The first study ever of GLBT gamers or "gaymers" was approved by the institutional review board of the University of Illinois and was activated this week for participation at www.gaymersurvey.org. It will be open to participation for 8 weeks.
The study is the brainchild of Jason Rockwood, a recent graduate and a self-confessed non-gamer, who says the last game he really played was "Duck Hunt" on the Nintendo Entertainment System during the 1980s.
As a social scientist, Rockwood rekindled his interest in gaming after taking the class "Videogames: Issues, Content and Policy," taught by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Assistant Professor Dmitri Williams of the Speech Communication Department. Williams, who teaches on the topic of video games, is supervising Rockwood during this study. Rockwood originally completed a limited study on the same subject for the class, and he realized there was a real hunger by those who took the study to give as much information as possible.
"People had talked about being gay and being a gamer, but nobody had asked them to unify those two elements and people were excited about that," Rockwood said in an interview with In Newsweekly. "Some people were hesitant though, because they didn't want to be stereotyped having games that were developed to be ridiculous toward the community. They wanted both sides to be taken seriously and if there was stereotypical content it would trivialize both identities of being gay and a gamer."
The survey is long at 91 questions and takes approximately 30 - 45 minutes to complete. The questions are mostly multiple choice, covering a variety of topics from general gaming habits, sexual identity, online gaming to recent purchases. An initial concern of those within the industry who received advanced copies of the survey was regarding its length.
Rockwood explained that this was an initial issue he had as well. One-third of the survey was cut to make sure people completed the survey, and he believes that those taking it won't mind the length because the study explores new territory.
"A lot of surveys in academia today, they are refinements of many, many years of survey work that have occurred. Just being the first one out there looking for these answers, there are a lot of questions we want to know and we are asking questions that we don't have the answers to. If the survey is too long, nobody will take it and that wouldn't be good for anyone."
This study breaks new ground, not only because it is the first academically approved study regarding GLBT gamers, but it is the first study of any gamer group. There are no real studies of female gamers or gamers of color.
Within the industry IGN's GamerMetrics, says it provides "insight into the gamer audience" tracking the 30 million unique monthly users of the IGN.com family of sites. IGN Entertainment, a division of Fox Interactive Media, is the number one destination for gamers online. However GamerMetrics does not know the demographics of these users. GamerMetrics can only provide what their users are doing on the IGN sites, but is unaware of specific demographics and what various audiences are interested in.
Sheri Graner Ray, game designer and author of "Gender Inclusive Game Design," has spoken in many conferences about women's issues within the industry. She has seen a review copy of the questionnaire, and she says she has concerns about it.
"It's got a definite bias. I had to learn to run focus groups and surveys back when I was at Her Interactive. Writing unbiased questions is really tough, particularly when it's a subject you have a lot of passion about," she wrote to In Newsweekly.
For example, Ray points to Question 43, which asks, "In your opinion, how hostile is the gaming community to gay and lesbian gamers?"
She says, "This is a loaded question. You are assuming the reader believes the gaming community is hostile and are asking them to measure the degree."
Ray compared her issues with the survey with those she has had to face in surveying women, "We women who game are a rarified group and not typically representative of the 'norm.' So when we survey ourselves, it's not terribly useful information. But we don't seem to be able to find a suitable pool of women to survey! Given the chance, I'd love to work with a university or other organization to produce a survey that would provide the best possible information for everyone!"
Even with her reservations regarding the survey she says, "I seriously hope the discussion with GLBT gamers continues. It's the only way we can continue to identify and remove the barriers to access which are currently in our titles that keep the GLBT audience out. If we want to truly see this industry grow to its full potential, we must continue to remove these barriers in our designs, our marketing and our workplace!"
Rockwood says, "The main purpose of the survey was to be a census. Before we can ask more intelligent questions we need to know who we are dealing with. First we need to prove that homosexual gamers even exist. Yeah it sounds ridiculous, but that's where you have to start on something like this. This survey is an attempt to quantify the existence of an invisible minority."
Doug Lowenstein of The ESA (Electronic Software Association), the lobbying group for the industry, which produces the E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) show every year could not provide comment on the survey after numerous requests.
Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, says, "On the whole, the game industry lacks the advanced tools we need to more fully understand the diversity, and desires, of our audience. This is a hit driven business, and any knowledge that can help us better determine what might succeed is worthy of attention."
Currently the video game industry is under attack from numerous state governments. Most recently Minnesota passed a law, which was signed by Governor Tim Pawlenty last week, that would fine minors $25 for purchasing M (mature) or AO (Adults Only) rated titles.
Prof. Williams says, "Computer and electronic games are obviously quite popular, but, despite what you hear from politicians and pundits, are surprisingly understudied. Surveys like this one will help us understand better who plays games, what they play, why they play, and what they get out of the experience. With data in hand, we can move from assumptions, guesswork and stereotypes and into facts and understanding."
Jeb Havens, who speaks on GLBT issues within the industry and is lead designer at 1st Playable working on the "Marvel Trading Card Game" for the Nintendo DS, says, "I think it will be extremely useful to start building a more detailed and realistic image of the gaming community. It seems that whenever someone looks at which people are really gaming and how they are gaming, rather than just assuming they already know the answer, it's always surprising."
Rockwood says he has his own concerns regarding the survey and the feedback he has received. He says that some gay gamers have told him that they are glad that this survey will bring attention to the demographic but they are seriously concerned that the first generation of LGBT games or games that will have out LGBT characters will be subjected to the same stereotyping and patronizing that women were subjected to when they were first recognized in the market with titles like "Barbie Horse Adventure" and the Mary Kate and Ashley games. It is his hope that this survey will give designers some clear information that will assist them in making more informed designs that are more inclusive of players of different genders and sexuality.
He also hopes the survey will create discussion on another concern he received from the original survey.
"Gay gamers experience a double edged sword of prejudice," he said. "The mainstream gay culture and media is not supportive of video games. Then you have the video game culture that is not supportive of gay culture. So you have these people stuck in the middle who have this double edged prejudice. I'm hoping this survey would shed some light on how or why people go through such a process."
As academics and industry professionals show their reservations, concerns and support regarding the study, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and even straight video game players are ready to take the survey and begin contributing information.
Paul S. Kollist of the "Fraggots Clan," one of the few GLBT first person shooter clans that exist said that he really enjoyed reading over the advanced copy and that his straight friend who looked it over thought it was excellent as well.
"A very revealing survey about the new generation of gamers and gaymers alike!" he said. "An excellently put together survey, with mind provoking questions on sexuality and its ties with the gaming world."
Another person that received an advanced copy was Sara Andrews, who became the lightning rod for LGBT issues within the video game industry a few months ago when she was warned about advertising for a "GLBT-friendly" guild in "World of Warcraft."
"I think it's really awesome that such a survey has been created and approved!" Andrews said. "Perhaps this will give game developers a better chance to see some of the issues that we face and that are important to us as gamers. I would love to have the opportunity to take part in the survey whenever it begins!"
Rockwood hopes that the survey can grow from this baseline point and become a valuable resource for the industry and academics alike, "It's my desire to continue my research at the graduate level. I'm looking for a program that allows the study of emerging technologies and cultural convergence from a humanistic perspective. The ideal program for my studies would be NYU's Department of Culture and Communication and MIT's Department of Comparative Media Studies."
In Newsweekly will report on the results of the survey this fall and follow developments. You can participate in the survey at www.gaymersurvey.org