Size / / /

(or, how much is a Rainbow Prom worth if you're still not allowed to say "gay"?)

A couple of weeks ago, Gay.com reported on a GLBT "Rainbow Prom" event held in City of Heroes. I heard about it initially from a news link on MMORPG.com; the official City of Heroes website's blurb is dated four days earlier, although as I recall I didn't hear about it there until I'd already seen the MMORPG.com story. Both blurbs are quite short, but link back to the original (undated) Gay.com article on the subject.

My initial reaction to the City of Heroes news blurb, which touted "the positive LGBT community in City of Heroes," was a quote from an episode of Buffy: "You want credit for not feeding on bleeding disaster victims?"

As the Gay.com article noted, certain major players in the MMOG business are certainly more hostile to GLBT people than CoH. Last year, World of Warcraft threatened to purge a player's account for advertising a GLBT-friendly guild, and although they eventually reversed their position in the face of a lot of bad press, it's not clear that they ever admitted their original line—that they were simply trying to protect those GLBT players foolish enough to choose to join such a guild from the discrimination and harassment that would surely follow on publicizing their deviant sexuality!—was a load of crap. So yeah, City of Heroes (and a lot of other games) could get a certain amount of mileage out of "Gay Gamers: We're not as bad as WoW" without doing very much at all, and it seemed like that was what was happening in this case. Thanks for not shutting down our harmless player-organized social event, NCsoft!

Fortunately, I decided to guard against looking stupid before I wrote a column about it[1] and checked the source material. Gay.com asserts that:

When NCsoft first noticed how popular "City of Heroes" had become with queer gamers, it responded by seeking ways to make lesbians, gay men and transgender folk feel even more welcome there. Management created a Pride Global Channel where LGBT players can communicate from anyplace in the game world, among other amenities. NCsoft has even offered Gay.com visitors a 14-day free trial of "City of Heroes". . .

I haven't seen or heard about this global channel, and players can create global channels without management assistance, so I don't know if I buy it or not—what the "other amenities" might be (other than not raiding GLBT superbases), I don't know. It does seem as if the article creates a misleading impression that there was a partnership between NCsoft and Gay.com before Gay.com gave them favorable press coverage, which I sort of doubt.

Offering Gay.com users trial memberships for CoH is a great business decision. Trial memberships cost NCsoft basically nothing, with the possibility of massive returns if the trial user ends up purchasing an account and paying a subscription. Furthermore, I doubt that any other large MMOGs are offering Gay.com users a similar deal, and while it may be pretty half-assed as catering attempts go, it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, which is essentially what WoW was offering GLBT players last year.

The Gay.com article also describes direct game-developer involvement with the Rainbow Prom, however:

"City of Heroes" community relations coordinator Jill Henderson was on the lookout for queer outreach opportunities when DJ blu proposed the Rainbow Prom on a game discussion forum. When DJ blu sent her a request for permission to stage the event, Henderson eagerly lent company support. NCsoft listed the event on "City of Heroes" announcement boards, helped facilitate the technical staging of the get-together, and even provided some surprises. "They really couldn't have been more supportive," DJ blu said.

Von Minden put "icing on the cake," as DJ blu put it, by frosting the party with virtual snow. Just before Rainbow Prom got under way, it occurred to the gaming supervisor to open a fantasy ski chalet that was created for last year's winter holidays. Prom guests felt like kids on Christmas morning when they opened the pixelated door and saw the ski resort revealed, to their surprise. . .

Mister Quantum was particularly touched by the "Rainbow Connection '07" tags that NCsoft attached to characters who had attended the prom. Those tags followed the superheroes out into the larger "City of Heroes" world, and stayed up for about two days. Straight as well as gay gamers went to see the big show, so the tags didn't necessarily mark them as queer; it just gave them something to talk about.

The listing of the event is not particularly noteworthy unless you're expecting a WoW-style reception, although it is true that players themselves referred in the official event announcement forum thread to "redname [management] endorsement;" not all player-organized events get recognized by the management, although the Rainbow Prom is not the only event to be so recognized. Most of the participants in that thread, whether they considered it a good thing or not, did view the community relations coordinator's actions as support for the GLBT community in CoH, and following the event it was covered in the forums newspaper. Probably most remarkable was the contribution of management to the event of the holiday ski chalet, which certainly seems in keeping with a prom theme and does suggest a higher degree of support than simply listing the event as they might any appropriately planned player event.

