Being a girl gamer is hard enough, but being a gamer and a lesbian…?
On September 6th, 2005, this article of mine ran at Killer Betties, a women gamers site. Unfortunately, as is sometimes prone to happen, the link to “Girl on Girl Gaming” has since committed internet suicide. Thus I bring you the first in a short series of (old-school Bonnie) reprinted articles on sex, gender, and games.
Exploring Communities, Questions and Concerns of Lesbian Video Gamers
By Bonnie Ruberg
If women gamers are a minority in the video game world, then lesbian gamers are a minority among women gamers. Alienated from â€œnormalâ€, male-oriented, heterosexual gaming culture by both their gender and their sexual-orientation, these female underdogs face many of the same trying issues as other girl gamers, but with some considerable complications. Even though their voices are rarely heard in mainstream media, they too are fighting for equal representation and respect in Americaâ€™s narrow-minded video game industry. They face magnified concerns about community acceptance, in-game avatars, safe space, and discrimination.
Women, as members of a larger video game society, are often considered peripheral; if so, lesbians are the periphery of this periphery. As such, theirs is an even steeper uphill battle, a struggle against stereotypes not just about femininity, but about being gay. Yet they continue to play, if sometimes in the shadows–caught in a complex gaming culture that, in objectifying and over-sexualizing women, calls into conflict their feminist concerns and the interests of their desires.
One of the larger questions surrounding lesbian gamers, and women gamers alike, is whether they need their own separate space. Can lesbians feel comfortable in gaming communities designed for gays of both sexes? For women of all sexual orientations? What about for gamers as a whole? Some believe that gay males and lesbians have little in common, while a group of purely lesbian gamers can bond over their shared interests. Others, like Chris Vizzini, head of Gaymer.org, think that homosexual gamers of both genders should stick together. â€œLesbian and gay male gamers mesh quite well,â€ says Chris. â€œI think it’s important for us as gay people to remain intact as a community.â€ As for the necessity of a gay gaming site, Gaymerâ€™s manifesto states things clearly enough: â€œThe truth is, in the gaming community, there are some pretty staunchly homophobic players… Gaymer.org is about having fun without hearing the bashing.â€ Though some may doubt the importance of a gay-oriented space, Chris remarks, â€œI hear constantly from the members of the site how much they like being at ease in a setting where they can talk about their lives without possibly being ridiculed.â€
Some lesbians, however, feel more welcome at girl gamer sites than homosexual ones. Sarah Warn, Editor of AfterEllen.com, notes, â€œFemale-dominated gaming communities tend to be more open-minded and inclusive.â€ And Tracy Whitelaw, the PR Administrator for a female-oriented, lesbian-friendly publication called Thumb Bandits, says lesbians are definitely welcome, even encouraged, at her site. â€œI think it’s important that lesbian gamers have their own space in the larger gaming community,â€ but warns Tracy, â€œIâ€™m always wary of exclusivity as I think it can really hamper progress and development.â€ Sarah too feels â€œin the long-term, it’s important that mainstream gaming sites become more inclusive of… lesbian gamers.â€ Sharon Hadrian, freelance writer and lesbian gamer, says the real goal isnâ€™t cozy segregation, itâ€™s â€œfor gay gamers to â€˜come outâ€™ and be noticed in gaming communities.â€
Inclusiveness is a gradual process, to be sure. In the meantime, do lesbians gamers prefer to play with other lesbians? Perhaps, but their preferences arenâ€™t always the reality. Out of those interviewed, none had exclusively gay gamer friends. â€œI enjoy being part of any space that is specifically lesbian,â€ says Tracy, â€œbecause I feel more comfortable in that environment.â€ It makes things simpler, she continues, because you â€œalready have something in common.â€ But, as Chris notes, itâ€™s not easy to find other people who are both homosexual and interested in gaming: When you do discover someone, â€œitâ€™s like hitting the homo jackpot.â€
While lesbian friends certainly play together in person, there seems to be little visible lesbian gaming community to speak of online. Thereâ€™s a small number of general gay gamer sites, some broader lesbian or gay male sites that discuss gaming, and a few girl gamer sites openly accepting of lesbians–aside from which there is, ostensibly, no strictly lesbian gaming space on the internet.
