A Candid Chat

Original Author: Andrew Meade

I present to you four different people in the game industry that intend to represent LGBT issues in this piece. From indie devs, to AAA studios, to mobile software, these guys and gals have decided to open up to us, and share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Our panel of developers:

Kate Craig is an environmental artist in Mobile Game Development.

Alex Benevento has studied games and interactivity at University, and is currently a Mobile Software Developer.

Dakko Dakko Ltd. He has also worked at Lionhead Studios (Fable), Q-Games (StarFox Command, PixelJunk Series), and many others. 

Robert Yang is an MFA student at Parsons the New School for Design, where he studies game design and makes indie games.

 

Andrew: Are you “out” to your co-workers, or is it more “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?

Kate: My coworkers know, and didn’t so much as bat an eyelash when they met my girlfriend. So far, Vancouver has been really lovely in that capacity.

Alex: Completely open. There wasn’t a time where I hid it from my employer or coworkers.  My partner is openly invited to all company get-togethers.  It’s a non-issue here.

Rhodri: It’s completely open, although it rarely comes up.

 

Andrew: Have you ever felt persecuted or treated differently by your peers (Industry, LGBT, Friends, Etc)?

Kate: Never persecuted, but there was a time a dev told me that since we’d met, I’d changed the way he viewed the gay community in a positive way. I think I was a little caught off guard at the time. It’s an intimidating prospect to think you may accidentally be representing an entire group of people in some situations.

Alex: Not really, no. I can’t remember anyone taking issue with me. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Perhaps the reason is that my lifestyle isn’t like any LGBT stereotypes portrayed by media. I like some sports; I’m a developer, so I’m a bit geeky, I like going out occasionally and having a drink or two – just normal, boring stuff. My lifestyle isn’t connected to my sexuality, if that makes sense. The fact that I’m partnered to a man has no bearing on how I conduct myself.

Rhodri: Thankfully, no. I can honestly and happily say that wherever I have worked, I have never received anything but respect or indifference towards my gayness, both of which are fine by me!

Robert: If by peers, you mean fellow LGBTQ people – not me, personally, but many LGBTQ people discriminate against each other all the time. Bisexual people are told they need to “pick a team”, trans people get ignored or mocked, and a large segment of gay men actively discriminate against more feminine, flamboyant gay men.

Jim Sterling’s response to your original article is a symptom of that last problem – the idea that the best gay character would be someone who isn’t gay.

LGBTQ people might call this an act of “erasure” – in this case it’s an attempt to devalue a type of person by insisting they’re a stereotype and not “real”, but the muscle queen dancing in a sparking Speedo dancing on top of a pink convertible is just as authentic and real of a person as the gay lumberjack with a gun collection. Nathan Drake wouldn’t be the “best gay game character ever”, he would just be one more of several gay characters, and to value an ordinary “performance of gayness” over another is a weird form of discrimination that’s sadly perpetuated by a lot of gay people too. Gay is gay.

 

Andrew: From where I’m standing, it doesn’t seem like there are many LGBT developers. Is that just my perspective, or is there a truth to that?

Kate: I’m honestly not sure. I’ve met and played with a number of gamers that identify as gay, but when it comes to game developers, I run into far fewer that I’m aware of.

Alex: I’m not sure if that’s quite accurate. I’d say there wouldn’t be too many LGBT devs who are out. I imagine a substantial number of them work for larger companies, and a harsh reality is that, depending on location and despite antidiscrimination laws, devs in the closet remain so in fear of losing opportunities at work or being singled out.

Rhodri: In my experience, LGBT game developers are quite common. I think the appeal of gaming is fairly universal, so the games industry (in the UK and Japan at least) attracts gay developers fairly in proportion with the gay population.

Robert: I’ve been told that there is actually a fair amount, but how can you ever really know? People aren’t out at work for a variety of reasons – maybe they prefer to keep their personal life personal, maybe they see nothing to gain, maybe they’re out to close co-workers but not to HR/other departments, maybe they’re still sorting their identity out – there are a lot of maybes. In that way, no matter which industry or studio you are with, the reluctance to come out is always justified.

 

Andrew: I guess a better way to ask that question would be to ask if the game industry was welcoming and tolerant.

Kate: In some ways I feel like the industry has something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation going on with regards to tolerance.

During work, conventions, and industry events, everyone I’ve met has been nothing but supportive and open. When the topic is brought up in online articles or on forums, however, it can take an ugly turn, even when the subject is being discussed by those in the industry. Comment sections on sites like Gamasutra (and games journalism sites that aren’t strictly developer resources) are sometimes difficult to read, and the same arguments tend to show up again and again.

When it’s good, it’s amazing. When it’s bad, it can be pretty upsetting.

