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EA's LGBT event aims to be a first step toward cultural change
EA's LGBT event aims to be a first step toward cultural change
March 7, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

March 7, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
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Game developers have an estimable role to play in the human rights landscape, says Ford Foundation president Luis A. Ubinas. Since 1936 the Foundation has been devoted to social change work, and today it played host to an industry summit spearheaded by Electronic Arts focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues in games.

EA's flagship Mass Effect brand has generated an incredibly passionate community attracted to the idea that they can customize their own character within a massive universe where romances are possible, some of them same-sex.

Roleplaying games attract diverse audiences that might be looking for self-expression outlets, so it's especially important that publishers in EA's position find ways to ensure safe arenas for its players online -- without making them feel like they can only express themselves in certain arenas, as some players felt was the case with Star Wars: The Old Republic (the game currently allows LGBT flirt options on Dromund Kaas, Coruscant and Makeb, with "more coming in the future," according to a spokesperson).

In addition to EA's desire to self-educate and seek solutions, the company says it's been itself targeted by homophobic hate groups because of the franchise, bringing social change and the creation of safe spaces for its players to the forefront of the publisher's concerns.

"With relentless pressure, change is possible," Ubinas says. "Attitudes can evolve, and a nation and society can be transformed."

Media plays a vanguard role in the transformation of attitudes, he continues, highlighting how significant the sympathetic portrayal of a gay man on the sitcom Will and Grace was in transforming social prejudices. Ubinas cited a 2007 study that found Will and Grace alone "was doing more to improve attitudes toward gay men than every amount of explicit social teaching in schools, churches, families and elsewhere."

Games could have a similar if not greater positive influence on current civil rights challenges, Ubinas suggests. "I want to emphasize the importance of the role you could play," he tells game developers. "The images you present and the interactions you allow, are going to help shape the future."

Developers should remember how important their work is to helping young people deal with the often-difficult and lonesome process of growing up. "Somewhere in this country there is a young person... for whom being gay means isolation and secrecy," he continues.

"For them to enter fantasy worlds where they can be free to hold hands with a person of their choosing regardless of gender, or make a home with a partner of their choosing... that means they can move from the passive world of television, where they can see other people doing these things, to the active world of gaming, magnifying the impact that we know media can have. "

EA's Full Spectrum event also played host to a panel led by Democratic lobbyist and former Recording Industry Association of America CEO Hilary Rosen. Regarding her work at the RIAA she describes years fighting attempts to silence hip-hop, during which she learned "preaching doesn't work."

"What we have to do is have smart conversations among ourselves, because other people are having conversations about us," she points out. "Not just how we defend ourselves, but how we define ourselves is really important... we have to think not just about our impact on the world, but our place in the world... a lot of people are interested in how this community begins to talk about these issues and all of the issues that face this gaming industry."

On the panel was also Maxis veteran and current Kixeye EP Caryl Shaw; Gordon Bellamy former IGDA director and current industry relations head at Tencent; the ESA's Dan Hewitt, and Human Rights Campaign director Ellen Kahn. As they talked, a projection showed the No Homophobes project, which clocks incidences of homophobic hate speech in real time, ticking up to the thousands.

"Games are a place where people want to posture... in whatever way they know how to stand up for themselves," said Shaw. "It's really sad, but it has become part of game culture, and figuring out how to change that is why I wanted to participate in this event today." There has to be other ways of creating fun and tough competition without hate speech, she asserts.

The panelists agreed that male-dominated online games seem to attract the most persistent hate ecosystems. Rosen, a mother of twins, said her daughter is uncomfortable playing online because of the language she encounters. Hewitt reminded the panelists that some content in the game industry is never going to be appropriate for kids or for everyone, and that part of the task involves is providing a large palette of choices.

At the same time, though, a culture in which Rosen's daughter feels unwelcome playing the game she wants to play isn't acceptable to most of the panelists.

