EGD's Pride Panel: LGBTQ+ Identities In The Game Industry
Written by Nicholas Uster and Melissa May
Edited by Jeff Hanrahan
Cody Mejeur (They/Them): Visiting Assistant Professor of Game Studies at the University of Buffalo.
Juno Morrow (She/Her or They/Them): Assistant Professor of Game Design and Unit Coordinator at the City University of New York’s Eugenio María de Hostos Community College.
“You have to be the change you want to see in the world… and sometimes that takes a lot of courage and a high armor class.”
Shared by one of EGD’s Pride Panelists, Joshua Casiano, this was one of the many enlightening sentiments expressed throughout the night. Explaining their personal journeys that developed their passions and guided them to their current careers, the panelists provided unique insights on building a career in the game industry as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Where did they start off?
All of our panelists started their journey with some form of college education. Tori, Joshua, and Cody all studied English, James pursued photography, J did 3D digital design, and Juno switched her major five times before going to grad school. Many of the panelists were not even considering a career in games at the time.
The Next Step: Focusing On Games
The next chapter in the panelists’ professional journeys afforded them each greater focus and clarity as they pursued or changed their goals.
Juno began making games when she attended grad school at the Parsons School of Design, where she served as a teaching assistant for one year and a part-time faculty member for another year, teaching a Creativity and Computation Lab. She also spent several years as a freelance photographer and independent game designer and developer.
James got a summer internship as a Quality Assurance (QA) tester and loved it, then focused on working with games and attended night school to get an associate’s degree. They went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Game Design at the University of Advancing Technology, then served as a producer with several companies. As the years went on, they worked in other positions such as Development Director for Bioware and VR Project Manager at insurance giant AIG.
Tori disliked her position as an English teacher, but luckily she heard of a QA position at Zenimax Online Studios, owner of Bethesda Game Studios, where she later received a writing position. After developing her writing skills and portfolio she got a job writing and designing for The Elder Scrolls Online, getting the opportunity to research and create Elder Scrolls lore, settings, history, and established characters. She also got to write and edit player-facing text, ensure quality voice-over content with the audio department, and collaborate with the animation team in world-building.
Joshua attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, receiving an associate’s in illustration, then moved to computer programming for animation. He became a Teaching Artist in NYC schools, teaching high school students skills in animation and digital art, as well as an instructor for kids and adults with special needs, teaching them various creative programs such as Adobe Premiere and Photoshop.
Cody received their undergraduate and master’s degrees in English, but eventually found their way into Game Studies. They did a project on horror across media platforms, then studied English Literature, Cultural Studies, and New Media for their master’s degree at the University of Chicago. Cody’s thesis was entitled “Interactive Stories in Virtual Worlds: Theorizing Narrative Expression in Guild Wars 2”.
J pursued technical art during their senior year and developed a mobile game called The Woodsman for their senior capstone project. The narrative point-and-click game, set in a haunted forest world, explores gender themes in the original fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood, especially from the Woodsman’s perspective. J went on to work as the principal Unity Technical Artist at MassDiGI for its Summer Innovation Program, working on a game shipped on iOS and Android.
Their Current Work
Juno is currently an Assistant Professor of Game Design and Unit Coordinator at the City University of New York’s Eugenio María de Hostos Community College. Since 2015, she has been developing the first public game design degree program in New York City, and has just released her first book, a memoir entitled Marginalia. Juno continues her pursuits of freelance photography and independent game design and development.
James is the founder and creator of Plausible Studio, an indie game studio that produces both tabletop and digital games. James is also the IGDA Regional Coordinator for the Northeastern US/Eastern Canada, a board member of IGDA’s Anti-Censorship and Social Issues Steering Committee. During their tenure as co-chair of IGDA’s New York City chapter, James organized the NYC Games & Digital Media Career Fair.
