Payment Past Due

Y’ever have one of those moments where it’s late at night, and you’re prepping for sleep by skimming articles and such you may have missed during the day? You read something and have a bad initial reaction, i.e. “Oh what the fuck?!” and maybe you make some upset tweets or FB/Tumblr posts about it but think “okay I’m gonna get some sleep, maybe I’ll have more perspective in the morning.”

Then you wake up and re-read and/or read additional information and instead of feeling better, you get even more upset than you were the night before?

Welcome to my Friday.

So if you didn’t know, Polygon’s Phil Kollar did an interview at GDC with Greg “Ghostcrawler but not anymore” Street, now a designer at League of Legends studio Riot Games.

Phil’s interview is actually pretty good — you can read the whole thing here — in terms of interlocution. One of the things Phil asked was about the potential addition of LGBTQ+ characters to LoL, using the reveal of Tracer as a lesbian in an Overwatch official tie-in comic as precedent. As you can imagine, it’s a topic about which I have thoughts maybe so I was definitely interested in the answer and to my considerable dismay, uh…

I’m gonna be blunt, Street’s answers were nonsense. They were deeply, deeply upsetting to me on multiple levels: as a critic, as a queer person, and as a League fan/player.

While you can read the full text of Street’s answer in the interview I linked above (just search for “LGBT” to jump to the relevant section), here’s the bit that just… really pissed me off:

Yeah, we definitely want to do it. We owe it to players and, I think, to the world to do something like that. What I don’t want to do is be like, “Okay, team, next character, whatever you do, has to be lesbian.” I don’t think we’ll end up with something good there. The character has to be conceived from the very beginning — which, I don’t know if Tracer was or not. I assume she was. But from the beginning, it has to be that character’s identity. I’m sure we’ll do it at some point. I don’t know which character or when it will happen.

What in the actual fuck. Or as I put it on Twitter,

That’s what it feels like, both with the issue of queer characters in stuff generally and queer characters in League of Legends specifically. This is the most transparent, bullshit deflection, and it’s really shameful. As I put it to a friend, it’s very Blizzard-circa-2005 which I guess makes sense given Street’s employment history, but like… okay. Let me break this down for you.

1.) “It needs to be organic design.”

This is a really common way in which “where are all the [x marginalization] characters?” gets deflected: if you try to “force it” instead of letting it happen organically, at the proper place and time, then disaster will ensue. What evidence do we have of this, though, out of curiosity? Do we have a set of characters that were made and came out awful because people tried to “force” it? I mean, the answer there is no, because this argument is one for permanent stasis. “The time has to be right. It all has to fit together properly. It has to be the exact right moment.”

Guess what: the right moment isn’t going to come with this approach. Like, look at two things Street says in the above paragraph:

  • If he tells the team from the word go “Okay, next character has to be a lesbian,” then “I don’t think we’ll end up with something good there.”
  • However he also argues that the identity needs to be there from minute one, the earliest part of concept development: “from the beginning it has to be that character’s identity”

These don’t match up, for me. It kinda sounds like he’s hoping gay is just gonna fall from the sky while they’re designing something else and the team goes “oh yeah! totally a lesbian. Was the whole time.”

You should prepare for a lot of “As I put it on Twitter” lines in this post, because:

I have yet to uncover a satisfactory answer to that question. What’s the reason that can’t be your starting point? There are some answers I can think of; the one that makes the most sense is perhaps “that’s not enough to build a character around,” but like… I think that’s true only if your conception of lesbian identity is limited to sexual/romantic stuff. No, there is no such thing as a universal lesbian (or trans or gay or bi or queer or whatever) experience. If you talk to lesbians, look at lesbian art and culture, you can probably see something to inspire you, though.

But yeah, if your concept of “lesbian” starts and ends with “girls kissing girls” I can see how it might not feel like enough.

In the specific case of League, too: that game is eight years old. Riot as a company has undergone a growing process — for the better, I think! — about queer issues and social justice in general. They were major supporters of GaymerX2. There are quite definitely queer employees of all kinds in that company. The playerbase is engaged and loyal and, as Phil says in the interview, increasingly interested in the lore of the game.

