If you’re not a gamer, I’m about to take you into a world that’s probably completely foreign to you. I sincerely hope you’ll stay with me on this journey down the rabbit hole, because there’s a happy ending at the bottom.
The online gaming world is rife with homophobia. Whether you play Xbox, Playstation, or PC – if you play competitive games with other human beings over the internet, you will very likely hear and see the words “gay”, “homo”, and “faggot” slung about as insults. Yes, you will hear them in addition to just seeing them typed, because most online games today are played while connected to other players via an internet voice chat service. So often, “faggot” is reserved for the absolute worst offenses, such that when spoken, it is spouted with the most vicious, focused anger.
I am an avid gamer. I always have been, since I was 3 years old with a Commodore 64. In the late 90s, my video gaming shifted from consoles like Nintendo and Playstation to primarily PC games. And in 2000, I entered the world of massively-multiplayer online games (MMOs). Fortunately for me, I met some really excellent people in the games I played. Those people became my online gaming family. As years went by, we jumped from one game to another together. When voice chat became available over the internet, we actually HEARD each others’ voices for the first time, having already been thick as thieves for like 5 years! As time went on, we grew closer as friends and got to know each other outside of the games we played. We still play together to this day.
Thanks to that gaming family, I’ve been largely insulated from the homophobic chatter happening outside of our little crew. But I became aware that it was happening out there. I saw it in the public text chat channels. I heard it over voice comms whenever we joined another group of players for a combined adventure. Still, I had tremendous support from my gaming family, as well as all my friends and family outside of gaming. So while offended, I refused to be frightened into silence by such language.
The more aware I became of the extent of homophobic culture embedded in the gaming community, the more certain I became that I had a responsibility to wave my rainbow flag high while gaming online. Visibility and awareness are our greatest weapons against homophobic culture. Most of the gamers who use such slurs don’t actually have anything against gay folks. When confronted with an actual gay person, such transgressors will most often backpedal, apologize, and insist “I didn’t mean it THAT way.” They don’t realize how harmful words can be.
All of that said, I’m going to take you now into my current online gaming adventure.
At the moment, I’m playing a game called Eve Online. Eve takes place in outer space. Your time playing is mostly spent looking at the outside of your spaceship, as you warp from solar system to solar system around a galaxy called New Eden. Even though you rarely see your character (your avatar) walking around, you do get to design what she or he looks like, and you pose your character and take a headshot. That headshot appears next to your name in chat windows or when someone looks you up in the interstellar yellow pages.
My character’s name is Jexit. This is “me” in Eve Online:
Viva la resemblance, no?
There are many many things you can do in Eve Online. It’s a make-your-own-destiny kind of game. As Jexit, I spend a lot of my time scanning the endless void of space for ruins of old starbases, or abandoned starship wrecks. My ship is specially equipped to salvage usable parts, as well as hack into any still-functioning computer systems to recover valuable data. Some of that stuff can fetch a nice price on the interstellar market. There are players who make their “living” in Eve manufacturing ships, starbase parts, weapons, asteroid mining lasers, repair drones, anything that appears in the game really! There are even players who make ISK (Interstellar Kredits) trading commodities and playing the market.
Now, if I want to get to the real good stuff before any other scavengers do, I need to venture out into the lawless parts of the galaxy. Out there, CONCORD (the interstellar police) can’t protect me, and other players make their way as pirates, preying on folks like me, hoping to catch me off-guard while I’m scanning and hacking. So I get myself into some nailbiting situations now and then.
BUT, not every minute of Eve is filled with excitement. A lot of it is just flying from station to station in the more metropolitan areas of the galaxy. During those times, you might set your course, turn on autopilot, and listen to some music. And you’ll probably chat with other players via text in one of the many chat channels in Eve. This is where you get into the real *community* of the game – the social aspect of life in New Eden.
One of the creative projects spawned from the community of Eve players is Eve Radio. Eve Radio is a streaming internet music station hosted by DJs who play Eve. It has no connection to the company that makes Eve; Eve Radio is purely a fan-run thing. Hundreds of players tune into Eve Radio while they play Eve, and many of those players also hang out in the Eve Radio text chat channel while in-game. In that chat channel, the DJs and listeners talk about music, what’s happening in the game, whatever’s on their minds.
Lately, I’ve been an active part of this Eve Radio social group. I tune into Eve Radio, and I type in the Eve Radio chat channel while I play. Sexual jokes abound, so there was ample opportunity to out myself quickly, which I did. I’m out-n-proud to everyone in Eve anyway; my character bio, which is visible to anyone who cares to look me up, is spangled in rainbow colors and clearly identifies me as a “gaymer”. So the Eve Radio crowd is well aware of my gayness, and it’s cool, whatever man, we just go on chatting about the music and the game and entertaining each other.
The other day, I log into Eve and tune into Eve Radio to find a bit of a talk show going on with a few (maybe 4?) of the regular DJs. We, the listeners, have gotten to know each of these guys individually, and it’s pretty fun listening to them banter and crack jokes at one another’s expense. They’re also watching the chat channel and responding on the air to listeners’ comments.
One of the DJs is a guy from Texas who goes by the handle BigCountry (BC for short). Another DJ is playfully taunting BigCountry, saying that BC should back up an earlier remark by taking action in-game, then insinuating that BC won’t in fact take action because he’s a “fag”. My rainbow flag rattles its pole in the turbulence of that statement. I want to say something, but I also want to make sure *when* I say something it’s effective and persuasive. I don’t perceive a strategic opportunity in that moment, so I remain silent for the time being. None of the other DJs call him out on it, which is disappointing.
I don’t have to wait long for the opening I want, however. Less than a minute later, the same guy calls BigCountry a “homo”. I’ve got a shot. I’m taking it.
(The following is paraphrased from memory)
EVE RADIO IN-GAME TEXT CHAT:
Jexit > Why are we accusing BC of being a homo like it’s a bad thing? BC would be an awesome homo if he were one.
PlayerX > BEAR!
PlayerY > Good point!
PlayerZ > He’d totally be a bear!
ON THE AIR:
“Listener Jexit in the in-game chat makes a good point here. She says, ‘Why are we accusing BC of being a homo like it’s a bad thing? BC would be an awesome homo..'”
“If I were one!”
“‘…if he were one.'”
“I totally would be!”
“BC would be a great homo!”
“Listeners are saying you’d be a bear, BC.”
“I’d be such a bear!”
“I couldn’t deep throat, though. I have a terrible gag reflex.”
Comments continue in a very silly, but distinctly positive vibe, both on the air and in the in-game text chat. BC is happy to joke about his hypothetical gay self. Somewhere in the background, a voice is heard saying, “Well that turned around on me quick.” The conversation is flipped completely from whatever they were talking about, which no one seems to remember at this point.
I can’t help but feel (from experience) that if I’d charged headlong into that first “fag” insult with righteous fury, I’d have been rebuffed and seen as overly sensitive. I’d have been right to do so, but right isn’t always the same as effective. I needed to find the convergence of the two. With a little finesse and humor, I was able to expose the positive and progressive vibes I’d sensed brewing under these gamers’ hardened exteriors, and the result was a joyous rejection of a homophobic slur by the vocal majority. At least for that moment in time. But memorable moments like that – a big conversational left turn full of laughter and armed with a valid point – they stick with you. And hundreds of Eve players shared that moment with us as they listened to that radio show. That gives me hope. I really do think it’s getting better.