LGBT gamers fight online closets
by Matthew S. Bajko
It has long been said that LGBT people are everywhere. The saying applies just as equally to the real world as it does to Internet communities, whether they are social networking sites or online gaming worlds.
But there is one difference between the two universes; who decides when a person comes out.
In the physical realm LGBT people hold the key to unlocking the closet door. Online, however, it is the creators of the digital environments who decide whether someone can publicly reveal their sexual orientation.
Some game makers disallow use of words like gay or lesbian in order to prevent homophobia within the online worlds they have created. But LGBT advocates and gamers have criticized such policies.
"Gay and lesbian people haven't fought so hard to break out of their real world closets to be forced into virtual ones," said Justin Cole, director of digital and online media for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "I understand you are trying to prevent defamation but at the same time you are not allowing us to identify who we are."
The issue will be among several topics covered at a panel on homophobia and virtual communities that GLAAD is hosting in the Bay Area this weekend. It is being billed as the "first of its kind" and will include both LGBT gamers and representatives from the gaming industry.
The issue of online homophobia and LGBT-based harassment is a serious concern, said San Francisco resident Flynn De Marco, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Web site http://www.gaygamer.net.
"By and large homophobia exists within the gaming industry. It isn't with the industry itself but within the community that plays the games," said De Marco, who said that LGBT gamers do face the "problem of going online and identifying as gay and then having to put up with being taunted or people being mean to you within the game itself."
"It is the nature of the beast. It is the Internet, and unfortunately, people use the anonymity of the Internet to say and do really cruel things," added De Marco.
De Marco, however, doesn't see banning the existence of LGBT people within a certain game system as the solution. Rather, he said, the opposite approach should be taken.
"Giving people a choice in the way they want to identify is a really good first step," he said. "It just is going to mean they will have to be vigilant to paying attention to people's complaints."
The policies vary depending on the company. Within the games produced by Bay Area-based Electronic Arts Inc., such as the Sims properties and Spore, there are no restrictions about revealing the fact one is gay or lesbian.
"I wouldn't say it is a policy or even something we set out to do when we made the Sims. We wanted to create this environment where people could tell their own stories in and we didn't want to limit their ability to tell their stories," explained Caryl Shaw, a senior producer at the company's Maxis Studio who has worked on both games.
Shaw, an out lesbian, encountered no problems when she created her own lesbian couple within one of the early versions of the Sims game prior to working for the company. She said the visibility of LGBT people within the game can play a part in helping someone struggling with their own sexuality or are in search of community.
"It is really compelling for people, particularly in the LGBT community because we are so often invisible. Maybe more so for people who don't live in the Bay Area but in places where it is really hard to have an outlet to tell my story and have positive reinforcement for who I am," said Shaw. "For a teen who is closeted and living in Arkansas and they get a copy of Sims 3 and see the humor, joy, and fun in creating a gay character that could be pretty powerful."
Players using Microsoft's Xbox system, on the other hand, are banned from coming out as being part of the LGBT rainbow in their gamer profiles and names. The company says it does so in order to prevent harassment of LGBT gamers, as well as the creation of homophobic player names, called gamertags. Gamers can out themselves once they enter the game through the voice chat capabilities.
"For the gamertag or profile info, expression of sexual orientation is not allowed," said Stephen Toulouse, program manager for policy and enforcement on Microsoft's Xbox Live.
Microsoft executives are reviewing their policy, which the company says it is modifying so that in the future Xbox players will be allowed to come out in their profiles or gamertags.
"We are not interested in leaving things as is," said Toulouse. "I don't have a timeline. We have heard from the community this is something they would like to do and we are looking at the best way to do that that would minimize misuses by other users on the system."
Toulouse said that according to the company's data culled from its players' game play, 98 percent of the time that the word gay was used, it was done so in a pejorative way.
"They were not saying 'I'm gay' but 'You are gay' or 'That's so gay,'' he said, adding that overall such "bad behavior takes up an extremely miniscule fraction" and that racism is often more prevalent.
Late last year Cole contacted Toulouse about the company's policies regarding the use of LGBT terms. The phone call led to Cole visiting Microsoft's Seattle area campus this year and offering suggestions on ways the gaming giant could alter its policies.
"We want this experience to be safe and fun for everyone and everyone includes LGBT people," said Cole. "It doesn't make any sense to create this amazing, fun environment and then make it toxic for a segment of the population that wants to use it."
He said allowing someone to come out online is not only beneficial to the LGBT gamers but also makes good business sense.
"These systems cost hundreds of dollars, and once you spend that money and have an Xbox environment that is not receptive to you, you are likely to cancel that service and not recommend it to your friends," said Cole. "If systems have great and comprehensive solutions to the problems then they will get the lions share of the LGBT community using that system."
Electronic Arts' Shaw said that creators of online games are not interested in designing something that will be exclusionary.
"I don't want people to not be on my site because they feel threatened or uncomfortable," she said. "I am in this to make great games and I want people to play my game."
The panel will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, July 18 at the Electronic Arts campus in Redwood City. For specific directions and the location of the panel, RSVP mailto:email@example.com.