’, a roadmap was laid out for video games as a vehicle for broader social acceptance. It began with the point that games have created cultural icons such as Sonic who people could personally identify with. The dubious claim was then made that Princess Peach was a gaming cultural icon who girls could identify with, and that there needed to be an icon to represent gay men (and also lesbians and trans people, the speaker quickly added). How an icon can represent an identity without becoming a problematic stereotype was not addressed. To me, the example of Princess Peach seems like more of a warning sign than a milestone.
Resistance is survival
While there was a powerful pushback against the kind of assimilationism represented by the quest for a cultural icon, this pushback can’t always be summed up simply as separatism.
The very division between mainstream and marginal was challenged by Mattie Brice’s presentation. She made it clear that these are not fixed positions, but relationships that are actively created by an oppressive culture: queer identities are “seen as the outsides, pushed to the margins”. The fact that the queer community can appear to have a finite boundary is a product of normativity itself: “it is an unfortunate consequence that people assume white straight cis men can’t have queer experiences, and that’s a fault of the discussion.”
I felt inclined to read into Brice’s presentation a clarion call for another way of viewing resistance. Beyond the dichotomy between building spaces apart from the mainstream and seeking acceptance as part of ‘normal’ society, Brice’s model of resistance challenges the discourse that creates normativity in the first place.
Whether writing about games or writing for them, Brice advocated for fully occupying and interrogating our own personal position, with an awareness of the systems of privilege that put us there. By unpacking those experiences and being honest about them, we can undermine the invisibility that gives normativity its power. Queerness isn’t just something possessed by some and dispossessed by others; it is a critique of a normative model that nobody can possibly live up to.
Indeed, opposing the mainstream is not enough. “Sexism is not a AAA problem”, Brice pointed out. “It is a society problem. Many of your favourite indie artists need a talk, and sometimes they are the hardest to talk to because they are idolised like they can’t do anything wrong.”
In her advice to allies, Brice focused on the importance of supporting creators, both financially and by reaching out to them personally. She said that this isn’t only about giving people a way to survive: it’s about making it clear that their existence is viable.
GaymerX was a fan convention: it was a place to find yaoi comics, play board games and get cosplay tips. But it was also something much bigger. When we criticise gaming culture we say that it’s not ‘just a game,’ and the same applies here. Marking out a space for queer gamers is not just about what we do with our leisure time. It’s about exploring how to relate to a culture that often wants to erase our existence.