GaymerX2: For Everybody

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GaymerX2 branded itself consistently with “#everyonegames,” and please believe me when I say: That’s the most concise and accurate label the event could ask for.

This past weekend, Midboss—the people behind the upcoming game Read Only Memories and producers of the recently-released documentary Gaming in Color—put on their second yearly queer gaming convention at the San Francisco InterContinental Hotel. There was a clear sense of growth from the inaugural event last year. It offered more days, more people, more events and offerings, and a bigger venue in the heart of the city. At the core, though, GaymerX2 held to the same guiding principle that led Matt Conn, and the other volunteers and workers behind the event, to start it in the first place: creating a safe space for gamers of all kinds to come together.

It worked, too. Having attended quite a few fan and gaming events over the past twenty years plus, I’ve never seen as diverse an audience as that of GaymerX. The range of gender identities/presentations, ethnicities, sexualities, body types, and more was incredibly wide. During the closing ceremony, con president Toni Rocca thanked the many attendees who dealt with disabilities, physical and social/psychological, in order to be there (a sentiment the crowd supported with wild applause). At the Different Games conference earlier this year, Rocca spoke about the considerable effort the GaymerX team expended to make that “safe space” feeling a reality, both for the previous year’s con and for this one. Speaking as someone who attended: it showed.

The three-day schedule was packed with events just as diverse as the attendees. A quick look at this year’s schedule shows everything from workshops on writing trans characters, to discussions of queer furry fandom, to LGBTQ game industry pros discussing their experiences coming and being out in the workplace. Guests of honor David Gaider, Mattie Brice, and Colleen Macklin delivered engaging and often hilarious keynote speeches about the intersection of queerness and games. In my opinion, Macklin’s story of how her teen girl crush on her high school gym teacher caused her to get in trouble just so she could run laps and stare at said teacher the entire class took the cake. The first WWE wrestler to be out and currently performing, Fred Rosser (who wrestles as “Darren Young”) was on hand to sign autographs and talk to attendees, and publisher 2K Games was on hand to promote both Take Two’s upcoming WWE 2015 and Gearbox’s Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel.

Speaking of: part of the Gearbox creative team was on hand to discuss their efforts to make their games more inclusive in a first-day panel. It was refreshing to hear series writer Anthony Burch talk about the move toward inclusivity as a process of “becoming less shitty.” Discussions about how devs can increase the diversity of their titles so rarely seem to involve the idea of iteration, or of being able to make and then correct mistakes, but that is exactly the situation Burch described. Elizabeth Zelle of Volition, the makers of the Saints Row franchise, also discussed something similar during a panel on designing inclusive games. In talking about the evolution of content in the Saints Row games, she said simply, “We made mistakes, but we didn’t run from that. We embraced it.” Viewing mistakes as a chance to take ownership and move toward positive change was a common message from devs that I heard speak at the event, and was an incredibly refreshing change from the industry’s current and all-too-common party line of “we’ll do better next time” with no acknowledgment of what had gone wrong. The devs I heard speak at GaymerX took that extra step of not just ownership, but understanding what went wrong, that I think the more common empty promises typically lack.

Discussions of designing for inclusivity factored into many sessions over the course of the convention. In the aforementioned panel, Zelle discussed the pervasive notion in gaming right now that straight white cis men won’t play games that aren’t “about them.” Developer Christine Love put it best, saying of her own work, “It turns out making games for gay girls doesn’t alienate people. Who knew?” Shawn Alexander Allen, designer of the recently successfully kickstarted Treachery in Beatdown City, spoke eloquently on the final day of the conference on empowering diverse people to create their own games, and the influence that black and Latino urban culture has both had on media creation for many decades, and could bring to game design as well. One of his closing remarks was one of my favorite lines of the entire convention: “You can’t assume apathy means people don’t want to do things. It means they’re told they can’t, so they don’t.” In both his keynote and in a later panel about designing in-game romances, BioWare’s David Gaider discussed the need for inclusive characters to feel organic. “It’s not like I bust into the room and shout ‘WE’RE GOING GAY!’,” he noted at one point. The idea is that a character’s sexuality needs to be an aspect of a whole character, a part of a whole that fits smoothly into the story and world of the game, a theme that many panelists and speakers reinforced over three days.

The part where Patrick Weekes announced that Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Iron Bull would be romance-able by either playable gender, and then encouraged us to get the hashtag #RideTheBull rolling on Twitter, was just fun icing on that cake.

I could talk forever about the panels and events I went to, including an extremely enlightening one on being a queer pro wrestling fan where I learned the phrase “queer ladies’ lube wrestling” (google it). On a more serious note, it was great to hear the panelists talk about reclaiming/owning a fan space for a media product so entrenched in often queer-hostile cultural norms. I could definitely talk even longer about the many panels I wanted to attend and didn’t get a chance to; toward the top of that regret list is a talk by Katherine Cross, Anita Sarkeesian, and Carolyn Petit called “Internetting While Female” where the three speakers discussed the issues surrounding, difficulties with, and survival strategies for… well, being on the internet as a woman. Perhaps the only upside to missing said talk was that the line to get into it felt infinitely long; it’s clear that the subject was close to most con-goers’ hearts and lives.

Events are only part of the equation, too. As you might expect with a fan convention, there was a lot of clever cosplay, including a “formalwear Dratini” Pokémon cosplay that combined a shimmery blue suit with a tail in the most adorable way possible, and a Roy Koopa Mario Kart costume that involved a shoulder strap-mounted portable car with working headlights. Probably the most famous cosplay of the con was the genius “women who couldn’t be added to Assassin’s Creed” pair from Scholarly Pidgeon Cosplay, featuring two people in perfectly-decorated black boxes that were so popular the costumes now have their own Twitter feed, @2hard2render. The vendor room also featured a haunting preview of Sassy Bot Studio’s Fragments of Him, a game I am quite looking forward to.

To be honest, though, as much as I’ve talked about all the actual content of GaymerX, that wasn’t what made the experience for me in the end. I hate to haul out this chestnut, but it really was a space where I felt like I belonged. For a little while I could drop the armor required to get through everyday life as a queer person, and I suspect that was the same for other attendees too. And really, you could feel that pervading the space; there was a lightness, a “finally!” just under the surface of an infinity of hugs and friendly reunions and first time meetings. That’s really the core of the “safe space” GaymerX sought to create: not to exclude anyone, but to include everyone.

The ecosystem of queer gaming and fan conventions with national scope isn’t particularly wide; the general fan con Bentcon (which includes gaming) comes to mind. So do conferences like Different Games and the Queerness and Games Conference, though they walk a line between fandom, activism and academia. In many ways, GaymerX was a pretty unique animal, which made the news that this was the last GaymerX—announced earlier this year on Twitter—tough for many to deal with.

But during the closing ceremonies, Matt Conn assured an elated crowd that this is not the end for this kind of event. Part of that, he explained, was a desire to rebrand and rethink. “Gaymer” was a word that got the convention in the door and helped it happen, but the eventual range of people who came to attend and support it is much wider than that. Thus “GaymerX” might be going away, but he told the crowd that there’s every intention to continue this kind of event, with a new name and a new face, one that properly reflects that safe space where #everyonegames.

And there was much rejoicing.

Todd Harper is a games researcher, writer and critic who looks at games and gaming culture from a cultural and media studies perspective. He’s particularly interested in issues of gender and queer representation and diversity. He tweets rather too often at @laevantine and blogs probably not often enough at Stay Classy.