Wednesday, April 23, 2014

AdamMaleBlog Exclusive: Interview w/ Gaming In Color Director Philip Jones

Yesterday we posted the trailer to a wonderful new documentary Gaming In Color. You can revisit that article here. But, here's a quick recap. Gaming In Color is a pay what you want documentary that explores many facets of the queer side of gaming culture and the game industry's LGBTQ presence. And, it is brilliant.

The film was directed by first time documentary maker Philip Jones and produced/edited by Ryan Paul. They enlisted musician/producer/composer 2 Mello for the soundtrack. Together, they have created one of the most comprehensive, charming looks at the world of gay geek culture ever conceived. It's thought provoking and poignant without ever hinting at being emotionally manipulative. I consider that a total triumph in today's world where so many filmmakers go for flash over substance.

Here's Philip's hilarious bio:
As a queer youth and active gamer, Philip is one of many with an emotional stake in this project. Although he didn’t begin playing until the early 2000s, he has much experience with recent generations and the shift to online. Diversity and positive acceptance in games, both in development and community culture, he hopes is something that can be truly achieved. This is his first film. When not working on Gaming in Color, Philip studies and wears too much flannel at his home in Texas.
The film officially came out yesterday (April 22, 2014). Thankfully, despite the whirlwind of media attention, requests for public appearances, and also gearing up for the upcoming GaymerX2 convention, Philip Jones was kind enough to spend some time with us and answer our questions!

Q: I can’t even imagine how difficult making a feature length documentary must be. How did you make up your mind to actually commit to this adventure?
Philip: Well, the main motivation was that nobody was doing it! Queer gamers have always existed, as have groups of people who are really looking to reinvent games in a special way, but my experience is that it's only just recently that those kinds of people are being recognized for really making a mainstream impact. GaymerX was also a big inspiration, something that large really needed to be preserved.

Q: What did you learn that surprised you? Did anyone’s story or experience make you reevaluate the way that you see the gayming community?
Philip: Oh gosh, everything I know now I learned through working on this film. I mean, I grew up gay and playing games since I was 8, but it wasn't until recently that I was so invested in being a part of a gaymer community, or really seeking queer representation in the games I play. So I still had a white-male tailored experience that I think can be common for gaymers. Then I met people who were involved in creating GaymerX or the gaymer groups all over, and it opened my eyes to a new path that you can take. So picking one story or experience is very difficult as something that changed me, since almost everyone I've met through this has been highly influential. That said, I think our cast is made up of some of the best people doing game work with a queer perspective right now.

Q: What are your favorite games?
Philip: My favorite games are the SSX series, the snowboarding games, hands down. I've loved that franchise since I started gaming, and I really made a name for myself in the community there. I also played Left 4 Dead 2 competitively for a while, and still enjoy that. Other favorites are Pikmin, Smash Brothers, Little King's Story, Dangan Ronpa, Saints Row... So many more. Recently? The Last of Us blew my mind. I'm also super excited for Samantha Kalman's game Sentris to arrive later this year!

Q: Have you personally encountered any serious homophobic situations that made you feel uncomfortable while gaming?
Philip: Who hasn't, right? I mean in an online space, you're really kind of asking for trouble just by existing and having the potential to piss the wrong person off. If a person can prey on your sexuality or something about you that stands out to them as easily attacked, that's what they will go for. After being in the queer games space for so long, the existence of homophobia or transphobia or racism or misogyny online has become a 'duh' issue for lots of people, so those kinds of toxic behaviors from other players may not affect them as much externally, not on a deep level, but lots of people still are deeply troubled by that culture. For me, now that I'm learning to examine game design, the sorts of heteronormative and exclusionary mechanics or systems in a game are starting to bother me a lot more.

Q: The film spends a good deal of time discussing the difficulty of being a geek growing up and how that translates into later life. Do you think there is really still a stigma to admitting to being a geek in the workplace?
Philip: I'm sure it depends on the industry, but I have heard lots of stories from people who have felt socially ostracized by peers or co-workers from them bringing up the sorts of geeky things they do. Especially in communities built on mainstream gay culture, but geek culture is sort of integrating into and influencing pop culture overall. The 'nerd' trope has expanded a lot to include new technologies that most people will find interesting. So things are getting better, but maybe not so much specifically for video game creators and players. Also, I think it's a good thing that we examined the 'gamer' stereotype in the film so much, because that idea of who a gamer is, that persona is who the big developers market to. So expanding that vision of who is going to play this game will lead to a lot of care being put into making a game more accessible and interesting to different kinds of people.

Q: In your vast experience and research, do you think more gaymers gravitate towards solo player or MMO style games? 
Philip: One of the most important things we learn from the documentary is that even the word 'gaymer' isn't a narrow or specific description of any kind of person or game player, there are all different types of gaymers who take different approaches with games, with the way they view and play video games and digital interactive media. Determining trends in a large, varied community like that is difficult, and I think video games are special because the kinds of games we enjoy vary on an individual basis. I think MOST gaymers still play and enjoy the most mainstream, AAA titles on a large degree, whether they are singleplayer, multiplayer, MMO based doesn't tend to affect them as much if the game looks fun. For people looking to 'queer' game design and narrative, I still think it's a mixed bag. Overall, everyone wants to enjoy what they're playing in a comfortable space, with a game where they feel a sense of control over what's being presented and what they're experiencing, and I think it's important for developers to start listening to people who aren't getting full enjoyment out of mainstream titles anymore due to the issues we present.

Q: Have you heard from any video gaming companies in response to the documentary? Do you foresee them committing to making a larger effort to encompass the LGBTQ community?
Philip: Most large companies are still hesitant to include queer themes; most companies are hesitant still to even acknowledge the issue. I think the worst example in the history of games of awful queer portrayal that affected me personally was the issue of transphobia and horrid trans caricatures in Grand Theft Auto V. As if the misogynistic overtones weren't bad enough, the things that they did to trans people in that game were just unbelievably disgusting. I'd never witnessed such bold-faced hatred. And that was written off by the game's developers as 'satire'. In the same year, we saw also some of the best queer content that was really taken seriously by the developers, with Bill in The Last of Us, and Gone Home for example. I also know that State of Decay is supposed to have a gay character, maybe even the protagonist, but unfortunately I haven't made it that far in the game yet. So as it's happening, the more we move forward with exploring gay and queer narrative, the worse our bad examples are starting to get. There's gonna have to be an explosion, some kind of revolution is coming to hit the industry. We can't continue on the path we've been traveling.

Q: So, you have been invited to speak at MIT about Gaming In Color. How mind blowing is that?
Philip: Well, I made sure that the focus is more on screening the film than me coming to speak, but yes I am thrilled and very honored they reached out and wanted to feature Gaming In Color beyond the minimum. I didn't expect so many academic institutions to really enjoy the documentary so much, and want their students to see it, least of all for me to speak to their students! I'm still a beginner at this! MIT is a very inspiring place, as is the MIT Game Lab whose game A Closed World is featured in the film and trailer. I'm sure it's going to be a fun time!

Q: One of the many hats you wear is vendor relations for GaymerX! What new events can we look forward to at GaymerX2 this year?
Philip: Yes! GaymerX was fabulous, and we're only expecting bigger and better things for this year. GaymerX2 has a bigger venue, lots of amazing special guests (including Colleen Macklin from the film!), and it's wonderful to see so many gaymers excited about the safe space and gaming funtime that GaymerX is to return. I can't wait for the convention, and I hope that seeing so much of the first convention in the film will raise awareness and get people to buy a ticket to this year's con. All your friends are going, so don't miss out!

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