The Best Games Convention I’ve Been To May Soon Be No More

The Best Games Convention I’ve Been To May Soon Be No More

We’re in San Francisco club called Stud, and there are people in fur suits everywhere. Coloured 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 favourite 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 realise 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 organiser 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 panellist 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 line-up emphasises quality and uniqueness over quantity.

Perhaps that’s a good thing, I realise 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 board game 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 have 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 realise 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 have 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 romance-able 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. Panellists 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 characterised Zelle as saying early Saints Row was very insensitive, but upon further consideration that was overstatement. She did criticise the earlier games, but not as severely as I’d stated. I’ve rephrased and apologise 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 1am, 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 video game-themed drag show, marvelling 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 colours — 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.

“If you’ve ever made a game before, you know it isn’t really easy,” Squinky bellowed before a mesmerised GDC crowd. “But compare that to not fitting in, not being one of the guys, AND not being one of the gals either… well, I could make A MILLION GAMES with the energy that trying to belong takes out of me.”

All weekend, GaymerX felt like the place. Finally, a good solution for everybody. But there’s always work to be done. Good work. Important work. But work nonetheless.

“I’d still love to see something like this replace PAX,” Squinky adds, voice still sullen and gaze still directed downward, but with a quiet whisper of hope. “Acceptance and inclusivity is a much better foundation than mean-spirited jokes.”

“And hey, there’s always next year.”

GaymerX has concluded. The closing ceremonies are over, people are filtering out of the hotel, and there are no more complimentary kettle chips left. I’m talking to people about their experiences at the show, and I’m kinda dumbstruck. Nobody really has anything bad to say, even when pressed for accounts of slightly sub-optimal experiences. I question upwards of 15-20 people, too.

Oh sure, there are digs at minor things: there could’ve been a few more game stations, slightly better event scheduling, etc. Also games scholar and critic Todd Harper (whose excellent account of the show you can read here) points out that there is a lot of focus on shapely, fit side of the gay male community but not so much on others. Still though, nothing even resembling a damning complaint.

Instead everyone just seems… grateful. Hordes of people are hugging it out, and I witness some newly formed couples passionately making out as well. It’s really, honestly wonderful.

A self-described “old married couple” from Houston, Texas sums it up especially well. “I’ve been to pride parades and not felt like I belonged,” says one man. “I’ve been in those spaces and not felt like I shared much of anything with other people. I’ve never felt like I did this weekend.”

His husband adds, “You come into a place like this and not everybody’s gonna agree on everything. But at the very least, everyone here seems like they’re willing to talk about it. I feel like I not only have a stake in this, but I have a place at the table.”

It’s a couple days after GaymerX. A friend and I are chatting over ramen, because she seems to have a magnet in her brain perfectly attuned to discovering flawless ramen shops. It’s kinda like the way birds always know how to fly south for the winter, only noodles.

“I really liked GaymerX,” she says between bites. “But yeah, it was kinda about white dudes. Gay white dudes, but still. Queer ladies didn’t get as much.”

“But I’ve heard next year is gonna be a lot more open.”

A week later, I’m in Dallas, Texas.

“It’s just a little hypocritical, is all,” says an acquaintance as I try to describe why I had such a great time at GaymerX. “I mean, there’s all this talk about inclusivity and they go and rope themselves off, make their own thing?”

“It’s just a little hypocritical, is all.”

“Well, no,” I reply. “It was meant to be open to everyone. That’s why I liked it so much. It was definitely directed at gay people, but it celebrated everybody. There was just kind of… a branding problem. And yeah, it wasn’t totally perfect, but it was still pretty great.”

But then I realise that sometimes small is good, that perhaps a larger, rowdier GaymerX would — even by virtue of nothing other than sheer numbers — lead to more conflict and strife. How do you mitigate that? How do you keep the small, focused convention feel while expanding to really be great for everyone? Is it even possible? Should you, when the groups in question — even gay men, who the convention focused on — don’t really have another sizable gaming space to call their own?

The only conclusion I come to is that I’m very happy I’m not in charge of running the next GaymerX.

There may not be another GaymerX. I think there needs to be, but conventions fall under a special category of expensive, the sort that makes one go pale with terror unless they recently won the lottery, found out they were related to royalty, or robbed someone who won the lottery.

While sponsors like 2K and Ubisoft were able to absorb some of the damage this year, GaymerX’s organisers are still reeling. The event may have been a success on many counts, but it also sent countless dollars spiraling down the drain. This convention is organised by a small ragtag team, not a megalithic media company. Sometimes small is good, but being nimble and adaptive doesn’t matter so much if you still get crushed in the end.

Maybe that will change. Maybe GaymerX will crawl out from beneath the rot-soaked boot of harsh reality, but right now convention head Toni Rocca is not particularly optimistic. She gives a frank, weary explanation:

“As it is I don’t know that we can really afford to do much more with GaymerX. We’re planning on holding some parties here in the city with a similar theme, but since these will be likely bar-events I don’t know that we can really have the same ‘vibe’. The parties and events in the future will be fun, but likely small. I can tell you right now that if I won the lottery, I’d be right back to work on GaymerX3. But no amount of work is gonna make me suddenly capable of affording the con.”

And it’s a goddamn depressing shame, because GaymerX’s hypothetical future sounds bright.

“I think the ideal would have been to continue with GaymerX and then maybe making it roam,” Rocca continues. “Or maybe even making smaller versions of it that could be more local and accessible to people in other parts of the country. As it is I’m going to do what I can to help make other conventions and conferences more inclusive and/or fun. I do want to make things better; the game industry desperately needs change.”

“I guess right now we’re just gonna keep working and moving forward and doing what we can. If we can find the money, we’ll do more. Our hotel bills right now are steep enough right now to make us feel sympathy for DashCon, and frankly if Matt hadn’t fronted a lot of the money GX2 would have BEEN DashCon.”

“I think we’re all in a bit of a mourning phase as we face the real possibility that this might have been the last GaymerX.”

I’m idly lurking in a hall toward the end of GaymerX’s second day. I glance up from my phone, barely escaping the black-hole-like pull of a video of a puppy licking a lion on Facebook, to see a small circle of people conversing. They’re chattering away, laughing and gesturing animatedly all throughout.

Near a turn in the hallway, kind of awkwardly positioned with her back to a corner, a girl stands alone. She doesn’t really seem to know anyone. I consider approaching her to say, “You have GOT to see this puppy getting along famously with this lion,” but before I can a member of the little group breaks away and strides confidently toward the girl.

“Come over here, join us!” she says with a warm smile on her face. “This conversation isn’t exclusive.”

It’s really not. Here’s hoping it doesn’t have to come to an end just yet.


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