'Out' in the IndustryBy Bryan Ochalla
Beyond the Numbers
According to the International Game Developers Association’s “Game Developer Demographics” report from 2005, there are about as many LGBT people in the games industry as there are in the general population (about 5 percent—although, admittedly, some studies put the “real world” number around 10 percent).
Talk to a few people “in the know,” though, and you get the distinct impression the industry’s a much lonelier place than the number implies.
Jeb Havens, probably one of the most visible and vocal LGBT developers, says, “It’s not like there’s only a handful” of gay people making games, “but there’s no presence or community. There’s no ‘gay’ face to it.”
Hopefully the lead designer at Troy, N.Y.-based 1st Playable Productions (www.1stplayable.com) is ready for his close-up, because if anyone is going to be the “gay face” of the games industry, it’s Havens. The 26-year-old, who makes a mean board game when he’s not crafting titles for 1st Playable, has spoken about diversity within the industry quite a few times over the last few years, including the Game Developers Conference and the Sex in Video Games Conference in 2006, and just led a series of LGBT roundtables at this year’s GDC.
“I started about a year and a half ago,” he says, “after attending my first GDC in San Francisco and being surprised that there was no mention of gay anything. The topic never came up at all.
“Almost everyone was male,” Havens recalls, “and there was such a strong frat-boy heterosexuality among the industry people that it made me realize that even if there were gay people in the industry, they probably wouldn’t feel very comfortable talking about it.”
Talking about being gay isn’t a problem for Brian Sharp. The 26-year-old employee of Midway Games (he works at the company’s office in Austin, Texas) says, “I’ve been out in the workplace since, well, since I came out. It’s never been a problem.”
Sharp, who got into the industry as a high schooler when a family friend started a game company, has had ample experience. After that first gig, where he worked on graphics and engine programming, he moved to 3dfx, Ion Storm, Ageia and Maxis before his current stint at Midway.
“I have never experienced any direct discrimination as a result of being gay,” Sharp says, “although there’s definitely the unstated assumption in a predominantly male, predominantly straight industry that everyone thinks ‘that picture of that chick is really hot.’”
Don’t take that to be an out-and-out indictment of the industry. “I don’t bring it up randomly or wear a t-shirt that says, ‘I’m gay,’” Sharp says, adding that whenever the subject of his boyfriend has come up, for instance, “Co-workers have been, without fail, completely nonplussed at the idea, which is exactly what I’d hoped for.”
Being gay seems to be a non-issue at Brooklyn-based mobile development company Sonic Branding Solutions as well. While he worked there, Mark Thrall, who previously worked at Liquid Entertainment and Warner Bros. Online, said “I’m completely ‘out’ in all aspects of my life. I moved to New York with my boyfriend and he frequently walks with me to work. We’ll exchange a kiss outside of the office.”
The 29-year-old admits to being a bit nervous about discussing sexuality when he first entered the industry, “but when the issue came up with a few co-workers, they reacted quite well. One of them even apologized for using the term ‘gay’ so much, and he completely stopped using the term as slang.”
His experience at Warner Bros. was much the same. “The guys there didn’t bat an eye,” Thrall says. “I brought a date with me to a dinner party and that was my big ‘coming out.’ Again, no one said a concerned word—no one cared.”
Although amiable indifference to gayness in the gaming workplace is acceptable enough, bona fide interest is always preferred. That’s what Anne Gibeault has come face to face with at Montreal office of Ubisoft (www.ubi.com).
The 36-year-old animator (she’s worked on such titles as Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, King Kong and Splinter Cell: Double Agent) says, in her experience, her game-development peers have been a pretty welcoming bunch. “I’ve never heard anything homophobic,” she says, adding “I’ve always been out, everywhere I’ve worked. Everyone reacts fine with it.”
That’s especially true of Gibeault’s family situation. “I have a baby,” she shares, “and it seems everyone is pretty curious how we managed this, me and my girlfriend.”
A colleague of Gibeault’s, Vincent Gauthier, supports her assessment of Ubisoft, if not quite her assessment of the industry as a whole. The 30-something former filmmaker (he says he did everything—directing, animating, designing and writing—while at the National Film Board of Canada) was introduced to the world of gaming by an acquaintance who asked him to do a small mattepainting job for the French software firm.
“I agreed even though I had never done mattepainting before and hadn’t heard of the game I was to work on (Splinter Cell),” Gauthier says, “which shows you I was not a gamer at all.”
After struggling at first with the project, Gauthier says he “eventually saw the artistic potential of the game industry.” Soon after he applied for another contract job at Ubisoft and eventually was brought on as a full-time employee.
During the two-and-a-half years he’s been at Ubisoft, Gauthier says he’s developed “a progressive approach to coming out at work. I don’t hide the fact that I’m gay—I’m not going to whisper when I talk about my boyfriend—but I’m not loud about it either.”
