Sunday, November 20, 2016

Gaming in Color (MidBoss, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film my friend Gerard and I watched together last night was Gaming in Color, a 2014 (though lists it as 2015) documentary on Queer video gamers and how they’re lobbying video-game creators to include more Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender characters in their games. While I might have thought from the title it would have been a documentary on inclusion of people of color in the gaming world, the movie we actually got — directed by Philip Jones, written by Ryan Paul and distributed online by a company called MidBoss — was quite charming even though it left both Gerard and I a bit flat because neither of us plays video games or “gets” their appeal. (I remember being utterly defeated by Pong in the ancient days of video games — I’ve always had really bad hand-eye coordination and I realized that in the arcade days I’d never be able to afford enough quarters to get even halfway decent at it; Gerard has tried games but doesn’t like them because they eat up too much memory on his computer.) Still, there were enough surprisingly cute guys in the movie (notably the teddy-bearish Shane Cherry and another guy with matinee-idol looks) to blow through the old stereotype that video game players are geeky nerds living through wish-fulfillment fantasies that allow them to pretend to be James Bond or Conan. There are also some Queer women included, notably Colleen Macklin, who was introduced as someone who actually makes video games (though I could have used more information about where she works, what titles she’s worked on and what struggles she’d had to fight to counter the usual sexism and homophobia of the normal shoot-’em-up or sword-and-sorcery game scenarios) as well as a devotee of them, and who quite frankly seemed like the most intelligent of the people interviewed. The documentary managed in the space of an hour to encompass a study of Gay and Lesbian people who play video games (none of the interviewees identified as Bisexual or Transgender, though depicting a Trans gamer would have been interesting and strategizing a scenario for a Trans game would be even more fascinating), how they got interested in gaming as well as how they became aware of their sexuality, and how they often had to divide between the two identities. One interviewee complained that when out in social scenes with other Gay men he couldn’t tell them he was into gaming because they’d look down on him for doing something so geeky and nerdy, while he couldn’t tell his gaming friends he was Gay because he’d get back the usual homophobic prejudices. The show also explored the struggles Queer gamers have had with video game makers, especially the largest “AAA” companies, to get Queer characters into games, and quoted one reviewer from an online site who was about to buy a particular game when one of the recurring male characters took advantage of an hours-long break in the action to have sex with another male character.

The movie is replete with Internet comments and social-media posts from homophobes in the game audience, basically saying that when they play video games they want to get away from all that identity politics and having to confront the reality of the existence of Queers, strong-willed women (here, as in so much of anti-Queer hatred, homophobia is just what the late San Diego Queer activist Albert Bell called it: “misplaced sexism”) and other people they don’t like and enter the gaming universe to get away from. One issue that is not discussed in the film — and it’s a bit of a surprise — is that video game technology allows the player quite a few choices in terms of what the characters, especially the “player” (the role the person playing the game enacts in its action), are: depending on how the game creator has designed the game, you can make the character male or female, Black or white, straight or Queer — and one would think that game creators could use that option more to include Queer characters for audience members who want them while allowing gamers who don’t to avoid them. Though the film may have been finished before the story surfaced, it suffered from lack of coverage of the “Gamergate” scandal that broke in August 2014 when the ex-boyfriend of video game creator Zoë Quinn accused her of having sex with five video-game journalists to get good reviews of her games. The term became associated with the heavily sexist comments game sites and social-media networks were flooded with from people who were presumably straight and male (I say “presumably” because one of the blessings and the curses of the Internet is the extent to which it facilitates anonymity; so many posts are put up under false names virtually nobody on line has to take responsibility for what they post unless they choose to do so voluntarily — and anonymity, with its promise of not being held accountable for any hateful things one says, has contributed to the toxic nature of a lot of comment pages and social-media sites) blasting Quinn as a “slut,” threatening to assault and even kill her, and going on to suggest that women simply don’t belong in the gaming world. According to the Wikipedia “Gamergate” page, “Harassment campaigns against Quinn and others … included doxing, threats of rape, and death threats. Many of those organizing under the Gamergate hashtag argue that they are campaigning against political correctness and poor journalistic ethics in the video game industry. Many commentators dismissed Gamergate's purported concerns with ethics and condemned its misogynistic behavior.”

I remember a March 14, 2015 panel at San Diego’s ConDor science-fiction conference which featured alternative game designers talking about the pervasiveness of sexism in the video-game audience and also their own difficulties in designing and marketing games that aren’t violent shoot-’em-ups. Just two days after that panel, I downloaded an article from the Los Angeles Times ( reviewing a film called GTFO — the Times explained that what the acronym stood for was unpublishable in their newspaper — about “Gamergate” and the anti-sexist response to it, which would make an interesting bookend to the relatively optimistic portrayal of the struggle for diversity in gaming presented in Gaming in Color. Gaming in Color ends with a portrayal of the first “GaymerX” convention in San Francisco in 2013 and a generally upbeat view of the future of women and Queers in the gaming world — the GaymerX conventions are now held annually and one just concluded November 12-13 in New York City, the first held on the East Coast. The attendees of the first GaymerX conference interviewed in Gaming in Color make the predictable comments about how comfortable they feel at long last being in a social setting where they can confirm and be open about both their identities as Queers and gamers. Indeed, as interesting as Gaming in Color is, there’s also a certain sense of formula about it — a sense that you can make a documentary by picking out social culture x, showing the presence of Queer people in it, and detailing their struggles for acceptance as both Queers and x’s. One scene that particularly struck me was an interviewee — presumably straight — who was the “player” character in a war game and suddenly realized that the sidekick character who was feeding him bullets and watching his back was Gay, and his own struggle to accept him until he realized it made no difference in how he was doing his job — and there was a fascinating parallel (at least to me) with the debates over whether to let Queer people in the real U.S. military, and the victory we finally won just by being there, doing our jobs, and convincing enough people in Congress that it didn’t make a damned bit of difference to our capability as soldiers.