The slogan for GaymerX is “everyone games.” That’s the message that the “queer side of gaming” wants to convey to everybody else who wonders why the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) gather each year at their own event. This community gathers to celebrate its own culture and to make a statement about inclusiveness in the video game industry.
This year’s three-day convention concludes today at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Santa Clara, Calif. Matt Conn, CEO of MidBoss and the co-organizer of GaymerX, considers the event to be a celebration of LGBTQ people who like to play or make video games.This year’s event had plenty of cosplayers dressed up as their favorite game characters. It also had serious topics — like a personal history talk by game narrative writer David Gaider, an openly gay developer who worked at BioWare on games, such as Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II.
The event also drew tech and game companies — including Intel, Patreon, Oculus VR, Blizzard Entertainment, and Ubisoft — to recruit LGBTQ developers. That says a lot about the legitimacy and relevancy of GaymerX and its community. GaymerX has a franchise event in Australia, and it will hold a GaymerX East event in New York as well. Conn said he was still deciding what sort of event to do in 2017. Meanwhile, his company, MidBoss, released its own cyberpunk adventure game Read Only Memories on Steam, and the title is being released on the PlayStation 4 as 2064: Read Only Memories.
I had a deeper conversation about these topics with Conn during the first day of GaymerX.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell me how much the GaymerX event has grown?
Matt Conn: We’ve done four of these now. It was about 1,200 the first year. We had about 2,400 last year. This one is going to be around there, depending on how the numbers play out. We’ve been growing a little bit. Nothing crazy.
GamesBeat: It seems like it’s gaining more legitimacy, though.
Conn: Definitely. At first, when we announced it, a lot of people were just like, “Huh?” They didn’t understand why this was a thing. It’s hard to explain. It’s not something where everybody understands. You can’t really learn what it’s like to be queer. But for a lot of people, when they come here and see everyone having a great time, they understand a little better what the point is.
GamesBeat: It seems like there’s a lot of celebration here. People dressing up. It’s a lot different from any other conference.
Conn: It’s a place where, whether you want to be a character in a game that’s more queer or a character that … maybe you’re a dude and you want to dress up as a woman. At other gaming conventions that might be weird. Here, cool, whatever you want to do. You can present however you want to present.
Video games are a very transhumanist thing, right? You get to be that person. A lot of gamers see themselves — their minds and their relation to their bodies are a little different. This is a chance for them to come and present how … a lot of people present how they feel they truly are. Maybe they’re in a conservative home or workplace, and they can’t do this very often.
GamesBeat: Is there more of a corporate presence here? Is that also growing?
Conn: When we first started, we were knocking down everyone’s doors, trying to explain this. A lot of companies … if you look at our first year, a lot of the companies that were part of it, we didn’t get any money out of it or just a little bit. Now, companies are actively chasing us down. It reflects the quality of the event.
People were nervous at first about exactly what this was going to be, what the attendance would be like. Now that they see this isn’t some kind of big gay orgy thing, it’s pretty normal in a way. A lot of these companies feel a lot more comfortable now. This is a market that they care about. A lot of the people who come here, whether from Oculus or Patreon or others, they’re usually queer people who work at these companies and feel very passionate about this. They’ve been good at communicating why this is important to their companies.
When we first started, people thought the idea was cool, but once they actually saw it in action, that this is something actionable, that makes it a lot easier for companies to be a part of it.
GamesBeat: Do you see how some of this happening? Is it inspired by LGBT people within companies?
Conn: It depends on the company. Some companies have just been supporting us because they believe this is something important, something that should exist. They don’t care so much about the ROI. They just want to support this. But we understand that most companies don’t think like that.
There are companies that see this as a hiring thing. Last year, we had a really big queer guide. We had companies bringing recruiters. A lot more so than most fan conventions, people come who either want to be in the game industry or are already in the industry, making independent stuff. It’s a good chance for them to reach out, especially if they have diversity efforts in place. They can reach out to queer people that are tech-minded.
