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?
"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."