Thursday, August 9, 2012

On Gaming Conventions and GaymerCon

Recently, a group of fine folks based in San Francisco put up a Kickstarter for a new thing. They call it GaymerCon. Essentially, it is a gaming convention, like PAX, GenCon, BlizzCon, GeekGirlCon, or similar but it has a very specific purpose. It intends to create a gaming environment that is LGBT friendly and it intends to demonstrate the importance of the LGBT community within gaming. It has the public support of a number of recognizable people and, if the Kickstarter and media coverage are any indication, it will happen and it will be a big thing.

You can tell it's a thing. They have a logo.
I normally do not like to write about social issues. It is not that I do not believe in anything or that I think that my opinion is not worth expressing. It is just that as a person who writes about gaming, I believe that gaming is what is important. It brings people together, lets us share experiences, and helps us form common bonds. I do not want to muddy the water by bringing up pet political issues or social problems that may disrupt or offend. Yet, all that being said, I wanted to say a thing or two about GaymerCon, because some of the conversation surrounding GaymerCon seems to threaten the ideas of coming together, sharing experiences, and building common bonds. As it ends up, that is something that I need to address.

Some people dislike folks who identify as LGBT and, thus, oppose GaymerCon on principle. To those people I have little to say other than express my concern over how the actions a person takes in their most distinctly personal spaces somehow affects your ability to respect them or appreciate them outside of those personal spaces. That is not what I hope to address here because nothing I can say will remedy that deficiency.

I bet that they don't support GaymerCon.
There are a number of people who have expressed a different concern. Why do these LGBT people want to segregate themselves? Why do they want their own, separate, suggestively exclusive event?  As it ends up, my initial instinct is to agree with that sentiment. Why a separate event? Why segregate the LGBT folks from the rest of the gaming world? It almost seems like the opposite of the notion of community inclusiveness. For me, this makes it something worth talking about. Ideally, a gaming convention should not have anything (or at least very little) to do with your sexual identity or sexual preference. That makes perfect sense. Whether or not you liked Bastion, prefer Fourth or Third Edition D&D, play Ticket to Ride, or found the new expansion for Civilization V compelling does not, on its face, have much to do with your sexual activities.

Okay. So this may be construed as surprisingly gay.
Some bloggers have suggested that LGBT gamers would not have any problems if they just did not bring their personal life into their gaming. Yet, that being said, there are many stories on the Internet regarding LGBT folks and the (negative) experiences they have in gaming. I read one story about a young fellow's simple search for a partner to go adventuring with in World of Warcraft quickly turned ugly after, on questioning by this newfound gaming partner, the young LGBT fellow admitted he had a boyfriend. Further, there are many LGBT folks that can tell about their frustration in finding that practically every game created in the modern day seems to assume you are a straight, male, 20-30 year old player. Some of the vitriol expressed over the very idea of GaymerCon is just as telling as any personal story out there.

On the other hand, there are some gamers who consider themselves as much classier than those people. They have no intention of judging somebody on such a basis. But they still have a problem with GaymerCon. A reoccurring theme in comment threads and discussion boards suggest that everything would be fine if LGBT folks would stop making a bid deal about their gender and sexual identity. Stop waving the flag! I have even read discussion threads and post comments suggesting that LGBT gamers are just making it worse by promoting their own convention. This is an important thing to think about and address. I want to address this by looking at my experience at PAX and similar conventions while also looking at my experience as a Seattle game event organizer. Hopefully, I can provide a perspective that will properly and sufficiently address the concerns regarding GaymerCon.

I've heard Birdo has a LGBT story
that she wants to tell the world.
Last year, at PAX, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a panel regarding LGBT gamers in gaming. The host, a respectable designer working for notable company, talked about his experiences as a gay male gamer. A gaymer, as it the name goes. He described how, as a gamer, his gay friends looked at him as an oddity, an outsider. "You play role-playing games? And video games?" On the other hand, he described how the gamer community disregarded or, even worse, disapproved of his sexual lifestyle. "You are gay? Like, you are into guys?" As he described it, both of these communities shunned his involvement with the other. It seems strange to me that people within these two groups, gamer and gay, groups with a history of being repressed, ignored, segregated, or belittled, could find it in their hearts to repress, ignore, segregate, or belittle one of their own simply because he (or she) was different. Maybe, then, there is something to be said about creating a welcoming environment like a convention for gay gamers. And, for that matter, all LGBT identified folks and their supportive friends.

