EA Admits Games Can Do Better For The LGBT Community

Yesterday, in New York City, Electronic Arts held a special event focused on queer issues in gaming. And it happened mostly because the company itself was willing to face its own stumbles in presenting gay characters in its video games.

The impetus for Thursday's Full Spectrum event — co-sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association and the Human Rights Council — began after the controversy surrounding the addition of Makeb, the so-called (not by EA) "gay planet" to the company's massive online game Star Wars: The Old Republic.

When I spoke to the folks from EA who were at the event yesterday, they all acknowledged that the publisher had "stepped in it" with Makeb.

"It", in this case, is the sudden controversy that erupted when they added same-sex romance options to The Old Republic.

From one corner of the internet, the publisher was getting blasted by anti-gay activists who felt offended by the inclusion of Makeb. And criticism came from gay advocates, too, who felt annoyed at having to pay for access to a place where those romance options were possible, though segregated from the rest of the game's universe.

According to VP of corporate communications Jeff Brown, it was the intensity and volume of the response that made EA decide to hold a forum where LGBT issues in both the creation and playing of games could be discussed.

Brown's colleague Craig Hagen was one of the organisers of Full Spectrum. While he acknowleged the pride he felt in EA creating a place like Makeb or allowing same-sex relationships to happen in their Mass Effect games, Hagen also said the company could have done better in crafting those options. Mass Effect didn't allow for male same-sex relationships until Mass Effect 3 and Makeb was added to The Old Republic more than a year after the online game's launch.

Hagen describes EA as a progressively tolerant workplace but a studio that still is learning how to do things right. "Ten years ago, it was very easy for me to move into the EA Sports studio [where Hagen works out of], to identify as a gay man, and to bring my partner to studio and company events without any experience whatsoever of homophobia. I saw the same sex relationship benefits that EA offered when I was hired."

"I was involved with the development of the transgender policy that EA adopted," Hagen continued. "I was around when Sims [included] same gender content. I saw all of that. Then when something like Mass Effect or the latest episode of Star Wars occurs, I just stand back and go, even as progressive as EA is, we still make mistakes and we still have a long way to go."

I asked Hagen what he would say to LGBT players who feel embattled in an online game like Battlefield 3. How would he tell them to hold on? "I don't know that you tell them," he answered. "I think you have to demonstrate to them...by the encouragement and the continual development of additional LGBT storylines in our products. The reinforcement inside of EA that this is an environment where you need to feel comfortable, free, and open to develop the right kind of storyline, the appropriate storyline that not only reflects the developer community but reflects the gamer and the consumer community out there."

It's not an "it gets better kind of message" then, I posited. It's a matter of actively making it better?

"It's not about defending ourselves, it's about defining ourselves."

"Yeah," Hagen said. "That's the point of what [journalist and Full Spectrum panelist] Hilary Rosen made: it's not about defending ourselves, it's about defining ourselves. We recognise we're not perfect. No one is perfect. We're going to make mistakes. When we make a mistake let's learn from it and let's get better."

***

I threw a generalization about competitive online gamers at another Full Spectrum panelist Matt Bromberg, who helped found eSports company Major League Gaming before becoming general manager at BioWare Austin. Because of the hyper-aggressive nature on online gaming, it would seem that the players who spent the most time in the hothouses of FPS lobbies would be more likely to lob offensive epithets like "fag" to their opponents. But Bromberg said that wasn't the case. "My experience was the opposite," he countered. "I think the more skilled and hardcore a gamer is, when they get really good, their interest in spending time griefing people or doing really anything other than playing at a super high level drops to almost zero."

During the panel that Bromberg participated in, the idea was put forth that RPGs are a genre where progressive inclusion of gay characters and storyline possibilties can happen easily, because those games are all about options and crafting a virtual identity. I asked Bromberg if there was anything stopping a same-sex romance from being the main path, and not just a secondary option.

"I don't think anything does," he answered. "I think it goes back to, ‘What's the authentic story being told?' You're fighting off a race of machine creatures who are going to destroy the world? That's probably the main story. I think underneath that story, there's all kinds of combatants with all sorts of preferences. But I don't think anything stops it other than someone writing a game where it's authentic and meaningful and can sustain a whole game."


Comments

    And now I await the swarms of comments from straight gamers complaining about how these kinds of things included in games are pointless and why do they even matter this much and that the gay community should stop complaining... Just watch, it'll happen...

      Or worse, them complaining that how it ruins the entire game for them...

      I thought you found intolerance like that in the wilder parts of the internet, or the more deeply religious bits.

        You'd be surprised, I've seen articles about LGBT stuff in games on here and the reaction is usually a unanimous "WHO CARES?" I'm actually quite impressed that hasn't happened on this one.

