The video game industry walks a social tightrope. Games are held to a ridiculous amount of scrutiny from both sides of the political spectrum, with controversies erupting over issues like race, gender, violence and sex. Electronic Arts has taken a beating over many of its games, especially titles like Mass Effect and Dragon Age where players have the option of engaging in same-sex romances. Even small steps like creating a gay-friendly planet for the online RPG Star Wars: The Old Republic resulted in anti-gay groups being outraged, while gay rights activists claimed it wasn’t a big enough step. EA took an even bigger step forward to address LGBT matters this week with their “Full Spectrum” event.
Held at the Ford Foundation New York this week, Full Spectrum gathered together lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender personnel from the press and gaming industry to discuss how video game publishers can further the interest of the LGBT community. Far from a dry seminar on workplace diversity, the event involved several lively panels where designers, activists and journalists debated issues like how publishers can prevent in-game harassment of gay players, and ways to include gay characters in storylines.
In a panel moderated by Hilary Rosen, former CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, Rosen reminded those present that video games have grown from “A subculture in the basement” to a major business and that it is time for the industry to define itself, socially.
On Rosen’s panel, members debated whether publishers should make it easier to report inappropriate behavior in online games, or if it the consumer’s duty to “Change the channel” when a particular game develops a reputation for an intolerant player base. The ESA’s Dan Hewitt pointed out that hostile “Trash talk” is an integral part of the competitive nature of online gaming, while others suggested that community managers should crack down on common epithets.
Also present for Full Spectrum was Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Raven. He became embroiled in controversy for supporting same-sex marriage. Although he fielded questions about his EA sports in-game character, Ayanbadejo focused on the lack of openly gay athletes in major sports, and the need for a “Gay Jackie Robinson” to break the new barrier.
Unfortunately, as often happens with LGBT events, the “B” and “T” were not fully addressed with most of the discussion focusing on gay issues. A few panelists spoke on the need to distinguish between the needs of the gay community, and the transgender and bisexual communities, so hopefully the next Full Spectrum will more closely examine the differences of these intersecting, yet distinct groups.
In his introduction to the Full Spectrum event the president of the Ford Foundation, Luis A. Ubinas, pointed out that positive television portrayals of gay characters in the show Will and Grace did more to further gay rights than preachy social programs.
Video games haven’t had their Will and Grace yet, although great strides have been made in recent years with games like EA’s own Mass Effect 3 which lets players choose the option of a gay protagonist, while Saints Row The Third let players create a transgender hero through sex change operations and crossdressing. Hopefully the game industry will get the interactive equivalent of Will and Grace soon, and gamers will find themselves controlling a canonical gay or transgender protagonist.