Even for the number of people that are here — Microsoft might not say it’s worth spending so much money on a 2,000-person event. But they understand that this is the only event of its kind. It gets far more media coverage and reach than other events of the same size. This is the only gay gaming event in the world. We have people coming from around the world. A lot of people watch online and see what companies are a part of this.
GamesBeat: I know Intel got motivated on the diversity front during GamerGate, when they got criticized. Have you seen some of that happening? Did that entire phenomenon inspire some more positive response for you?
Conn: You see a lot of people on the alt-right or whatever, they use the phrase “Streisand effect.” The more you bring attention to something, the more it grows. When people complain about GaymerX, when Westboro Baptist Church does a thing about us or whatever, it just makes that many more people aware of what we’re doing. A lot more people realize this is a thing.
What’s interesting about the whole GamerGate situation was that it did help highlight something a lot of individual people in the game industry were talking about, but now, a lot of companies realize that there are issues here that they want to think about. Companies like Intel, from what I understand, the CEO was in a meeting and said, “This can never happen again. I don’t know how this happened, but this is not who we are. We’re going to fix this.”
I try to think about that in relation to the whole Trump thing. I’m hoping that this helps bring attention to … how did this get here? How do we make sure this kind of thing never happens again? It could end up being one of the best things that’s happened to us. We’ve lifted up the floor and see all the mold, and we’re going to do something about it. That’s not the best analogy. But we know there are some problems here, and we need to get to the root of them.
GamesBeat: There’s maybe a silver lining to having gone through a difficult time.
Conn: I do think that — because of GamerGate — there’s been a stronger sense of community. People of color, queer people, other diverse gamers, they tend to be all in their own circles. People had to band together for their own safety and comfort. We realized that we’re all fighting for the same thing, for a place at the table. The conservative voices represent the voices saying, “No, it’s all fine how it is.”
We realized that we all wanted the same thing. Queer people, people of color, disabled people, we maybe have slightly different goals or how we go about reaching them, but we all want basically the same thing.
GamesBeat: Do you see any similar progress in games themselves, in game design and game stories?
Conn: Totally. What I want to see in games — there are a couple of different ways to go about it. You can have queer themes in games. You can have characters who might be queer, but it’s not necessarily related to the stories they’re in. And then there’s multiplayer gaming, which is its own thing.
We’re seeing a lot more games like Last of Us and others that have … even Mortal Kombat has a gay character. It’s mentioned offhand for like two seconds. Raiden’s like, “Nope, doesn’t matter who you love.” OK, cool, great. This guy’s gay, it’s never brought up again, he’s still a badass, cool. We’re also seeing games like Undertale and others that actually have queer themes and queer characters, and it’s not just a passing thing. It’s dealt with in more detail, which is great.
Even when it comes to multiplayer games, if you were to go on Xbox Live five years ago and be openly gay in some way or be a woman — compared to what it would be like playing now, at least to me, it seems like it’s gotten a lot less.
GamesBeat: Playing Call of Duty, it used to be that I’d always mute the voices. Why would I ever want to turn the chatter on?
Conn: Right! I don’t think it’s necessarily a queer thing or a gender thing. It’s that we created an atmosphere where it’s like, it’s only for teenage boys, and if you don’t like it, tough. But what we’ve realized is that the game industry is literally everyone.
If you want to have your own private server and play with your friends, do what you want. But when you’re playing in public … you wouldn’t go to a pickup football game and start yelling the N-word at people. There’s a level of empathy you want, and thanks to things like how Riot Games has handled League of Legends and Blizzard has handled Overwatch, it seems like they’ve built a lot of their core tenets around how we should treat one another, the atmosphere they want to see in the game. It seems a lot more friendly.
GamesBeat: Games built with inclusion in mind.