That doesnâ€™t mean lesbian gamers are resting snugly in mainstream communities. Often, they are treated inhospitably by both fellow gamers and game creators. â€œAs a female gamer, I donâ€™t feel like I fit into their marketing ploys or demographic, and as a lesbian I am afraid of retribution if I react to male-oriented advertising,â€ says Sharon. â€œDevelopers, designers, CEOâ€™s, marketing people, etc. are mostly male, and they respond to a (perceived) mostly male audience, and thus male desires.â€
Sometimes discrimination and unfair treatment are so blatant that they canâ€™t help but drive lesbian gamers away. When asked if she felt comfortable on male-dominated gaming sites, Tracy relayed this upsetting, but hardly unbelievable story: â€œI had a recent bad experience with a British Xbox forum… From the moment I joined, the fact that I was a female firstly elicited numerous responses about what I looked like, would I sleep with people, did I really play games and so on. When they found out I wasn’t interested in guys, I received a ton of responses which quite honestly were bordering on sexual harassment. They continuously referred to lesbian sex acts, watching me perform them and so on. I was completely disgusted.â€
If this is how forum-goers react to female homosexuals, one can only imagine how they treat male ones. In the overall, itâ€™s a toss up: who gets less visibility and respect in the video game industry, lesbians or gay males? By the numbers, the men should far outweigh the women (considering by what factor males outnumber females in the gaming world), but the lesbian presence appears equal, if not larger, than that of gay males. â€œI have never, as far as I’m aware, even met a gay male gamer,â€ says Tracy. â€œFor once I actually think that the gay guys might have less of a voice than lesbians.â€ Chris agrees that, though there may be more men on his site, women are in no way shy about making themselves heard.
It may be that the same strict gender expectations that keep lesbian gamers out of the limelight in mainstream gaming culture allow them more recognition than men. Male gamers face harsher standards for sexuality and much more biting criticism in video game communities than do women. Perhaps more gay male gamers would â€œoutâ€ themselves if the gaming industry, which we so often view as favoring men, would be less narrow-minded in understanding itself and its own treasured members.
These mainstream expectations are also reflected in video games themselves. In-game homosexuality is very rarely depicted. Even when gay characters do appear, some lesbians feel they arenâ€™t being represented constructively – much the way that women gamers worry about the portrayal of female characters in general. â€œLesbiansâ€, for example, appear in Playboy: The Mansion, but arguing that as a case of meaningful representation seems somehow equivalent to looking for role-models in the women of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball. One of the few games with real homosexual appeal is The Sims, often viewed as a haven for lesbian gamers since it allows the player, through her own decisions, to determine the sexual orientation of her characters.
Like any other group, lesbian gamers feel the right to be proportionally represented in the games they play. Says Sarah, â€œThe trend we’re starting to see towards games… with characters who are essentially bisexual is the direction we should be heading in.â€ Chris remarks of gay gamers, â€œIt’s up to us to let the game companies know that we’re here and we play and buy games too.â€ Which raises an interesting point: just what do lesbians play? Those interviewed cited The Sims as a unanimous favorite. After that, however, the answers were very eclectic–ranging from sports games to fighters to first person shooters. Of course, it’s silly to make blanket statements about lesbian likes and dislikes. They may have in common that they seek out game environments where they feel comfortable as homosexuals, but theyâ€™re still individual people with individual interests. You canâ€™t have fun without feeling welcome. And like everybody else, lesbian gamers are playing, in the end, to have a good time.
Perhaps the most revealing question of all though is how do lesbians, as women who like women, reconcile their concerns about over-sexualized female representation and their own desires. Some admit the answer may be tainted by repression, a fear of being judged for public displays of attraction. Still, it seems clear that most lesbian gamers choose to be sensible, self-respecting women before love-struck lesbians. â€œWe’re sick to our stomachs with the bimbos!â€ says Tracy.
â€œI respond more to the feminist side of things than to my attractions as a lesbian,â€ says Sharon. â€œMy understanding of male-centered advertising that exploits women far outweighs any sort of desires it might otherwise have had.â€ Indeed, maybe this is why lesbian gamers feel so comfortable in female-oriented gaming communities, because they share concerns common to all women, regardless of sexual orientation. Moreover, unlike many men, they are able to rise above their sexual feelings in order to address the important issues at hand, like objectification and equal representation. Admits Sharon, â€œI react as a woman first and as a lesbian second.â€