Queering Gaming

“There’s a tendency for every character’s ‘default’ to be straight, white, and male in our industry – and nobody questions that default. No character ever has to justify why they’re straight, white, and male. The moment you make them anything else, you suddenly need reasons why that’s okay…or do you?” — David Gaider, Lead Writer for BioWare, 9 July 2015

Megan Condis published “No Homosexuals in Star Wars? BioWare, ‘Gamer’ Identity, and The Politics of Privilege” in the 22nd volume of Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, May 2015.

Why the study? Prof. Condis points out that earlier research on convergence culture and gamer identity tends to lump all gamers, fans, and game producers together without looking at the important gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity differences among them. More than this, no other study is player-centered in looking at how the players themselves argued for and against a virtual queer presence. BioWare’s 2009 censorship of “homosexual,” “gay,” and “lesbian” on their forums, its segregated “gay planet” in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and its introduction of the first gay male character, Dorian, and its first trans* character, Krem, provide context for the study.

Results of the study? In the effort to keep gaming space “pure” (without politics, without players’ individual differences), the study shows that those players, fans, and producers who push for “purity” only re-establish and further entrench the white, straight, male “default” gaming space. The demand for a virtual world “outside” the real world translates into a virtual world safe only for straight, white, male players.

Quick summary? Convergence culture means, in part, that new media producers will listen to and use the requests of their audience because it will increase their profits. This potential democratizing effect means that players and fans can influence producers/writers of games. To study this, the author looked ethnographically at gamers’  rhetorical appeals for others’ inclusion or exclusion during the 2009 censorship controversy. The analysis shows that those who argued against more inclusion were using ideas that assume discrimination can be solved by leaving the body behind in the real world and only focusing on the game. This means that the pushback against sexual diversity in gaming resets the game space default to white-straight-male.

Take-aways?

  • Gaming in the U.S. is a 100+ billion dollar business
  • Before BioWare’s introduction of Dorian, gamers had to specifically choose a queer orientation even if there were LGBTQ+ characters featured
  • The assumption that gamers are mostly straight white males creates a feedback loop that discourages the participation of users who identify with other groups
  • Without that participation, non-white, non-male, and non-heterosexual users are not marketed to and are often accused of not being “real” gamers
  • Out queer gamers and their allies are often flagged as disruptive and harmful intruders
  • The participation gap and the online harassment destroy the potential for a democratic, convergence culture because producers respond to who they think their “real” fans are
  • Against huge odds, women and queer gamers can use the games’ tools to have fun rather than letting the games tell them what their experience should be
  • Some players use their power to subvert oppressive gender and sexuality aspects of games by creating their own interpretations

So what?

  • With this knowledge, gamers and fans can be more critical consumers of content
  • With this knowledge, game writers and producers can consider how privilege often reproduces itself if not intentionally interrupted
  • With this knowledge, journalists can include more diverse perspectives in their stories about gaming

Megan Condis is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 608 South Wright Street, Urbana, IL 61801, USA. Email: madavis4@illinois.edu

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