That is, until he wants to make a statement. One project Gauthier worked on in the past contained what he considered “homophobic elements.” At a meeting about the game, “I made a clear statement about of what I thought had to be changed—and at the same time that became my official coming out to the entire team.”
The response surprised him. “My producer named me the official guard dog against homophobia” for that game, Gauthier says. “It proved useful to the project and very educational for my co-workers.”
Gauthier’s role as gay protectorate has carried over into other projects at Ubisoft as well. He proposed adding gay content to one game he worked on (though it never saw the light of day) and he also requested a meeting with the director of another game he worked on after realizing it included two gay characters.
“One was a heroin-addict prostitute and the other a closeted maniac criminal,” Gauthier exclaims. “I told him it didn’t make sense to have such a strong proportion of gay characters, compared to most games, and have all of them be such negative figures.”
Outside Ubisoft, Gauthier describes the overall games industry as “welcoming,” though he admits “straight guys have a lot to learn.”
“Girls usually never have a problem with a gay guy,” he says, “and straight guys usually grow to enjoy the freshness of the conversations they have with gays. But if they don’t know there is a gay person in the room, guys will make the worst jokes and make aggravating comments.
“That’s why I try to be out before they get to regret too much of what they said,” Gauthier adds. “After they know my sexual orientation, there are even more jokes, but they’re usually good humored instead of mean and I can joke back at them.”
According to Aline Schleger, an animator at Ubisoft, how folks in the games industry react to a colleague’s sexuality differs from studio to studio. The 29-year-old, who previously worked at QA International and DC-Studios, was “completely out” when she worked with a team she considered tightly knit, open-minded and mature. “When I got to more hardcore groups of hardcore gamers, though, it became a bit more of a touchy subject and thus stayed in the closet.”
That about sums up Schleger’s experience as a gay woman in an industry full of predominantly straight men. “I’ve met bigoted as well as indifferent peers,” she says. “I don’t think the gaming industry is as bad as sports, but the typical developer company is composed of youngish guys. ‘The sausage party,’ as everyone here calls it, is a common place to see insecurity and immaturity. Thankfully, the industry is changing; people are getting older and more mature, more professional and the crowd is getting especially more diverse.”
That’s not to say Schleger believes game-development studios are much different than other, non-gaming companies. “I believe the industry’s reaction is two-fold,” she explains. “The official position and actions of the developers reflect a desire to be just as grownup, professional and PC as everybody else. On the other hand, we must not forget that developers are made of people—with the full range of opinions on issues they take.”
Filling the Void
Finding someone in the industry that represents the “T” part of the LGBT equation isn’t all that easy, even in this day and age. It was a bit easier in the 90s, when Danielle Bunten Berry was still alive. Berry, born Dan Bunton, made quite a name for herself in the early 80s by producing such well known and regarded titles as M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities of Gold. Less newsworthy, interestingly enough, was then-Bunton’s decision to become a woman in 1992.
In an interview published in an obscure German gaming magazine in 1996 (later transcribed and published by the LGBT newspaper In Newsweekly), Berry told industry veteran Brenda Brathwaite what it was like to “out” herself at that year’s Computer Game Developers’ Conference:
“In this industry, I don't feel any discrimination for being either transgendered or for being female,” she said. “I find that very gratifying and think that's a really positive statement about this industry. When I went to the conference as Danielle instead of Dan, people were just warm and supportive and happy for me. I've gotten zero negative reaction. I had no one come up to me and say, ‘Yuck. What is that?’ or ‘Who are you?’
“It was one of the peak experiences of my life, coming out,” Berry added. “Coming out, in any form that people do it, is risky business, and when you get support from your peers, that is just marvelous. In terms of jobs, actually, I think I've gotten more opportunities since the change.”
Brathwaite was on hand when Berry came out to the industry, and likewise remembers it in a positive light. “There was a lot of talk and wonder about how people would react,” she says. “Fortunately, and not surprisingly, it was no big deal. People were very happy for her.”
The Right Attitude
One of the reasons Berry’s transformation wasn’t a big deal to the predominantly heterosexual male crowd at the 1992 GDC has to be the accomplished developer’s straightforward and unflinching attitude toward her own sexuality.
It’s a strategy Havens suggests more LGBT game developers should consider.
“A lot of people are kind of half-closeted,” he says. “When they’re at work, they don’t really lie about their sexuality, but they don’t bring it up either—probably because it just doesn’t seem to mesh with the culture at a lot of places.”
It’s likely their discreetness also has something to do with feeling like they’re “the only ones,” something Havens says he hopes to rectify. “I really want to let these people know they’re not alone.”
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