EA at GaymerX: LGBT inclusivity harms no one's bottom line

Speaking at this past weekend's GaymerX, four members of EA including Dragon Age narrative lead David Gaider discussed gains in LGBT representation -- and how it just makes good business sense.
Electronic Arts commanded a significant presence at the inaugural GaymerX, an LGBT-focused games convention held this past weekend in San Francisco's Japantown. With multiple panels, signing sessions and a booth in the convention dealer hall, EA stood out as the single most prominent games company among the convention's sponsors -- in terms of real estate at the very least. Kicking off the weekend's events, EA's first panel was constructed as an introduction to the publisher, with four panelists from widely different fields: David Gaider (narrative lead) and Jessica Merizan (community manager) from BioWare; David Graham (AI programmer) from Maxis, and J.M. Sudsina (assistant producer intern) from EA's Redwood Shores office. Led by a moderator, the four panelists shared their respective histories with EA, then launched into a discussion of inclusivity for games -- what it means, what gains they've made within EA, and where they still had to go.

Changing the game

Graham shared the story of how Jamie Doornbos, lead engineer for the original Sims, wrote in the option for same-sex relationships without consulting anyone at Maxis. "He just went in there and it was a thing one day," Graham said. In Graham's own most recently shipped title, The Sims Medieval, he said attendees that the game's development team had exactly one meeting on same-sex relationships in the game. "There was never a question of 'do we support this;' it was a question of 'how do we support this?'" Graham said that at the time of the first Sims' release, it was easier to facilitate same-sex content in something like The Sims than in some other titles because it was deemed to be for a casual market. Gaider, in turn, noted that as opinions shifted and LGBT characters began filtering into EA's core catalog, the company's stance only solidified. "If EA wanted to, they could stop any dev working under them from including [same-sex] content, but they don't," Gaider said. "[It's] about recognizing that we have a broad and diverse audience... you can't just shrug that off." "There is a belief that by not saying anything, you're being safe," said Sudsina. A student at the University of Southern California's games program and the youngest member of the panel, Sudsina related feeling like "games came out with me," as he grew up just as titles like The Sims were hitting the market. "Ignorance is not in any way, shape or form acceptance," he said. "Not every game is going to address sexuality [and] not every game is going to be everything to all people," Gaider continued, "but I want us to get to a point where people can find diversity throughout our company's titles."

Changing minds

"The person who shouts the loudest and is able to sit at their computer the longest is going to win," BioWare community lead Jessica Merizan said with a certain grimness, describing the BioWare Social Network (BSN)'s reputation for "toxicity" and EA's dubious honor of being named "worst company in America" two years in a row via online polls. "It's about getting to the point of being able to not fear those people, to stand up and say, 'no no, you're the one with the problem,'" Gaider added. He referenced a now-famous altercation on the BSN, in which a dissatisfied Dragon Age 2 player contended that by including gay and non-white characters, BioWare was ignoring its straight, white, male players. A loud wave of laughter ran through the audience at this suggestion. While Merizan mentioned an upcoming project to overhaul BioWare's social media engagement with its customers, the rest of the panel also suggested ways to help change players' perceptions of homosexuality. Gaider cited Naughty Dog's recently released The Last of Us and the character of Bill, whose homosexuality is "just there" rather than a plot point. Graham proposed that "sneaking it in has a better chance of working," by getting players to identify with a character and then subverting expectations, such as how Samus Aran's gender was revealed in the original Metroid. Steve Cortez, from BioWare's own Mass Effect 3, was held up as a positive example as well. "Ten, fifteen years ago, a character like Cortez would get onto the news, lead to picketing and boycotts," Merizan suggested. By contrast, she said, upset over LGBT representation was quite low on the list of complaints when ME3 launched in 2012.

Good capitalist sense

Like its sister franchise, Dragon Age 2 faced quite a bit of backlash when it released in 2011. However, Gaider said that writing the game's four main romance options to be open to both male and female player characters "affected our sales in no way whatsoever." "Say a fan said on the forums they weren't going to pick it up because they were offended. Okay," said Gaider. "Another fan would say they bought the game because they heard it had that feature. That's the sort of language companies listen to." "People at the top [aren't] fundamentally bigots; they're fundamentally capitalists," said Merizan. "Not only are they capitalists, they're copycats," Gaider added, launching off his fellow panelist's point. "Nothing is going to change so quickly as when some indie game breaks out and sells so many copies."

Leading the charge (from the back seat)

Indies are there to do the things triple-A cannot, to hear the EA panelists tell it. The four speakers unanimously encouraged GaymerX attendees to support independent titles, for the feedback it would send to major studios -- like their employer. "Buy games you want to play, not just the big titles," Merizan told the audience. If a game posed a viewpoint a player found toxic, homophobic, sexist, or the like, "don't support it. Don't buy things you fundamentally disagree with... Vote with your wallet." And if a consumer decided he or she wouldn't purchase EA games, on the sole basis of LGBT content? "Well, fuck you, then," Graham said, shrugging.

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