What did we learn from EA's LGBT-friendly event?

There were a lot of takeaways from Electronic Arts' recent LGBT-friendly FullSpectrum event. Attendees discuss its successes and shortcomings, and what publishers should learn.
Last week, amid peak fervor for its SimCity launch woes, Electronic Arts held a small, even austere summit on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in the game industry at the Ford Foundation in New York City, right down the street from the United Nations building. Was it a PR move? Absolutely, at least in part -- but given the AAA industry's history of stridently ignoring progressive concerns in favor of aggressively marketing samey guns and babes stuff to a young "core" male audience, it's not insignificant that a company EA's size makes a gesture of attention to concerns about broader inclusivity. It's savvy timing, and not just because it's a bit of positive press right when EA needed some ("I did not work on the new SimCity," asserted panelist Caryl Shaw, a Maxis veteran, to laughter from the room). That timing was coincidental, of course, given these things take time to plan and the publisher didn't foresee the problematic launch. These days much attention has been given to games' "image problem," a concern that's lately gone all the way to the discussion table in Washington. Bringing games outside of the domain of the hostile, faceless trigger-puller is simply a business necessity we can expect all publishers to start approaching. Now that the viability of practically all triple-A games increasingly depends on fostering healthy online and multiplayer communities, the reality that hate speech, harassment and a minefield of slurs and nasty competition keep so many people from joining in will actually constrain the industry's growth. It's more than an image concern for the industry now -- there's a barrier that it must address. The passionate LGBT gaming community has felt unheard, like an afterthought at best, for so long that it's unlikely that early steps taken by EA or any other publisher are going to immediately impress, or even satisfy everyone. And consumers are right to be skeptical any time a massive, for-profit company decides to start saying it's genuinely concerned about the safety and happiness of alienated consumers. But across social media and among attendees, reactions to EA's FullSpectrum event were, while not without reservation, cautiously optimistic.

Signs of progress

One attendee was Adrienne Shaw, an assistant professor at Temple University Department of Media Studies and co-chair of the International Communication Association's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies SIG. She told me that the event's existence at all under EA's banner represents a significant change for her since she began researching gay video game players in 2007. In the course of that recently-published research, she collated the audience side of the issue, and then decided to approach the industry for its perspective. As part of this work, she compiled all the games as of 2007 she could find that had mentions of including gay characters, non-binary gender issues, and queer themes ("as of 2007 there were about 56, surprisingly," she says). She then tried to contact all the developers or publishers of those games that she could. "Most developers and publishers never responded," Shaw tells me. "EA did respond to my email nicely, but saying essentially 'no, we don't have anyone you can talk to. Busy busy, etc.'" Ultimately, she says she was able to attain interviews from developers, games writers and some marketers, and contacted activist group GLAAD for their take on working with the game industry, and was told the group "just didn't have the time or resources to address games proactively." "Given how hard it was to find anyone to talk to me in 2007 about gay content in games and that major mainstream LGBT organization saw games as peripheral to their interests, the event yesterday did demonstrate a huge shift to me in terms of who can and will have these conversations," she says. "Big thumbs up that events like that can happen now."

