When not collecting Pokémon badges and StreetPasses I spent much of my time at GaymerX2 at the panels.

The first panel I attended was the talk by sponsor and AAA video game developer GearBox. Present at the talk were head writer for Borderlands 2, Anthony Burch (who is waaay shorter in the person than I imagined), level designer Grahm Timmons, concept artist Amanda Christianson, Ashley Rochelle and CEO (and amazingly snazzy dresser) Randy Pitchfork.

The discussion opened up with the topic of people cosplaying as characters from the Borderlands universe and the team feeling especially excited when they see pictures of people becoming Ellie from Borderlands. Ellie, a big-boned mechanic who has a very positive self image is just of the great examples of the multi-layered, diverse world of the BL games. Other characters include Sir Hammerlock a black, high brow sport huntsman who has robotic limbs and is gay, the player character Salvador, a muscle-bound Latino of comically short stature and Dr. Patricia Tannis, the genius scientist with PTSD and agoraphobia.

Anthony spoke about how important it was for him to have a balanced gender options in the playable character pool in the Presquel: 2 female players, one male and one male robot (the fan favorite Claptrap). The story of the how their came to be a balanced gender ratio wasn’t fact checked on Wikipedia before the talk because and Pitchford had different accounts of the story. Anthony remembered being “pissy and passive aggressive” in a team meeting until the CEO asked what the problem was and the writer answered that the genders should be equal. Pitchfork remembers just asking if anyone on the staff had an issue with the team and Anthony speaking up.

The takeaway I got from this meeting while GearBox places diversity in character creation as a major factor in their games, in terms of size, color, gender, visual style and play style. But according to Pitchfork the diversity isn’t artificially forced in. They don’t start with an underrepresented party at random and put them into the game but strive to create authentic characters fueled from the team’s actual life experience.

Honestly I don’t see a problem with either approach. If, by and large the “default” for a character design and story is “straight white male of average height with brown hair, off to save his girlfriend/daughter” why not start developing a character from the other end? Why not ask “whose story has not been told? Or at least not very often?” or “how can we make this character different from the rest?” I don’t see this method as less authentic, so long as you do the research, or “pandering” as I’m sure so many righteous YouTube and game blog commenters would by copying and pasting around the net.

Another great panel I went to was titled “Yes, And?” It was a demonstration of non-combative and defusing ways to communicate online when met with a hostile comment section. Joystiq’s community manager, Susan Arendt, and editor-in-chief, Ludwig Keitzman and Boss of Honor David Gaider headed this panel. Keeping yourself level headed is so hard to do especially when it’s so easy to shoot from the hip and fire a load of caps locked curse words at a stranger who insulted you. But as the panel explained, taking an extra second to think and realize in some cases you might not be getting “trolled” but could just be interacting with someone who has no frame of reference to understand your feelings. Asking them to explain their position instead of jumping on their comment could end up with both parties thinking about something new instead of fighting.

I went to a handful of other panels but the next one impact me was the last one I attended, almost the last panel of the weekend: “How Urban Black & Latino Culture Can be the Next Frontier in Games” moderated by Shawn Allen, artist, writer and founder of NuChallenger.

I made a list of panels of I planned to attend on my first day and saw Shawn’s panel and thought “Well I’m black. I guess I’d better go.” I’m not sure what exactly I expected nor why I felt only a resignation to attend this panel, as if it were assigned to me. Maybe as this is a topic I don’t see alot of discussion about outside my own thoughts and writings, I didn’t expect much from a panel in a hotel in San Francisco. But it was easily the most meaningful and surprisingly emotional event of the weekend.

Shawn, who is biracial (black and Latino) opened with a short rundown of his career. A programmer who eventually made got hired as Quality Assurance tech at RockStar games in New York City. Thanks his dedication and programming skills Shawn was promoted out of QA to game development. But once there he realized he was suddenly one of about three black programmers who had been promoted past that lower-tier. Suddenly, after growing up and living in a city where roughly half the population is black, Shawn’s skin color was a factor that set him apart, made him different from the overwhelming majority. The lack of racial diversity wasn’t a subject that was normal talk around the coffee pot but it was still real enough to affect Shawn.

Eventually, feeling uneasy about his position, Shawn left Rockstar and is began working on his own projects. He painted a stark comparison between the booming artistic revolution that took place in the urban cityscape in the 70s and 80s. Break dancing, tagging, rap itself, all products of artistic minds in the city looking for an outlet, that today are recognized and the great feats of art that they are. Graffiti artists are now world-renown talents with books and documentaries about them. Break dancing has fallen out of the popular consciousness but dances like tutting and stepping has taken its place and can be seen everywhere ‘Glee’ to Hulu+ shows.

My takeaway from Shawn’s panel was that getting more diversity into this industry would not only improve the product by getting more varied views and stories into but would also improve the lives of the urban youth who could potentially use it as a vehicle to excel at something that would be profitable and enriching to their self-image. There are some initiatives out to teach people and children to code but many don’t take into account that not all of them will have access to a computer, or a broadband connection to get the software, or even a smart phone. A reassessment in how some of these programs run could change a lot of lives and change the look of office that still look like Rockstar’s did when Shawn joined them.

The most meaningful thing Shawn said that took me completely off guard was that he had the most fun at GaymerX2 that he’d had at a con. This was because other game conventions and communities had an attitude that was “so inclusive it was exclusive.” and damn he could have taken those words right out of my mouth. GaymerX being my first con was not a chance occurrence. With PAX East going on not 5 hours from my in Boston I’ve had plenty of other ones I’ve could’ve gone to but even the marketing and press about the other events did not seem welcoming to me. It’s not that any of the people involved were rude or racist but when all the writing is saying “come be with Us! Join Us! We know what you like because you’re one of Us!” but no one there looks like you or represents other aspects of you, the Us makes you feel like a They. I felt I would end up being the Token Black Guy and What, You Like Boys!? Gay Guy and didn’t want to go spend feeling I would get weird looks for mentioning Old Snake’s butt in that tight suit in MGS4 or for revealing my avatar in PokemonX is a girl named Buffy Summers because the clothing options for the male avatar was abysmal and he looked horrible in any hat. At GaymerX there were other people on Growlr using Pokémon as their profile names and, I mean, that right there is enough got me to want to want it to stay around forever.
GaymerX2 was great and I can’t wait to attend more events like it.

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