Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Text of my "Gay Rant" at Games for Change 2012

I spoke at Games for Change 2012. It was very well-received, and I'm so relieved because I wrote and re-wrote this speech like 20 times, revising it constantly in the nights before the festival. Here's the full text, though I ended up flubbing some of the lines as well as running a few seconds over.

Hi, I'm Robert Yang. I'm an indie game developer as well as a practicing homosexual.

(Actually, I haven't really been "practicing" much recently, but that's a different rant for a different conference.)

I've been making first person shooters for a while (games like Doom, Quake, or Portal) but only kinda recently have I started making games about gay people.

I made a first person shooter called Radiator -- it's a game about gay divorce, because I feel like gay marriage is out of fashion -- that's sooo 2011 -- so you don't actually shoot anything in this game, you just sit in a marriage therapist office in Fresno, California, and stare at your husband as he complains about how inconsiderate you're being.

More recently, I made a first person sex education game called CondomCorps. In it, you stare into the windows of the building across the street, and the building is full of mostly naked men. You have to zoom in on their underwear, at their bulging crotches, and shoot the right size of condom at it to protect it. It's about having fun with the male gaze (for once), extrapolating the typical big burly first person shooter to its logical conclusion.

So I made games about queer people because the game industry wasn't doing it, for whatever reason, and I felt like no one else really saw this game design hole, this gaping void. I kind of felt alone.

Fortunately, I was wrong. I wasn't alone.

Anna Anthropy makes these fantastic retro arcade games about lesbian spider bondage queens from Mars and also these really heartfelt, handmade games about living as a transgender person.

Christine Love makes these brilliant visual novels that talk about sexuality, privacy, and technology. And from what I hear, her latest release Analogue: A Hate Story is actually doing alright on Steam. (Steam is like an iTunes for games.)

It shocked me. That a thoughtful, complex visual novel about transhumanism and the mediation of love was selling on Steam, like right next to Call of Duty. That makes me so happy.

But to be fair, now the game industry is joining in on the fun -- Bioware's been an adept vanguard in this respect, with their most recent big budget sci-fi RPG Mass Effect 3, where a male player character can romance and dry-hump one of TWO different men. That's progress. That's choice.

So I think, altogether, we're getting better at this.

And I think there've been two ways we're getting better, to make games more relevant to LGBTQ people.

I think me and Anna Anthropy usually treat identity as the subject, as the pervasive context, as identity embodied within the world itself. Take a game about, I don't know, about zooming in and staring at crotch bulges -- saying that game is gay is like saying water is wet. It's the most redundant thing you can say. Instead, these games are more interested in HOW we express / perform gayness, and HOW we live as lesbians, not WHETHER you're closeted with this typical coming out story -- which is important, but we do need more types of narratives.

The other approach involves treating identity as an object, as something distinct from you and the world.

There's an MIT-Gambit research project that does this -- it's called A Closed World. It uses a loose Japanese RPG frame to defamiliarize identity, to try to get the player to question how exactly we form gender and sexual identity.

Because identity can be an unstable, fragile thing -- a strength as well as a vulnerability -- and I think games should show both sides of this, how identity can be an empowering and comfortable thing but also an awkward unknowable thing.

I think both approaches can be powerful or awful. A crappy game is a crappy game, and no amount of amazing lesbians can save it. (Okay, well, maybe... 5.)

Fortunately, that hasn't really been a problem -- games are getting better. I've been seeing more amazing games, more methods of discourse, more personal games, more voices than ever before. And I'm just so glad, because I think a more diverse game development culture is a healthier, stronger game developer culture.

I'm sorry this wasn't really more of a rant, I'm usually not an optimist, I swear, but for some reason I'm actually pretty optimistic about where we're heading. Of course we can always do much better -- like maybe an AAA game with a transgender protagonist, or maybe in Mass Effect 4 it'll let me sleep with 20 dudes -- but I think we ARE doing a bit better, and I want to recognize that progress, and I hope you'll join us -- I hope we can all just strive to be excellent to each other.

Thanks for listening.


For some reason, Kotaku did a write-up of the talk. As usual, you're advised not to read any of the comments. I sure haven't.

I was originally slated to co-present a 30 minute presentation with MIT-Gambit researcher Todd Harper on our gay games research / do semi post-mortems and get a lot more technical, but festival logistics conspired against us and we got left with a 5 minute time slot. Since I lived only 15 minutes from NYU, the cost of delivering this talk was minimal to me, but Todd (who lives in Boston) was less than amused and, after conferring with me, backed out -- you can read his sassy-angry take for more details. I'm grateful to both parties involved for putting up with me.

Given that Jane McGonigal was the festival keynote speaker, I felt like Games for Change really wasn't the place for bitter sobering negativity. Early drafts of my talk were more angry and confrontational, but I decided it was better to err on the side of being more optimistic -- and I honestly started feeling that way. Maybe there's something to this pseudo-spiritual self-help garbage?

Some of the other ranters didn't want to use the podium, but I insisted on using the podium myself -- because if I held the paper in my hands, I'm pretty sure my hands would visibly shake and tremble.

I'll have a more general write-up of the whole Games for Change festival later.