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Robin Gray launched The Gayming Awards in 2021 as an online event to celebrate LGBTQ+ video games, and this year the event will be held in person for the first time at the Troxy Theater in London on April 25.
I interviewed Gray, who started Gayming Magazine in 2019, about the awards and he is looking forward to a day of inspiration for LGBTQ+ developers and fans. The magazine now reaches about 1.5 million people a month.
“There has been a notable rise, over the past five years or so, of positive representations of LGBTQ people in games, and really good contributions now as far as staffing LGBTQ people in the game industry,” Gray said.
He noted that games represent a unique opportunity to let people walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, thanks to the interactivity of games. And with better representation of LGBTQ+ people among game characters, the medium can do a lot of good for recognizing diversity and inclusion.
Julia Hardy will host the evening, which will be expanded to embrace other elements of geek culture, including comic books, esports, and tabletop gaming. This year’s Game of the Year nominees include Boyfriend Dungeon – Kitfox Games; Life is Strange True Colors – Deck Nine/Square Enix; Psychonauts 2 – Double Fine/Xbox Game Studios; and Unpacking – Witch Beam/Humble Bundle.
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Sponsors include Electronic Arts, PlayStation, Hangar 13, 2K Games, Rocksteady, Xbox, Twitch, Square Enix London, Green Man Gaming, Bandai Namco, Space Ape Games, UKIE, German Games Industry Association, Out Making Games and London Games Festival. Various awards will honor authentic representation or industry diversity. The latter award goes to the organization or person who has done a significant amount of work in promoting, developing and championing diversity in the global games industry.
Another award will go to the best LGBTQ+ character in a game. Nominees include Alex Chen, Life is Strange: True Colors – Deck Nine/Square Enix; Helmut Fullbear & Bob Zanotto, Psychonauts 2 – Double Fine/Xbox Game Studios; Steph Gingrich, Life is Strange: True Colors – Deck Nine/Square Enix; and Meredith Weiss, Lake – Gamious/Whitethorn Digital.
The Gayming Awards will feature an in-person exclusive nerdy drag pre-show featuring London’s iconic Cybil’s House starring Cybil War, Aubrey Wodonga, RhyssPieces, Lolo Brow and Shardeazy Afrodesiak. Gaymers can snatch up a limited number of general admission tickets.
Gray said he was encouraged at the representation of LGBTQ+ characters in triple-A games and the growth of the overall base. The first digital-only awards were watched by 150,000 unique viewers last year. Gray noted that LGBTQ+ players tend to be younger, with an average age of 33 versus 44 for overall games. They’re also more likely to have a gaming console (55% versus 44%) than the general U.S. population. and thy spend more money on games each month ($13.14 versus $10.40).
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about your background?
Robin Gray: I was the founder of a gaming magazine, Gayming, which was the world’s only LGBTQ video game magazine. We spoke about diversity issues and that sort of thing that’s happening in the industry at the moment. That started in June of 2019. We’re coming up to three years this year. And then, in February of last year, February 2021, we had our first Gayming Awards. That was held during the pandemic, obviously, so it was all very virtual, but we had 150,000 people watching live, which was an amazing achievement for the first year out of the gate. The growth of Gayming, which now reaches about 1.5 million people a month, plus that big statement of intent from the awards in the first year, it was a real statement of how, to the LGBTQ community, there just wasn’t representation there. For us it gave us an opportunity to step in.
Fast forward now into 2022. We’re going into our second year of the Gayming Awards now. It’s happening on April 25. We’ll have a little bit of live. We’re in London with an amazing host in the shape of Julia Hardy, who’s obviously a very well-known games presenter here in the U.K. and around the world. That’s still being streamed out to the world in general as well. Because we’ve now had more than a year to run into this, we’re in a position of being able to get really excited about it and make sure we have a good reach. We had a live podcast on Twitch in January where we revealed the nominees, and that had 94,000 people watching live, just for a nominee reveal. I feel like that bodes well for us as far as the audience coming in this year.
