Blair Durkee interview — How to embrace your LGBTQIA+ players

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GLAAD has spent decades monitoring media for defamatory coverage of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. But now that video games have become a powerhouse medium, the nonprofit group has also begun to focus on the gaming sector.

But rather than just focus on defamatory representation, the group has also been consulting with the game industry to help with the depiction of LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual) characters in video games.

GLAAD has consulted with Capcom on the transgender fighter Poison in Street Fighter X Tekken as well as with Dontnod Entertainment in the narrative adventure game Tell Me Why. Blair Durkee, an advocate for LGBTQIA representation in gaming and associate director of gaming for GLAAD, recently spoke about the topic of how to best engage, support, and grow gaming’s LGBTQIA+ audience at the recent DICE Summit event in Las Vegas.

Durkee said that LGBTQIA+representation had come a long way in games such as Life is Strange: True Colors, Rainbow Six Siege, Tell Me Why, and Cyberpunk 2077. But from GLAAD’s perspective, she said that nobody has gotten it 100% right.

I spoke with Durkee in an interview at DICE. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Blair Durkee is associate director of gaming for GLAAD.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: What did you talk about?

Blair Durkee: Yeah, two sessions this morning. The topic was “Embracing Your LGBTQIA Players.” The discussion ranged very broadly. We talked about the pipeline problem of hiring diversity in the industry, all the way to the specifics on how you write an authentic LGBTQ character that resonates and doesn’t come across as pandering. Lots of topics to cover. We could have gone on for about three times as long as we did.

GamesBeat: Are there some points you usually like to make about those key topics?

Durkee: The overarching one is just to tap into the well of expertise that’s out there. It sounds like a shameless plug for GLAAD, and it is, to be fair, but what I’ve come across so much when I talk to game developers is that they want to rely on their own internal ERGs, members of their own staff, who may be doing some completely unrelated job. If they’re writing a non-binary character they might go to their non-binary QA tester or something like that. I hear that so often.

There are two problems with that. Not only is it not that person’s job – it’s extra labor, extra emotional labor – but also, just because you’re LGBTQ doesn’t necessarily mean you have the content expertise to advise on media and storytelling and PR and marketing and all these sorts of things that we’ve collected at GLAAD over 36 years of institutional knowledge. That’s the overarching piece, just to get the industry thinking more proactively about how they approach the LGBTQ community, and less reactive – putting something out there, seeing how the community reacts, and then maybe doing damage control after that.

GamesBeat: One of my favorite games was The Last of Us Part II, and I saw that from a particular perspective, but I was wondering what you thought of some of the characters they presented there.

Durkee: Oh, yeah. It was a fascinating conversation. There was a sort of–it was a mess because of the leak, of course. That was a disaster. But it was interesting that there was so much transphobia that flared up over that game, and it was all directed toward Abby, who was not a trans character. I was watching Twitch streams of some of the bigger streamers playing the game before it came out, with early copies, and it was just transphobic slurs for hours on end. It was just horrific.

This life wasn't enough for Ellie in The Last of Us Part II.This life wasn’t enough for Ellie in The Last of Us Part II.

To their credit I think Naughty Dog did a good job of–I don’t know if they media trained the creators that they gave pre-release copies to, but they seemed to do a good job of trying to tamp down on it. But it was an illuminating moment to see how much–I mean, obviously we know that Gamergate has never really died. It just kind of went underground, I guess you could say. But it’s still there. There’s all the same homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, all there as an undercurrent.

But to get to your question about the game itself, no, the characters were great. There was some initial community discussion around Lev being “deadnamed,” as some people say. His birth name was yelled out by some of the enemies you face in the game when you’re playing as Abby. That’s kind of a no-no in the trans community. But that’s one of those things where, if Naughty Dog, had come to GLAAD, that’s the first thing we would say. Understanding that, as consultants, we don’t try to exert creative control. We understand that the studios have their own vision and respect that. But we like to help them understand the land mines, where they are, and then if they want to step on them they can, but don’t just step on it accidentally and be surprised by it.

GamesBeat: I wonder if that was or wasn’t accidental. I got the impression that they’d be trying to insult him by invoking that.

Durkee: For sure, yeah. And that’s one of the reasons why I personally don’t think the game was problematic. Which is a loaded word, but–it gets to the heart of what I do and what we do at GLAAD. It’s not just about being offensive or not being offensive. That’s the bare minimum. There’s also the question of how you navigate this complex web of LGBTQ representation writ large, throughout history. Because when you’re writing a trans character, that character and that game don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in a context of 40 or 50 years of game-making, and much more in terms of entertainment as a whole.

