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To the next level

Can LGBT gamers blast their way into a $70 billion industry?

It’s not everyday that you see a sexy Vaporeon.

But Toronto’s Pride is an exceptional day. Marching in the parade last year was a young lithe man with fins attached above the ears, a ruffled collar around his neck, baby blue suspenders that flowed into a long spiked tail in the back and, finally, a tiny pair of navy shorts. For those unfamiliar with the creature, Vaporeon is a fictional beast from the popular videogame Pokemon. Alongside him was a chubby Italian plumber, an elf with a penchant for green tunics, and a few more Pokemon animals.

Welcome to the world of the Toronto Gay Gamers group (TOGG), a popular association of videogame enthusiasts both LGBT and allied. The volunteer-run group is predominantly organized on Facebook with nearly 500 members and is promoted mostly through word-of-mouth.

Most queer gamers are pleasantly surprised when they find out about the group. TOGG organizer Hardy Boyd recalls the reaction of one gay male couple.

“They thought they were the only ones,” he says. A common reaction.

Toronto is bustling as a games centre. Globally, the games industry generates more than US $70 billion, and Canada is the third-largest country for development in the world. In the past year, Toronto has launched critical and commercial successes such as Mega Run, Dyad, Home and Sound Shapes.
At the same time, Toronto has also fostered a vibrant culture with festivals, films, performances and meet-ups celebrating videogames. Samson Romero, another TOGG co-organizer, notes that gay gamer groups in other cities are jealous of the activity in Toronto.

Where once videogames might have seemed incongruous to the queer identity, a group like TOGG is part of a larger trend of out and proud queer faces in the city playing, writing about and creating games.

For Carly Beath, videogames have been part of her life since she was seven years old playing Nintendo with her father and sister. She and girlfriend Michelle Turingan say they have no shame in being gamers. They do wish, however, that more games would reflect their reality. “Games don’t tend to represent women well,” says Beath, “you’re either pandered to with ridiculous games about making dresses….”

“Or raising babies,” chimes in Turingan, “or else the women in games are just there for the guys to gawk at.”

This extends to representation of lesbians. Turingan notes that, like much pornography, Sapphic scenarios are more often for men who are into girl-on-girl action.

Queer representation in video games has traditionally been minimal in the industry’s four decades of history. For many veteran players, projecting a queer narrative was the only way to see themselves in the game. For Mathew Hijazi, environment artist at Drinkbox Studios, transgressing the assumed orientation of characters was easy.

“In a lot of cases the lead main characters are blank slates,” he says. One example includes the classic video game The Legend of Zelda, released in 1986, where the lead character Link never speaks. “He is tasked with saving the Princess Zelda,” says Hijazi, “but you can interpret him anyway you want.” Instead of a romantic subtext, Link could rescue Zelda just to be noble, reasons Hijazi.

But the age-old project of queering the reading of a heterosexist culture is slowly giving way to more inclusive games. Hijazi particularly enjoys the storyline behind a male character grappling with his sexuality in Persona IV. “Kanji is a Japanese character, and has societal pressures to be extremely masculine and to make fun of girly-guys,” says Hijazi. “Whenever sexuality is brought up, the character reacts by overcompensating. You really feel for him because you’re certain so many people playing the game have gone through exactly that, and by the end he comes into his own.” At the end of Persona IV, Kanji learns to reject society’s judgment of effeminate behaviour and opens himself to explore desire for both men and women.

Change is also happening in the game studios themselves. Diversity has been sorely lacking in game development globally, a field consisting predominantly of straight white males. Encouraging people of different ethnicities, genders and sexualities to enter the industry in all capacities will speed up the progress already underway. One example is Electronic Arts, a California-based company worth more than US $5.4 billion, which has released queer-friendly titles like the Sims, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and is one of the few companies to participate in Dan Savage’s anti-bullying It Gets Better campaign. In March, the company held a half-day event in New York inviting industry members to discuss and address queerness and games.

Less progress has been made on the player side. “It’s just not a very friendly environment,” says Julien Legault, an aspiring game designer. Online, players often deride each other by calling one another “fags.” Many consider the worst offenders to be players of the Xbox game Halo, a first-person shooter series that has sold more than 50 million copies to date.

“If the average gay person went on Xbox live chat for five minutes and played Halo they’d be scared away from videogames for the rest of their life,” says Legault. “Unless you find the right people, it is a homophobic culture and there’s a lot of that running deep through a lot of 13-year-old boys that like to play videogames. It’s just where we’re at right now.”

Legault, however, is hopeful that change is coming. “One day when these 13-year-old boys grow up and realize what’s right and what’s not, they will teach their kids who are playing videogames. So we won’t have to deal with this immaturity level. I think it’ll be a lot better.”

Change may come sooner than expected, as new audiences have been introduced to the joys of videogames thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. While many people would not consider themselves gamers, their continued interest in games like Temple Run and Mega Jump has caused the industry to look beyond catering to teenage boys for their latest wares. As a result, new games are coming out that resist easy gender categorizations. “The more people start to play, the more the industry will realize there are all different kinds of gamers out there,” says Beath. “And different kinds of gamers don’t necessarily want products that [have been] stereotypically targeted towards them.”

Turingan agrees. She thinks the definition of gamer must widen to include those who play accessible and casual games. “Even if girls play Dance Central every day and get 100 percent on expert and can whip any boy at that game, the industry still would not consider those girls gamers. That’s a problem. They think to be a gamer you have to have a PC rig or a console at home.”

Another solution is to have more queer game players become game creators. While many triple-A titles require million-dollar budgets and large teams, new advances in technology have allowed more people to make smaller, independent games at home using programs like Game Maker. Beath and Turingan are both musicians. They plan to contribute music tracks to video games. “The idea that you can marry your passion for music and passion for gaming seems more accessible now than ever,” says Turingan.

The future has plenty of promise, as queer gamers revel in their newfound visibility in both their queer and gamer identities. Sure, the road ahead is likely to be riddled with obstacles and setbacks, but that’s to be expected of an industry as young as videogaming. There will be more conferences, more games, more discourse. Videogame players, after all, are perfectly suited to take things to the next level.


TORONTO GAY GAMERS GROUP torontogaymers.ca.

JAIME WOO Is the festival director of Gamercamp (gamercamp.ca) and the author of Meet Grindr: How One App Changed The Way We Connect.