Conn: Overwatch has a bunch of diversity in its characters — body types, a few of them are queer in their back stories. And people love Overwatch. It’s showing that you can have interesting diverse characters. To a lot of people, I think they’re afraid diversity has to mean really bad educational hooey. But you can pair the kind of interesting, diverse characters that make up the landscape of our world and also have fun, dynamic gameplay mechanics. You can combine that all and do great new things.
GamesBeat: But we still see people getting irate on Fox News and elsewhere about whatever happens in BioWare games every so often.
Conn: It was interesting. David Gaider, the previous lead writer for Dragon Age, I met with him at Games for Change. I asked him how the newest Dragon Age did — if Electronic Arts did anything to try to limit them. And he says, at the end of the day, if you look at the sales of each Dragon Age compared to the last one, sales went up. Review scores went up.
A lot of these companies don’t really have any political stance. Whatever sells, it sells. What’s exciting is we’re showing that not only is this a cool idea, but there’s also a market for it. Queer people, women, people of color, anyone who didn’t necessarily feel welcome, they’re going to be more invested and spend more money. The majority of the market isn’t going to care one way or the other. The reactions will be either positive or neutral. I think it’s only a very small, albeit very loud, fraction of the internet that will say, “No, we have to fight. This is a war.”
GamesBeat: They can protest how they like, but they aren’t hurting anyone’s sales.
Conn: I don’t think so. If you look at the sales of our game, Read Only Memories, or Stardew Valley or Undertale or Last of Us or Dragon Age or Gone Home, they all have a bunch of queer content, and they’ve all sold very well. There have obviously been games with queer characters that haven’t sold well, but I don’t think that content is the reason. You can point to a lack of marketing or a lack of community. They’re losing a tiny fraction at worst because of that content, and they’re gaining probably makes up for it.
GamesBeat: What do you see as far as games targeting an LGBTQ market specifically — like the Pridefest game from Atari?
Conn: I’m not a huge fan of free-to-play games, so it’s hard for me to get super excited about it personally. I’ve met the people who are making it. They have great intentions. I hope it’s successful because the more we can show the market that these things are important, the better off we’ll be.
GamesBeat: It didn’t seem like it made as big an impact as they hoped.
Conn: I feel like there’s a missing step somewhere in there. There’s going to be a market for that, but I think we have to … I don’t think a lot of queer people know it exists. Because it’s a free-to-play game, a lot of the gaming community just writes it off. So if the gay community doesn’t know about it, and the gaming community doesn’t want it, it’s hard for them to find their niche. I’m glad they’re here, and I hope it does very well. I just think they’re having to cross the divide from casual gamers. This event is more hardcore in a way. I’d like to see more queer acceptance around more casual stuff as well.
GamesBeat: Do you think the indie community is more interesting in that respect so far?
Conn: We made a documentary called Gaming in Color, and it didn’t do very well. Part of it, I think, is that for queer gamers, they already know the story. I don’t know that queer gamers necessarily want to make a pride parade. The issue is, how do you get straight gamers to think that’s interesting and want to play it and see what it’s like? For now, queer people are like, “That’s my life. I don’t need to play a game about it.” And straight gamers are put off by it for whatever reason.
I hope there’s some way to cross that divide eventually. Pridefest could be popular because middle America is playing it. And it’s cute and fun, and you get to design a parade. But for now, we’re not there yet. And the gay gamer contingent is more hardcore. To them, it’s just trite or something.
GamesBeat: Companies in the industry seem to have gone through a lot of positive steps. EA seems to be very proactive in making sure they have an element of fairness built into the organization, benefits for married couples and so on.
Conn: EA is very good, at least when it comes to [the] internal side of things. Their organization understands that the better they can support people in the workplace, they’ll have more motivated employees and people will want to work for them. I’d like to see them doing more work on the outside. I feel like their games have … to me, EA is very pragmatic. If it works, they’ll do it. They’re not going to push one way or another. But if that’s the way the world is now, they’ll adjust to it.
