|A virtual gay pride parade
Orgimmar, Planet Azeroth, February 8 ‚Äď¬† They gathered in unity. The undead and the night elves. The gnomes and the trolls. Mounted on dragon-like ‚Äúraptors‚ÄĚ and on-foot, they gathered, all together, 70 to 100 of them last June at the ‚ÄúCrossroads,‚ÄĚ a popular gathering place ‚Äď and sometime battleground ‚Äď deep in the immensely popular ‚ÄúWorld of Warcraft‚ÄĚ on-line role playing game ‚Äď for what must have been a unique event: cyberspace‚Äôs first gay pride march.
‚ÄúTeams from both sides, all dressed in pink shirts, all united and marched together‚Ä¶to signify faggy unity,‚ÄĚ said Volant ‚Äď a level 60 undead mage ‚Äď who is also Benjamin Hardin, a 37-year-old San Francisco Web editor.
Hardin, and friend Frank Wu, also a Bay Area resident, founded ‚ÄúRough Trade‚ÄĚ ‚Äď an affinity group, in this case for gay people, that are called ‚Äúguilds‚ÄĚ on World of Warcraft. WOW overall now claims 5.5 million subscribers ‚Äď about seven times the population of San Francisco.
Usually players in WOW and other ‚Äúmassively multiplayer‚ÄĚ games devote themselves to building up powers, killing monsters and sometimes playing a hyper-violent animated version of capture the flag. But nobody ever has to get out of their chairs. And nobody every really dies unless they stop paying their monthly subscription fees to Blizzard Entertainment, an arm of the giant entertainment conglomerate, Vivendi Corporation, that runs the game ‚Äď and makes its rules.
But now this virtual world of dragons with bright-red glowing eyes and horned demons is starting to have real-world problems. On about Jan. 12, Blizzard told Sara Andrews (aka Shimire), who in real life is a transgender night club employee from Nashville, Tennessee, that she could not advertise to meet other lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender players in the game‚Äôs general chat area ‚Äď the one forum that reaches all subscribers.
Blizzard, whose parent company, Vivendi Entertainment owns Universal Music and big stakes in NBC/Universal and the Geffen and Interscope record labels, told Andrews that she faced expulsion from the game if she used even used the acronym ‚ÄúLBGT.‚ÄĚ
Why? ‚Äúto promote a positive game environment for everyone and help prevent ‚Ä¶ harassment from taking place,‚ÄĚ Blizzard said in a statement.
In other words, said Brian Chase, a lawyer at Lambda Legal, the nation‚Äôs largest legal LGBT rights organization, which has taken up Andrews‚Äô case, ‚Äúthe way to stop harassment is to insist that the harassment victims go back in the closet.‚ÄĚ
Chase‚Äôs group wrote Blizzard‚Äôs president on Monday of this week, saying that the on-line fantasy world is, in real world speak, a public accommodation, just like a hotel or a restaurant, and is subject to the same rules. Lambda demanded a response within 30 days and intimated that a lawsuit could be their next step.
What they‚Äôre doing, said Chase, ‚Äúis trying to silence the harassment victims instead of going after the harassers.‚ÄĚ Never mind what rules may be on Planet Azeroth, said Chase, ‚ÄúIn California that kind of conduct is discriminatory and therefore illegal.‚ÄĚ
Chase‚Äôs group has won multi-million dollar verdicts against school districts who tried the same thing. In those cases the districts told the gay kids to go back in the closet ‚Äď for their own protection ‚Äď and did nothing to protect them from harassment. And it cost them. Lambda and other lawyers won a $1.1 million settlement against a school district in Morgan Hill for six teenagers in 2004 and $450,000 for a Reno, Nevada high school student in 2002.
Chase allowed that the WOW situation is much less serious. In both of the school cases the kids were harassed physically as well as mentally, but he said that the basic facts of the discrimination are exactly the same.
And for some, being ‚ÄúIn-game‚ÄĚ (In-game is the word the players use to describe the WOW universe, like other people use the terms ‚Äúin New York‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúin San Francisco‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúin Washington‚ÄĚ) is a major part of their lives. Hardin has been gaming on-line since about 1998, and says that WOW makes up about 60 percent of his social life. He said some people spend as much as 50 to 60 hours a week in-game, and that the acquaintances made there are as real for some as friends from around the corner, or from the corner bar.
When Hardin was ill recently, friends met in the guild brought him dinner and helped take care of him.
In his San Francisco apartment, the main feature of Hardin‚Äôs main room is the computer desk and chair where he plays WOW. ‚ÄúThis is easy. I enjoy it and it‚Äôs focused and I can sit here in my underwear,‚ÄĚ he said a few nights ago ‚Äď as the voices of other players in other cities, like New York City and Memphis, boomed, as if they were next door, from the computer‚Äôs speakers. The players use voice-over-Internet software to chat with each other while in-game.
Hardin is a tall slender blond, with glasses, and a neatly trimmed beard, who looks as if he‚Äôd be as comfortable in an √ľber-trendy club as in WOW‚Äôs fantasy world.
‚ÄúThe old model used to be that most players are 15-year-old boys,‚ÄĚ Hardin said. But now, he and others say, most are adults. In a bar you meet drinkers, and WOW follows the same model. ‚ÄúThis person spends 30 hours a week gaming ‚Äď they‚Äôre probably going to be a geek. But there are some hotties,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve had my fair share of sex from this game,‚ÄĚ Hardin said. And the voices from the computer chimed in. ‚ÄúWill and Joe hooked up,‚ÄĚ said one. ‚ÄúGreg has,‚ÄĚ said another. ‚ÄúSo it happens,‚ÄĚ said Hardin.
The voices, many members of Hardin‚Äôs guild, say that they have faced harassment. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve never been comfortable being out in a guild,‚ÄĚ said one. ‚ÄúEither I played straight, or I played a woman.‚ÄĚ Another told of being threatened because he was open about being gay. ‚ÄúThey would talk about girls and stuff like that‚Ä¶But they‚Äôd just jump like a ton of bricks on me if I said I‚Äôd been on a date with another guy‚Ä¶.It got to the point where I could just not deal with it anymore.‚ÄĚ
But if WOW is, as Lambda‚Äôs Chase asserts, a public accommodation, like a night club, or a restaurant, the patrons have the ultimate recourse.
Hardin‚Äôs guild has played several of the games, before WOW, together. ‚ÄúPeople frog-leap to the newest game,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like a club. People will say, ‚Äėthis club is old.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
¬†‚Äú‚ÄėLet‚Äôs go to a new club that just opened.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Epilogue: After receiving Lamda‚Äôs letter, Blizzard announced on Wednesday through spokeswoman Lisa Jensen that the entire Sara Andrews matter was ‚Äúa miscommunication by one of the employees‚ÄĚ and that the game master who reprimanded her ‚Äúmisinterpreted the game rules.‚ÄĚ
In a complete about face, after several weeks of on-line controversy, Jensen admitted: ‚ÄúHe took action on the wrong person.‚ÄĚ
So what would the company do about harassment on-line? She promised more sensitivity training for the almost 1,000 ‚Äúgame masters‚ÄĚ who manage the on-line universe. But, she said, with 5.5 million subscribers, like any big city, WOW has its dangerous back alleys. ‚ÄúWe can‚Äôt do everything,‚ÄĚ she said. It‚Äôs a very big world.‚ÄĚ