At the Ford Foundation in upper Manhattan this morning, representatives from inside and outside the game industry spoke to the issues that LGBT gamers face and how best to fix them in the first ever "Full Spectrum" event. From online interactions filled with offensive language to games that don't represent LGBT relationships, those issues are myriad and varied. It's an unprecedented event, actually -- despite the wide-ranging demographics of gaming in the modern world, no such event has been held before, nonetheless hosted by one of the game industry's largest publishers (Electronic Arts teamed with the Ford Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign for today's event). As Entertainment Software Association VP of media and events Dan Hewitt reminded attendees during the first panel, the game industry is an (annual) $24 billion business that spans 50 percent of American homes, and the average gamer is 31-years-old. So why are we still seeing such an underrepresentation of diversity in gaming, despite a diversity of gamers?
EA Full Spectrum LGBT Event
"It's a white, dudely industry," Kixeye executive producer Caryl Shaw explained, referencing her developer colleagues. "In general it is a very hard place for women to get in. I think that that's gonna change." One initiative she cited was the White House's recent support for teaching coding in American public schools, which she hopes will change the demographic makeup of so many game development studios.
EA's senior director of government affairs, Craig Hagen, emceed the event, and kicked off things by addressing a flap that his company dealt with recently -- EA's BioWare Austin studio created an update to its Star Wars MMO (The Old Republic) that included same-sex relationship options for players who have characters that identify as LGBT (these options were planned for the original release, but didn't make it in time). Sadly, those options were perceived as locked to one planet initially, sparking outrage that the game was ghettoizing its LGBT players. Understandably, despite EA intending this as a polite gesture to the community, the idea backfired dramatically.
It's because of controversy like this that EA held today's Full Spectrum event, bringing together game developers, publishers, and one major league football player (Baltimore Raven Bredon Ayanbadejo) to discuss LGBT issues as they face the world of gaming, and how best to get past them. The event consisted of two roundtable panels and one "fireside" chat with the aforementioned professional footballer, all focused on how best to address and fix LGBT issues in gaming (though the fireside focused more on Ayanbadejo's work than anything else).
While the first panel focused on identifying which issues were most prevalent in the game industry -- overrepresentation of white male heterosexual characters, online communities that are rife with bigotry, and a lack of narrative inclusion of LGBT issues, just to name a few -- the second focused on how to fix those issues. As EA Battlefield community manager Jaap Tuinman said during the second panel, "We have a responsibilty from a corporate standpoint where we create a safehaven that we can control." Tuinman was speaking to the community forums he moderates, forums that EA BioWare Austin general manager Matt Bromberg said are often filled with, "things that make you want to stay in bed in the morning."
One thing that all panelists agreed on? The larger discussion over LGBT issues in gaming is moving in the right direction. Throughout the event, panelists cited shows like Will & Grace and Glee in helping turn the tide of US sentiment on gay marriage -- a populace that once felt, as a majority, against gay marriage is now in support of it. And a big part of that change is a reflection of how the LGBT community is portrayed in popular media, including gaming, several panelists said. Some gaming examples given were the openness of games like The Sims, and more recently, Mass Effect 3, which allowed both female and male "Shepard" characters to engage in same-sex relationships.
Various panelists also agreed that no one thing was going to fix all of the issues facing LGBT gamers, and that context matters -- in an MMO or an RPG, players expect to shape their characters and have an online personality. That matters less in, say, a first-person shooter. Bromberg, however, proposed an important solution that applies to all games, from a developer standpoint. "For creators, it's about making the broadest set of options available." And frankly, we couldn't agree more.
Update: We've altered the wording regarding the Star Wars MMO example given above to more accurately reflect the events.