Two years ago, when GX Australia was first announced, co-organiser Liam Esler wrote, “I want a place where, even if it’s only for a weekend, I don’t have to worry… Because everything around me, down to the pop-culture I consume, tells me that who I am isn’t normal, that I don’t fit the mold of societal expectations.”
At the end of March, GX Australia’s organisers announced Australia’s first queer gaming convention would be unable to continue “in its present form”, as corporate sponsors had pulled out. But rather than cancel the 2017 event, organisers Liam Esler and Joshua Meadows turned to crowdfunding. And after raising over $70,000, GX Australia was held on the weekend of April 29 for the second and last time.
Entering the Exhibition Hall floor on the final day of the two-day convention, I wondered if had arrived too early, or was in the wrong place.
The floor was sparsely populated, as though exhibitors were still setting up. Attendees in the Tabletop Zone appeared to be waiting around rather than playing games. And many of the consoles in Nintendo’s large booth, prominently situated at the front of the Exhibition Hall, sat unused.
The reality was that the convention was poorly attended, numbers appearing to be in the low hundreds rather than thousands. Though this year the event had been shifted so as not to clash with Mardi Gras, the clash with Melbourne Supanova likely didn’t help attendance.
Aside from Nintendo, whose exciting new console had already been released two months ago, there weren’t any big names to draw a crowd. While indie developers lined the hall, there were few the common gamer would recognise. The panels listed were less focused on entertainment than education, and were narrow in scope. There just wasn’t much mainstream appeal.
Yet this downfall was also GX Australia’s virtue.
The seemingly sparse floor facilitated a relaxed, casual atmosphere. There was no rush to see this panel or try that game. Plenty of time to get where you wanted to go. Plenty of opportunity to see what you wanted to see. With more than enough room to move about, there was breathing room for people with mobility issues, or people who get anxious in crowds, or people who just don’t fancy being pressed between numerous strange bodies. Wait times to try out games were shorter than you’d wait for a burger at McDonalds.
Though attendance was low, the people present were engaged. If they had bought their ticket expecting pure entertainment they might have been disappointed. However, this wasn’t the reason people attended GX Australia. People came because they cared about the gaming community, about broader social issues, about respecting and learning from each other. Attendees were there for others just as much as they were there for themselves.
Everyone I spoke to expressed similar sentiments. It didn’t feel like a commercial enterprise, big triple-A titles spruiked over blaring music and hype-men running giveaways.
It felt like friends hanging out on a quiet Sunday morning.
In the mainstream gaming community, conversation surrounding GX Australia, or indeed any enterprise tailored to a minority group, often veers toward the “why”.
“Why don’t they just go to established gaming conventions? They’re already inclusive enough.”
“Why does it even matter what someone’s sexuality is? We’re all just here to play games.”
“Why do we need a queer gaming convention?”
— Queerly Represent Me (@QueerlyRepMe) May 2, 2017
“I think there’s a bug that might make her bi sometimes,” developer Saf Davidson said of “chaste” lesbian character Juhani from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The Queerly Represent Me and the Underrepresented panel was listing examples of rarely seen identities in video games, such as asexuality and bisexuality (as opposed to “playersexuality”, in which an NPC is attracted to the player character regardless of their gender).
Founded by panellist Alayna Cole, The Queerly Represent Me online database catalogues over 750 games that represent queer identities. This includes 160 representations of nonbinary and nonconforming genders. Though the table shown at the panel noted that these identities are not the same, they had been conflated because “there’s just so little representation of either right now”.
“When I think about non-binary representations I’m pretty disappointed, actually,” said developer Charlie Francis Cassidy.
The table further noted 30 instances of asexual and aromantic representation (again, conflated).
“I love [robots and aliens] because it’s the only [asexual] representation I’ve ever got,” game designer Snow McNally said on the A Is Not For Ally panel. The “A” is for asexual – that is, people who do not experience sexual attraction, and whose “A” in the acronym is often appropriated by allies or left off altogether.
Concepts of diversity are slowly making inroads in big-budget, mainstream games, but there would never be a panel like this at a mainstream games convention. Overwatch and Mass Effect are often held out as the stalwarts, but progress has been slow. Many gamers still don’t understand why diversity is important, and some believe efforts to address it are detrimental to video games.
But queer gamers are still gamers, and they want games to be good. Aside from the societal impact of positive representation, they simply see diversity as contributing to good stories.
“Diversity shouldn’t be a plot point,” said Cassidy, echoing the sentiments of many who are wary of the concept.
