For Zach Smith, gaming has been a safe space for much of his life. “Some of my first memories are of playing video games,” he says.
Smith, who is the executive director of the Charlotte Gaymers Network, remembers playing on a Sega Genesis with his sister when he was young. “For me, growing up and getting bullied as a gay kid, video games were a safe haven — an escape to sort of not face the kind of cruddy reality I was facing at the moment,” says Smith. “I think that’s why they became so important to me.”
Now, he and others in Charlotte are creating that same environment for the LGBTQ community — often in a virtual way during the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 6, Smith and Jonathan Barrio started talking about gaming after realizing there was a subset of Queen City Prism members, which Barrio also helped found, who were into the hobby or sport.
What started as a small conversation of about 15 people meeting for happy hour gaming sessions every day after work soon grew into a massive group of LGBTQ gamers, or as they like to say “gaymers.” During the pandemic-caused quarantine, gaming helped break the monotony of being stuck at home and provided a social outlet for people.
“This is something that people need and want and desire, especially in the middle of this pandemic,” says Barrio. The two say they grew closer to members of Prism through the subject of gaming and attribute much of that early success to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. This latest release of Nintendo’s social simulation video game came out on March 20, just as lockdowns were reshaping lives across North Carolina and the nation. According to the game’s website, Animal Crossing allows you to “create your personal island paradise on a deserted island brimming with possibility.” In 2020, that thought sounds very appealing.
A Twitter video on the day of release prompted a widespread cheer from LGBTQ gamers when a character called Merry gushes about her love of comics and romantic comedies, referencing a princess whose “true love” is another princess. The subtle nod did not go unnoticed by fans and set off a tweetstorm of acceptance and visibility among LGBTQ gamers around the world.
As the pandemic raged on, traditional safe spaces of the LGBTQ community, like gay bars and gay-owned restaurants or businesses, have been mostly off-limits. Barrio and Smith credit the early growth of Charlotte Gaymers Network, which now has over 412 members on its Facebook page, to this need for inclusive socialization. Like bars, the group even enjoys having a resident deejay and drag queen. Most of their events have been online, but they did host a Halloween “gaymer gathering” at Tabbris Innovation Center in Southend with local drag queen Lilli Frost, who was one of the early people in that Facebook messenger chat with Barrio and Smith.
They limited attendance to 25 people, following Gov. Roy Cooper’s restrictions, and required everyone to wear a mask and undergo a temperature check at the door. They hope to bring back these in-person events in the future, but for now are focused on keeping members engaged online. Smith points out that in-person events sold out in less than 45 minutes.
Charlotte Gaymers Network launched its first tournament in October as well. Smith describes the event as “Iron Man-style” with games every week that focus on a different genre. The tournament started with 22 people and there are 10 to 11 people still competing as they enter into the final weeks of play. Participants pick a game from a pre-selected pool that the group’s board of directors have identified. Players rack up points each week and the top four will compete on Dec. 5 for the grand prize, a Dell gaming laptop.
The prize was donated by an anonymous community member, which shows the generosity that continues to amaze Barrio and Smith. Events have been sponsored by local businesses like Charlotte’s Pure Pizza and have garnered the support of Charlotte Esports’ C.J. Collins, who founded the Charlotte Phoenix, a professional esports team.
This helps ensure events by Charlotte Gaymers Network remain free for anyone to participate, something Barrio points out as very appealing for companies right now trying to reach people in different ways. “What we found so interesting about Charlotte Gaymers Network is that there is a passion there that is ignited because whether you’re 50 or you’re 19 — a gamer is a gamer,” he says. “That’s a level playing field for everybody, no matter what your class is, your background, your place in corporate America — whatever it may be. As a gamer, we’re all on the same playing field.”
Pointing out the “pay to play” style of LGBTQ events in many cities like Charlotte, Barrio says that the accessibility of gaming is a positive for many in the community. Their motto is “never a cover, always a group.”
As that group continues to grow, Barrio says the board of directors (yes, they are working to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit) hope to expand beyond Charlotte and eventually create the Carolinas Gayming Network.
They are also moving beyond video games and have started a series that teaches people how to play the fantasy tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. Using programs like Berserk Games’ Tabletop Simulator, they can keep things virtual until it is safe to gather in-person, at which point they plan to relaunch the popular gaymer gatherings. “We’re really looking to expand and deliver more digital content to our members so that we can keep them engaged,” says Smith.
Through it all, Barrio and Smith say it is all about creating welcoming spaces for LGBTQ people. In his LGBTQ History Project story, “Press A, Be Gay: LGBTQ Representation in Video Games” that appeared in qnotes on Oct. 5, Jason Villemez said “like most businesses dominated first by white heterosexual men, inclusivity was not a priority for game designers and publishers.” Queer representation in video games was subtle, at most, and Villemez points out that the medium still has room for improvement and growth.
Charlotte Gaymers Network partnered with Potions and Pixels for an event earlier this month on the groundbreaking Tell Me Why game, which revolves around the experiences of a transgender man and his sister. Barrio was joined by Jenny Jaymes-Gunn from Charlotte Pride and the National Organization for Women to play the game together. “It’s amazing to see video games telling these kinds of stories now,” says Barrio.
So, for those looking for a new fun group to be a part of, or to learn something new during the lockdown, the Charlotte Gaymers Network is welcoming to all and just maybe the place to find some friends as the world wraps up this unusual year. They host weekly events on Discord at discord.gg/NnRHSvf and post most of their updates, including live streaming events, on the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/charlottegaymersnetwork. Readers can also search for Charlotte Gaymers Network on Twitch and Youtube.com to learn more.
qnotes is part of six major media companies and other local institutions reporting on and engaging the community around the problems and solutions as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. See all of our reporting at charlottejournalism.org.
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