Tori moved to the video game publisher Proletariat and now works as a narrative and content designer on Spellbreak, a battle royale RPG with epic magic combat. In it, you play as a Breaker, a mage who uses the power of forbidden magic hidden in ancient Gauntlets and fights to become the ultimate battlemage. Tori has regularly participated in panels, including “Working as a Womxn in the Gaming Industry,” “Narrative Design: The Secret Sauce of Game Storytelling,” and “Representing LGBT+ Characters in Games.”
Joshua is an independent game developer who created his own series, Striped Swipers. The series pays homage to the cartoons, comics, and adventure games of the 90s, following a trio of burglars as they search for treasure alongside the help of a ghost pirate, Captain Downbeard. He also works as a freelance video editor and as a graphics editor at a news company, where he creates high-concept still graphics for hourly updates, makes backgrounds for sets, and manages graphics for the news ticker.
Cody is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Game Studies at the University at Buffalo. Their research and teaching focus on new media, game studies, and narrative theory; particularly drawing on feminist, queer, and cognitive narratologies. At Michigan State University (MSU), where they are working on a PhD, Cody will be earning certificates in College Teaching, Serious Games, and Digital Humanities. They serve as a graduate instructor in the Department of English and the Center for Integrative Studies in the Arts & Humanities.
J is an Associate Rendering Technical Artist at Insomniac Games, having first worked there as an associate shader artist, working on shaders for the “vintage suit” and the “negative zone suit” in Marvel’s Spider-Man for PlayStation 4. They specialize in technical art for games, including shaders, Python tools, and procedural generation. Insomniac Games is developing Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which will be released in late 2020 on the PlayStation 5.
How LGBTQ+ Identities Have Affected Their Careers
When discussing how one’s identity may affect them in a professional environment, Joshua began by explaining that his identity has been, “a lot more of a boon than a bane.” He feels it has allowed him to network with people he otherwise would not have thought to connect with. Joshua and James both see identity as a great tool and asset to have in the best way possible. Cody discussed what they felt was an important lesson, “finding your people.” They explain that one can use their identity to find those in your community who will support you and, “fight the fights that you want to fight.” As James mentions, one’s identity can act as a double-edged sword in the game industry, as it can help one find who will truly support them, but also subject them to discrimination in their careers. Cody added that they have been in situations where it is noticeable that a colleague or fellow professional is uncomfortable with their gender presentation and tries to distance themselves from them. On this note, Juno mentioned that if you’re in the workplace and you hear something that is problematic, the best way to handle it is to talk to that person in private. Trying to avoid an awkward conversation is always worse, and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions respectfully to your colleagues, James says.
A few of the participants had words of wisdom to offer about considering which companies to work for as a queer person. James encouraged candidates to examine a company’s identity and priorities before going to work for them: how many people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ people are on staff? Does the company participate (or noticeably not participate) in LBGTQ+ events or speak about the community? Tori recounted how she was at first hesitant to put her GLAAD Award on her resume, because she wasn’t sure how future employers would feel about it, but then she realized, “maybe a AAA company might not want to see a GLAAD Award on my resume or cover letter, but if they don’t, I don’t want to work there.” She noted that a good company will respect your work and appreciate that you’re adding diversity to a game.
Many of the panelists lamented that the gaming industry is perpetually in a “Diversity 101” status, with many people needing basic matters about queerness explained to them repeatedly. As Cody said, the conversation continues to be: “Hey, queer people exist!” Tori summed it up in a nutshell, saying, “It’s exhausting.”
The panelists offered several suggestions for having meaningful conversations with people about the LGBTQ+ community, chief among them being the recommendation to connect with folks on a human level. “The best thing you can do is try to find commonalities and help them see you as a person,” James recommended. Joshua remarked, “Once people see you as a person, a human, not a cliché or demonized, that will work for most people. You can’t win every battle, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight.” He observed that having community events is very important for this process, saying, “getting to know people is key.”
However, as J noted, “Be aware of the energy you have. You don’t always have to explain the LGBT+ experience.” Kyra Wills-Umdenstock, EGD’s CEO and the panel’s moderator, added: “I think the most important thing to remember is that it is not your responsibility and being an activist should not be the price you pay for existing. If educating people is something you feel comfortable doing, then do it, but at no point should you feel obligated to put yourself in an unsafe situation. Make sure people respect your boundaries.”