The Queerly Represent Me panel rejected the notion that diverse characters are by nature tokenistic. They encouraged developers to instead consider diversity from the outset, to talk to the communities they're depicting, and to work towards more diversity across the industry, rather than trying to do it all in one game.
“There’s ways to do it without making it seem awkward and forced,” said Jess Zammit of Queerly Represent Me.
“People don’t understand what we’re asking,” said Cole. “They don’t understand what diversity looks like.”
In Cole’s opinion, the next step is education. “Diversity isn’t the big scary thing that they think it is.” Nobody wants development studios to go down a list, ticking off diversity markers in a shallow, ham-fisted way. They want a variety of well-rounded characters in rich, detailed stories.
“One of the reasons I want diversity is because I fucking love good stories,” said Cole.
“They don’t even try to make white cis dudes different from each other.”
Video games are amazing, because you can be anyone or anything in the universe. A blue hedgehog! A ghost! A unicorn with rocket launchers! About 80 per cent of the time, though, you get to be a brooding white guy. There are so many of them that it's hard to keep track. And they all seem to have dead wives.
The goal isn’t to pit women against men, queer against straight, black against white. It’s everyone working to include each other, reflecting and drawing from real people in all their variation and breadth of experience. Creating not only a better community, but better games.
“The stories [diverse authors] write are much more interesting because they have diverse points of view,” Davidson said. “Games will definitely get better when they have more diverse people making them.”
Noted games artist Wren Brier on the Women Warriors panel, “I would be offended if I were a guy if people thought all I wanted was tits and ass.”
— Kim (@wincenworks) May 1, 2017
Though in many ways gaming has progressed to the mainstream, much of the collective gamers’ consciousness remains rooted in the psychology of the “outcast”: The socially awkward but well-meaning loner who turns to video games for comfort, validation and companionship.
However, people who identify as queer find themselves further ostracised in a different way. Often unintentionally and with no malice, but felt nonetheless. Subtly, in things such as being forced to choose a male or female gender when they identify as neither, or being unable to deepen an in-game romance without sleeping with their NPC paramour. Minor issues to others, but for the queer community these interactions can be wearing, recreating their daily, invalidating struggles in their means of escape.
GX Australia aimed to celebrate differences among “outcasts”. It aimed to give people a moment for themselves, where their identity wasn’t up for qualification or justification. Where they could enjoy their identities as “queer” and “gamer” simultaneously, and without compromise.
In his keynote speech at the close of the convention, Rami Ismail of development studio Vlambeer recounted an instance when his fiancée had dinner with his father. In her culture, people eat everything on their plate to show that they enjoyed and appreciated the food. In his culture, people leave food on their plate to show that they were provided with enough and are full.
The result was that his fiancée forced herself to eat plate after plate of food as his father continued to give her more and more, both growing increasingly desperate. Both wanted to be polite, but the expression of that courtesy came in antithetical forms. The goal was the same, but the methods varied.
“Achieving diversity in some ways can damage it in others,” said Ismail. He gave the example of safe spaces for women, compared to inclusion of women in male-dominated spaces. Opposing concepts, yet both working to address the same issue.
“We need to accept that ‘we’ are not always ‘we’.” One person’s solution may not work for someone else. Different cultures, beliefs and life experiences will clash, and it is unavoidable. “Diversity” in English may differ from “diversity” in Arabic, or Mandarin, or Spanish.
“That’s not to say we can’t share a goal, be better humans, respect each other, celebrate each other together.” Rather than applying one concept of “diversity” across everyone, he advocates for the creation of many “diversities”, and linking between them.
“It’s not easy if your community is already fighting for the right to be heard, to exist,” said Ismail.
“I ask of you to fight for others in the communities your voice counts in.”
At the close of GX Australia, Esler and Meadows stood before the crowd and thanked the sponsors and attendees.
Then attendees were handed the microphones, allowing them to stand, one by one, and express what the convention meant to them. How they felt included, accepted, as though they didn’t have to justify or explain some aspect of their being, and could simply enjoy being queer and being a fan of video games in the same breath. How one didn’t qualify the other, and they could be themselves, complete, whole and unashamed.
You won’t find video of this on YouTube, or transcribed on blogs. They were intimate confessions, shared only between the people in that room. But the overwhelming message was clear: GX Australia mattered, and people had needed it.
“This might be done, but this,” said Esler, indicating the motley crew of gamers assembled in the auditorium, “is not.”
“This is not a funeral, this is your springboard,” said Meadows.
“Don’t stop it.”