There are trans stereotypes going back a century. That’s one of them, that so many trans stories are rooted in these deeply traumatic experiences of being rejected. I think the community reacted in that sense. Not that it doesn’t make sense why the enemies would do that. I can’t remember the faction name that Lev came from, the religious cult? But that was kind of their deal. They’re bigots. That’s understandable. But it’s something the trans community is hyper-aware of. It’s why so many of these characters get this knee-jerk backlash. We saw it with Osa, the trans operative in Rainbow Six Siege for example.

We worked a lot on Tell Me Why with Xbox Game Studios, developing Tyler, the protagonist in that game. There was a lot of skepticism when that game was announced. A lot of people said, “We don’t trust Microsoft to get this right.” That’s why they brought on GLAAD, because they knew they’d have to pay their dues to win the community over. I certainly think Xbox did a good job there, and I hope we did a good job. But it’s a challenge. You can’t just take anything for granted. Whether you like it or not, when you venture into this space, you’re inheriting that history of LGBTQ representation.

Osa is the first transgender character in Rainbox Six Siege.

GamesBeat: It feels like this resource that’s available through your organization is necessary while there’s something of a shortage of people in the industry.

Durkee: I don’t know if we necessarily fill that kind of a gap. I would certainly love to provide–we are, at the end of the day, consultants. We’re not going in there and modeling characters for them. This is something we do all the time. I do it on a daily basis right now. Under NDA of course, but for various studios, they’ll come up with a character design, and they’ll give that to us and review it and give feedback. This is done for all kinds of marginalized identities, whether it’s people of color, people with disabilities–even when it comes to game design, a lot of consulting goes on in terms of accessibility, which is great. That’s what we do on the LGBTQ side of things.

We’re also looking at character creators. That’s a hot topic. Again, we don’t do the creation. We’re not developers. But we have the industry expertise, and I have a lifetime of gaming knowledge, having used many different character creators, seeing what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. We try to bring that to bear. I don’t know if that shortage necessarily affects the work we do. But for whatever reason over the last two years, the gaming industry has just exploded during the pandemic. We definitely see that in the consulting work we get from the games industry.

GamesBeat: Looking at character creators, how often do you find them done right?

Durkee: Never. Literally never. That’s the frontier right now. We’re looking for a studio to get it right. One of the challenges is that when studios come to us to get feedback on their character creator, it’s already 90 percent done. That’s the problem. The production constraints don’t allow for them to go back and rework all the stuff they’ve already done if they’re that late in the process.

What typically ends up happening with those character creators, they’ll have created a large number of assets for men and women. You can’t interchange them. But depending on how their engine works and tool chain and all that, maybe they can allow interchangeability. That’s the solution, what I would call the Band-Aid solution, that a lot of developers have used. Okay, you can put this female hairstyle on a male body, or put makeup on a male face, or a beard on a female face. Things like that. It’s not really good representation, but it’s better than just pure binary masculine men and feminine women and that’s all you get.

Certainly what we’d like to see, and there’s definitely been experimentation in this space–if you look at what Cyberpunk did, where you’re literally choosing your genitalia, that was interesting. I think a lot of trans players took well to that just because it was some representation. You’d never been able to create a character in a game that was explicitly trans that way. You can always headcanon your character that way, but to actually have that physical option in the game is good. But reducing trans people to just genitalia isn’t the best representation either. Again, we love to see all the experimentation that’s going on, but from our perspective, no one’s gotten it 100% right yet.

Judy is a character in Cyberpunk 2077. The game let players pick the main character’s genitals.

GamesBeat: From the right-wing side of things, did that provoke any kind of outrage?

Durkee: From what I saw–I mean, CD Projekt Red has dabbled in this before. There was a gay character in Witcher III. From what I’ve heard, there was some backlash to that. Despite the fact that the Witcher is an eminently heterosexual game in every possible way. One gay character was enough to upset a lot of people, in eastern Europe in particular, since that’s where the developer hails from.

With Cyberpunk it was interesting because–it’s a whole different subject on its own, but there’s this ideal of sexualization of trans bodies. I don’t know if we even want to get into this. But trans people, even though they’re discriminated against on a legal basis and harassed in all kinds of places, one place trans people are succeeding is in the adult industry, believe it or not. There are a lot of people who would look at Cyberpunk and interpret it through that lens of, “Okay, this is a woman with a penis, a common image in the adult industry.” I saw that when I was watching Twitch streams of people playing the game. People would use–not the best terminology, let’s say. Terms like “trap” would come up a lot when people were in the character creator.

Cyberpunk did have a really good trans character. I think her name was Claire? She’s the bartender at the Afterlife. And she was great. But if you look at the game as a whole, it didn’t really do a lot to push back on the sort of transphobia that a lot of players projected onto the way that characters were represented in the character creator in the game, unfortunately.

GamesBeat: There are a lot of different mines to step on.