"This isn't about what's legal and what we're going to get blamed for, but [about] are we who we want to be?" Rosen poses. "Are we for who we want to be for?"

To what extent is the community culture still led by the development culture? That characters in games can be major catalysts for empathy and social change is an appealing idea, but rarely do I interview commercial game developers who can speak from outside a relatively-narrow vertex of experience.

"Reducing barriers for diverse people to tell diverse stories is a challenge of any entertainment industry," Bellamy says. "If you can reduce the friction to getting into roles of leadership, that's how more stories get told, period."

"It's a white dude-ly industry, still," says Shaw. "In general it is still a very hard place for women to get in, and that's got to change. I hope women are reaching out, doing internships and trying to mentor women... I've been really lucky, but I also have a really big mouth; I've gone out and said, 'I'm going to be out, I'm going to be really loud, I'm going to try to tell my story and get more women involved because I want things to change.' I want the next generation of game developers to not be 15 percent women, 85 percent men."

Hewitt says promoting diverse workplaces just makes sense. "If you can create a safe space where all your employees feel comfortable, you're going to keep people like Caryl, who will create awesome games that will sell [and] please your shareholders," he explains. "It just makes good business, when companies take these steps."

Nonetheless, he says the ESA's efforts to offer diversity-oriented scholarships are sometimes challenged by low interest. Bellamy points out there's very little historical context to encourage people that there are other positive models like themselves in the industry. As a gay black man, Bellamy says it took a Harvard degree for him to feel like he could achieve anything he wanted in the game industry.

He calls this the first generation of emerging role models and activists: "It's very empowering for people who don't know that they have the opportunity to be part of the gaming narrative. This is actually very rare to see," Bellamy adds.

One of these outliers is Baltimore Ravens linebacker and civil rights and gay marriage advocate Brendan Ayanbadejo, who took to the stage later in the day to share his experiences being a rare outspoken activist in the football community.

"Part of coming out is having a context to come out to; for people who want to be in the game industry and have a career in games, they need to know there is a context they can become a part of," said Bellamy.


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Comments


Darcy Nelson
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*Slow clap*

I'm glad there are (evidently) serious conversations being had about the subjects of diversity and acceptance in the workplace. I'm cautiously optimistic that this is a sign of the times / an encouraging step in the right direction.

Carlo Delallana
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Empathy defeats intolerance and games are a natural vehicle for empathy and transformation. Being able to experience the plight of a character through interaction can be more powerful than passive viewing. I would love to see the diversity reflect back into the games we make and maybe that natural empathy that players get from playing a game can translate to the real world.

Kaitlyn Kincaid
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While I'm all for credit where credit is due, I'm not aware of any EA game that addresses the T in LGBT. LGB often gets all the attention in games, the very few times that the T is even addressed is obscure jRPGs (and that is rarely in a positive light). I've seen this called "the silent T problem".

Does this event actually plan to address LGBT issues, or is this another case of the T erroneously being tacked on to an LGB event?

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Christian Nutt
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This is a good question -- there was a particularly nasty thing with trans prostitutes in Dragon Age Origins, too. Wondering if they've come on since then.

http://gaygamer.net/2009/11/dragon_age_gay_plus_trans_nega.html

Jimmy Albright
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Doesn't the whole transgender concept lie with not accepting the gender you were born with? I'm not trying to speak on behalf of a community I'm not a part of, but if a transgender m->f identifies with being a woman why would they want to play a game where instead of being identified as a woman they're identified as transgender?

Isn't the biggest hurdle as a transgender person to be accepted as the gender you identify with? To not be labeled as "transgender" and instead be called a man or woman?

I mean, if there is a game that specifically targets or revolves around the transgender process, I could understand. You'd also run across tons and tons of PR issues regarding a game featuring a transgender protagonist, as it's not as simple as just creating a character who used to be the opposite gender.