It makes sense. Again, it’s pragmatic. But because they are the largest third-party publisher in the world, I’d love to see them have more games that … I’d like to see them support more things like what BioWare does. BioWare is almost like an offshoot. I’d like to see more things coming from EA specifically. But that’s more of a small nag than any major gripe.
GamesBeat: Have you seen any studies of queer presence within the industry.
Conn: I haven’t seen a lot of hard numbers. I’d love to see more actual research.
GamesBeat: It seems like it’s always undercounted anyway.
Conn: It’s tough. There’s a level of … at least within the industry, I’ve met a lot of people 35 and up who are — I meet them and they’re openly gay with me, but they’re not out at work. They’re at Sony or other Japanese companies, and they’re terrified because they remember what it was like 10 years ago or more when that was like a death sentence. I’ve heard all these stories about what it’s like at Namco Bandai or other places, where if you’re gay, that’s it, you’re out.
For a lot of companies, they can’t … these last five years have changed things quite a bit. It’s interesting that it hasn’t really reached the top yet, though. Video games are still a very conservative industry, especially the Japanese base.
GamesBeat: Would you say that LGBTQ issues are maybe a little behind other diversity initiatives?
Conn: Part of it is. I can’t understate because the core of the video game industry comes from Japan, and you have companies like … we see a lot of games from PlayStation. We have a lot of friends at PlayStation. Every year, I ask them if they want to be part of GaymerX, and every year they say, “Well, you know how it is. It would have to go up the chain. It would get to Japan, and they’re not going to like it.” We talk to Nintendo about including queer characters in Tomodachi Life, and they say, “We didn’t want to make a political statement.”
It comes from a very … the Japanese just don’t really understand the social changes going on right now in America. And because they have so much influence on the industry, that’s one of the blockers.
GamesBeat: You have a franchised event in Australia. Is there anything different that you see going on in other countries?
Conn: Australia is different in that they have a lot less. It’s not like America where we have this really nice rich tapestry of colors and races. It’s a little more homogenous. They have issues with diversity around indigenous peoples there. But in general, what they face in terms of LGBT issues and women in the games industry, it’s still the same fight.
The biggest difference is that Australia doesn’t have a lot of big game companies because of the way the tax system works. It’s mostly indies. When we had GaymerX Australia, almost all of the sponsors and booths were independent game companies. Indie developers are obviously a lot more open-minded. But GaymerX Australia was largely very similar.
We’re probably doing something in Europe in the next year or so. But I really want to do something in Japan. I feel like that’s the place where … meeting gay people in Japan is interesting because being gay in America you get a lot of abuse, but at least your existence is acknowledged. In Japan, it’s very much like, “We just don’t talk about it.” Queer people in Japan have some of the highest suicide rates in the world because they really believe there’s something wrong with them. They have no community.
Part of why we do this is to create that kind of space. We want people to know there is a space for them. I feel like, especially in Japan, I want people who are queer to know that there’s a place for them too.
GamesBeat: Did you say you’re skipping an event in 2017, doing some different things?
Conn: Sort of. We told people we were taking a break next year, but what we’re probably going to do … there’s this group called MagFest, a big arcade event, and they’re starting an event out here called MagWest. I went to their event a couple years ago, and I was really impressed. It was nothing like E3 or PAX. The soul was there. A lot of women, a lot of queer people, a lot of people of color. It was a very diverse crowd, but it didn’t seem like that was really their thing. They just built it into their community.
Like I say, I was really impressed, and I thought that if we were ever going to work with a bigger event, this is someone who gets it. We’re probably going to do something with them here as a test run. Part of it is so we can take our … we make games, and I really want to take our next project seriously. I want to take the time to build up our studio. And part of it is I’m a little [burned] out. I want to take some of the COO stuff and let them build the event, let them pay the bills, and I just come and put on some panels and stuff.