Durkee: Oh, for sure. It’s incredible, when we go into these consulting meetings with studios, and they say, “Hey, we just have a couple of questions about this character we’re making.” And then we end up having a three-hour conversation about all the issues they hadn’t considered yet that we bring to their attention.

Going back to what my panel was about earlier, that’s the message I’m trying to get out, more than anything else. The game industry is behind film and TV on this issue, because film and TV studios have learned that when they are writing a character that they don’t have internal expertise on – whether it’s a person of color, a person with a disability, an LGBTQ person – they need to bring in outside consultants. They know that. They’ve been down that road. They’ve learned those lessons the hard way and now they do that. The game industry is just now starting to catch up.

GamesBeat: It is interesting to see these things being considered in games where there’s a lot of depth. In games where it’s almost cartoonish, Nintendo games and the like, do they ever catch your attention around these issues?

Durkee: No, I’d certainly love to see more representation in games that you wouldn’t expect. One of my favorite nominees–we have an Outstanding Video Game category at the GLAAD Media Awards. Last year one of our nominees was Bugsnax, which is one of those kind of cartoony games. It had incredible representation! It had a lesbian couple, a gay couple, a non-binary character. It fit the tone of the game perfectly. It didn’t seem forced or anything like that. Maybe Bugsnax isn’t necessarily Nintendo’s style of game, but certainly there is room for representation in those types of games.

When it comes to Nintendo in particular, I understand that for their target demographic, they tend to play things conservatively. But they have run into issues before. There was the famous issue in 2014 with Tomodachi Life, where it’s literally a life simulator game. You can get married in the game. But you can only have a straight marriage. Nintendo initially tried to defend that by saying that they weren’t trying to make a political statement, that they just wanted to be neutral. But that just doesn’t work. If you’re an LGBTQ player, not having the option to marry someone of the gender you’re attracted to is erasing that identity. It erases the entire basis of the game for you. It’s not just a small feature that’s missing.

From what I understand they’ve improved there. Even back then they backtracked their initial statement and they apologized. Later on there was Miitopia for the 3DS where they did have those options. So they have been improving.


GamesBeat: As far as the latest games that did win awards, does anything come to mind for you that was particularly well done?

Durkee: Well, we just announced our nominees for this year. I don’t know if you’ve seen that yet. We normally have five nominees in every category, but for last year and now this year we have 10 nominees, and they’re incredible. Far Cry 6 was one of our nominees. That was excellent. There’s an amazing trans character in that game, Paolo de la Vega, who talks very frankly in the game about his experience of being trans in the military. He explicitly uses the word “trans,” which is shocking for a triple-A game in this day and age, to actually use the word and not just obliquely and awkwardly refer to the idea. That was a great one.

From the same publisher, Ubisoft, we also nominated Rainbow Six Siege, which had two new LGBTQ operatives last year, Flores and Osa. That was incredible because it’s a multiplayer game, and multiplayer games so often try to do the cop-out of saying, “Well, there’s no story in the game, so our characters are just ambiguous avatars that you can project whatever you want onto.” And I think the trend in the industry is away from that, looking at Overwatch and Apex Legends. Even Fortnite is starting to get more into the lore of that universe. It boosts engagement to have more development and depth in those characters, and it’s awesome to see LGBTQ characters included in that.

But then we also have some small games. Unpacking got a nomination, which is incredible. I love that one because it’s a game that, again, you wouldn’t expect to have–to need to have representation. Yet it subverts those player expectations in the best way possible. Something that draws me toward games as a medium in the first place is the fact that you can show without telling, this whole idea of environmental storytelling. Games have just barely scratched the surface of what you can do there. Some games do that very well. Fullbright did that well with Gone Home. But that’s where Unpacking really excelled, by telling an LGBTQ story through objects and through timelines, things like that. And eventually at the end of the game you see the explicit representation with the couple. But that was a cool one.

Life is Strange: True Colors was another one of our nominees. Just unbelievable representation. Bisexual protagonist, lesbian love interest, and then Steph, the lesbian character, got her own entire DLC, which was a sort of lonely lesbian simulator? From a publisher like Square Enix, I never thought I’d ever see something like that, much less in 2021.

GamesBeat: For me that was maybe the second or third Asian main character in a game, not counting fighting games and stuff like that.

Durkee: Right! And there are still too few women as protagonists in games. It hit a lot of really high notes in terms of the inclusivity in the game. But particularly what makes me love it is just the authenticity that shines through. So many game developers want to put representation forward, but it feels inauthentic. You can tell the writing doesn’t come from someone who’s had that lived experience. But there–you have a scene where they want to distract that woman and steal her USB stick. There’s a debate over whether Steph or Ryan should go? And it’s just so natural. It feels like a natural conversation that I might have as an LGBTQ person in my own life. To see that reflected in a game, you can clearly tell that this authenticity is coming from people behind the scenes that have those lived experiences.

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