Alex: The people I studied alongside at University were one of the most varied groups possible. One trait that ran among them was tolerance and acceptance: no one ever really passed judgment on anyone else for any reason. There was a real sense of camaraderie.  As for those currently working at games studios, the people I’ve met have exhibited similar traits, though I haven’t had the opportunity to work with them.

Rhodri: I have always found it to be so. In my first job (testing at EA Bullfrog), when I was just out of University, I was a little concerned about the reaction I would get from the other testers. However, contrary to my expectations, everyone was thoroughly supportive and welcoming – I didn’t get any trouble for it at all. Since that first job, I’ve been “out” wherever I’ve worked. I’ve had many gay co-workers throughout the years, most of them as open about it as I have been.

Robert: I can’t speak for the core of the industry, other than passing on some informed hearsay, but I’d say that the machine that surrounds and supports the game industry (academics, mobile games, social games, serious games, indies, marketing) are all pretty welcoming. If the game industry isn’t tolerant, then it’s probably going to get suffocated by all the LGBT people working around it anyway.

 

Andrew: Well let’s get to the meat of why we’re here. The jury has been out when it comes to responsibility. Do you feel like the industry has a social responsibility to make LGBT friendly characters and games more common?

Kate: Responsibility may imply a sense of obligation, and if these scenarios show up more in games, I’d like it to be because devs and players are genuinely interested in exploring them. More interpersonal stories in general is something I’d love to see, and if LGBT relationships are among them, then that’s all the better.

Alex: Yes, in a sense. Anyone who plays games, reads books, or watches films, want to feel represented in some way. They want to relate to the media they’re experiencing.  While I don’t remember ever questioning why there weren’t any LGBT characters or themes in the games I played growing up, I have no doubt I got the feeling that something was missing across all the media I consumed. Books, films, TV, and games: whenever romance was involved, it was boy-meets-girl, etc. The closest I got was having my male Sims marry.

Now, that said, it does no good shoehorning LGBT characters into games just to be politically correct, and the same goes for LGBT scenarios and themes. As with any part of the game’s narrative, everything should have its place. I remember some controversy over Resident Evil 5 being set in Africa; with protagonist Chris Redfield gunning down crowds of infected natives. It was deemed racist to have a white man killing infected black people, but wouldn’t it have been worse if they’d made everyone white to match Chris? Imagine releasing a game set in Africa, where everyone you meet is white: it doesn’t make sense, and does more harm than good. Similarly, contriving LGBT scenarios as a means to make people feel included is going about it the wrong way.

Rhodri: I feel the industry has a responsibility not to reinforce potentially negative stereotypes, certainly. It’s important not to isolate gay kids who might be struggling with self-image. During development of Fable there was a debate about the inclusion of same-sex relationships, as it was technically easy enough to include. I was perhaps the only voice to speak out against including the same-sex relationships, because I felt they would be tacky and (in the end I feel quite correctly) embarrassingly stereotyped. The audio recorded for the “wedding night” was so awkward I recall feeling like I should have fought harder to have the feature turned off.

Aside from the potential negative effects of dated stereotyping, I haven’t ever really considered it as particularly relevant to games. Of course as some branches of the games industry become more involved with storytelling, then there is a place for gay characters just as in any media, but I would focus our responsibility more on not misrepresenting, than actively representing “for the sake of it”.

Robert: In general, yes, though I think the industry has a larger ethical obligation as a powerful broadcast medium/Hollywood-like culture factory, to try to do good and avoid exploiting players. However, I object to the way that the television industry has turned gayness into a mediocre brand strategy. I wouldn’t want something terrible like a game industry equivalent of GLAAD, counting occurrences of LGBT characters to assign grades to TV networks – it privileges quantity over quality. If a game sucks, a gay character isn’t going to salvage it! I just want a good game with a well-written character, which is hard to do, so I appreciate studios like BioWare investing so much into such characters.

 

Andrew: As an LGBT dev, do you feel like you have the power to initiate change? Furthermore, if you could, would you want to?

Kate: Small change, absolutely. I’d like to be able to initiate change on a grander scale eventually, but for now I’m just approaching things one at a time.

Alex: This is tricky. Game developers and designers possess the awesome power of storytelling. Converting someone’s ignorance into understanding could be just one well-written story delivered in the right way. Games are unique among storytelling media because of the interactivity they offer. Players are often able to connect with the characters on a much deeper level because they’re interacting with them directly, not just watching a story unfold in a film. If you connect with a character, you are much more likely to care about them: their problems become more real, and solving those problems can involve a player overcoming their own prejudices and obstacles. More importantly, the player wants to solve these problems. This is where the real power is.

