By: Alex Mell-Taylor
On a typical day, the server is abuzz with activity. Gamers are sharing their favorite memes and songs, coordinating sessions, and promoting their Twitch streams. The discord server is dedicated to over twenty games and counting, and most of the players are queer, so much that there is a macro in one of the introduction rooms reading “React below if you’re some kind of straight (unfortunately).”
The gaming scene has never been the most inclusive space, which is what makes this queer server so refreshing. In between scheduling for pathfinder games, there is a macro that lets players choose their pronouns. There is an entire channel dedicated to sharing bathroom selfies where nerds of all persuasions can brag about their cool, nerdy swag. With a few simple clicks, these gamers have solved a problem pervasive in the industry for decades, and their solutions are ones anyone can adopt.
This server’s story begins years earlier with Dragonfire, a cooperative card game with a heavy Dungeons & Dragon aesthetic requiring around five or six people to play. The couple Jake and Wyatt (whose names, like all names in this article, have been changed to protect their privacy) traveled to meet a friend in Boston, and while there, they played Dragonfire for the first time. Jake and Wyatt liked it so much that they decided to host regular sessions back at their Maryland apartment.
One day they didn’t have enough players, so Jake started to use gay social dating apps to promote their gaming sessions. “So Jake,” recalls Wyatt, “got on Grindr and started, you know, finding nerdy people and inviting them over to play.” Queer people have long used dating apps to build out robust social scenes, and Jake and Wyatt quickly discovered that the allure of genuine connection trumped a sexual one in many cases. “We got a surprising amount of people,” continues Wyatt, “who said I don’t care if there is sex, yeah I’ll come to play Dragonfire with you guys.”
Soon people were driving down to play Dragonfire every Friday night. Some regularly came from several states over to make the trip. Jake and Wyatt’s apartment became a nexus of activity. Some nights two or three sessions of Dragonfire would occur simultaneously, and not everyone who attended played. Others would socialize as they watched their nerdy peers play rogues and wizards well into the night — happy to be in a space that accepted them. People would often stay over into the next morning or even the entire weekend.
When the pandemic hit, there was a fear among participants that this space would die like with so many other things. These events had always required a fair bit of organization to coordinate. Still, the group had fortunately relied on Facebook Messenger as their de facto communication tool for nearly half a decade. There was no need to transition online because everyone was already there. Wyatt knew how to organize digitally. For years, he had been involved in online spaces such as World of Warcraft as a guild officer. He and his friend Henry set up a discord server to better interface with Tabletop Simulator — a digital interface that lets you play tabletop games online. Weekly Dragonfire nights continued as they had before, albeit a little further apart.
The discord’s evolution from a Dragonfire-only server to one dedicated to over 20 games started with a conversation Wyatt had with his friend Stuart. Stuart was frustrated with the gaming scene. He was annoyed not just because of the blanket homophobia common in online chats and forums but also because of the lack of resources within the queer gaming scene. A lot of the queer-only servers he found were either defunct, or they felt impersonal and toxic. As Wyatt remarked to me later: “You can join…all queer guilds or whatever, you know… sometimes they can still be shitty for other reasons. [They can be] douchebags like any other regular douchebag. You know, being vitriolic to people who make mistakes and things like that.” Stuart wanted a space online that didn’t feel like a queerified-version of the toxic straight spaces he had left.
In Wyatt’s mind, he had the solution. The discord server already existed: why not expand it?
After getting the Dragonfire group’s permission, he worked with his friend Henry, a longtime ally and Dragonfire player, to grow it out. Some of this involved setting up the infrastructure with easy-to-use macros, but mostly it was about spreading the word to the large community of leftist, queer nerds they had already built. They added not only people from the Dragonfire group but also people from Wyatt’s World of Warcraft days, friends of his partner Jake, and of course, one or two people they have met off Grindr and other queer dating apps.
The server now encompasses groups ranging from Animal Crossing to League of Legends to Borderlands 3. It continues to evolve with little of the harassment and abuse typical of the gaming scene. It’s just as normal to see players there to reassure each other after a bad day of work as it is for them to talk about the games they love. “Thanks for all the memes,” types one user, “I feel better now than I did!”