Riot clearly sees that interest, too; champion reworks and themed skin releases now get a press campaign of enviable scope, a media blitz complete with lore tie-ins, online quizzes… hell, for the magical girl-themed Star Guardian skin rollout, Riot Japan had an actual “anime opening song EP” single composed, complete with “TV size” and karaoke off-vocal versions of the Jpop song in question. That’s the effort they put in and that’s not even for a new playable character or rework! It was just five skins!

But when it comes to adding a queer spectrum character to League, “the time has to be right. We can’t rush this.”

Sorry, but that doesn’t scan. What that says, to me, is: “we don’t think it’s a priority so we don’t commit resources to it.” Which is what you would have to do, by the way, to make any queer spectrum character properly and respectfully: you’d need to put in work. Work means resources: time, money, manpower, research. It can’t just happen by magic because you waited for “the right time.”

Speaking of money and manpower, that leads us to the other issue:

2.) “The climate isn’t right for it right now” / “There are logistical reasons we can’t”

Okay bear with me here. In the interview, Phil mentioned that finding the right method and approach for revealing the queerness of a queer character is challenging (a statement I 100% agree with). However, Street’s response was this:

You know, both League and Overwatch are global games. There are countries whose laws around things that we consider pretty normal at this point in the U.S. are not the same way. One way you can get around stuff like that is by having some of the storytelling outside the game. You can be like, “Look, within the game itself, we don’t talk about it. Outside the game, it’s something else.”

There are also times when it’s worth having that battle. We just have to be careful, because it’s not necessarily just about a game company taking on the government of some other country, which may be very exciting for players. It could end up with players in that region not being able to play a game, which may be striking a blow to those players. We don’t want to indirectly hurt players.

Uh: what?

There’s a lot of coded messages in here and the big one is a kind of passing of responsibility on to other nations that have less permissive legal and/or cultural approaches to LGBTQ+ sexuality/identity. “Well, we could just throw a queer character in there, but let’s say China or Russia don’t like it, so they shut down our game in those regions. That would be bad! So it’s better to not do it (for now).” Ohohoho man are you kidding me.

Now, I’m skeptical, but there’s some caveats here. I think it’s reasonable to be considering the potential impact this would have on your business abroad, including your workforce. But like… Blizzard, a company whose reach is at least equal to Riot’s, was able to say “yeah Tracer’s gay” in a tie-in comic and AS OF YET their operations in other countries have not folded in on themselves like a black hole. I suspect Riot could do something similar — a skin, a champ bio on their website, a tie-in comic, a Nendoroid, something — with equally non-catastrophic results.

But they can’t do it, because laws. Well… I think you can? I think the result is that you have to commit resources. You’ve got to know what the law is, and decide how you’re going to approach it. Which takes time, money, manpower, research! Not even pretending that’s not the case. But are you seeing a theme, here?

Okay. So this was a lot of angry discourse on my part. Let’s take a breather.

Garnet and Stevonnie from Steven Universe, seated together. Accompanying text: "Take a moment to think of just flexibility, love, and trust."
Okay let’s just take a moment and re-center.

Greg Street’s answers to Phil Kollar’s questions made me angry and frustrated because they effectively say “we don’t care enough about this to make it a priority.” The excuses given — that the “time must be right,” that they can’t just say “hey the next character needs to be queer,” that they might face legal issues in other countries — don’t really hold water with me, because they seem really easily falsifiable/disprovable/solvable.

The great irony here is that, in the comments on Polygon and in the mentions of some Riot folks I follow, the backlash has been “why do you have to add a gay character” which: it’s fucking 2017 and I’m tired of answering that question. (And for the record, kudos to said Riot folks who’ve stepped up to say “yeah actually it’s important”)

I linked to this earlier in the piece, but I kept coming back to what I wrote about what frustrated me with Riot’s response to questions about Taric’s sexuality after his rework, which is to say: how they utterly avoided and deflected the question instead of engaging their playerbase on it.

