I didn’t know what to expect as I sat at the Ford Foundation last Thursday awaiting the opening remarks of EA’s “Full Spectrum” event, a one-day set of panels and talks on LGBTQ issues in games. The possibilities were wide, especially since the crowd was smaller, and the venue more intimate, than I had thought it would be. Were we going to hash out ideas as a group, or were the various guests there to give us the company line? My inner critic began to think: “Somebody fronted this money for a reason.” I was keeping my expectations balanced on a careful line between optimism and cynicism.
In the end, I think the event walked that very same line.
First off, I do think the event was worth my time to go. I am glad EA did it, and I believe the long-term worth of events like Full Spectrum will be measured by their follow-through, rather than just the event itself. Full Spectrum wasn’t perfect but it’s a start. Much depends on the company continuing to put resources behind the event’s takeaways.
In terms of event planning and construction, though, EA needs to address if (when) their initiative moves forward. Much has been made of the “invite only” nature of this event. On one hand, I think the perception of how difficult it was to secure an invitation exceeded the reality (I got my invite with relatively little effort); on the other hand, an invite-only event sets an exclusionary tone by its very nature, that worked against the atmosphere EA was likely hoping to create.
I’d also like to note that of the “LGBT” acronym, the L and the G got more representation than the B, the T, or the rest of the wide range of queer identities that make up—if you’ll forgive the pun—the “full spectrum.” I don’t think EA made an effort to actively exclude people who identify thusly, but more energy spent on including them would have helped.
Finally, the makeup of the panels skewed quite hard toward white men. Yet some of the highlights of the day, for me, were Gordon Bellamy’s discussion of how ethnicity impacted his experiences as a gay game designer, and Brendon Ayanbadejo’s discussion of his multiethnic heritage directly influenced his desire to be a straight ally/advocate. Including more of these narratives seems critical, to me. Queer identity isn’t limited to sexual orientation or gender identity—it intersects with every aspect of our lives.
The event began with Craig Hagen talking about how the inclusion of gay planet Makeb in Star Wars: the Old Republic was a mixed bag for EA. That whole affair did seem like a no-win scenario, to me—same-sex romances weren’t included from the beginning, so any attempt to “fix” the issue would be imperfect. Hagen discussed how even the best of intentions can go awry, how EA attracted heat from both ignorant homophobes and indignant queer players alike. He spoke of it as a learning experience and a chance to improve, which I admit gave me high hopes for the day to come. Some of these hopes were fulfilled, but not all.
Full Spectrum’s speakers were at their strongest when considering the impact of allies and their actions on producing a diverse gaming community. I was pleased to hear people like Kixeye’s Caryl Shaw emphasize that the “report button” is a flawed answer to the problem of toxic communities. A major theme of Brendon Ayanbadejo’s speech being that straight allies—especially straight allies with lots of social capital to spend—need to speak up for change to happen, also pleased me. Discussion of how contexts and cultures contribute to the persistence of hate speech—and our need to address those issues at the cultural level—came up not only from panelists but also in questions from the audience.
Perhaps this is self-indulgent, but I feel as if we’ve covered the ground that queer people can do to improve our lot, extensively. More representation in the industry, more community solidarity, more LGBTQ creators getting their games into the market—these are all steps we can and should take, but we know that. The actions of allies, however, those individuals who don’t identify as queer but have an investment in the well-being of queer peoples, don’t always get the same scrutiny. Any event that foregrounds the necessity of ally actions in creating safe spaces is worth the time and effort.
But somewhat sadly, as the day wound down I found myself becoming more disillusioned with panel responses. The second half of the event was to be devoted to the industry’s responsibility and culpability, but despite a few comments I agreed with wholeheartedly (like Lucas Pattan’s noting that we increasingly whitewash and masculinize our definition of “queer” to be primarily white gay men) in general I found the afternoon panel skirted the issue of what the industry not just can do, but must do.
The question on my mind—one I wish I’d had the chance to pose to the panelists—was how to navigate the looming quandary of morality versus economic imperative (this being one of my major concerns going into the event, as I noted earlier). How do we motivate change in the industry even in cases—especially in cases—where there is little or no economic imperative to do so? In keeping with my feelings about the event, I got the impression that EA rides both sides of that line carefully. I genuinely believe that they have an interest in doing the right thing regardless, but there were also panel responses that argued doing the right thing was consonant with economics, as well.
Are these mutually exclusive? I doubt it. I think it is both true that EA has an interest in promoting diversity in the industry and in game content, and that their desire to do so transcends economics (to some extent). But I also believe that without an economic good, a focus on inclusivity becomes increasingly difficult to explain to those people who don’t see it as a moral good worth the time. This is why events like EA Full Spectrum become necessary, in the end.
EA is a not only a big name in the industry, but they’re also a recognized leader in providing benefits to queer employees and in representing LGBTQ characters in the triple-A space. Their decision to devote money and time to this sort of event does send a message to other companies. But making the point once isn’t sufficient, and there is still considerable room for growth and improvement despite the steps they’ve taken. If EA wants to position itself as an ally organization, they must keep this momentum and continue to improve representation of the entire spectrum of queer experiences, setting a standard others can follow.
Todd Harper is a researcher at the MIT Game Lab (http://gamelab.mit.edu) who studies both e-sports and competitive communities and LGBTQ issues and representation in games. He blogs infrequently at his website Stay Classy and tweets far too frequently as @laevantine.