GamesBeat: Those are huge numbers for what seems like a mostly organic effort.
Gray: Absolutely. Certainly year one was very organic. Going into year two now, we’re working with some good teams. Obviously we have Twitch’s backing as a presenting sponsor this time, as well as a multitude of other sponsors that are coming on board. I’ve been reliably told, although I can’t prove it, that we’ve managed to get Xbox and PlayStation on the same bill, which is nearly unheard-of. I’m very proud of that. Gaymingawards.com has all the sponsors and announcements listed there. We have some very big companies there.
I’m particularly proud of–I think we have three companies this time that are Japanese companies: Bandai Namco, Square Enix, and Marvelous, who have all had to get it signed off by their Japanese head offices. And PlayStation I suppose would fit into that as well. But that, to me, is a good statement of intent from the Asian market for supporting LGBTQ gamers and the community in general. It’s a big step forward and a great show of confidence.
GamesBeat: Does it feel like there’s a sea change here, where you have more things to celebrate, as opposed to more things to get angry about?
Gray: That’s kind of how we started the Gayming Awards. A lot of the other awards that happen, like the Game Awards, BAFTA, and so on, they have their one category for games doing good or games beyond borders or however they describe it. But for me it was kind of like–wrapping up all the diverse games and the celebration of diversity into one category, although commendable–it just felt like there were more stories to be told here.
That’s why we decided to break out what was, in the first year, nine categories. We now have 12 categories. We wanted to break in and dig into a lot of background on characters and authentic representation. We wanted to make sure we were celebrating indie games, as well as having some good personality-based stuff. We have two categories this year for streamers. We have streamer of the year, but also a rising star, to make sure that–streamer of the year is obviously a popularity contest, but the rising star award is nominated by a panel of experienced LGBTQ streamers. That comes with a good amount of reasoning behind it.
We also have our gaming icon award, who in year one was Robert Yang. This year’s award we haven’t announced yet, but we’ll be announcing in April, just before the celebration. These are people where–it’s a lifetime achievement award, basically, for the long service of commitment and their contribution to the world of LGBTQ gaming. It’s someone who’s been a big activist in the field, who’s played a great role in shaping diverse games.
There are plenty of good stories we can tell now, and we’re celebrating those stories, but also celebrating the contribution of LGBTQ people to game-making and games in general. We get to branch out a bit this year, too. Gayming itself, over the last 18 months we’ve kind of broken out of our original programming. We’ve re-branded to be called “the home of queer geek culture,” because we’re getting out into the worlds of comics, tabletop, esports. All those facets are being celebrated as different award categories as well.
GamesBeat: What was some of the inspiration for the awards? Why did you think this felt necessary?
Gray: I think it was a case of celebrating–it’s true what you said. There has been a notable rise, over the past five years or so, of positive representations of LGBTQ people in games, and really good contributions now as far as staffing LGBTQ people in the game industry. What we were able to do through the Gayming Awards is celebrate and hold up and shine a spotlight on those people who, under normal circumstances, may have continued to fly under the radar, and games that may not have made it into the top lists of other award shows. Some of the games I know are nominated this year were on the list for others, but probably didn’t win them, whereas I think this year we’ll be awarding games that, for us, really inspired our community and held it close to their hearts.
The Gayming Awards, in a nutshell, is celebrating queer video game excellence. From my point of view, that’s in games, but also in the industry as well. That’s the short version of what I just said.
GamesBeat: And you plan to address the full spectrum, from LGBTQ and further on?
Gray: There are stories, particularly in indie games–we all know why indie games are super popular, because they’re able to tell stories without capitalism hanging over their heads so much. You see stories that are being told–there are one or two games out there that specifically talk about people who are asexual, for example. The Outer Worlds, which came out a few years ago, had a great character nominated for last year’s award. It’s further down the acronym than a lot of people go, I think.
