Fully Human: What Gamers and Developers Can Learn from the Victory over DOMA

DOMA is dead. And good riddance.

But the cause of death wasn’t caused by a spontaneous, nationwide chanting of kumbayah. It was a hard fought, computer mediated battle to re-humanize the LGBTQ community. Propelled by viral activism, supporters and allies pushed back against the marginalization of the LGBTQ identity as threatening, deviant, and irrelevant to the status quo of “sanctity,” recasting queer marriage as “the same love.” Similar marginalization, albeit more as irrelevant than threatening, is at play in the gaming community where the same tired derisions are trotted out to silence dissatisfied gamers calling for diversity and inclusivity. Chief among them, the gaming industry’s exclusionary “market” that shouldn’t bend to “niche” demands. So long as these gamers (women, LGBTQ, non-white, etc.) are dismissed as “niche,” the industry operates under a one-sided and exploitative “tolerance” paradigm. I.e., they’ll take your money but not your criticism. We can do much better.

While remarkable strides have been made in the last generation of gaming, the industry has failed to commit to a paradigm of inclusivity. Inclusivity, as opposed to tolerance, means industry-wide recognition of the legitimacy, diversity, and humanity of marginalized gamers’ identities as trans, women, color, etc. and their intersections with gaming and the gaming community.  I’ve often seen in these discussions, “Why does it matter that X game doesn’t include Y type of people?” Video games have evolved beyond hobbies or distractions. They’re full blown commitments: social, at times romantic – certainly economic. And no gamer places the medium they love in a vacuum removed from the rest of their life. Video games intersect and impact their lives. It’s unfair for the real, social impact these games have with people to be systematically dismissed because of their “niche”-ness. It’s trivializing and dehumanizing.

The LGBTQ community faced a similar battle for mainstream acceptance, with social media playing a large role in spreading the word. In a report detailing the importance of social media in the repeal of DOMA, Non-Profit Quarterly spoke with Tony Pham, Vice President of Marketing at Life360. Pham said,

“Social media encourages people to create their own editorial, which then allows others in their network to participate in this dynamic conversation. The more that you talk about an issue like same-sex marriage, the more that it’s in the public domain and discourse, and the more that people outside of your own social circles will be exposed to opinions different from their own.”

As Pham states, openly discussing how marginalized identities intersect with the medium adds this issue to the gaming discourse. This normalizes these identities and moves them away from the fringe and into the center. These personal stories form narratives which counter the ones already promulgating in insular gaming spaces, many of which diminish many gamers and trivializes how gaming affects their lives. Consider the “It Gets Better” campaign, which encouraged LGBTQ folks and allies to post reassuring and supportive messages on Youtube to form online support networks for bullied youth. While critics were right to critique the campaign, “It Gets Better” dispelled what I call the “their problem” fallacy. Gay and trans* suicide is the LGBTQ community’s problem, straight folk need not worry. Civil rights are the African American community’s problem, white folk need not worry. “It Gets Better,” a collective of personal stories, dispelled the same notion of “fringe-ness” and re-assigned accountability onto the groups with power. The gaming community is in dire need of similar recalibrations on topics of inclusivity and accountability.

The latter of which is key if “mainstream” gamers are to understand their role in contributing to (and hopefully, ending) systematic exclusion. I urge gamers to evade the “their problem” fallacy and accept personal accountability. A similarly focused LGBTQ campaign, “Think B4 You Speak” records the usage of homophobic slurs on Twitter, realizing the fight for equality isn’t complete until the number reaches zero. This campaign isn’t simply about counting bad words, but about quantifying how normalized oppressive language has become in the culture. Perhaps realizing how immense the problem is would stir in gamers a sense of personal responsibility. Sure, you just used that one word one time as a “joke.” You and 12,000 other people. Video games are an ocular medium and perhaps seeing these numbers would illustrate the connection between individual actions and institutionalized marginalization.