    EA could do better for the LGBT community by getting rid of their online DRM and letting them play Sim City.

    I dunno, it's a pretty difficult thing.
    If you want to treat homosexuality and transgenderism as completely normal, then you have to somehow insert it (into games) casually without making a huge deal out of it.
    You also have to avoid tokenism.

    And what about main characters? Forget blank canvases like the Mass Effect characters, can there ever be a game where the Marcus Fenix or the Lara Croft is a set gay or transgender character? Could it be handled properly ever?

    I'm sure the LGTB community would love to see that game, but I doubt it'll be a smash hit that'll send the developers laughing all the way to the bank, and that's pretty much the only reason big companies make games.

      Just pull a 'Samus.' Play the whole game trying to rescue their love interest who's never shown, and only a unisex nameis given, then at the end when you save them, it's revealed that their partner is the same gender.

      Wait, Marcus Fenix and Lara Croft are straight? What?

        My secret shame is that I can only name two protagonists.

        Last edited 09/03/13 9:49 pm

        I haven't played the Tomb Raider reboot, but my gay friend is shouting subtext from the rooftops. Maybe her goggles are set to max, who knows.

        And neither have I played GoW, but I thought Fenix just had a whole lot of bromance out there, but is/was with that one lady who managed to fight off the dudebro testosterone and grab a gun.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with certain communities not being represented in certain games (we can't always please everyone at once) but when it's done, it can't be done with ignorance. Even Mass Effect (which was pretty shoddy at representing even the basic idea of love) concocted some seriously awkward same-sex relationships; they definitely felt less-focused than the others. I only hope that the call for improvement doesn't mean representing their community as ideal. We see quite often that these groups don't want to accept anything other than their own personal vision for themselves and if any artistic or creative integrity is to be retained in these games, then we have to allow the creators to follow their vision and interpret those characters and situations in new and interesting ways. My biggest fear is that this'll turn into accepted pandering and won't give us any greater insight or possibilities in storytelling. This has already potentially happened at Bioware. It's naive to think that thousands of keyboard warriors calling for changes because they don't like a story (I'd like to see anyone try this in any other medium with even a hint of guarded maturity) hasn't frightened them somewhat into being less courageous in their writing.

    EA can do better by not treating them as something completely different from everybody else in the world. They are normal people not some special group.

      I agree with you in a sense. However, in today's society, someone being LBGTI doesn't seem to be normally accepted by the majority. That's why there is an ever increasing push for equality of benefits, marriage, mardi gras events, representation in games, media etc.

      I find it funny (not 'haha') that there often seems to be a need for people to hate another group. We saw it with Jews, African Americans, each new migrant group into Australia (it was the 'wogs' at one point, then it was Asians, then it was those of Middle East descent / of Muslim faith, people from India, 'blacks' ...

      Some countries are more progressive than others - with some cities being even more so - at any rate, it'll be a long journey for all of us to be accepting of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation... At any rate, these 'issues' only become non-issues through education, discussion, visibility and ultimately, acceptance - but that doesn't happen if we ignore them or don't acknowledge them as issues for other people even if we are unaffected.

      While their motives are not entirely disingenuous, I see EA using the LBGTI card predominantly for publicity. Even if they are the target of bigots and the ultra conservative religious - or unhappy members of the LBGTI community - even bad publicity is good publicity for the most part.

      I love story telling in video games, especially a series like Mass Effect when you can craft your persona through the choices you make. I elected to have a male same gender romance on one of my many play throughs and while I think the inclusion is great, the execution for the male Shepard with a male companion felt odd. For me I think it was mainly that the other guy's partner had died and he was grieving then the next minute he was all good for another relationship. The female relationship seemed targeted more at a horny teenage boy too. Idea? Great. Execution? Needs polish - but we all have an opinion.

    What irks me about the LGBT community is their extremely narcissist belief in their own importance. They are constantly agitating for more "representation," making a lot of noise about real or imagined grievances, and assuming that the universe is meant to revolve around them and their interests. They also vastly overstate or overestimate the amount of LGBT people, either for strategic reasons or because they're around so many of them that they assume it's normal.

      Yeah, you are a mouth-breathing bigot, and this is the same clichéd redneck bullshit we've been hearing for decades. The grievances of lgbt people or not fucking 'real or imagined'. Asking for equality in society and under the law is not assuming the world revolves around yo. Fuck you, you bitter, hate filled sack of shit.

        But he is right, LGBT community is a drop in the ocean compared to the straight community. Should every game cater to a very loud but small group?