The idea of a separate convention for a specific subgroup of society may still seem strange, even coounter-productive. I had the same concern a few years ago. Living in Seattle, I discovered GeekGirlCon. It was a gaming convention designed to create a safe space for women gamers. It was also open and welcoming to those non-women who desired to help create that supportive space. I actually wondered what the point was at first. Was not the gaming community supportive and welcoming enough? Why a separate convention? Why segregate? I figured such a separate convention would only further harm the position of women in gaming. Or, so I thought.

Then I spoke to a few women gamers. Gaming, as an industry, tends to target straight, male, white gamers, typically ages 18-30. So many games present their world through a very specific lens, targeting a very specific audience that seems to fancy scantily clad, big busted, sexy women. Women in games, and especially female protagonists, tend to look more like sex objects than heroic figures. There were exceptions, but rarely did I find a game that felt like it targeted (or, often, even considered) women. Or, for that matter, gay men. The fact that these other groups, these fringe sub-groups,  liked these games seemed more like a convenient accident than anything else. The bulk of the target market was young, straight men.

Wait! You're suggesting that this character wasn't
designed to appeal to female gamers?
The current convention scene is, as it ends up, not very different than the game marketplace. There may be the occasional panel or guest speaker focusing on women or LGBT folks, but the bulk of the convention, and the experience, targets that same, familiar market. In my three years at PAX, I have yet to see a strapping lad or muscular gent amongst the "booth babes" on the convention floor.  I have seen countless young women in revealing costumes trying to convince me to buy some product or another but not a single, loosely dressed "marketing specialist" intended for the women, gay men, or other non-straight men to gaze upon. If there is an attractive man working the booth, it's by random chance that he was an employee of the company and he just happened to be there to talk about the products. Usually, you can tell by the company polo shirt in lieu of the exposed midriff or tight, highly cropped pants. Booth babes don't usually wear polo shirts.

At CES, this is as close as you get to a male booth babe.
I have known women and gay gamers who have considered themselves alone within the gaming culture. Having something like GeekGirlCon or GaymerCon is important because it lets those people have a place to come together, meet one another, and know that they are not alone. So, in that regard, maybe GeekGirlCon and GaymerCon have a really important purpose in bringing together people that normally feel alone and ostracized. It's okay to be a woman gamer or a LGBT gamer; here are conventions of people that specifically respect and support that.

But, it is more than just that. I have heard on multiple occasions that the emphasis, both at conventions and in development, is the way that it is (in favor of young, straight men) because straight, young, white men make up the vast majority of the gaming market. I have heard suggested that it is not a prudent business decision to try and be inclusive of such small sub-groups at the risk of the target demographic. Perhaps these speciality conventions can show businesses that the market has changed or that it is different than they assumed. This year, GeekGirlCon moved into the Washington Convention Center. That is the same convention center that PAX Prime is held in. The argument that women gamers are a niche market seems, in this light, a gross understatement. I believe the rapid funding of GaymerCon is not all that different. These are communities that exist and are important but have been ignored or disrespected by the industry for a long time. These conventions are a way for the gaming industry to learn that they are not dealing with fringe sub-culture. It is a big deal.

In thinking about all of these things, it does not surprise me that geeky women should want their own convention. And, keeping that in mind, it does not surprise me that LGBT gamers would want their own convention.  In an ideal world, we would not need conventions intending to provide safe, inviting space for specific classes of people. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Until we do, I am proud to be a public supporter of both GeekGirlCon and GaymerCon. I may not be going to either event, but I realize that women and LGBT gamers should have a space to come together and share with fellow gamers while not feeling afraid, intimidated, or ostracized because of who they are. The rest of the gaming community should look at this and recognize that it is a relevant part of their market that needs to be considered.

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