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.