Deadpool, Gaymers and Girlfriends at London ComicCon

10 Video Games for Gay Gamers

Being gay and being a geek are, you might think, quite different things. But sometimes these two aspects of identity collide, creating a wonderful spectrum of possibilities. London ComicCon 2018 raised the rainbow flag and became a sparkling example of one such space for the  LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community.

Glittery linguistic stereotypes aside, London Gaymers presented a funny, intimate and hopeful panel about LGBT gamers and the video gaming community at large.

They started with startling offline statistics from the LGBT charity Stonewall which found over 60% of university graduates return to the ‘closet’ and over a quarter are not ‘out’ at work. Conversely, the panel was comprised of Charley Hodson, Ashely Spindler, Izzy Jagan, and Nathan Costello all work in the gaming industry and all are ‘out’ in their workplaces.

So, how can we continue the good practice, and ensure that more geek workplaces are queer-friendly?  “We need people leading organisations to be supportive, to be open, to be kind most of all – from the top to the very bottom”.

Working in small firms, where one is known and appreciated as a person, was seen as a Good Thing with regard to sexuality representation. At some points, the positive storytelling had an almost bashful edge – perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that this is counter to the dominant narrative of hardships.

That is: It is much more effective if someone from a dominant (or privileged) position espouses the values and principles of equality. In addition to the usual impact of management/leadership positions, a privileged individual is not subject to a fallacy of vested interest when they promote equality. Allies have “access to cultural capital, and cultural power to change the world” (well said, Ashley!).

Doesn’t that sound just like a superhero power?

Of course, some gamers in online communities may need help to adjust their belief in the ‘post-homophobic era’. That era, sadly, is currently as much of a fantasy as a crocodile shooting out bananas from its Kart in order to trip up a pink-clad princess (ten points for getting the reference). It may seem as though LGBT persons have ‘enough rights’, but the sobering statistics say otherwise.

Whilst the London Gaymers panel was in agreement that true equality is on its way, it is still in its infancy. It needs nurturing, and time, and effort… and, yes, the occasional time-out. Ashley was candid regarding the online abuse aimed at her, purely for being trans, leading to necessary banning. Likewise for times that people need to shut their comments sections or step away from the gaming community’s occasional toxicity.

A soft hug of an idea to address this comes from Overwatch. The popular first-person shooter game translates unsavoury phrases into, for example, “It’s past bedtime. Please don’t tell my Mommy” and “I feel very, very small… Please hold me”.  A nudge into nonviolent communication – with humour.

Indeed, the voice actors who play Genji, Mercy, and Zarya noted in their panels that the popularity of the game it partly its inclusivity and diversity – not just within the game but within its community – “There is something for everybody”.

London Gaymers suggested the Overwatch model “holds people accountable” without necessarily stepping into the shaming, combative dance which can so often play out. Banning users from chats can ‘work’ in the short term – in order to remove hate or bigotry from online spaces – however, in the longer term, change will be created by supportive re-education.

Well, that, and visibility: the old adage we’re here, we’re queer still has its place. The fact of the matter is that gay people are game. “We support the industry, and the industry needs to support us too…. We deserve this respect – if we’re not getting it, demand it.”

There are, of course, different kinds of representation. It is not all about mere presence. There is the bells-and-whistles flounce of a queer archetype, whose one discerning feature is their sexuality. However, there is also the happens-to-be-gay character, whose queerness is part of ordinary – or extraordinary! – human richness.

We have seen this in television with shows such as The Wire, The Walking Dead, and Brooklyn Nine Nine. There are already games which allow same-sex romantic interactions, such Dragon Age, The Sims and more recently The Last of Us and (author favourite) Life is Strange.

The number of Gaymers who explored their gender and sexuality through The Sims (Nathan helpfully chimed in, “I’m gay, so I could make lesbians!” compared to actual lesbian Izzy, who unfortunately couldn’t) was cute to the extent of heart-warming. True sandbox play.

In short, as Nathan stated: “You can put gay characters in the game, and if the game is good, people will want it”. If an audience is interested in the story, the game will be popular.