Here is an article from an EA employee who went through the process while working for the company. EA is probably the most vocal in the gaming community about equality and acceptance, I put a bunch of links from various stories in my other comment if you're interested.

http://www.vancourier.com/news/Event+speaker+enjoyed+smooth+trans
+transition+wor
k/6586384/story.html

@Dan Eisenhower

Only ones I can think of is Flea from Chrono Trigger, Poison, and Birdo. (if you even can count Birdo) The problem with representation of the Transgender role is the only way you can possibly do it without offending everyone (including the parts of the transgender community who make it their life's goal to not be identified as transgender) is to basically in same way show that the character was born the opposite gender.

Character is too feminine? Not believable. Character is too masculine? They're not transgender, they just crossdress. It's a very delicate issue, not one that can be addressed so easily.

Scott Lepthien
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@Jimmy Albright

You're confusing transexual with transgender. Transgender means a very large umbrella of individuals who don't identify as the binary gender they were born and/or a binary gender system.

I think the problem in general with trying to include more transgender characters is that they would be very hard to identify short of them coming out and explicitly saying that they consider themselves to be transgender since you basically have to self identify to be considered transgender (so for instance someone who is a crossdresser still could consider themselves to not be transgender and in that case they aren't). In regards to games there are plenty of effeminate male and masculine female characters who very well could be transgender, but since they don't say they are we have no idea if they are. Obviously as stated there are far fewer instances of cross dressing/transvestite characters (which yes is considered included in transgender) but they do sometimes show up in Japanese games (typically for humor, but at least they aren't avoiding that group which seems to be the Western approach) as well as transexual characters, but your point is very valid that a fully transitioned transexual may no longer identify as being transgender since they want to be considered the binary gender they've transitioned to. Also, as stated before since you have to self identify to be considered transgender we can't even say for certain that transvestite or transexual characters consider themselves to be transgender unless they specifically say that is what they consider themselves.

Personally I think so long as we get more believable characters that seem to mix traits of the two binary genders and move somewhat away from so many overused stereotyped characters which are extremely exaggerated versions of the binary genders we are moving in a better direction with regards to transgender characters (although this is obviously my opinion and comes from a want to see more androgyne characters that I could relate with). However, we still could use more seriously approached transvestite and transexual characters which are more difficult, since it is a very touchy topic and as you state a topic that no matter how it's approached isn't probably going to be fully accepted by people who fall into those two groups.

Guillaume Couture
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While I do agree there is an important lack of trans visibility in mainstream videogames, I wouldn't undermine the lack of visibility of lesbian depictions that are not from a male-gaze perspective and gay depictions that are not charged with a homo/hetero-normative morality system. In other words, there is a lack of variety in the depictions of LGBTQ characters. Those that are visible are those that fit in the norm.

Jorge Ramos
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While this all sounds well and good, knowing EA's corporate vs. some of the better people that work under them, I fear this is little more than a publicity stunt, rather than an ongoing effort by the company to recognize diversity among its gamers, especially given some of the rather stupid and downright offensive things that their execs have gone on record to state.

Jimmy Albright
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Except they've been doing it for years?

Jason Lee
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One thing that I find interesting is that money tends to historically be rather progressively social, even if some of the people holding it are not. A lot of businesses protested against institutionalized racism and Jim Crow laws because even if the business owners were personally racist, institutionalizing it into a bunch of laws hurt many businessmen. It's becoming pretty popular for a lot of corporate entities to be open about their LGBTQ support, from Starbucks to Oreos. Chick-Fil-A meanwhile gets publicly shamed by a good portion of the US currently for their very brazen prejudice.

I think though that super highly successful franchises like Mass Effect and The Sims has shown that being LGBTQ friendly will in fact, net you more and better consumers than encouraging sexism or homophobic values, especially among a younger adult audience (even if it is predominantly male). And EA is a big place with a lot of people: there may be a minority of execs that have been put on record saying damning things because we'll pick up on them like crows, but I'm sure a lot of people there are behind this event very genuinely.