As bad as this may sound, I want to at least dangle the idea that this isn’t going to last forever unless the support is there. If we might not be here next year and people say, “No!” Then, we know that there’s demand.
GamesBeat: Are there any panels happening here that you’re particularly serious about?
Conn: Not this year. GaymerX 3 was my biggest concern. We had Anita Sarkeesian as a guest of honor. Gamergate was in full swing. I was worried about what would happen there. We beefed up on security, but it ended up that nothing happened.
Really, the biggest issue every year is that we have people — like, we had a Costco event going on next door. This year, we have the football thing. We’ll have all these people who don’t understand, and they come in wondering, “What are all these freaks doing here?” It sucks because this is a really cool place to be, a refuge where people can be like, “I’m finally around all the people I know on Facebook and Twitter. I can be my real self.” And then people come in, and it forces them back into the real world.
GamesBeat: I noticed you had the signs on the bathrooms, which is probably a touchpoint for some people.
Conn: With the Costco event, we had the gender neutral signs, and the Costco people were going in and harassing our attendees. The whole bathroom thing is so messed up. They don’t create a scene, but they’re just like, “I don’t get it. Why do you need this?” It’s hard for people outside the community to understand how draining it is, every day, to hear, “Why do you need this?” Sure, you can explain it, but it takes a part of your energy. Here, you shouldn’t have to think about that.
GamesBeat: Is there a particular message you try to get out with the media attention you get at this time of year?
Conn: If you look around here, people on 4chan boards and all these different parts of the Internet, they have an idea of what this event looks like. They talk a lot about how it must be this liberal safe-space con where everyone’s scared to say anything, and everyone’s triggered all the time. And you look around here and everyone’s having fun. Everyone’s around their communities. This isn’t what people think it is. It’s people building a community and having a great time and making friends.
For a lot of people who are young and still figuring out who they are, they shouldn’t be afraid to allow themselves to be open to these kinds of things. The video games you love — if you’re really into shooters or whatever, there’ll always be a market for that. But there can also be room at the table for other things as well. Just because Gone Home is successful doesn’t mean you’re not going to have the next whatever. I hope people can be open-minded to the fact that we can all share in this love of digital everything.
It’s hard for people who can’t come here or aren’t willing to open their minds to something like this. It’s hard for me to communicate, “No, it’s not what you think it is.” It’s a very chill, very normal event in a way. It’s just a place where people can be themselves and present how they want. If they want to dress up as a character that might be a little weird or funny, they can do it, and they’re not going to have a hard time.
GamesBeat: Do you learn anything from other fan communities elsewhere, other events like this?
Conn: I want to liken this event in a way to … you know how there are Jewish film festivals and LGBT film festivals? A lot of people who go to Jewish film festivals or Asian film festivals aren’t necessarily Asian or Jewish. They go because they want to see what that culture is producing and appreciate it.
I want people to want … if you’re straight and white and whatever, cool, great. Come here and learn and see what queer gamers are doing. I want people to be curious. If you’re willing to be open-minded and check us out and see what’s going on, but you don’t want to intrude on a safe space, no. This is for you, too. I want people to come and see what we’re doing and see what we care about. We make some interesting, unique, weird stuff. If you’re willing to be open-minded about it, I think we tell some really interesting stories.
There are obviously some gay porn games here. But 95 percent of the stuff we’re doing isn’t adult content at all. If you’re open to it, there’s a whole culture — and not just queer people, but women, people of color. We have the founder of Able Gamers here, who works to make games more accessible to people with disabilities. There’s a lot of stuff you might not have ever thought about.
A lot of these things make events and games better, and they’re easy. Gender-neutral bathrooms, being sensitive about gendered pronouns, this costs nothing. For people who use them and care about them, it shows that we’re thinking about them, and we want them here. The same way if you talk to people from Able Gamers, it’s like — you can put a color-blind option into a game, and it takes five seconds. And the people who need it say, “Thank God, I can actually play this game.”