To clarify, I’m not asking for a “shame on you” system of change. Gamers need resources, not judgment. Speaking personally, after reading (the brilliant) Samantha Allen’s open letter, I was compelled to confront my own ignorance and find a network of trans* gamers creating their own editorials about the intersection of gaming and the trans* identity. This proved to be an extremely valuable resource, not just in widening my understanding of (routinely ignored) trans* gamers, but in expanding my knowledge of how video games affect peoples’ lives. Remember the difference between culpability and accountability. I wasn’t pressing a button every day that said “OPPRESS.” But I realized that by choosing not to engage with these editorials, I was tacitly contributing to their “niche” positioning. Knowledge is power.

And all it took was clicking the ‘Follow’ button. Gaming communication is astoundingly accessible. With such a diversity of gaming experiences, knowledge, and resources imagine the information we can make available to each other by sharing these stories. But the end goal isn’t a utopic ‘kumbayah in front of the campfire’ movement. These stories serve a purpose: to grant marginalized gamers their full humanity and recognize the validity of their lives and how their lives are affected by this medium. Whenever lazy dismissals (the narrative, the market, the fanbase) are brought out to say why “X” people shouldn’t be included in gaming, the message is clear: You’re not like us and we don’t want you here. This is an exclusionary and dehumanizing tactic.  Full humanization comes only from diversifying marginalized identities, showing the full (forgive me for this) “rainbow” of gender performances, skin colors, physical and mental abilities and heroic capabilities of all gamers.

Rather than waiting for my humanity to trickle down from the tepid acceptance of developers, gamers must unite and make demands. Because collective action erodes developers’ public image and threatens their pocketbook, they take it seriously. Ideally, continued, informed criticism will engender an ongoing dialogue between gamers and developers, in which they are responsive to calls for equity and diversity instead of perpetually reacting to accusations of racism, misogyny, etc.

Inclusivity goes beyond simply “adding” characters different characters. Diversity isn’t a salad topping. For example, GLAAD posted this image highlighting the increasing visibility of gay and lesbian characters on TV over the past 10 years. While it’s certainly important to look back at characters “paving the way,” it’s also important to think very carefully about what we consider “visibility” and its effect on “tolerance.” GLAAD measured “tolerance” by American support for marriage equality and “visibility” by the number of LGBTQ characters on TV played by a scripted, series regular. Either definition is problematic. A more effect barometer would perhaps be legislative protections for housing, employment, and healthcare. While “visibility” is important, it omits the issues of representation, stereotypes and racial/sexual diversity.

This isn’t to dismiss marriage equality, visibility, or GLAAD, but to say this: “visibility” and “tolerance” aren’t good enough. Not for television, not for movies and not for video games. “Diversity” isn’t about adding; it’s about including. It means removing the barriers that prevent the inclusion of people (within games, within companies, within communities) based on their identity, and then exploring the diversity within that identity. A concrete example would be the call for more women protagonists. Sure enough, we began seeing more women leading games, but critics pointed out  how they were all similarly turned into sex-objects. It’s one thing to add women to video games, and it’s another to include them and then explore the diversity of playable experiences of the identity. I’d argue that hasn’t even been done fully with white men, despite them starring in nearly all games.

There are entire worlds of play experiences the industry excludes, even while lauding its own “evolution.” And while there is no single gamer or group of developers responsible for the overwhelming straight-white-dude-ness of the industry, significant change requires a collaborative push for diversity; ideally involving even gamers who they, themselves, do not feel marginalized, but understand how prejudices limit the medium to a narrow band of playable experiences.


The Pledge:

As a gamer, I realize I contribute to an incredibly diverse social network of gamers around the world, and that my actions have the ability to impact others. In effort to make a positive impact, and to create a community that is welcoming to all, I pledge to not use bigoted language while gaming, online and otherwise.

Bigoted language includes, but is not limited to, slurs based on race? (e.g, "chink," "nigger," "wetback"), ethnicity? (e.g., "kyke," "polock"), gender? (e.g., "cunt," "bitch," "tranny"), religion? (e.g., "dirty jew," "papist"), sexual orientation? (e.g., "gay," "fag[got]," "dyke"), and disability? (e.g., "retard[ed]").

Read more about the pledge, including what is and isn't included, and the overall purpose here.

Read why you shouldn't use the word "rape" casually here.

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