So yes, in some ways, this is a publicity stunt. I think that EA will jump at the opportunity for a "pink dollar" just like they would for any dollar. And they're a company, that's what they do. But I don't say it "is a little more than a publicity stunt", but rather a publicity stunt and a whole bunch of other things moving in the right direction for this industry.

Christopher J
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This comment stood out to me "Reducing barriers for diverse people to tell diverse stories is a challenge of any entertainment industry," Bellamy says. "If you can reduce the friction to getting into roles of leadership, that's how more stories get told, period."

It makes me think that any company that expects to be a leader in creating awareness about cultural diversity needs to make a real effort to practice what they preach. EA needs to make sure to take note of the things said at their event and apply those philosophies at their studios in order to legitimized their dedication to this cause. If not, they run the risk of being labeled hypocrite. I hope they are sincere.

Jimmy Albright
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You mean like they've been doing?

Adam Bishop
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I certainly can't speak for all of their studios, but I worked for EA in Montreal a few years ago and there was a pretty terrible work environment as far as sexism and homophobia that management had absolutely no interest in dealing with.

jeff grant
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@Adam

Having worked at EA Burnaby on a few games I found the opposite. Might be more to do with the geographical location than the corporation.

Jason Lee
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EA is a big, big, entity. I'm sure there's some people there who feel extremely uncomfortable about this. Each studio is going to get a different demand based off the audience they're expected to cater to, which leads to different workplace environments at each branch. Working on Generic Manshooter X? Probably not going to have a lot of discussion of feminist values in the patriarchal heirarchy of corporate culture. Working in the Maxis Studios for the Sims license? I imagine there's a lot more diversity on the project due to the nature of the game, the nature of the audience, and the appeal it has to people who can't relate to Manshooter X.

Guillaume Couture
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@Jeff
You might think that, but Montreal is a city very accepting of sexual diversity, generally speaking. It probably also has to do with management; who they choose to hire and what kind of environment they create.

Jimmy Albright
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Came here and fully expected people to be critical of EA because EA.

Hey look, a big (largely hated) corporation is taking a stand for equal rights!

- Nah, it's just EA they don't really mean it they just want our money!

I can think of a woman who might disagree.

http://www.vancourier.com/news/Event+speaker+enjoyed+smooth+trans
+transition+work/6586384/story.html

http://kotaku.com/5909038/a-transgender-transition-inside-ea-spor
ts-will-everyone-stare-at-me

Article from 2 1/2 years ago, EA is the first gaming company to join the "It gets better project"

http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/ingame/ea-supports-gay-youth-ha
ters-pile-hate-125950

Here's another article from last year...
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/electronic-arts-video-ga
me-producer-gay-games-defense_n_1408353.html

They also took a stand against the Defense of Marriage Act...
http://www.ea.com/news/ea-stands-against-doma

Some one above is also complaining about the lack of transgender roles in video games. I'd argue that unless your game is about the process of transitioning, by allowing the player to make male or female characters you're already targeting someone who would associate themselves as male or female.

At the risk of being horribly wrong (and I might be) I refer to someones gender as what they identify with. If the person is a born male, dressing and acting like a female then out of respect I don't refer to the person as "him".

Here is a link that sums up what I'm told by the transgender people I've met.
http://www.wikihow.com/Respect-a-Transgender-Person

So, while I think it's important for everyone to have a character to identify with, people should understand that transgender people generally identify with the gender they're transitioning to. (The very definition of the word transgender states this) I don't want to rub anyone the wrong way, so if I'm explaining this poorly or offensively to someone please let me know.

Christopher J
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Being inclusive of 1 or 2 particular groups of people doesn’t make you a leader of change or diversity. What they are advocating is a good, and there has been some nice advancements made over the years for certain types of minorities in the business, like women and those of the LBGT community. But my point is that they are not the only minority types in this business.