The easy bits are the first two letters, the L and the G. B’s a bit of a question mark and T maybe gets touched with a barge pole. But this year’s awards, and last year’s, we’re celebrating a lot of trans representation. I think half of our esports nominees are trans, for example, Amanda Stevens and CaptainFluke. They’re two of the four nominees for our esports award. That’s the real mantra, as you say, making sure we’re not just celebrating the obvious thing when it comes to the queer community. We very much go down the whole acronym.
GamesBeat: There are always third-rail topics in this area. Is there anything you feel like you have to avoid or specifically confront?
Gray: We’re very careful about who we partner with. I’m not going to sit here and name names of companies, but we all know. We had a company that came to us wanting to sponsor one of our categories, and then, around the summer of last year, the news came about certain things. We wrote an email back saying, “Thanks but no thanks.” We turned the money down, which as a businessman is sometimes hard to do. But from our side, ethically it had to happen, because we can’t sit here saying that we are supportive of our own community if we’re still taking money from companies that aren’t supporting those communities. We have a kind of blacklist at the moment of certain companies, and we could all sit here and name them, but we just don’t take money from them and don’t engage. That, to us, is living those values.
I think it actually gives us space on the roster for companies that do want to come and live those values. It’s interesting, as I say, with Bandai Namco and Marvelous and others that have come on this year–it seems like what we lose from some companies, we gain that back from an awful lot of other companies. If we can help show that support and echo that round as well – “Hey, these companies are supporting us” – and it isn’t just financial, either. The amount of press they’ve given us, the amount of social media coverage they’ve given us, the support they’ve shown to us as a community, it helps them live their own values a little bit more than just putting a rainbow flag on Twitter in June.
GamesBeat: It does feel like representation has seen so much change in different parts of games. Things like character creators. I once would have said that there wasn’t much to talk about as far as character creators.
Gray: One of the games nominated in our awards this year is Forza, Forza Horizon 5. And a lot of people saw that and said, “Why? It’s just a racing game.” But it’s super simple. The character creator lets you choose pronouns. It’s that simple. That doesn’t automatically mean we give them an award for doing that, but what that contributes to is the normalization of respecting people to say, “What are your pronouns?” By putting that in such a mainstream game, it’s a subtle way of leading that out into the world.
Proper authenticity, good representation, it doesn’t always have to be accompanied by flares and rainbow flags and confetti and everything else. The simplest of acts in a game where you might not have expected it–for example, if Call of Duty starts to put pronouns for example, if they start to bring in other bits and bobs, it’s another way of breaking into the larger mainstream with subtle ethical changes.
The problem with character creators in some ways is you can go the opposite direction. You can go down the Cyberpunk route, where they obviously spent–it concerns me how long they obviously spent having conversations and meetings about genitalia, as if that’s the predominant way of defining us as people. But they don’t put in a pronoun selection or easy voice modulation. Voice modulation in Cyberpunk, I believe, is still related to choice of genitals, amazingly. I think that’s where it goes horrendously wrong. But as I say, it still makes me giggle when I stop and think about how they must have had so many meetings specifically talking about genitalia. So there you go.
GamesBeat: There are so many other dimensions. Who’s a hero? Who’s a villain? Who is just a supporting character? What kind of topics emerge in games?
Gray: There’s a part of it as well that’s about making sure that the stories are playable. There’s a kind of trend at the moment to have romance options. But the problem with romance options is that you can opt out of them. If you’re a straight person playing a male character, you can absolutely choose to go and romance women, but you could romance a male character. But to me, the next step in evolution is having characters, major characters, playable characters in games that are just gay or just bisexual or just lesbian or who are trans.
