We're in San Francisco club called Stud, and there are people in fur suits everywhere. Colored lights and crashing beats flash like fireworks in a thunderstorm. Everyone is sweaty and drunk, but most of all they're happy. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you GaymerX, my favorite game convention—and also maybe the last of its kind.
Days before that chaotic party at a club's furry night, it's Friday morning. I have never been to GaymerX—or any LGBTQ-centric gaming conference, for that matter. It's day one of what is technically the second GaymerX ever, and I'm honestly not sure what to expect as I ride the elevator up to the fourth floor of the garishly green-brown San Francisco Intercontinental Hotel.
While I identify as a straight male-bodied, male gender dude, I try as hard as I can to be an ally, but I'm hardly perfect. Moreover, part of me worries that this place isn't really for people like me. Then I laugh bitterly to myself because I realize that, yep, I'm a straight white dude fretting about a single, solitary place not regarding him as the default for once in, you know, ever. Strong play, Grayson. Strong play.
Despite the name, however, the show presents itself as open to all. Its slogan, "everyone games" is the simplest possible statement of intent, and organizer Toni Rocca tells me she wants the show to be truly inclusive, not just selectively so.
I claim my attendee badge and am asked to denote my preferred gender, if I have one. "That's a really neat touch," I think to myself. "I wish more conventions would do this."
"It's just hard," exclaims one person in the audience of the Designing Inclusive Games panel late on GaymerX day one. "I feel like when you're not straight your gender and sexuality always matter on some level. You can't escape it."
"I feel like when you're not straight your gender and sexuality always matter on some level. You can't escape it."
"There are times when I wish they just didn't matter for a little while, times when I could get away from it all, not be defined by it. It's exhausting. But I also don't want to not be represented."
Games, replies panelist and Digital: A Love Story creator Christine Love, can still help. It depends on what you want to play or make. Escapism and education, she explains, are both important. Sometimes you want people to understand. And other times? You just want to shoot people or, as Love put it, you want to make lesbians kiss. Everyone's got a fantasy. Games can bring them to life.
GaymerX isn't the biggest convention ever, so its game lineup emphasizes quality and uniqueness over quantity.
Perhaps that's a good thing, I realize as I glance around to see small yet enthusiastic crowds whooping to games like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, trancing out to wonderfully soothing music maker Sentris, and hilariously contorting their bodies to the message-soaked stylings of Perfect Woman. Conventions frequently overwhelm with scheduling nightmare swamps of panels, fan gatherings, and more games than anyone can ever get around to playing.
No matter what, you always leave feeling like you missed something, like you sacrificed play to be around people (arguably the best part of gaming conventions) or vice versa. Either way, it stings a little.
More importantly, GaymerX's community amplifies the impact of its games, and not just in the normal ways (great boardgame sessions, multiplayer matches with cheering audiences, etc). One friend tells me he felt comfortable enough to openly cry a little while playing Fragments of Him, a brief narrative game about a man coping with the sudden death of his husband. Feelings overwhelmed him, but he didn't need to hide.
"I honestly don't think I could've done that at any other convention," he says. "But here it just felt... OK. Like I wouldn't be judged."
I'm at the first marquee panel of the show, a somewhat unexpected talk on diversity, gender, and sexuality from Borderlands creator Gearbox. It's not like the studio's output is utterly bereft of non-straight, non-white, non-dude characters (quite the contrary, actually; Gearbox has gotten pretty good about that lately), but I would've never expected them to kick off a conference founded on these issues.
Borderlands 2 writer Anthony Burch begins by explaining how Gearbox definitely hasn't been perfect over the years. Characters like comically muscular Macho-Man-alike Torgue used to load their arsenals with boundless ammunition and downright homophobic/sexist comments, but time and experience have changed them for the better.
Then Burch says something that will stick with me for the rest of the show. "I think all of us are still learning, trying to be less shitty people as we go on, and when I started writing games three years ago, I was markedly more shitty than I am now."
I realize I definitely used to be in the same boat. In college, my friends and I punctuated jokes with homophobic slurs on a regular basis. A couple years ago, I would've been terrified to attend something branded as "gay," let alone embrace it. And anyway, I didn't think my input on this stuff mattered. I was just a single person, one who didn't identify as part of this group, to boot.