Given that power, I would definitely have a stab at initiating change. As I said, storytelling is a great power, and game designers and developers have the skills and the technology at their disposal to get their message across. While that sort of power bears considerable responsibility, it’s worth it to get your message across to even a handful of players.

Rhodri: I only have experience of the UK and Japanese games industry, but in both cases it has been unnecessary for me to consider the need to initiate any changes regarding my sexuality. The only time I ever really got into a work-life related campaign for change was to adjust the work hours at one studio, so that the straight staff could go home to see their newborn kids more often.

Robert: As a satellite orbiting the actual industry, I get to speak from a privileged position that involves games, but without any of the nightmare crunches or NDAs or bans on personal blogs and interviews. I get to be a “public face” of games, even if that face is pretty small and limited as an indie academic. But for the younger gay people who can’t identify with the gay culture perpetuated by Glee or Project Runway (not that there’s anything wrong with those!), I feel that I have to try to be “visible,” to let them know that gay people can love annihilating hordes of zombies too. I think the most powerful way for me to achieve that is to simply exist, be present, and make and discuss games.

 

Andrew: What do you feel needs to happen for LGBT rights to be promoted through games?

Kate: The best possible promotion I can think of would be a great game in and of itself. Unfortunately, it’s almost something of a catch-22; a thoughtful, character driven game that touches on some of the dynamics or conflicts unique to an LGBT narrative might be persuasive in terms of opening the door for future games, but that game has to be made in the first place.

Similarly, a tactfully handled protagonist could go a long way. Just as Jade from Beyond Good and Evil or Elena from the Uncharted series are often mentioned as well written female characters; a gay character with depth that isn’t based on stereotypes would be a strong (and very welcome) start.

Alex: I don’t feel that LGBT rights need to be promoted as such. Just as it’s annoying to be hounded in the streets by people trying to force pamphlets into your hand and an agenda down your throat, I don’t think parading LGBT themes and rights in games is the right way to go.

Here’s the biggest problem: in promoting LGBT rights, the intended message is: “We’re the same as everyone else, and we need you to respect that”, but the act of promoting it says, “We’re different enough to point it out, and we need you to respect that.”

Media and content producers need to realize that not all LGBT characters are identical.  Gay men fight for their country, so why not include some gay soldiers in war games? I read a comment on an article somewhere suggesting that, instead of explicitly pointing out “this man is gay” by employing the use of stereotypes (fashion, mannerisms, speech; you know what I’m talking about), a more appropriate and respectful way to include a gay character could be a soldier who is seen looking wistfully at a photo of the man he left behind. It’s not in your face, racy or explicit, nor does it go out of its way to push an agenda: it’s just a regular guy in a terrible situation, experiencing the same thing as every other guy around him. And that’s the message that needs to get through.

The approach needs to be realizing that being LGBT doesn’t mean having an LGBT personality or lifestyle.  LGBT people have the same varied personalities, problems and lifestyles as other people. Sexual orientation and gender identity don’t define these things, and games, as well as other media, should learn to respect this.

Rhodri: I believe if people have the confidence and courage to speak up for themselves, their colleagues will respect them. I feel I should have spoken up more loudly about the issue with Fable’s overly “fey” characterization of homosexuality, but on the other hand I should be open to the possibility that I was over-reacting and many people enjoyed and felt included by that feature.

Robert: If by games, you mean commercial video games made for console and PC, then I think the hardcore audience needs to expand to include players who will demand and pay for such content. Right now, we’re a minority. But the only way to expand the player base is to make daring games to attract more people. So, in short, LGBTQ-inclusive games need to get made, in order for more LGBTQ games to get made.

 

Andrew: Finally, what do you have to say, as words of inspiration, for the budding young LGBT game devs of the world? 

Kate: As I’ve only been a part of the industry for a short while, I don’t feel like I’m in a position where I can offer much in the way of inspiration just yet. In some ways, I actually feel like I am that young dev, so by all means, if anyone has any words of inspiration I’m totally down.

Alex: You are not your sexuality, nor does your sexuality define or dictate your success. The games industry is already tough enough to work in, so concentrate on being the best damn game dev you can.

Rhodri: I hope that this interview has shown that in my experience it is already a welcoming industry. Gaming and computing both attract all sorts, and most of the studios I know have a great mix of people from a huge variety of backgrounds, all pulling together due to their passion for gaming. Go, develop, and meet lovely new people along the way.

Robert: If you’re afraid, don’t be. You’re not alone and you don’t have to prove anything to anyone. That said, don’t let video games convince you that locked doors are invincible; they’re not, and they’re really fun to kick down. In the meantime, make lots of games and collaborate.

Note: This interview was formed from email correspondence between the devs and myself. Replies have been edited for grammar, spelling, and clarity.