Game Developers Conference Tackles LGBT Representation in Video Games

Developers like Mattie Brice are leading the charge to queer your gaming experience.

BY Patrick Yacco

March 14 2014 3:07 PM ET

Behind every video game is at least one video game developer, working tirelessly to bring players a unique, creative experience. They toil for months to fill worlds with fantastical creatures, undercover spies, or just everyday people trying to earn a living. But whatever the mode of play may be, programmers need one another to learn about the latest trends in technology, winning marketing strategies, and to expand their network.

The Game Developers Conference, launched in the late 1980s by a handful of people to support those working on computer games, has grown to a must-attend annual event with over 23,000 participants covering everything from console games to mobile apps. But in light of this growth, one issue that has been nagging many developers recently — creating more authentic experiences for gamers. More specifically, are the characters on-screen reflecting the people who are playing the games, including LGBT folk? Are game developers working to challenge the stereotype of a "boys only" world, and if so, how?

Given that the conference attracts tens of thousands, it's no surprise then that attendees can opt to participate in its Advocacy Track, a series of panels discussing how to approach real-world issues in their games. Ranging from raising the visibility of minorities to how issues of aggression, sexism, and racism affect young males, the sessions give developers the tools to produce diverse, quality content.

One such panel is "How to Subversively Queer Your Work," led by transgender game critic and designer Mattie Brice. According to the conference program, this session seeks to allow attendees to become "armed with tools and ideas for getting more and better queer and gender representation in their work. ... These ideas cover everything from writing and designing characters to implementing game systems."

When asked why social issues should be brought into games, Brice responds by saying, "Our culture has a bunch of social issues in media, especially with more people on the ground floor becoming more adept at being socially aware. Games are an exciting media in an exciting time, and it's painfully obvious there is work to be done when it comes to the representation of minoritized people, workplace conditions, and overall inclusivity of people commonly left out of the sustained tech and arts sector."

This is no understatement. According to a 2009 study, the majority of characters in video games are overwhelmingly white and male. The report claimed that less than 15 percent of all characters were female, and less than 3 percent of characters were Hispanic. That's particularly disturbing, when you consider that 40 percent of gamers are women, and Hispanic/Latinos make up 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, while black and Hispanic youth make up a larger portion of gamers than white young people.

While there is little data regarding LGBT characters and players, Brice believes that "most developers find it too much of a risk to include queer people in games, even when it comes to avatars with little to no narrative arc in the games' stories," leading to a paucity of queer characters. She adds, "The majority of queer people are stereotypes many people are tired of seeing."

And while there has been some improvement recently with games like Mass Effect and Skyrim allowing characters of the same gender to romance one another, developers face challenges getting LGBT content into their games: "If you are in a big company that mostly is about profiting from games sales, there's going to be many hurdles," adds Brice. "Every decision is mediated by how they think the audience will receive it and how that will impact returns. Outdated conventional wisdom says that if you have queer people or themes in your game, you put in a risk of losing sales."

Nevertheless, various stakeholders have begun to mobilize to combat this marginalization, exemplified by the conference's commitment to discussing social issues via its Advocacy Track. The push for diversity and inclusion extends beyond hour-long sessions. Meggan Scavio, the conference's general manager, highlights its strict code of conduct, which strives to create an atmosphere where everyone is treated equally and respectfully. "There's a large conversation happening about behavior at tech events ... it's across the board where people are being mistreated," she said. "We decided to take a stand and say we do not tolerate this. and this is what we're going to do about it." According to Scavio, the GDC has also prevented companies from using "booth babes" to promote their games. The conference "focuses on the games themselves," she says. "Walking through a hall and seeing scantily clad ladies everywhere makes me uncomfortable. We want GDC to be a place where everyone feels welcome." Finally, the conference offers identity-based communities to gather in "Special Interest Group" meetings, which, in addition to other groups, give LGBT people a chance to network and chat.

Brice also highlighted that queer gamers are organizing their own events and conventions, such as Gaymer X and Queerness and Games Conference. Additionally, she hints that LGBT games have already made waves in overlooked areas. "It's a little silly to rely on big blockbuster games to be the game to be [a] landmark," she says. "Look at the LGBT corner of bookstores and Netflix and you can see nothing mainstream is where we want things to be. However, there are many independent artists in all forms of media doing great work, and I think if we could put aside blockbuster mentality, we'd find a whole bunch of stuff to celebrate it."

The Game Developers Conference runs next Monday through Friday in San Francisco. More information is available here: http://www.gdconf.com

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