However we must be careful about how we cater to online spaces: “It’s not a bonus if someone isn’t homophobic, transphobic, racist”. We must expect better from our online communities. Most importantly, “Sharing the positivity, enthusiasm, passion, and love we have, speaking up against injustice and misrepresentation, pulling people up to our level rather than going down to theirs” are all ways that the Gaymers think we can make a difference.

Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead, from Deadpool) (R)

Indeed, it isn’t just video games that are changing to represent audiences. Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead, from Deadpool and the more recent Deadpool 2) noted that she was respectfully asked by bigwigs (or biggish wigs) in the industry whether she wanted to keep quiet about her own sexuality, given the presumed response from audiences.

Brianna did not want to ‘keep quiet’ although she didn’t want to shout either. Her sexuality emerged in the public eye quite casually in a tweet which has been covered extensively elsewhere (not to be sensationalised as a ‘reveal’, mind). Responses have been supportive, and Brianna said that ComicCon 2018 had provided a platform for queer kids to talk to her about the importance of herself and her character in representing queerness in geek pop culture.

And it didn’t stop there. Not only is Brianna officially gay, but so is her character Negasonic, who was ‘outed’ in the same lowkey style. Ryan Reynolds – the characteristically ‘sweet guy’, the eponymous anti-hero, and co-writer of Deadpool 2–asked Brianna, “Hey, would you mind if we gave Negasonic a girlfriend?”.

(It is important, of course, to ask first).

Brianna claimed, with a wry smile, that she responded, “Mind?! I’m ecstatic!”.

And so, love of a feminine and lilac-becostumed variety struck the teenage warhead. Brianna discussed how they thought it would be more impactful if Negasonic’s love interest was mentioned, but ‘not a thing’. (This, by the way, has been considered by some theorists as the mark of ‘true diversity’; a celebration that neither erases nor exotifies difference).

When asked how Deadpool 2 covers such tender and sensitive issues amidst its swearing, sexuality and gratuitous violence, Brianna and Stefan Kapičić (who plays the well-mannered, gentle giant Colossus) said it’s because of the “Magic of Deadpool”. It’s the use of humour, the fact that these issues are treated as if they’re “Not a big deal”.

And it is magic. It’s the magic of fun, and fantasy, and play. It’s the fun about engaging in media that represents you – or gives you empathy to understand someone who is different to yourself.

It’s putting equality as a casual thread, not as a snazzy sideshow, the same way that the many queer vendors at ComicCon’s Comic Village market were just.. there. Not in a special LGBT section, but integrated with all the other talented artists. (Pride comics, and Joe Glass in particular, I have to give you a mention because you expertly encompassed the superhero realm with the adage, I didn’t see anything like me, so I created it. Allow me to share your creation.)

In short, pop culture is evolving, and much like an Eevee (ugh, too dated?) it comes with a range of elements. It is okay in the modern era to get your geek on. It is becoming steadily (or sporadically) more acceptable to get your gay on. And of course, at ComicCon, you can even get your gay geek on.

Call for the change you want to see – and if you can’t see it, be it. Rainbows for the win.

Girls Who Run the World at London ComicCon 2018

Geek culture has a rocky history with women. But now, women are rocking geek culture. Historically, women have faced invisibility (not the superpowered kind), exclusion, active hostility, violence, and sexualisation.

This is across video games (the communities surrounding video games), films, TV, and comic books – from sci-fi, superhero and fantasy genres. Geek culture does not ‘cause’ gender inequality. However, it does facilitate and shut down particular attitudes.

The stories we tell teach us who is important – and who is not. And now, women are taking charge of their own stories.

MCM London Comic Con

Orange is the New Black stars Tiffany Doggett (Taryn Manning) and Flaca Gonzalez (Jackie Cruz) spoke about the importance of centering women’s stories, particularly untold stories. The hit Netflix series focuses on a women’s prison, and the actors admitted that they have learned a lot about the conditions faced by incarcerated women during the filming process. There is also space to unpick gendered issues around race and class. “If you don’t see it, create it”, Jackie added, speaking of her extracurricular endeavours with music production.

Then, there were the wrestlers.

