For Gay Gamers, A Virtual Reality Check

Kevin VanOrd believes that although gamers embrace the idea of trolls and ogres, they won't accept gay people.
Kevin VanOrd believes that although gamers embrace the idea of trolls and ogres, they won't accept gay people. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

Only in an online role-playing game: a man playing as a woman, a husband and wife playing as a lesbian couple, a transsexual showgirl playing as a magical mage. In the swashbuckling fantasyland that is "World of Warcraft" -- with more than 6 million players, each forking up $14.95 a month -- you can take on a whole new identity. That's the beauty of it. Total escapism.

Or so Sara Andrews thought.

Lately, she's been the most talked about figure in that robust but little-known subculture within games: gay gamers. They're the players -- of all ages, many of them out, some closeted -- who serve as the antidote to the stereotypical image of the young heterosexual male video game player. They have built online communities like Gaymer.org and Gamers.experimentations.org, to name just two. They also foster gay groups within online role-playing games such as "City of Heroes," "Star Wars Galaxies" and "World of Warcraft," aka "WoW."

The question is -- why? What does being gay have to do with gaming? Isn't the whole point to leave behind one's identity in a realm of pure fantasy? Should the rules of conduct online mirror the rules of real life?

Andrews says yes. "To many gamers online, 'gay' or 'homo' . . . are used as general insults. And they feel like they can type them in over and over again because they're on their computers and I can't see them in person," she says. The 25-year-old Andrews is a transsexual showgirl at Play Dance Bar in Nashville at night and a spell-casting mage online on her days off. "Being gay, I can't help but get [ticked] off and react. I didn't leave the real closet to be forced back into the virtual closet."

The answer Andrews and others are learning is that their virtual worlds can simply be an extension of the world they're living in. Online worlds, in fact, are as complex as real ones.

Cited for Harassment

Within "World of Warcraft," there are numerous "guilds." They are not unlike high school clubs, and last year, Andrews started one akin to a Gay-Straight Alliance. She named it Oz.

In late January, Andrews was trying to recruit new members to her GLBT-friendly guild: gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender. ("Why do we have gay clubs? Because a lot of men dancing with other men would get ragged on in straight clubs, right? Same thing for online games," she explains.) Repeatedly, she wrote in general chats within the game: "We are not 'GLBT only,' but we are 'GLBT friendly!' " Then one of the game's moderators, interpreting the game's "terms of use," cited her for "Harassment-Sexual Orientation."

"Advertising sexual orientation" was inappropriate, said a spokesman for Blizzard, the California-based company that owns "WoW." Many people are offended at the mere sight of the word "homosexual," the company noted. Furthermore, "we do feel that the advertisement of a 'GLBT friendly' guild is very likely to result in harassment for players that may not have existed otherwise," Blizzard wrote Andrews.

To many gay gamers, Blizzard's stance amounted to the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"The idea that sexual orientation doesn't belong in games is absurd. It's in movies, it's in music, it's on TV," says Alexander Sliwinksi, a gaming columnist for In Newsweekly, the gay weekly paper in Boston.

Chris Viccini, a graphic designer in Atlanta who started Gaymer.org in May 2003 and plays "WoW," was confused. "What message was Blizzard trying to send?" asks the 35-year-old. "That gay people aren't welcome in the game?"


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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