That’s the next big step, because it continues the process of normalization. It says, “We don’t get to choose this. This is the person you’re playing. This is their backstory. You’re a gay man, or whatever. Now play the game.” That, to me, is the next big step, because again, it continues us down this path of helping people live these experiences that they can learn from. There’s the old saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. In video games you can literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
GamesBeat: That also brings up something like Ready Player Two. I don’t know if you got around to reading it, but it proposes this sort of YouTube of the future where people upload their experiences in virtual reality where they embody other characters, other people who aren’t like them. If you stepped into it in your own VR and played it back, you could see and experience whatever they did. It’s a more futuristic version of that same idea, that you can walk in someone else’s shoes.
Gray: Absolutely. One of the best games ever, that really has helped change hearts and minds, was Tell Me Why, which was nominated and won a couple of categories in last year’s awards. Specifically because it was a beautiful story about an interesting topic, but it just had a trans lead character. Part of the story was dealing with going back home after transitioning. There was no apology for it. There was no way to skip certain parts. It just said, “This is the story you’re playing.” Even as someone, I think, as switched on as I am, I felt awkward at times. I learned stuff at times playing that game. That’s what games have the power to do.
GamesBeat: Some games also–they raise issues, but I tend to wonder what they’re doing with them. The Last of Us Part II had gay characters and a trans character that were very much talked about, but I don’t know what the net of it was. Did this wind up being positive, or did it wind up underscoring negative things?
Gray: It was interesting last year. I think a lot of people thought The Last of Us II was just going to run away with a lot of the awards, but actually it didn’t get–it was nominated, but it didn’t get over the line with a lot of them, because I think there were issues–but I think as well, Last of Us II was a great way of showing how you can make a game that includes LGBTQ characters, but you don’t have to look after them. You can still treat them like any other people.
The danger you always have when people write LGBTQ characters, whether it’s in games or movies or TV or anything, it either goes one or two ways. You can kill them, which leads to the “kill the gays” or “kill the lesbians” trope. Or you kind of are so scared of them that you wrap them in cotton wool. It creates this really weird 2D kind of character. What I loved about Tell Me Why, actually, is that the trans character is a bit of an asshole. He has some really rough edges to him. He’s a brat at times. And by making sure they were written not perfect, it really fleshed them out.
The net effect of The Last of Us II was positive, I think. I don’t remember it being something that was horrendously slated in the community. I think people had their views. That’s fair. It’s art, when all is said and done. But overall I think a lot of people were celebrating the fact that there were characters told in 3D, rather than necessarily just being one of those two characters – either disposable, or nothing bad can ever happen to them because we’re so petrified of upsetting the LGBTQ community.
I think we are at an interesting inflection point in the industry, where now the pile of “good or bad?” is very much now in favor of the good. So, one, how do we keep it there, but two, how do we make sure that good flows around the industry, and isn’t just tokenized? You go to some of these conferences and there’s always the diversity panel, which always talks about how to get more representation. But there’s plenty of representation. The U.K. had a diversity census a couple of years ago that showed 21 percent of the U.K. gaming population identified as LGBTQ, which is way above the community average. The topic of how to get more LGBTQ people into the industry is null and void. Now it’s about how we harness that power and keep them in the industry and benefit from that. That’s the next point of iteration, I think.
GamesBeat: It’s an interesting time to have these awards, and to have them gathering more momentum like they have.
Gray: “Momentum” is a key word there, I think. Year one, as you rightly said, was put together very organically, and it seemed to just hit a nerve and become very popular. In year two it’s the first time we’ve done it in person. That brings a new set of challenges. But having Julia at the helm hosting, a good roster of hosts coming up that we’re working on at the moment, some other fun activities, and then into year three, which will be hopping over the Atlantic and landing somewhere in the United States–I think it’s going to be Los Angeles. But that will be the next big step forward as far as iteration. That’s very much coming to the doorstep of the industry. We’ve been flirting around the outside of it, but year three we’ll very much land ourselves right in the middle. I’m proud that we’ll be there and flying that rainbow flag.