EVE  is a self-described “ground-breaking feminist-punk-rock wrestling promotion”: a pro wrestling group for women. ComicCon hosted a debut screening of Empowered, a documentary by Lea Winchcombe showcasing Rhia O’Reilly and Candy Floss. Unashamedly feminist and political, the documentary considers the challenges of being a female wrestler (stereotypes, naysayers and balancing home life), with the buzz of parading around the ring being “glamourous and outrageous”.

On being a role model for her daughter and others, EVE founder Emily Read laughed, “I am the hero, I am the strong one”.  They have opened up wrestling classes for women which build their confidence and self-esteem (irrespective of being novice, casual, professional or old hat). “Women have a place, women have a voice, and women kick ass!” she concluded. The author of this article may very well have shed a tear.

On a less physically exerting note, geek writer/actor/creator Felicia Day happily spoke about her work and creative projects alongside motherhood and her hair. Many members of the audience seemed to share with Felicia the same heartfelt and almost tangible importance of having a female role model within the industry to look up to. Felicia humbly acknowledged the praise and assured us that female representation in geek culture is changing. This was a repeated message at this year’s ComicCon – and a very believable one.

Photo Credit: GoGCast 156: Interview with Patricia Summersett and Victoria Atkin | Girls on Games

Voice actors from Pokemon, South Park (yes, April Stewart confirmed that Wendy is very well received by female fans) and Assassin’s Creed participated in discussions about their gender (of course, only as one element of the colorful spectrum of conversations).

Victoria Atkin and Patricia Summersett of the Assassin’s Creed games spoke about how “challenging” things can be in the industry – particularly to find female characters that aren’t one of the two common tropes of  “sexualised” or “butch”, but “somewhere in the middle”. They discussed wanting to be role models for women in a world where there can be little representation, with a standard gender ratio which appears to “almost compensate for having a female lead”. (Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy and Justice League, I’m looking at you – the good old ‘one woman in a group of four or five men’ trick).

Victoria and Patricia positively, and somewhat bravely considering how women can be treated for speaking up, critiqued their industry to a somewhat male-heavy press audience. These women want to be, and indeed, they are, changemakers – whilst acknowledging the hopeful message that, already, “It is changing”.

Away from the interview room in Comic Village, there was a whole host of women proudly showcasing their own work. This included everything from personal stories about one’s cat (and other pets), adventure tales, tea and romance, magic, fairies and fantasy, space and Japan. Worth a special mention in this mix was the interweaving of gender, sexuality, and race in the creations. Sexuality we may consider another time.

Olivia Duchess showcased a stall solely dedicated to beautiful, tender artwork of Black girls and women. Having been drawing since 2015, Olivia explained that “When I was growing up, I didn’t anyone who looked like me… I didn’t see a lot of Black characters,” (Susie Carmichael from Rugrats got a special mention). She continued, with a modest shrug, “I’m trying to be the change I want to see”, as though unaware of her brilliance.

The interplay of gender and race was also witnessed in other ways – for example, Letitia Wright (Princess Shuri from Black Panther), discussed the importance of  Black female presence in her film, not least the range of “strong female characters”. She agreed with an audience member, “The women were an amazing entity”, before going on to talk about the value of a “Disney Princess with cornrows”.

There was a woman so overwhelmed with emotion at meeting the badass Black Panther science princess, Letitia Wright, that she was trembling with joy. After a quick photo, she took my hand intently, asking: “Do you understand? Do you understand what this means for Black people?”

Her face was full of magic and the power of visibility. I don’t know how one heart held so much in a moment.

This theme was repeated by IvyDoomKitty in her panel on mental health with Janina Scarlett. She spoke about how she had never thought the representation of women was important in geek culture until she saw it. Before then, she was satisfied with the norm of the male superhero. Then she saw DC’s Wonder Woman: an unfurling, a stirring. A hunger revealed. As Dr. Scarlett said, in her discussion about seeing oneself in these stories, “equality sends a very powerful message that everyone is equal and everyone matters”.

I felt it too, this ComicCon. A sense of … something, resonating, muscular and powerful, yet somehow delicate and bright. The kind of visceral sensation that glows in your belly and makes you grab a stranger’s hand and ask them:

Do you understand?