The truth of the situation is that if you want to include a marginalized character — queer or otherwise — then there is work involved. Time, money, manpower, research, as I’ve said already. I’m not going to pretend that it, like any other focused dev task, does not have a commensurate resource cost.

I also don’t work in a triple-A studio, nor one with a continual update dev process like Riot’s or Blizzard’s. I don’t know what their resource layouts/accesibility are, their timelines, I only have the merest hint about their lore and character creation processes. Triple-A dev being notoriously opaque doesn’t help me to have a lot of context.

So I’m not comfortable saying, “They could be doing this, they just aren’t!” It could be that Riot doesn’t have the resources they’d need to commit to the workload of making a queer character at the moment (though I suspect they could if they wished).

What I can say, though, is that if that was the case, then the response Street needed to give was…

  • “That’s a thing that requires resources to do right and we don’t have those resources right now.”
  • or “We’d love to do that, but it’s not a development priority right now.”
  • or “We want to do it, but we don’t really know how to do that properly yet.”
  • or “We actually don’t give a damn and probably won’t do that” (this isn’t likely to be true, but)

Those are all honest answers. Kinda disappointing ones, but at least they’re direct. I just… the idea that somehow, since 2009, it “hasn’t been the right time” for Riot to make a queer character, that they’re so afraid of backlash in other nations that they don’t even consider it, that we just need to wait a little longer until the Gay Spirit Portals open and we finally get our queer LoL hero… no. I don’t buy it. And it’s so obviously not the actual case that being told it feels insulting and dismissive.

This is why, despite not having all the insider info re: the process, I still feel like this is just a way of saying “we kinda don’t want to do it, but we want you to think we want to do it.”

Perhaps the most frustrating part is Riot’s genuine growth as a company since 2009. Actively fighting toxic culture in the playerbase with real material efforts. Clearly developing and challenging their workplace culture to become better and more inclusive. I know Riot has queer employees, I know it does (how could it not?). Maybe they don’t work in the champ design or lore teams, but they exist. And part of me wonders: how do they feel hearing Greg Street throw this out? “It’s not the right time.” Well when is the right time? Or perhaps more accurately:

Dark Helmet and Col. Sandurz from Spaceballs. Additional text: "When will then be now?" "Soon."
At least, I hope it’s soon.

And maybe that’s the big question I’m left with, here. What does the right time look like? What is our understanding of “when it’s the right time” conceptually? Because right now, it feels circular.

  1. “When can we get a queer character?” –> when the time is right
  2. “When will the time be right?” –> when their queerness organically rises from the process
  3. “How will that happen?” –> we wait until the time is right

Etcetera, etcetera.

This Disney-princess-in-the-castle approach is as useless as that simile makes it sound. If you’re waiting for the time to “be right,” then you’ll be waiting effectively forever. At some point someone in the system, in the hierarchy, needs to go “This is a priority and we’re going to devote resources to it. We’re going to take steps to make it happen, because we think it should happen.”

To be honest, that’s what I want to see. Basically on the internet now if you care about The Representation™ you’re a joke footnote, a situation I am not fond of. But I think more than the actual queer LoL hero, what I want is some concrete proof that Riot is willing to take that next step.

Cleaning up toxic behavior? Supporting your queer employees and queer gaming organizations? Awesome! Laudable. Right steps. But like, “actually put some gay shit in your literal game and/or game universe” seems to be where they draw the line, and I’m not comfortable with that hesitancy. At some point you have to do it. If there’s any lesson we’ve learned about the game industry and queer stuff in particular but marginalized folks in general, it’s: Someday You Have To Do The Thing.

Greg Street’s answers to Phil Kollar are so massively disappointing and upsetting because they don’t show that he — a person with power and influence in the process — doesn’t seem to actually want to commit to anything, to take the risky step, and commit the resources… and until they do, I’m gonna be looking at everything a little bit more mournfully/doubtfully, for the future.

 

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