There are a lot of preconceived stereotypes about gamer culture. Gamers are either geeky, anti-social, skinny teenage boys, or beefed-up, unnecessarily aggressive frat brothers. That’s not actually true. The actual gaming community is more like a diverse landscape of intersectional subcultures. GaymerX, a queer gaming conference that was held this weekend at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco, is partially about recognizing that. But it also ventures further, acknowledging the dominant attitudes and practices that marginalize some of those communities to the edge of the playground while the bullies reign from top the cultural play structure. With the slogan “Everybody Games,” 2-year-old GaymerX hopes to create a welcoming space for those less privileged members of the gaming community, allowing for open and comfortable collaboration and conversation. While the convention is targeted toward queer players and LGBTQ allies, it also extends beyond that realm to tackle issues of racism, sexism, neo-colonialism, abuse and other forms of discrimination. In doing so, it opens up conversations about how we can create a more inclusive, sensitive, critical and broadly minded gaming industry while also redefining play as a productive practice and not a waste of time. Not to mention there were arcades filled with brilliant indie games, a talented lineup of 8-bit musicians and a cosplay pageant and drag show. Hey, gaymers know how to have fun!
Experimental game design for virtual reality
For those who don’t know, virtual reality has become a reality. And thanks to the Oculus Rift, you don’t even need a clunky motorcycle-helmet-gadget-thing to experience it. The Oculus Rift allows users to enter a 3-D world with a simple set of goggles that creates a completely immersive experience. Although there has been no release of a consumer version of the headset, the company has been selling developer kits since the project was Kickstarted in 2012. What that means, of course, is an experimental arms race to develop thrilling new kinds of gaming experiences.
One group of students at Carnegie Mellon University, called Project Spearhead, decided that it wanted to push that experimentation to the brink. The lab focused on creating experiences of play that could never have been achieved with any other console. This partially entailed developing puzzle games in which the user must detach his virtual head from his body in order to gain the necessary perspective to figure out the right action. This means turning around to view the separated body or throwing the head into the air and looking down in order to get a bird’s eye view. The researchers also ran a number of tests to help them better understand the capabilities of the device, such as playing games with the headset while sitting in the passenger’s seat of a moving car. The team ultimately completed 20 mini-games and tests that tell us more about what we can expect when the console becomes available to consumers and games trickle (or flood) into the market. Conclusively, two things are very clear: The Oculus Rift probably won’t make you puke, but it will almost definitely shake the gaming industry in its box.
Read only memories
One of the main missions of GaymerX is inclusivity and accessibility. Another mission is to push people in the queer community to collaborate and create. Therefore, after the first convention, it seemed clear that one of the next steps would, naturally, be to make a game inspired by the goals on which the con was founded. That way, those who don’t have the money to come all the way out to the conference will have something else to enjoy. And, thus, Read Only Memories was born from the minds and hands of GaymerX founders Matt Conn, John James, Matthew Hopkins and Theodore Tanner. The group came together at the conference to describe its methods for designing a game that offered an investing storyline and an array of represented embodiments — while also on a tight budget.
Read Only Memories is a cyberpunk adventure game that takes place in 2064 Neo-San Francisco and features an ensemble of queer characters from a diversity of backgrounds. The protagonist is a journalist who scours the city to find a missing friend, accompanied by a robot named Turing. Inspired by early ’90s adventure games such as Snatcher, it reclaims the 8-bit aesthetic to provide an endearingly lo-fi and nostalgic feel. By developing the game on a super accessible and easy-to-edit platform, the developers were able to continuously change dialogue according to reactions and perspectives from a wide community of differently identifying players whom they consulted. Although players were already enjoying the beginning of the game in the arcade at GaymerX, it will be officially available in November.
Gearbox Software’s GaymerX dpectacular
In wake of Ubisoft Software — the developer of the “Assassin’s Creed” series — announcing that creating a playable female character in its next title takes too much work, developers at Gearbox Software, makers of the popular “Borderlands” series, discussed their take on making more inclusive and diverse big-budget games. Featuring a panel of artists, writers and designers within Gearbox Software, including company president Randy Pitchford, the group discussed how it began incorporating a more diverse cast of characters in its “Borderlands” series, as well as how it is attempting to bring more diversity to its future products.
The base of this change relied on shifting the company’s culture. Part of its strategy included ensuring a friendly and accommodating workplace to LGBT employees. Yet this shift also lay in crafting player experiences that didn’t fall into sexist tropes and creating characters who could be queer, trans or asexual without making that aspect a defining trait. Gearbox has already taken steps toward progress by making half of the playable characters female in its upcoming title “Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.” The studio definitely seems committed to being progressive through accommodating all players, regardless of sex, gender or race.
Internetting while female: a conversation with Anita Sarkeesian and Carolyn Petit
As a writer discussing issues of sexism and diversity on the Internet, it is hard to avoid harassment by Internet trolls, especially when you’re a female. During this panel, Carolyn Petit, contributor to the video game website Gamespot.com, and Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the web series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” shared their experiences of online harassment. Describing not only the vitriol they’ve received after releasing a review or video, the panelists also discussed ways of dealing with harassment.
After discussing some of the specifics of the harassment they’ve received, which include name-calling, hate mail and even death threats, the panel progressed into dissecting where this harassment comes from. Sarkeesian pointed out that much of this hate stems from representing the threat of video games being removed from culture, which started during the late ’90s, when various congressmen attempted to ban violent video games. Yet for both writers, their main commitment was to persevere through the hate and continue to write and produce videos despite their detractors.
Defying artistic convention in games
In an industry whose best-selling products feature main characters who are typically straight white males in gritty, realistic settings, independent game developers Cherry Cupid, Liz Ryerson and Loren Schmidt dissected the fundamental reasons that big-budget games fail in having as much artistry as most independent games. The panelists pointed out various facets of the big-budget pipeline that prevent big-budget games from communicating cohesive, personal stories. This includes building an aesthetic that can be easily marketed to the young male demographic, relying on the graphics and technology to construct an art style and having massive teams in which individuals specialize in only a small, narrow slice of the project.
In response to this industry trend, the panelists encouraged the audience to try games that contain a personal artistic identity, which avoid the pitfalls that most big-budget games face. Defying current artistic conventions of games relies on moving out of the comfort-zone of experiences centered around violence and death.