ComicCon, I think you did understand. You gave women – all kinds of women – space, made us central and elevated our power.

Superwomen are here to stay. See you next year!

Understanding Geek Culture and Nostalgia

Geek Culture

London Comic Con 2017 was a place of wonder, hype, and secret previews. Not least, a place for hands-on grappling with games and technology.

There were some very long queues (welcome to Britain!) for those waiting to play on the new Wonder Woman (2017) video game. Virtual reality headsets – namely, the PlayStation®VR – had to be pre-booked in advance. One could pose with a sword from Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

A huge section showed a live competition for the World of Warcraft card game HearthStone (complete with commentators and audience seating). That is not to dismiss other big-name titles such as the Tekken 7 fighting game, and Agents of Mayhem based on the violent Saint’s Row series.

In spite of this, there was also a very distinct trend away from these temptations. Comic Con provided a range of old-school arcade machines, playing the likes of PacMan, Sega’s Bubble Bobble, and old-school dance mats. Given the range of new offerings on show, why were so many people opting for the joy of the stick rather than the slickness of the headset?

One clear option is a sense of mastery and competence. It is clear that people will be better at old-school games that they have played for years, compared to new games with which they have yet to come to grips. But that cannot explain everything. Comic Con, whilst definitely a place for showing off one’s talents, was primarily a place of community and sharing.

Indeed, the arcade games were most often played in pairs, or with an “I can’t believe you have never played this!”. There were heated discussions about when, where and how people once played these games, what their high score was, and of course, a wider discussion about “the classics”. The physicality of the old technology appeared to ripple out a sense of genuine, unfettered and childlike delight.

Clay Routledge and colleagues argue that nostalgia – far from being a whimsical trip into the past (or indeed, a psychiatric disorder as it was once considered) – has an important psychological function. Namely, nostalgia helps to give our lives meaning, and also to enhance a sense of social connectedness. Often, nostalgia relates to something important or personally significant, and it can help buffer us against anxiety, loneliness, and threats. This latter point has been called “terror management”.

Arguably the world is a difficult and threatening place. News and social media make it easier to connect with others, but it has never been quicker to learn about the perils and injustices of the world. Communities, particularly in developed countries, have changed: traveling is becoming a norm, facilitated by long-distance communication methods and a more transitory job market. Long-distance relationships are more common, within families and within romantic partnerships. Whilst there has been debate about the extent to which these things help or hinder connectedness, it is clear that many of us are unsure of where we stand in relation to each other.

Technology also makes it easier to access the things for which we have nostalgia. Videos, pictures, images, online communities and even online shopping have put the wonders of our past within easy reach of our fingertips. As noted in our previous article London Comic Con demonstrated the importance of one’s personal history in geek culture, with many people linking their costume choices back to childhood or adolescence. Is it really a surprise that games are no different?

There is an important place for the new stuff – the shiny, groundbreaking stuff which bursts through boundaries like an over-powdered firework. However, there is also a crucial place for the older, more familiar stuff.

The next time someone criticises you for being nostalgic, remember to tell them that it’s not just “living in the past”. Nostalgia serves an important psychological function. It’s part of your wellbeing and sense of connectedness, not simply a throwback to immaturity.

So feel free to get back on PacMan when you finish this article – and PacMan with pride. See how smug you feel when you get that new high score.

London Comic Con: Cosplay, Creativity and Healing

What is in a costume? Apparently, your inner self. Social Work Helper spent time at Comic Con 2017 asking people about their character costumes (“cosplay”), and what it means to them.

The first interviewee was a homemade character called Puppet. “By hiding myself, I can be more of myself”, she explained, gesturing to her bright and fur-clad head mask. “I’ve wanted a fur suit since I can remember.. In real life, I’m quite shy”. The flamboyant and impressive costume was this person’s way of making herself known and expressing her true self. Her friend played the Pokemon Sylveon, because “I’ve loved Pokemon since I was a child – it’s cute!”.

Finally, there was the woman who had created her own character (or “OC”) based on a girl with special powers from the Black Plague era. Like her creator, this character was misunderstood by others and sometimes dealt with her difficulties through self-injury. This character, this cosplay, was a way by which a young woman creatively dealt with their own demons.