The reason I didn't know all this sooner is that I don't play on the server where the event occurred (Victory), and I'm not much for the CoX forums. I read news releases on the main site, but I mainly play with a small group of people and we don't do a lot of events. I did attend CuppaJoe's going away party last year, for research purposes, but considering that I created a costume for the contest there that is now one of my main character's mainstays, I might enjoy attending more such events just socially. At any rate, the event seems to have been widely discussed on the forums, but in the news release issued after the event was covered (a month after it occurred) by Gay.com, there was no indication of management's direct participation, prompting my initial disgust with NCsoft for taking credit for a player-organized Pride event, and leading me now to wonder if they'd prefer not to publicize to the wider, non-forum-reading community their willingness to actually "sanction" a Pride event.

The problem is, opening a ski chalet for the Rainbow Prom doesn't cancel out the fact that CoH embeds some pretty strong heteronormative messages in the game interface itself. There are the non-targetable gang girlfriends, who I've mentioned before, trailing along after targetable male mobs and chattering amongst themselves about whether or not they look fat. There is the "huge" body in character creation, the third option after "male" and "female," except that it is also clearly "male," just bigger—not that it's really possible to make a scrawny male character anyway. This enforcement of norms about what kinds of bodies are allowable may not be an issue for many players, even GLBT (or, you know, female) players; of course, the sample is already a self-selected one of people who are used to playing video games, and as Gay.com mentions in the article, CoH offers extremely detailed customization compared to the majority of MMOGs. I've suggested in the past that this probably appeals to female gamers, and Gay.com argues it is also a draw for the GLBT community. Certainly my usual gaming partner, a gay man, seems to enjoy making heroic hardbodies.

It was my usual gaming partner who discovered, however, that the CoH in-game chat system, when the profanity filter is enabled—which it is by default—filters out the word "gay," replacing it with "<bleep>" or "@$##!"[2] Other words on the block list include the usual suspects—"fuck" and "shit," and rather surprisingly "god," although not "hell." "Fag," "faggot," "queer," and "homo" are all blocked, although "homosexual" is apparently okay, as is "lesbian." One can anticipate the obvious argument from NCsoft that, like WoW, they are only trying to protect GLBT players from harassment—and that even in cases where a player's sexual orientation is not known, the use of "gay" as a slur creates a hostile environment.

The problem, of course, is that the word "gay" is not, I would argue, primarily a slur. The argument would be stronger for "queer" or "faggot," although I have mixed feelings on that issue and mainly negative feelings about chat filters in general. "Gay," however, is a pretty innocuous word even if some people imbue it with negative affect—one could say the same about racial identifications like "Mexican," which certainly have negative epithets, but may be used pejoratively by some people no matter what you do. The use of the word "gay" as a synomyn for "lame" or "stupid" is somewhat different, but it's not like I can't tell that someone just used it in that fashion when the chat filter is on. A statement like "That's so <bleep>!" doesn't allow for too many interpretations when I know damn well that the chat filter does not erase the words "lame" or "stupid."

And to really weaken that argument, the word "dyke," like "lesbian," is perfectly acceptable to the CoH chat filter. The phrase "You're going to hell, dyke"? Totally fine.[3]

Obviously chat filters suffer by their very nature from not being as smart as 14-year-old flamers with too much time on their hands, but it seems pretty basic that if you're going to ban the words "gay," "faggot," and "queer," whatever your reasoning, you'd also ban "dyke" at the very least. And of course, I think it's pretty ridiculous to filter an utterance like "Hooray for <bleep> rights"—and I'm not the only one. CoH forums users noted that it was impossible to directly link to the Gay.com article from the forums because they also have a profanity filter, which apparently cannot be disabled by individual users, and which replaced the word "gay" with "[censored]." This led to an update of the forums censor list, but almost three weeks later (and with Issue #10 just gone live), there is no change in the list of words blocked by the in-game filter.

The in-game filter can be turned off, but it is active by default, and it sends a strong message about what one can or should say in the world, who one can or should be in an environment where character creation and development is a major activity for many (though certainly not all) players. It doesn't really surprise me, unfortunately, that a big chunk of the comments on the MMORPG.com news link follow roughly these lines:

I really don't have a problem with this at all, but I am a little curious. I'm a 36 year old white father of four, and I'm hetrosexual. In nearly three years of playing CoH, I have never once felt the need to share any of this in game with my fellow players. What is so different about being gay that these people need to display this part of their personal lives with the rest of the gaming community in game?

