And joysticks for all

All hail Dominique Pamplemousse! A growing movement -- spurred by gatherings like QGCon and GaymerX -- rallies for diversity in video games.

Hand painted Nintendo 64 controller by Brooke Robertson Ginnard

GAMER Video game heroes often fit the same bland archetype: a hetero white dude with short hair and just the right amount of manly stubble. But now some Bay Area game advocates are pushing that burly soldier with the suspiciously large gun out of his closet.

It's time to queer up video games, but it's not just about sexual orientation. Rebel game designers and academics in the tech industry's backyard are starting a discussion on representation in video games, calling for more women, more people of color, and more than the usual binary gender roles.

This weekend's Queerness in Gaming Conference, or QGCon, welcomes a collective of indie game designers, coders, and academics to Berkeley, all with one goal: to discuss and celebrate ways to make games represent the people who actually play them.

Roundtable discussions abound, like one on race in fantasy games. But there'll be workshops too. Tired of blasting away faceless aliens? They'll show you how to make a claymation video game oozing with charm. Sick of staring at a screen? There'll be workshops on making traditional dice and card games, too.

The conference follows an indie game revolution that started here in the Bay Area, according to QGCon organizer Mattie Brice. "This is the time," she says. "It's a rising tide."

First came Lost Levels, an "unconference" held outside the mainstream Game Developers Conference at the Moscone Center in March. Brice was there too. Much like at a campfire, participants gathered 'round and leaned in as she told tales of alternate reality games where players explore living in poverty in gentrified neighborhoods like the Mission.

GaymerX was next. The July event was the nation's first LGBT video game convention, a space where "gaymers" could meet and form a new community.

Matt Conn, who organized GaymerX, said the Bay Area was the birthplace of the queer gaming movement because of an intersection of cultures — tech and the LGBT community. "We are a city that strives on disrupting the norm," he said. "I think the Bay Area is the perfect place for queer geeks, especially ones who want to make an impact."

Brice wants QGCon to elevate the discussion. "I think QGCon vaults that," she said. "We have a lot of these workshops so non-developers can make games. Something very important to the queerness aspect is do-it-yourself development."

gamer gender

And broadening the spectrum of new game developers is important, because the video game industry has historically struggled to offer stories with any real diversity in its protagonists. A 2009 study by a USC researcher took a census of video game avatars and compared them to the actual US census. Eighty-nine percent of avatars in video games were male, the study found, and most of them were white. When women are featured, they tend to be used solely as plot devices.

Anita Sarkeesian is a game blogger and critic whose site, Feminist Frequency, rallies against game clichés centering around women. In her popular series of video essays, she points out that some games, in an attempt to be edgy and mature, feature what she calls the "euthanized damsel in distress," where in a dramatic moment the gamer (often controlling a macho male action hero) performs a mercy killing on the kidnapped damsel.

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