Finally, there was the woman who had created her own character (or “OC”) based on a girl with special powers from the Black Plague era. Like her creator, this character was misunderstood by others and sometimes dealt with her difficulties through self-injury. This character, this cosplay, was a way by which a young woman creatively dealt with their own demons.

A trio of Star Trek crew also had a deeper meaning to their costumes. They spoke of the Star Trek universe being “hopeful”, and a representation of a utopian society towards which humanity can strive. Some modern technology has, arguably, been inspired by the show (such as mobile phones), and given the Star Trek crew’s habituation to technology, “The mundane can be fantastic!”. They argued that Star Trek also teaches us that although difficulties and challenges are inevitable, we can get through them.

The trio spoke of the show being inclusive of gender and race, and trailblazing with its inclusion of Nichelle Nicholls – a black woman as a crew member who reportedly inspired the likes of Whoopi Goldberg. Indeed, Nichelle later went on to support diverse recruiting for NASA. A woman dressed as a Vulcan (an alien race which cannot understand emotions) went on to say that she has a diagnosis of autism. From Star Trek, she learned from half-Vulcan Spock that “just because I’m different, doesn’t mean I’m not important too. Everyone is different, everyone is unique”.

From Star Trek to Star Wars, the man who played Rey from the new Star Wars franchise had some insightful comments about his choice of female character. He suggested that cosplayers are respected if they play with gender and that he had received a lot of positivity – “It makes people happy! With gender play, the only limit is your imagination”. He also spoke of his pleasure that there is “Finally a lead female” in the Star Wars franchise, a character who is “confident, humorous and strong” (although Princess Leia has a solid presence in the Star Wars film, she was not the leading character).

There was a range of other cross-gendering characters, from the woman who created a home-made version of Marvel’s Dr. Strange – which had taken six months to hand-stamp and create – to the slow-moving and frankly chilling female Pyramid Head (a horror video game character).

Let us not forget the animals of ComicCon, for example, Catz of the eponymous musical. Most of the weekend, they were found lounging on the floor (or on each other). As we talked, occasionally one would lazy stalk around before curling back up at the foot of another.

Their sun-bright makeup and costumes were painstakingly home-made, the former taking several hours and the latter taking months. “We get lost in their world, acting it out”, they told me, “We wanted something different”. They met online and at conventions, and one said “I’ve been a fan of Catz since I was little” They talked about how it was a “confidence boost”, particularly with a number of passers-by (understandably) taking pictures and admiring their presentation.

Their sun-bright makeup and costumes were painstakingly home-made, the former taking several hours and the latter taking months. “We get lost in their world, acting it out”, they told me, “We wanted something different”. They met online and at conventions, and one said “I’ve been a fan of Catz since I was little” They talked about how it was a “confidence boost”, particularly with a number of passers-by (understandably) taking pictures and admiring their presentation.

This small cross-section of interviews was only a hint of what the weekend had to offer. ComicCon hosted anime characters such as Naruto “He’s goofbally and prideful, he likes to help people – I relate to him”, and his sensei Kakashi “We’re similar – he has a dark past and changed as a person over the series”, Merrida of Disney’s Brave “Doesn’t need a prince, is fierce and independent”, the Dark Souls Elite Knight who had hand-forged his armour (“He’s a cool guy, something different to Snake [from video game Metal Gear Solid] and people keep coming up to me”). The cast of The Hunger Games spoke about the importance of a group costume, particularly in gaining people’s interest, and Lego Batman seemed to enjoy bringing smiles and laughter wherever he waddled.

What can we make of this? Clearly cosplay, for many people, is an important part of self-expression. A chance for people to be creative, confident and expressive; a chance for people to connect with their childhood; a chance to “be yourself” through not being yourself. It was a place where people could socialise in weird and wonderful ways, and actively invite the attention of strangers. For some, the experience of creating and becoming different characters was actually a way of dealing with their own stories – and everybody had a story to tell.

Indeed, if there’s any take-home message from our cosplayers this weekend, it’s that we all wear our masks. We all have our inner selves, the parts of us we don’t express. ComicCon simply gives us the opportunity to celebrate them.

