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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)

Kevin VanOrd, who works at a tech company in Chantilly and lives in Columbia, was incredulous. He plays "WoW," too -- and his live-in boyfriend of two years is practically cemented to the game. Upon entering their two-bedroom apartment, the first thing you see is a PC to your left and another PC to your right. On a recent Saturday afternoon, both were logged on to "WoW."

"It's interesting," says VanOrd, 33. "The gaming community is so accepting of elves and fairies, trolls and ogres. But you can't get them to be accepting of gay people right here in the gaming world."

Things exploded online. Lots of very heated chatter in gaming forums, gay and straight alike -- from Gaymer.org, the biggest of the online gay gaming sites, to Kotaku.com, the Wonkette for the hardcore gaming set, to Slashdot.org, the one-stop shop for geekdom, to Mmorpg.com, the go-to-site for millions of online role-playing gamers. An articulate bunch who haven't met a link they haven't sent in an e-mail, these gamers had lots to say. Word spread. Gays? In games? Gay guilds in games?

"It looks like the real world and the virtual one are growing closer together on a daily basis. Prepare to start paying your 'WoW' property taxes any day now," a gamer wisecracked on Mmorpg.com.

On Slashdot.org, another gamer wrote: "Gay people have a tendency to bring their own persecution down upon themselves. 'LOOK AT ME!!!!! I'M GAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!' Then they wonder why people think they are [jerks]."

Over at Kotaku.com, a gamer who calls himself "Webimpulse" got so frustrated reading all the postings: "The kind of bigotry I'm seeing on here has just killed any chances of me ever renewing my 'World of Warcraft' subscription. Blizzard used to be cool."

A lawyer at Lambda Legal, a gay rights group, got involved. Blizzard apologized to Andrews and promised to conduct "sensitivity training" for its more than 1,000 game moderators. The game's "terms of use," says Lisa Jensen, a spokeswoman for Blizzard, are currently in review.

"It was quite a wake-up call for us. It wasn't anticipated at all. It kind of spiraled out of control," Rob Pardo, the lead designer of "WoW," says of the continuing online imbroglio. "It erupted over us not having a stated policy dealing with sexual orientation within the game."

'Real Life, Game Life'

Questions abound from gays and straights. Identity in online role-playing games -- whether you're playing a rogue, a shaman, a warlock or a paladin -- is elastic, elusive, ever changing. But is it possible to avoid bringing a part of yourself to it?

"The reason that being gay is relevant to gaming is because gaming nowadays enables people to construct and reconstruct their identities," says Sherry Turkle, the author of "Life on the Screen." An MIT professor who studies the culture of online identities, she is sometimes referred to as a "cybershrink."

"We're at a transition point in how we view these online games. We're so used to the dichotomy: real life, game life. But these online games are at a place somewhere in between. It's not just a game . They spend hours there. They have friends there. They have a life there."

And that online life, says Turkle, is not entirely separated from real life.


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