Thing is, you don't have to be something to be part of it. Supportive, combative, or non-existent, actions always have outcomes. Always.
There's always room to grow. Mistakes will happen. It's how you come back from them that counts.
"You can't stop the conversation just because there's finally one gay character in a BioWare game," I overhear one con-goer ranting to his friends after a BioWare panel. "It's not like everything is suddenly great. We're not out of the woods yet."
I think back to an interview I did with Dragon Age Inquisition writer David Gaider earlier that day. He's an openly gay man, but for the longest time he just never believed his work and personal life intersected. He was content to, as he put it, "create someone else's fantasy" because that's the way he'd grown up. That's the way it'd always been.
Now his game has a gay male character, one only romanceable by male player characters. Even that, he confessed, was a long time in coming, something BioWare could only justify from a "practical" standpoint once they had the resources to create their biggest cast of party members ever.
And most big-budget games haven't even gotten that far.
The Designing Inclusive Games panel is very good. Mostly. Panelists Christine Love, Saints Row developer Elizabeth Zelle, and Wolfire Games' David Rosen riff on all sorts of rarely touched on topics, from focus tests that only use guys to making games for lesbian women (and still attracting straight male fans—gasp!) to the need to simply tell a good story, regardless of how much or little you're focusing on sexuality or gender.
It's an honest panel, too. Zelle confesses that early Saints Row games relied way too much on stereotypes and strippers, and Love admits that it's easy for indie developers to fall into a pattern of only hiring friends, of closing off the gaming community in a different sort of way. (Note: I originally characterized Zelle as saying early Saints Row was very insensitive, but upon further consideration that was overstatement. She did criticize the earlier games, but not as severely as I'd stated. I've rephrased and apologize for the mistake.)
Both note that it's a learning process. The Saints Row series, especially, took its mistakes and morphed them into a bonkers funhouse mirror caricature of everybody, allowing players to make whatever sort of character they could imagine so that everyone could be in on the joke.
Mistakes will happen. It's how you come back from them that counts.
But there is still one elephant in the room, and Treachery in Beatdown City developer Shawn Alexander Allen tackles it head-on.
"This is a panel about inclusivity," he points out, "but all of you are white."
The room goes silent for a moment, uncomfortably so. I'm honestly not sure what will happen next.
"Thank you," says Love. "You are absolutely right."
Shawn goes on to point out that it's not just in game panels. In the advertising for Saints Row, for example, the main character was usually white despite players' ability to create pretty much anything they could imagine. Meanwhile, actor Keith David, the game's fictional vice president and a hugely entertaining character, largely got the short end of the stick when it came to the game's public portrayal.
After the panel wraps, Christine and Shawn have a lengthy chat about the topic, which alternates "thank yous" and sorries" before diving into possible solutions to the issue. Well, at least until the con staff tells us we need to make way for the next event. So that's that. For the time being.
Still though, it's a moment of gratitude and constructiveness, an indicative one. Mistakes will happen. It's how you come back from them that counts.
Shawn is set to reprise his panel on black and latino characters and culture in games at GaymerX. It's not happening until the last day of the show, but it continually comes up in conversation because, well, it's the only one.
It's late on GaymerX's first day. Really late. At least 1 AM, but I'm so bleary and delirious from exhaustion and revelry and people wanting to touch my hair that I honestly have no idea. Around 20 of us are bunched into various groups outside the hotel, chattering and shouting away despite our raw throats and ragged bodies. A heavy chill runs through the air, but honestly at this point it feels nice. Soothing, like a lullaby.
"Dude, you're basically my hero," one man enthuses to Shawn.
Shawn is taken aback. He's a brilliant, madly talented person, but he's also one of the more down-to-earth people I've ever met. Humility seizes him with an almost paralytic grip.
The other man, wearing a suit so snazzy that everyone within a 100 ft radius is underdressed, continues. "You're a black man out here making games and talking about this stuff. Someone like me. That's really cool."
They hug. It's a good night.