          No, he's not even close to being right. Who's saying anything about 'every game' has to cater for the LGBT community? Who's saying every game needs to resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (TOS), representing every race or orientation?? Watch TV and you'll see a blend of actors portraying people from different backgrounds, not to mention TV shows catering for different demographics. Why should gaming be any different?

          Should every game cater to a very loud but small group?

          You mean like bigoted internet assholes who don't know what they're talking about and fear change, for example?? Yeah... that seems like an awesome idea.

          By this logic every videogame character should be asian. After all, why should games cater to a very loud but not as numerous ethnicity like caucasian?

        That's exactly the sort of response that perpetuates this 'us v. them' mentality the LGBT is infamous for on the internet.

        While battlecattle could have phrased it more elegantly, there is a very real risk of ANY group on the internet creating more white noise than real, relevant and important commentary on the world they are a part of. When everyone, taking into account varied levels of intelligence, education and maturity, is allowed to speak their mind to a global audience with no moderation, is it so crazy to argue that not all, even not most, of them are correct?

        Either way, personal attacks do nothing but hold back the progress these groups want and largely deserve. Why would a company want to create content for minority groups when the chances of a volatile, vitriolic response due to misunderstanding or misrepresentation are at times higher than a positive one? The risk outweighs the gain.

        Incoherent emotional outbursts are about all that can be expected from "progressive" types.

      @Battlecattle Horse. Shit. The narcissistic belief you're talking about is that of people like you who feel these people don't have a place in gaming because your experience with them is minimal. You get aggressive and defensive because, heaven forbid, someone else from a different background may like to be included in the stories of the games we play and that freaks you right out, because your little comfort zone is suddenly 'shattered' by other people wanting to have fun too. By your reasoning, since LGBT gamers are a 'drop in the ocean', we shouldn't see devs cater for black, female, disabled or other demographics of people because they're not the majority (ie, not white males aged between 10 and 45) and therefore don't deserve to be represented because they're just pandering to a vocal minority.
      Your whole post is narrow minded, overly simplistic, conspiratorial crap. Seriously, that is some dumb shit. If you want to cling to your 'old world' notion that other people who're different to you, fine, enjoy your sausage fest with your whitebread dudebro buddies. But the reality is, there are lots of different people in the world and they SHOULD be represented in games, no differently as to how they're represented in TV, movies, books and other media. The asshole with the loudest, angriest voice has had his time. It's over. Accept it. Join the rest of us in the 21st century when you realise that there are lots of other people in the world are very different to what you see in the mirror, or, when that bug in your ass has died.

        "You get aggressive and defensive because, heaven forbid, someone else from a different background may like to be included in the stories of the games we play and that freaks you right out, because your little comfort zone is suddenly 'shattered' by other people wanting to have fun too."

        These days I pretty much don't watch anything except Japanese and other Asian entertainment, and it never bothers me that the characters aren't the same race or culture as me, or often even the same gender (many of my favorite films and shows have a female protagonist or a mostly female cast). I also prefer to play female characters in video games.

        I'm not one of the people constantly posting articles about how I had a mental breakdown because the protagonist of a video game didn't look and act exactly like me.

        "By your reasoning, since LGBT gamers are a 'drop in the ocean', we shouldn't see devs cater for black, female, disabled or other demographics of people because they're not the majority (ie, not white males aged between 10 and 45) and therefore don't deserve to be represented because they're just pandering to a vocal minority."

        Developers can make whatever characters they want to, but LGBTs need to stop acting like they're some huge deal representing half the population.

        "But the reality is, there are lots of different people in the world and they SHOULD be represented in games, no differently as to how they're represented in TV, movies, books and other media."

        No, they shouldn't. They can be, but they shouldn't. Nobody has any obligation to make certain kinds of characters, or tell certain kinds of stories.

        "The asshole with the loudest, angriest voice has had his time. It's over. Accept it. Join the rest of us in the 21st century when you realise that there are lots of other people in the world are very different to what you see in the mirror, or, when that bug in your ass has died."

        The funny thing is that this quote actually applies to LGBT activists. They are assholes with very loud, very angry voices who are excessively preoccupied with mirrors.

          Dude, I think you're way, way off the mark with how you think how LGBT 'activists' are loud and angry, but hey, different strokes for different folks. Personally, I think it's the overreactive, racist, homophobic, bigoted, douchebag dudebro gamer and their egotistical sense of entitlement and lack of accountability who's the real issue, only because, in my experience, for every person I've interacted with (in a gaming context) who wants to see more... socal variety, for lack of a better term, I've dealt with about a thousand angry dudebros (or several who've made multiple accounts, astroturfing. :p) who are OTT with anger, abuse and vitriol. Maybe your experience has varied from mine, but I'm only calling it as I've experienced as I'm sure you are. I'm gonna chalk this up to agreeing to massively disagree.

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