In January, the game developer BioWare announced that it would be adding same-sex relationships to their massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, Star Wars: The Old Republic. This was no great surprise. BioWare's games have always stressed character customization, and have included the option to have same-sex romances for years.
Unsurprisingly, some on the cultural right were outraged. Less predictably, the new feature angered large segments of the gay gaming population as well. At issue: gay romance was available only on one planet. In a widely-read column for PCGamesN, Steve Hogarty wrote:
Adding gay NPCs to Makeb is a bizarre half-measure then, a jarring stop-gap that only serves as testament to an existing in-game sexual inequality. At worst, it suggests that BioWare don't understand the concerns of those fans who want to play the game according to their own identities, that they see "SGR" [same-gender romance] as additional or surplus to the regular game rather than something that should sit quietly and seamlessly alongside heterosexual dialogue options from the outset. SGR shouldn't be a feature. It shouldn't be a dirty fling on a remote planet. It shouldn't be an acronym. It should just be.
Referring to the controversy today at the first ever Electronic Arts LGBT Full Spectrum event, EA's senior director of government affairs, Craig Hagen said, "We demonstrated EA's unique ability to piss everyone off."
It's true that the feature could have been integrated into the game more thoughtfully. It's also true, as it became increasingly clear over the four hours of the conference, cosponsoed by the Electronic Software Association (the largest videogame lobbying organization) and the Human Rights Campaign, that gaming's issues with gender and sexuality go far beyond one fictional planet. Games and the industry that produces them have a long way to go until their products and the communities they give rise to are places where gay gamers can feel represented and accepted.
The timing of the conference, which featured speakers in game production and development, as well as an LGBT corporate compliance advocate and a representative from the ESA, makes sense. The United States is clearly moving in the direction of gay rights; nine states now recognize gay marriage and, according to Pew, the percentage of Americans who favor allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry has increased to 48 percent, up from 35 in 2001. EA is a four-billion-dollar business, and it seems clearly in their interest to go with the tide, especially if the whitecaps of that tide read Reddit and skew liberal.
The panels' discussions cleaved into two major problem areas: the lack of gay themes and characters in mainstream games, and the tenor of the conversation amongst online gamers.
The infrequency of gay themes in gaming is obvious, and was only underscored by the fact that EA's montage of gay characters came entirely from three titles. This lack of representation may come from no specific prejudice, but in part, at least, from the natural conservatism of businessmen who have made good money for decades on games featuring white, straight, male protagonists. Matt Bromberg, the general manager of Bioware Austin, said, "I've never heard someone in a boardroom setting say 'we've got to include some LGBT themes so we can attack that marketplace.' People don't rush into this because they expect something good to happen." And part of it probably comes from the state of the industry, which, according to Caryl Shaw, a long-time game producer who worked on the Sims and SimCity series, is "white and dudely."
The solution to this problem, though, may be on the horizon. We're almost certainly entering a golden age of independent games, and as the costs and coding chops necessary to make a game decrease, and as crowd-funding explodes, the range of perspectives behind games will naturally proliferate. Addressing the lack of gay characters and themes in gaming may be as simple as waiting. "Who knows what kind of games your sons will make," asked Gordon Bellamy, the director of industry relations for Tencent and the former executive director of the International Game Developers Organization. Bellamy is gay.
A more intractable problem than the content of games may be the conversations of gamers. As anyone who has played a game online before well knows, the spoken use of epithets for homosexuality is ubiquitous. Sean Bugg, the co-publisher of the gay DC magazine Metro Weekly and the moderator of a panel today, said that he had mostly retired from online gaming in the 90s because "I don't like being called faggot."
The solution here, according to several participants in the conference, may be to form smaller online gaming communities that share certain basic principles. Said Bromberg, "That's what you do in life when society is unsatisfying to you: you find smaller groups of people that are likeminded to hang out with and then you as a group have to better norms."
Of course, it would be preferable if gamers didn't have to form clubs with common interests like "no intolerance based on sexuality allowed." But online gaming conversations don't exist in a vacuum; they may be less of a poor reflection on gamers than an indication of how far our society has to go in accepting gay and lesbian experience as completely equal. Game companies like EA certainly bear the responsibility of trying to making games that reflect the experiences of their clients.
But changing American attitudes towards sexual orientation may be beyond the provence of games, barring a single, transformational title. That's why the title that Hagen, the EA government relations chief, kept making reference to wasn't a game at all. It was a sitcom called Will and Grace.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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