It's late afternoon the next day. I'm at a videogame-themed drag show, marveling at the level of choreography that's gone into a Legend-of-Zelda-themed number. The crowd is pindrop silent as the loudspeaker music drops out and drag-Link pulls out a real Ocarina to play a perfect rendition of Zelda's Lullabye. Then drag-Link and drag-Ganondorf swordfight to sound effects taken straight from the game. Link's familiar "hiiiiiyah" fills the tiny conference room as curtains gently rock back and forth, producing piercing shafts of daylight. No, this is not a typical drag show.
Not long after, there's a surprisingly bawdy Mario-themed number with, er, enthusiastically pantomimed sex acts between Peach, Mario, Luigi, and Bowser. It's goofy and a little awkward, but their dedication is undeniable. The whole she-he-and-everything-in-between-bang is met with raucous cheers and laughter.
It's at this moment that something huge dawns on me: I feel welcome here. That worry I had when I first stepped into the convention? Gone. Demolished. Vaporized by a triumphant laser beam of rainbows and enthusiasm.
I don't feel welcome because GaymerX is specifically "for" me, but because it's a space in which everybody gets equal merit for having the courage to be themselves. I witness no derisiveness or raised eyebrows as these people wear clothes not "normally" associated with their body types and pour their souls into performances that range from inspired to hilarious.
That's just the general mentality of the show: be yourself, whoever you might happen to be, and—so long as you're not actively harming anybody—it's cool. Embody yourself, express yourself, play games as yourself. Have fun with it. I mean, we're talking about video games, right?
I look out into the crowd, this swaying sea teeming with people of all shapes and colors—some tall, some small, some differently abled—packed into an itsy bitsy conference room like sardines. There are so many smiles.
A few friends and I are exchanging stories at the end of day two of GaymerX. We're about to film a video podcast from a hotel bed, like you do.
"How many of you have gotten complimented today?" asks one of them, Scott Jon Siegel from PopCap.
Everybody raises their hand.
"Yeah, I figured," he replies. "That's just kinda how everybody greets each other around here."
It's true, too. I reflect to myself for a moment. What if people just, you know, did that? All the time? Defaulted to noticing each other's positive qualities on the street, in games, online—wherever. I wonder if it'd help us be better to each other, if instead of waving or shouting or flipping people off, we were just like, "Hey, that's a cool shirt/pair of leggings/gleaming set of abs. I bet you're cool too."
There's this recurring train of thought running through my mind. I can't shake it, not that I'm really trying to.
"Everyone here is so damn pretty."
All in their own way. And I don't mean that in the patronizing Hallmark-card-packaged sense. These people are gorgeous in their confidence and exuberance. I get this sense from nearly everybody I pass, regardless of sex or gender or body type or disability or what have you. They're sexy and they goddamn know it. It's an intoxicating feeling rather than an intimidating one. It spreads like a just-cocky-enough smirk across the convention's face.
Sexy. Now there's a word I never thought I'd apply to a gaming convention.
I'm at GaymerX day two's cosplay contest afterparty, where more than a hundred people have overtaken the convention's main panel hall for copious dancing, drinking, and general merriment. A giant video projector displays various characters—everyone from Link to the entire cast of Kingdom Hearts—grooving without a care, burning down the dance floor like their village-torching foes.
I flit in and out of various conversations while watching as a crowd gathers around the DJ, who is also cosplaying. Before long, everyone is enthusiastically bobbing up and down or otherwise doing their best approximation of a dance. Arms flail, legs kick, drops of sweat fly. I can't help but smile. Glee is contagious.
But then I strike up conversation with a friend, Dominique Pamplemousse developer Deirdra "Squinky" Kiai, who isn't feeling it quite as much. It's not that they (the singular pronoun they choose to go by) dislike the dance party in particular, but rather that GaymerX isn't quite so much their scene. In their opinion, it still feels a bit too much like a big production for cisgender gay people, not so much folks in other margins.
It makes me sad to hear, especially given how many other corners of the gaming world have turned Squinky—and others like them—away. I remember Squinky's booming, massively powerful GDC talk. The words come crashing back into my head, echoing in my mind over and over and over. A singing sobriety.