The moderators of the first Romance & Sexuality Special Interest Group (SIG) Roundtable at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) are conferring with a full house. I’m sitting in the main room with Bioware senior editor Karin Weekes and SIG co-founder, game maker, and self-described Bioware mega-fangirl Heidi McDonald. Weekes’ partner, Bioware senior writer Patrick Weekes, has been conscripted to help the SIG’s co-founder, game maker, and lecturer Michelle Clough meet with the overflow in a “sit-in-a-circle-Kumbaya-style” meetup somewhere else. The Roundtable proved that popular.
It’s Thursday afternoon, and Weekes and McDonald have asked the attendees—who skew younger, women, and/or queer/trans—to throw out ideas of things that are important for them, as game developers, to explore in games when it comes to sexuality and romance. With the help of GDC 2016 speaker Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer, they’re putting our ideas up on the wall with colorful post-it notes.
Alongside “how to represent desire + not be cheap” and “body diversity,” McDonald posts “CULLEN’S BUTT” and “MORRIGAN’S BEWBS.” “IRON BULL’S DONGLE” also gets discussed and added to the wall eventually.
Among my desire for better representation of queer and trans characters and themes, I suggest explorations of non-monogamy in games. I admit that the constraints of romance mechanics make this extraordinarily difficult. McDonald literally applauds my suggestion, and Weekes says that, “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”
SIG chair Clough explained the following the next day:
“We kept on thinking one of two things was going to happen. Either we’re going to have too many people and not get everyone in, or no one will come and we’ll just be sitting there like, ‘Oh great, now we’re in trouble …’ So it was really heartening to see that many people there that all had strong thoughts and ideas about the topic.
Not so much romance, but definitely sex [in games] is like the weird, dirty secret that its sometimes very difficult to have discussions about it because people get giggly, people get awkward.”
There was originally a Sex In Games SIG organized by veteran game makers Sheri Rubin and Brenda Romero, which tapered off. Over the past two years, Vancouver-based Clough had spoken on desire and male sexualization—or lack thereof—in games. She was friends with McDonald, whose academic work explores romance in games. McDonald was considering creating a Romance SIG and, realizing the overlap, they decided to found the Romance & Sexuality SIG jointly, with Clough eventually taking the role of Chair.
McDonald broke into the games industry at 41 years old when she got an internship at Shell Games in Pittsburgh. While she was working on an HIV prevention game, eventually being hired on full-time, she started independently studying romance in games just because it was something she was interested in.
“I am an unrepentant Dragon Age fangirl. Just … everything Dragon Age all the time,” McDonald says. “I played through Dragon Age: Origins three different times in order to get my romance with Alistair to turn out the way that I wanted it to. I was like, ‘What the hell is wrong with me that I’m doing this? There’s something wrong with me.’ I started talking to other people and realized other people were doing it, too.”
In 2012, she printed out business cards with the location of an online survey about romance in games including her contact information, which she passed out all over GDC. “I got five hundred and some responses just from doing that, and the data that I collected from that first survey turned into a paper, which turned into a talk, which turned into a talk, which turned into a GDC Online talk, and after GDC Online, it just kind of went from there.”
The roundtable was, admittedly, a bit of a Bioware love-in, and that would have been the case with or without the Weekes’. “One of the things that I found in my research was that Bioware is the absolute world-wide leader in the Western market when it comes to romance content,” McDonald says. “The devs say so, the experts say so, and the users say so. That was telling me that when it came time to recruit members for our steering committee, we had to fucking have someone from Bioware because of the place that they occupy in that conversation.”
She cold-called Bioware about the SIG, asking if there was anyone who might be interested in serving. Karin Weekes volunteered into a diverse leadership group including nonbinary student and academic Squinkifer, game studies academic Dr. Todd Harper, and industry veteran Chris Avellone, representing a range of people within all levels of the industry. The SIG was announced last April and has been slowly building momentum since.
“It is intended to be a professional association,” Clough says. “We actually talked about that a bit in my group. Do we want to open it up to fans, because obviously there’s lots of fans interested in this too?” The general consensus was about how the SIG needs to be a safe space for developers to talk to each other.
The next step for the SIG leaders is to figure out action items to carry forth into the next year. A somewhat quiet International Game Developers Association forum for the SIG exists, but a Slack channel was discussed as a means for more active discussion among the SIG.
“The suggestion for making a database, or a Wiki, or an Excel sheet or something that has a list of member-recommended romance and sex titles,” Clough explains. “I think that’s a great idea, and it came up in our group of giving them tags, or columns, or something so I can be like, ‘Okay, I’m ace and I’m looking for something that doesn’t have sex in it. Oh, look, that’s got sex in it, maybe I want to give that title a pass.’” Information, data, and resources for developers are other options the SIG could work on.
When asked about any surprises from the roundtable, McDonald offered:
“Everyone was kind. When you’re talking about subjects that can get uncomfortable for folks—and there are a few topics like that within sexuality and games—it’s not always safe, it’s not always kind. It really did seem to be and felt to me like a room full of really well-intentioned people who were there for the right reasons, and we were all there to have a meeting of the minds and try to unravel all of this. It was so exciting!”
As more professional talks about empathy, romance, diversity, and sex get highlighted at GDC—and in the two years I’ve attended, it only seemed to grow—it proves that there’s a movement within the industry that will transform the way we play by ourselves and with each other.
“When I did my first talk on male sexualization, I genuinely got up with the thought that I will never be employed in this industry ever,” Clough says. “Here I am getting up in front of all these professional people and saying, ‘Hi, I’m a fangirl, and I’ve been crushing on Sephiroth since I was 15.’ It didn’t destroy my career. One could say it was the making of my career, and I think the more we have people of all genders, shapes, sexualities being willing to say not just this is how I want to be represented, but this is what I like to see, this is the kind of character I’m attracted to, that I’d like to have relations with, whatever the relations might be, I think that can only make the industry healthier.”