If a company comes out tooting their own horn about being advocates of diversity, they need to ensure that they are doing EVERYTHING they can to lead by example. To allow ALL minorities to have EQUAL and FAIR opportunities weather they are Female, Gay, Straight, Black, Muslim, Christian, Disabled, Old People, or even those coming in from different professions, like film or even professional sports. So if they are going to be true industry leaders, they need to cover ALL minorities and not just the flavor of the month.

Now, not everyone is cut out to be an Art director, Producer or lead designer, but everyone in the field who wants to be those things should be given the tools and REAL opportunities to succeed in those roles. But I know for a fact that those tools and opportunities are usually ONLY given to people who look and act, or have tons in common with the decision makers.

Jed Hubic
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I don't mean to rain on any parades, but I have a hard time caring about any initiatives they undertake when there general stance towards consumers and gamers (of any gender, race, sexual preference, species, etc) is so blatantly horrible.

It's like getting dating advice from a rapist...

Jimmy Albright
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No offense, but you came here to comment that you don't care about the content of the article?

Arnaud Clermonté
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Good job you're here to criticize them when they're doing something right.

Jason Lee
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I think it's time for me to chime in with my "They aren't sexist they hate everyone equally!" joke.

But no, it's not like getting dating advice from a rapist at all. Don't ever make rape jokes. Because they aren't jokes.

Jed Hubic
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I'm not saying I don't care about the content of the article; I read it so obviously the content intrigued me, however my OPINION on the matter is that coming from EA, from a games perspective it's just a thinly veiled pr feel good circle jerk, especially given how their business is towards everyone (sorry to reiterate this point despite someone's lame attempt at snarkiness). Business/hiring wise, I can't comment to the LBGT thing, as where I'm developing now has much of said diversity, but it was a result of hiring the most skilled/passionate people, sometimes a straight white male scourge got hired sometimes not. Maybe we got lucky and things fell that way.

Also I'm sorry some people are so hyper sensitive in their attempts to prove how much better of a human being they are, that seeing the word rape is somehow offensive. Crude analogy involving rape, yes maybe, but a rape joke, not really. The beauty of the Internet is that many people can say different and offer different opinions, while the slime of society try and tell people what they should or shouldn't do.

Guillaume Couture
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I understand that rape is a concept that allows you to invoke a powerful analogy, but sexual abuse is an indeed very serious and current problem. It can make people uncomfortable and exclude them from the discussion and it can also be triggering for some. I highly doubt you are intentionally being inconsiderate of victims of rape, but that concept is better avoided in public spaces where you want everybody to feel comfortable.

Other than that, I agree: I'm not sure the higher administration of EA truly cares about the LGBTQ well-being. I think they just want a bigger market and they see this as a way of opening the LGBTQ market to videogames. Now the interesting question is whether their participation is valuable because it gives visibility to the LGBTQ communities and their struggles or if it's a bad thing because it serves as marketing for EA, a company that strives on exploiting their customers (like most successful corporations, really).

Eric Schwarz
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So I guess this means that all EA games will now have... what, token gay characters? Sorry, that's not the right way to go about this.

Give me 50/50 ratio of male to female lead characters who AREN'T sold using sex appeal, as well as characters who aren't solely defined by their sexuality (looking at you BioWare) and then maybe we'll start to talk diversity and acceptance. For now all I see is a marketing ploy trying to pick up a market segment that has been previously ignored by the vast majority of publishers. It's a step in the right direction, but it means nothing until I can't look at an EA game and wince in disgust at how heavy-handed and tacked-on its representations of alternate gender and lifestyle preferences appear.

Also, anyone notice how EA always pulls these pro-diversity stunts and announcements every time there's a controversy about how bad one of their new games is or how much they've screwed over their customers? Just saying, it's awfully convenient that this positive "we love everyone!" PR campaign has decided to rear its head immediately after the announcement of the failure of Dead Space 3 and cuts/layoffs/downsizing to its developers (which EA was largely responsible for fueling in the first place) as well as immediately after the broken mess that was SimCity 5's launch and the insulting manner in which it was conducted (enjoy your ban from all our games for asking for a refund/providing negative critique).


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