Important concerns remain

However, though she describes her perspective as that of a "frustrated academic" tackling the topic for years, there were some shortcomings, in her view. "It was a bit disappointing to hear the same problematic arguments being made over and over again," she says. For one, she finds it problematic to treat LGBT representation in games as "distinct and different" from race, gender, class, age and other diversity concerns. "It winds up presuming some sort of static notion of what LGBT characters can and should be represented as that inevitably is exclusionary." "When people say things like 'women have come so far,' 'racial minorities have come so far,' now we can address 'gay issues' -- it presumes that women and racial minorities are somehow distinct from 'gay issues,'" she highlights. "In addition, the LGBT umbrella often gets used in a way that assumes trans and bisexual politics have an easy relationship to mainstream gay politics (and there's a long history to demonstrate that is not the case)." She also sees an assumption that the industry should focus on representations of diversity in an isolated, spot-treatment kind of way -- people presume that in some games it "doesn't matter" what the character's identity is. If that's the case, she reasons, why not include minorities more often? Sexuality and identity are omnipresent in all kinds of games, conversations and character backstories: "It's not just RPGs that have space for relationships to be mentioned or explored." "It requires designers be reflective of their own default choices (typically male, while, hetero) and challenge themselves to make changes," she adds. "The comic book industry has worked hard to do this, for example, and in an 'authentic way' that game industry reps keep claiming is difficult for them." Finally, adding same-sex pairing options to roleplaying and simulation games seems like an easy tactic to satisfy the "LGBT market" (as problematic as it is to call that a "market") -- but creating an option doesn't do the work of exposing other people to new voices and experiences, since players can and generally do elect to stick to what's conventional for them. "If the industry is concerned about hate speech in online gaming in the way they discussed yesterday, inserting representation into that are integral to the game text is one avenue for change that I think they should be held accountable for," Shaw opines.

A distributor's conflict

Level designer and academic Robert Yang was also in attendance, and detailed some concerns on his blog. He told me that for the most part he appreciated the step. "I think EA (and triple-A in general) really is committed to creating a more inclusive development climate, and to working on more diverse content," he said, calling EA's choice of venue "symbolic," and expressing he's "convinced...they see problems and they're trying pretty hard to solve them." But to Yang the distinction between EA as publisher-distributor and EA as development cluster is significant. "I don't think they're seeing the connection between publishing and advocacy," he says. During the event, when panel discussions turned to the higher risk and greater agility possible in the indie scene, Yang had a question: "By that logic, in your social responsibility as a distributor and gatekeeper of media, shouldn't you be supporting these diverse indie voices more and trying to get those out to a wider audience, in addition to your own in-house efforts?" "The response was that indie distribution was in 'a golden age' already... tell that to all the struggling indies everywhere. This sounded more to me like, 'indies are lucky to have what they have,'" he suggests. He cites the competition on the distribution side and the company's hesitance to discuss Steam at its event as evidence of a fundamental conflict. "The feeling I got was this: EA as a developer wants to promote diversity, but EA as a distributor wants to own diversity," he suggests.

First steps toward hope

MIT postdoctoral researcher Todd Harper says he would have liked to see not only more game designers and writers on the panels, but more people of color and more bi/trans/genderqueer individuals on the panels. "It was frustrating to hear someone on the panel say 'I'm not an [x], but...' when that's an easily fixable scenario," Harper tells me. He feels the event reflected a good job of understanding the state of hate in games and its culture, but found the discussion on the industry's role and responsibility to be less clear. "The truth is, it's quite easy to identify and talk about hate in a culture but it's another thing entirely to parcel out how that hate should be rectified and on whose shoulders it falls," he says. One big positive for Harper was the fireside chat with Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo, who's taken major steps to become a visible gay marriage and civil rights advocate in sports. His chat helped reinforce in Harper's view the "consistent thread of 'what can allies do?' at the event," he points out. "Except for some scattered (and unfortunate) panelist remarks, the thrust of the event as I saw it was not 'What are queer people doing to help themselves?' but 'What steps do we, as allies, need to take to let queer people be themselves in spaces we control?' Those are two different arguments with two different contexts," he says. "And I don't want to see the former tabled; that's a 'how do we fight for our civil rights?' issue that's critical and important, but that second -- the 'how can people with privilege show empathy and solidarity through their actions?' -- is a moral, cultural issue that isn't always considered in gaming culture," adds Harper. That said, if the event is a "first step," then it's also a test: ultimately the value of EA's gesture will lie in what the company does from here. "If EA runs this event and then lets it sit, does no followup or outreach, then everything that went down yesterday is a waste," Harper says. "And I talked to some of those organizers yesterday and I firmly believe that's not what they want. What needs to come next, though, is outreach based on the good ideas that came out of yesterday."

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