As the 2018 Game Developers Conference draws to a close today, writer and videographer Matt Baume took to the stage to talk about some of the ways games are intertwined with the LGBTQ community -- and what game devs can do to better support and speak to queer culture in their work.
This is important because queer people are people -- people who make games, play games, critique games, sell games, talk about games, and contribute to all parts of the game industry.
But Baume, a journalist who produces podcasts and YouTube videos, says he and his collaborators took a long look at the industry and felt like there was a lack of discussion about how it succeeds -- and fails -- at being inclusive of queer culture.
"We saw a need to talk about the ways game culture and LGBTQ culture intersect that wasn't really being met," said Baume. So he and his team filmed interviews with over 125 people around the world, compiling over a hundred hours of footage as part of their ongoing documentary project Playing With Pride.
Clips of those interviews made up the bulk of Baume's talk, and are well worth watching over on the Playing With Pride website. However, Baume was quick to point out that these are personal stories that are intended to provide you with new insight and perspectives, not a total understanding of how queer culture and the game industry intersect.
"These are stories from people we talked to; it is not the complete queer experience," Baume said. "For many of the people we talked to, when they were young...games were safe. When they got older, that changed."
'Game culture' can often feel directly at odds with queer culture
Baume says a lot of queer folk have often felt cut off from game culture. Often, they felt like being queer and being “into games” were mutually exclusive; they’d be ostracized by many game enthusiasts, and they also have a hard time talking about their passion for games while dating.
“I thought the queer world was pride parades, and clubs and stuff,” said one game dev interviewee. “And then there was the game world, where I had to be super serious and just make this shit.”
“The feeling that a lot of people [we interviewed] talked about, about feeling unwelcome, closed a lot of them off from games,” sid Baume -- who counts himself among them. “For most of my 20s, in the 2000s, I just didn’t see queer people in games. And I felt like I was intruding whenever I’d talk to ‘real gamers’.”
But games can also be a safe place for queer people to express themselves and meet each other
Baume says many of the folks interviewed for this project sought out games that intentionally included queer people, or used their imagination to insert themselves into games’ stories.
He played a long clips reel of many different interviews, and in many of them people celebrated strong women game characters like Samus Aran and FemShep as being deeply important and meaningful to them.
“Peach was a big one growing up... I always really identified with her, and it was nice seeing her up there on the screen,” said one transgender woman. “I was actually really aware of what I was doing; I was like, I’m picking her because I identify that way.”
Robust character creators were also a very big deal for many of the folks interviewed. Baume says that character creators can help transgender people experiment with their virtual body and appearance, for example, if they’re gathering courage to express their gender in real life.
“Character creators were such a safe place," one interviewee said. "Where I could just pick whatever gender, and the character creator would let me create it."
On top of that, Baume says many queer folk get a lot out of the intersection of character creators and romance in games; when devs take the time to implement these systems well, they give players space to create their ideal self-image, or their ideal partner -- and then play through that relationship in a very safe way.
“We like to make big muscle guys with beards and mohawks” said one interviewee.
“When we play Saints Row we like to build big guys and run around naked,” his partner added, with a laugh “It’s all about the beards and the muscles, really.”
Many queer folk interviewed said they also appreciate online games' capability to bring people together and afford them a safe space to build relationships together. Baume himself met his longtime partner James (who's a veteran of the game industry) through a mutual love of Final Fantasy.
“That was how we got talking to each other, because we’re both shy nerds," he said. "It’s just this common thing, that games bring couples together.”
"Confirmation that you exist is an amazingly powerful thing"
Baume says many of the people he and his team talked to experienced significant changes when they encountered elements of queer culture in games. It’s an acknowledgement of their existence, their validity as people and as game enthusiasts, and help them assert themselves authentically.
“Confirmation that you exist is an amazingly powerful thing,” said one interviewee.
“Seeing the character in Undertale portrayed as they...it’s validation,” said another. “It’s seeing that somebody out there is willing to sing part of your song.”
Representing queer people in your games isn’t just validating and reassuring to people like them; it can also comfort and appeal to folks who are adjacent to queer culture.
“Right after my sister passed away, I got a key for Gone Home, and there’s this moment in [the game]….call it an epiphany, or an ah-ha moment, but a character is doing a bit of voiceover, and what the character is voicing about her sister is really echoing a lot of the feelings and emotions I had about my sister and her sexuality,” said one interviewee.
“I guess you could say it revealed to me some of how she might have been feeling. It put me in her shoes, in a way. It was kind of like, this might sound odd, but it was kind of a way for me to get closure...it really gave me some peace, honestly.”
Things are better now, but there's still work to be done
Baume acknowledged that a lot of good progress has been made in the past few years; a number of folks interviewed said they now felt comfortable and included in game culture at times, especially at offline queer-focused games meetups like GaymerX.
“It’s a really supportive, positive, and unique space,” he added. “The community in more cities has really expanded compared to where we were at 5 years ago.”
He says that’s slowly but surely changing the way queer people interact with the game industry -- many of those interviewed said they felt more comfortable now making games and talking about games publicly.
“The whole reason I started my Twitch channel in the first place was because of all the homophobia and homophobic stuff I was seeing from so many gamers and streamers,” said one interviewee. “It’s now my job to help [queer people] create a safe space on there to share their stories with each other.”
“A lot of gay people, a lot of trans people, will come and ask me a lot of questions when I’m streaming, “said another. “It’s because they don’t have any other outlets.”
And when game makers listen to these queer voices and work with them in good faith to build better, more representative games, the results can be a big success. One clip in particular, featuring Dragon Age Inquisition lead editor Karin Weekes talking about the origins of Inquisition's well-written transgender character Krem (pictured), was particularly striking.
“The character [Krem] in Dragon Age Inquisition actually came pretty much out of...sort of a panel, more of a discussion we had at PAX Prime,” said Weekes. “And it was specifically geared towards the LGBTQ community, and it was pretty much...what do you want to see more of, what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong. And a trans woman got up to the microphone and said: 'I’d love to see someone like me in a game, who’s not a monster.'”
In the end, many of the people Baume interviewed said that making games that authentically represent and support queer culture feels more feasible now than it has in a long time -- though there's still a lot of progress to be made.
“What we’re seeing now is that a lot of companies are changing their practices to listen to those voices and incorporate their feedback into the production process,” said Baume.
“Video games are what I love to make and they also pay my bills,” said drag queen Kitty Powers. “Having suffered for so much when I was a kid, I thought 'well if all these young kids are going to be watching video of this game [Kitty Powers' Matchmaker] being played then at least they’re getting some kind of exposure that I didn’t get.' If kids can see that, and see that’s being treated as normal, that’s a good thing.”
"I own a game studio now, and that was my literal dream when I was six," said Lab Zero Games chief Peter Bartholow.
“People aren’t being quiet about it anymore, and that’s a great thing, “said another interviewee. “But it can’t just be the tiny indie studios….it needs to trickle up to the big studios.”
BONUS: Devs curious for more examples of games which handle this subject well should know that after the talk, Baume asked the audience to share some examples of games that represent queer culture in a way that resonated and inspired them. Lots of great answers were shared, including Night in the Woods (specifically, Angus and Greg's relationship), The Last Of Us, and the works of game developer Robert Yang.