Today, EA held their EA Full Spectrum event at the extremely beautiful and impressive offices of the Ford Foundation in New York City and through a series of panels, discussed the topics of LGBT equality in games and the game industry. Lots of great topics were brought up and addressed, and despite what you may think of EA, the company should be commended for putting together an event like this. I just hope that more publishers follow their lead and continue to address the very real problem of equality in the industry, both in the games and behind the scenes. I was honored to be invited to attend, and happy to relay to you the highlights of what was discussed.
Craig Hagen of EA kicked off the event by bringing up the controversy over the gay planet in the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO and how equal rights in gaming is an subject that needs discussion. Host Luis Ubinez from the Ford Foundation then spoke to how even after all these years, the LGBT community is still fighting for their rights, but there is a sea of change happening. He believes it’s because of positive media portrayals of LGBT characters, especially important in areas where movies and TV often offer the only positive role models a young LGBT teen might see. But gaming takes it one step beyond film or television by allowing a person who may be living in secret to express their true self through a digital avatar and live freely for the first time through a game. Unfortunately, when I was a young questioning teen, there was no gay role model for me in games, TV or movies. You kids today might complain, but you don’t realize how lucky you are. It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than when I was growing up and feeling like the only gay in the village. (™ Little Britain)
Next, Hilary Rosen moderated a panel consisisting of Ellen Kahn of the Human Rights Campaign, Dan Hewitt from the Entertainment Software Association, Caryl Shaw a producer who once worked on The Sims, and Gordon Bellamy, who has been working in games for 20 years, and on the Madden series, no less. As this section began, the video screens switched to a live feed from nohomophobes.com that pretty much blew my mind. The site tracks hate speech on Twitter in real time, and there were already over 6,000 uses of the word “faggot” on Twitter that day, and it was only about 10am.
Discussion of hate speech in gaming led to speculation as to why it’s so prevalent. Games, by their very nature, are competitive, so smack talk is inevitable. It’s just a matter of choosing the right words and changing the way you smack talk. But with the anonymity of the internet, that’s going to be hard as people feel freer to say horrible things with little-to-no consequence. At one point, Rosen mentioned her son explaining to her that people tend to use derogatory terms like “gay” and “faggot” to attack the person who’s winning, so when he’s called names like that, he knows he’s just pissing them off with his awesomeness. These kinds of attitudes are naturally not as common in mobile and social network games as they are on the Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network ones, but there seemed to be a consensus that the issue of hate speech needs to be addressed on all fronts.
Gay characters in games were brought up, and it was pretty obvious that RPGs are the only ones really that let you create your own character and live the way you choose, whether gay or straight. You can create yourself in the game and shape the character as you want to see them. Obviously not going to happen in action shooters with set characters and storylines.
Opening up for questions from the audience led to discussions on reporting abusive behavior in online games, and how the “report” buttons can be ineffectual. Ideally, instead of picking the bad apples out of the basket as you go, you want to build a better community from the start. And while the gaming industry is still pretty much dominated by while heterosexual males, the more out people who enter the industry can begin creating change from within. Also, this was the point where I had to speak up, not with a question, but to point out that while Mass Effect was being touted as a game with gay content, it wasn’t until the third entry in the series that it became fully inclusive. And that’s because we put up a stink that male Shepard couldn’t engage in a gay relationship in the same way female Shepard could. So change is possible. Slow, but possible.
Then there was a short break, after which Maya Harris of the Ford Foundation sat down to interview Super Bowl champ Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens, who is an outspoken straight advocate for gay rights. (He was occasionally upstaged, however, by the adorable toddler who wandered on stage here and there, his son, Amadeus) Having encountered racism growing up, Ayanbadejo has been well acquainted with the fight for equal rights, and seeing the LGBT community going through the same thing, decided to speak up. Despite his position in the macho world of professional sports, he never had second thoughts about his position and taking a very public stand. And apparently, his teammates have already adjusted their behavior, cutting out offensive language while bantering in the locker room. And when I asked if he knew whether or not they were still watching themselves elsewhere in their lives, he said he hopes so, and believes they are. Ayanbadejo admitted that support is easy — speaking out is the challenge. When somebody says that something is “so gay” you need to be able to say to them that’s not okay and explain why.
Oh, also, Ayanbadejo declared he wasn’t thrilled with his stats in the Madden game. And when Craig Hagen laughed that he might be able to have a talk with someone at EA about it, the linebacker jokingly complained that it was too late now!
Then we broke for lunch, after which there was a video featuring footage of LGBT content in games. I know it was an EA event, so obviously the only footage would be from EA games, but it was still rather disheartening to see a lot of clips but from only three games: The Sims, Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
The second panel was moderated by Sean Bugg, a writer and editor at Metro Weekly, and consisted of Matthew Bromberg from BioWare, Deena Fidas from the HRC, Lucas Patton from Out for Undergrad, and Jaap Tuinman, a community manager from EA.
They agreed that it was the developer’s responsibility to create a safe online environment for players. And it’s better to lose customers by banning them for their behavior than trying to keep them and fostering the hate. Discussion turned to LGBT content in games, and Bromberg said that while it was important to let people play how they like, from the creator’s point of view, they want to make the experience as authentic as possible. So shoehorning in content just to do it wouldn’t be the best solution. The story needs to come first. And as far as LGBT content in non-RPGs, it seemed to be something they believed would eventually be seen in the industry.
Switching the topic to the companies themselves, Fidas explained that while companies can give equal benefits to LGBT employees, it’s also important to make sure that they’re creating an environment that fosters equality as well. Just because you get health insurance for your same-sex spouse doesn’t mean that you’re going to feel comfortable talking about them in the office. Fidas claimed that 50% of LGBT workers stay closeted in the workplace. That’s not right.
And in online multiplayer, whether being discriminated against for age, sexuality or race, it’s important to speak up. Although it was discussed that even taking away some layers of anonymity doesn’t quite solve the problem. Even when using real names instead of screen names, people will still be hateful and hurtful. I mean, have you seen some of the crazy stuff people post on Facebook?
In order to effect change, it’s important to be fully out, and be vocal. Speak up and create change from the inside out. Go get a job at that game company and get them to see that there’s another audience that isn’t being served. There were a lot of topics brought up today, and unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to the problems. My main takeaway from EA’s Full Spectrum event was that it’s important to be a voice for your community. And I feel like here at GayGamer.net, that’s exactly what we are.