This is just a personal observation and not meant in any way to be mean spirited (p.c. disclaimer required nowadays), but it seems that many people can't be happy being gay unless they are shoving it in everyone else's face. The funny thing is that most of us really couldn't care less what other people's sexual orientation is. (Deathstrike2)

Its like the kid with the loud car stereo, I call it the look at me i need attention syndrome. (crazyiven)

"Most of us really couldn't care less what other people's sexual orientation is" as long as they're not bothering us by talking about it, or appearing to have one that isn't ours, or making us uncomfortable by pointing out that their sexual orientation does not carry with it the invisible privilege that we don't want to talk about. If we can tell someone is not straight, it's because they're childish and maladjusted, and never mind that nobody considers us dancing with someone of the opposite sex to be a political act. (Unless, like some other CoH players did after the Rainbow Prom, we decide to stage a "Heterosexual Prom" to fight our terrible oppression.)

It feels a little ridiculous to be that writing in this forum, where I am clearly a feminist video gamer and suspect I am mostly preaching to the choir, but it's important to realize that a big chunk of CoH's player population—probably the majority—is operating without the benefit of an Intro to Queer Theory course. They really don't understand that the world is structured in ways that privilege and normalize heterosexuality; they don't even notice that they aren't pissed off or even confused about some people openly playing with their (heterosexual) girlfriends and RPers portraying heterosexual relationships. Some other commenters do realize those things, and they try to point them out, but too often the counterargument boils down to "It was just a party for everyone! It wasn't FLAUNTING anything! . . . We're very quiet, well-behaved gays, we promise." Even the tag provided for attendees by management, "Rainbow Connection '07," is more evocative of the Muppets than a GLBT prom—why not "Rainbow Prom," since that was the name of the event?

It didn't get a huge amount of publicity before the fact, certainly, but Rainbow Prom WAS a Pride event, explicitly so (June is Pride month!) and there is nothing wrong with that. As Gay.com seemed to suggest, it's a bit naïve to think a community of spandex-clad hardbodies would be 100% heterosexual, isn't it? A superhero gathering looks a lot like a Pride event to begin with.

Winged Heroine Rainbow Wings
Those wings are a coveted drop.
SF Pride Float Robot Fight
Admittedly, nobody battled a giant robot at SF Pride this year.

pawn shop

I'm glad that CoH was able to learn enough from WoW to treat their GLBT players as people in whose money they are interested, but I'm just not ultimately that impressed with a few prom goodies on Victory server when the game itself does nothing to challenge the straight privilege so many commenters were so quick to assert. The Rainbow Prom would never have happened if it weren't for the GLBT players who organized and attended it; NCsoft provided some nice window dressing, but that's what it was. We've got plenty of other players ready to fight to the death for their right never to see a GLBT superhero in a world where superheroes are the only people there are, and for the most part, they have NCsoft's implicit support. There are Mexican restaurants and pawn shops (with humorously burnt out signage) and badly stereotyped gang molls and (evil) homeless people in CoH,[4]) but there aren't any gay bars or bookstores or male pedestrians holding hands, and the implication I have to draw is that, say, sexism is suitable for a PG-13 rating (the usual argument for the profanity filter) but the existence of gay people is not.

Lord of the Rings Online has been lambasted for nixing in-game marriage entirely rather than deal with same-sex elf-dwarf unions, but in fact, in-game marriage systems seem less common in current MMOGs than they were in the MUDs that I played in junior high (which, incidentally, permitted same-sex marriage). CoH just doesn't have one; neither does WoW. Not threatening to ban people for daring to raise GLBT visibility on their own is nice and all, and a prom ski chalet is even a little nicer. But it doesn't make up for a world that is willing to admit, say, black people and women (certainly less representative of MMOG players overall than white men), but draws the line at The Gays. I may have to live in a world where the mainstream agrees that a "Sapphic Café" storefront or the like is just too racy for a PG-13 world, and that eliminating the word "gay" will solve the "homosexual problem" or however the hell I'd phrase it if I thought it was a solution, but I don't have to like it. I'd rather have superheroes. Big gay superheroes.


[1] You may judge my success for yourself.

[2] He discovered this when he attempted to set a character's battle cry to "I'm not gay, I'm European!"

[3] At the time of this writing, I have not yet checked "lezzie," which I guess is another derogatory epithet, although I confess I don't really know what the kids say these days when they're feeling spiteful and bigoted.

[4] No, really. The Lost? Evil homeless people. And don't get me started on the Cabal, and how every contact you see on their storylines is aghast about "what they did to their men!"


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman photo


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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