Much of this empathy has to do with the intentionality Wyatt, Jake, and Henry have put into the server’s development. They built up a community, not just a product. A safe space that’s rare within the LGBTQIA+ gaming scene, and if we are honest, the gaming scene in general.
The larger gaming community has been struggling with issues of harassment for decades with mixed success. A recent study from the Anti-Defamation League found that 65% of players have experienced severe harassment while playing games online, including physical threats, stalking, and sustained harassment. Many of these players claim they were targeted for their identity — the LGBTQIA+ community being one the highest self-reported groups. “In Overwatch,” remarks one player in the study, “I’ve seen hateful players call others gay slurs and tell them to kill themselves many times. I always report it but rarely feel like I’m taken seriously.”
There have been many attempts to solve this problem, but these solutions have predominantly been technocratic and piecemeal. Companies will often attempt to tweak the interface of a game or put out PSA’s and not really address the underlying issue, which is that these instances of harassment are not isolated instances. Discrimination is not an ancillary component of their games but one systemic to their industry and their user base.
For example, Riot Games, the maker of the arena battle game League of Legends, has been researching this topic for years. Their findings provide a far more complex understanding of harassment. They have found that their consistently toxic players make a fraction of their platform’s overall toxicity— in essence, disproving the “don’t feed the trolls” argument that has been so prevalent on the Internet. As Jeffrey Lin, scientist and game designer, remarked of their research for the company: “The vast majority [of harrasment] was from the average person just having a bad day.”
A lot of bigotry online is perpetuated by people who do not consider themselves discriminatory or bigoted. Their hurtful language comes out when they are frustrated or upset and is not part of a targeted campaign to harass or dox a player. As Wyatt says of homophobia in particular: “I don’t think people realize you can be homophobic or transphobic or whatever by accident…A lot of people get very defensive, and it can be hard to find a group of people, who [aren’t] just surface-level not homophobic, but actually not homophobic.”
It’s that subtle bigotry that lies at the heart of most online discrimination, and most companies are not willing to address it. Going back to the example of Riot Games, in response to their research on harassment, they initially set up a volunteer tribunal system that allowed players to review and judge reported violations from other players anonymously. They then issued ‘reform cards’ that allowed punished players to understand why their accounts might be suspended in the first place. This review process was meant to encourage community buy-in, and it appears to have had some initial results, with informed players having a reported decrease in destructive behavior.
However, Riot Game was not willing to commit these resources indefinitely. The turnaround for reviews from volunteers was not as quick as they preferred, so they opted for a more “efficient” AI that automatically made judgments. The tribunal system was disbanded, and that stinginess impacted their community. As one user remarked on the League of Legends fandom page: “I miss the Tribunal. Power aside, it really helped me become a less-toxic player. I’ve felt the Dark Side creep up on me further and further since then.”
The issue of harassment remains for League of Legends. A 2020 survey reported that 98% of players had experienced harassment within the game. The company Riot Games has also been reported to have a very toxic workplace, paying out a $10 million gender discrimination lawsuit in 2019. Their issue of harassment was not ancillary to their community but struck at the core of how they operated as a business.
We see here how has it’s not enough to claim that you are concerned by harassment. You have to be willing to form a community centered on accountability. As Wyatt and Jake have proven, there is no technocratic solution to doing this — the answer comes from open-communication, hard work, and empathy.
If the world of gaming wants to create spaces that provide genuine acceptance — and not just on the surface — they need to create intentional communities that are actually dismantling players’ bigotry. Whether they be players, discord members, or forum commentators, this goal requires that community members have actual buy-in. Passive members are one bad day away from taking out their anger and frustration on players they do not know.
Most importantly, community leaders need to be willing to fund these spaces with time and resources. Riot Games’ tribunal system was a great idea, but its decision to shutter it for a more “efficient” (i.e., cheaper) AI system was a step in the wrong direction. The anonymity of the Internet means that non-toxic systems require work to create social norms that foster trust. You cannot expect that a small policy tweak will do away with decades of player harassment.
The good news is that people want those spaces, and many are already actively building them. These include larger actors such as activist Anita Sarkeesian (who just recently created a games and online harassment hotline) as well as small-time people like Wyatt and Jake — energetic, queer gamers who built a community simply because they thought one was needed — and maybe, even people like you.
With enough work and time, a queer gaming utopia is just a few clicks away.