The panelists have big dreams for the future of LGBTQ+ inclusion in gaming. As Juno said, “prevailing winds are bringing us to better lands,” noting that representation is improving and workplaces are getting better, though the road ahead may be rough at times. Cody hopes that soon companies will more meaningfully support communities and not just “check the diversity box,” which many of their fellow panelists echoed.
J added that marginalized people should be in creative positions in the gaming industry to assure that this meaningful support takes place, making sure to hire more queer people and persons of color and do everything they can to keep them. James chimed in, “Triple-A has to do better, reach out to persons of color and LGBTQ+ people, and retain people.”
Juno added that in seeking to better represent the LGBTQ+ community, it is vital that studios at least hire consultants (if not full-time staff) to help them understand how to characterize queer individuals. “Just give it your honest, 100% effort and it will at least be appreciated,” she said. Joshua encouraged more companies to go all out in their efforts to create complex queer characters, adding, “Just go ham!”
There have been chances afforded the panelists to introduce positive changes in the gaming industry. Tori has had the opportunity to meaningfully support the LGBTQ+ community with her quest content for Elder Scrolls Online called “Manor of Masques,” which received the first GLAAD award for excellence in LGBTQ+ representation in a video game; the quest focused on Alchemy, the first openly transgender character in Elder Scrolls, and her struggles to be accepted by her twin sister. Tori also had the chance to write gender nonbinary characters among the Khajiit people in Elder Scrolls. Cody is the project director for Trans Folks Walking, a 3D first-person narrative game in development which puts players in multiple everyday situations that trans people experience in contemporary America.
Overall, it is imperative that LGBTQ+ professionals are present in creative positions within the game industry to ensure that their stories are told and that they are meaningfully represented, and it is crucial that nuanced depictions of queer characters in games continue to grow. While being an LGBTQ+ professional in the game industry can have its hurdles, our panelists are optimistic that appropriate changes are taking place to foster a more inclusive environment within the industry. As our panelists have illustrated, regardless of one’s current path in life, it is always possible to take that first step into the game industry, ensuring that your story is heard and that you can make a difference within your community.
Queer Game Studies: Provides analyses of the centrality of LGBTQ issues in the gamer world, exploring a queer lens on gaming culture.
Feminism in Play: Examines how women are represented in games, how they participate as gamers, and how they take part in the gaming industry.
Queerness in Play: Explores how queerness converges with games and gaming culture, including how the current unprecedented representation of queerness in gaming is being met with resistance from the assumed majority cishet white male population in gaming.
Masculinities in Play: Takes a look at the often toxic pairing between masculinity and gaming, exploring such significant matters as fatherhood, homoeroticism, eSports, fan cultures and militarism, and proposing methods of conversation and mediation.
Marginalia: Juno Morrow’s memoir depicts life as a “hybrid”: queer, trans, mixed-race, other. Using words, artwork, photos, and personal artifacts, the account mixes autobiography with psychology and sociology in its exploration of containing a myriad of identities all at once.
The Last of Us Part II: Protagonist Ellie is a lesbian, and her sexuality is touched upon with a couple of romantic interests.
Final Fantasy VII Remake: The creators of this remake take an opportunity to update the questionable Honey Bee Inn “cross-dressing scene” to more of a celebration of transcending the gender binary.
Dream Daddy: You play as a dad who gets to romance your pick of seven other “hot dads,” amid an admitted overabundance of dad jokes.
Arcade Spirits: A visual novel romantic comedy where you pick your pronouns, go on dates, and have the option of remaining gender-neutral in appearance and/or dating no one.
We Should Talk (available July 16): A short-form narrative game which invites you to choose your words carefully in communicating with friends, strangers, and your romantic partner; you play as a nonbinary character with a female partner.
EGD will be hosting a number of AMAs with professionals within the game industry all summer. For more information, be sure to join us at Discord.gg/egdc.