The Incredible Hulk Gives Bullying Advice at London ComicCon

Lou Ferrigno (right) – Played the Hulk in 70’s tv show

The Incredible Hulk, rightly so, is one of the “biggest franchises out there”. These words come from none other than the original 1970’s TV Hulk, Lou Ferrigno.

Ferrigno, now age 65, attended MCM ComicCon London this year to connect with his fans, the lifeblood of The Hulk’s popularity. In a press conference, he was asked about everything from his acting career to the metaphorical meaning of his famous green alter-ego.

“We all have a little Hulk inside us”, he told us, “we all want to express how we really feel.” All of those emotions (fear, anxiety, anger, frustration) are things that many of us want to show, but can’t. Ferrigno argued that The Hulk provides an outlet for these inner demons. This cultural expression of our deepest feelings is part of The Hulk’s attraction – the reason why, as one reporter suggested, The Hulk has “touched so many people”.

In essence, what makes Bruce Banner (The Hulk in human form) so special is that, as Ferrigno states, the character is both “quietly spoken” and “instant death”. Deep down, Bruce Banner is powerful, and he can defend himself. Ferrigno spoke candidly about how the crew, when they were filming, would sometimes burst into applause at his performances. What they may not have realised is that, for Lou, the expression was real.

After an infection as a child, Ferrigno lost most his hearing. His speech was also affected, and he was heavily bullied. He describes himself as “introverted”, but also that he was able to overcome adversity with an “I can” perspective on life, never “feeling sorry” for himself. Like Bruce Banner, Ferrigno wanted to be powerful, and able to defend himself. And goodness, did he succeed.

Ferrigno started body building in his early adolescence, inspired by Hercules whose superhero costume was primarily his own muscle. He went on to win Mr Universe twice, and to become a worldwide icon as The Incredible Hulk – whilst, in real life, being somewhat of a gentle giant. Indeed, when asked what other roles he would like to play, he mentioned the “suave” and “intelligent” James Bond.

I asked Ferrigno what advice he would give to the kids out there who are still struggling with being bullied. “Talk to someone… express yourself, even if you feel threatened”, he told us. “It’s the bully’s problem”. He made it clear that the single, best thing children can do is not to keep it to themselves, and get help.

That’s right. The Hulk himself has said to tell someone if you are being bullied.

So what makes Lou Ferrigno’s statements so timely, and important?

The UK anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found in their 2016 survey that half of children experience bullying, and nearly one fifth of children experience bullying every day. Children’s charity NSPCC provided over 25,000 counselling sessions last year alone. Given how difficult it can be to talk to someone about bullying (often due to fear and shame), having an icon –  a superhero, no less – backing you up could be the difference between silence and support-seeking.

Additionally, Ferrigno has told us: It’s not your fault. It’s the bully’s problem. Victims of bullying may blame themselves for how they are treated, thinking they did something to “cause” the bullying, or that they are defective in some way. Worse, young people may think that they will get into even more trouble by telling an adult. It is a crucial and compassionate message to say “This is not your problem”.

Finally, we know that Lou Ferrigno has made meaning out of his childhood experiences which can also be known as “post-traumatic growth”. He quite literally became a hero, and turned his adversity into a superpower. Ferrigno uses his experiences to help others, by supporting a number of children’s charities such as the Starkey Hearing Foundation. And, thankfully for his millions of fans around the word, he talks openly about his own bullying experiences.

This is yet another thing we can take from Ferrigno’s ComicCon interview: bullying is not the end. Even those of us who have been bruised or changed in some way by bullying can find something in the experience to be thankful for. We may have found out about the depths of our personal strength, like Ferrigno himself. We may have discovered the importance of friendships, or the huge significance of a kind word; we may as adults use our bullying experiences to help and understand others. After the pain, after the hurt, there is space for healing and learning. We just need to find ways to do it.

So please, care and share. If Lou Ferrigno can do this at a press conference full of shiny cameras and reporters, then so can we with the children and adults we see every day. Together, let’s have those conversations, let’s raise awareness and take action.

Alongside The Incredible Hulk, it’s time that we “smash” the bullying trap.

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