Seeing the strength of the LGBTQ+ gayming market | Robin Gray interview

The past two years of layoffs have been tough for the game industry, and the Gayming Awards and Gayming Magazine have felt the “knock-on effect of that,” said Robin Gray, founder of Gayming Magazine and the Gayming Awards.

The recent announcement of the 2024 Gayming Awards show had prominent sponsors, but it’s been a struggle to get the same level of support from the game industry as in the past, Gray said in an interview with GamesBeat.

But game publishers and developers should remember the size and power of the LGBTQ+ market. Gray cited recent reports by the Entertainment Software Association that 11% of gamers identify as LGBTQ+, and GLAAD found that 27% of gay gaymers believe that game designers consider them when designing games. There are perhaps fewer egregious mistakes when it comes to depicting them in games. And these LGBTQ+ gamers are also 1.4 times more likely to buy games with strong LGBTQ+ content.

Gray spoke about a mixture of sentiments, including recognition for the fine efforts of game developers toward the LGBTQ+ (as expressed through the Gayming Awards), criticism of the industry’s shortcomings and fighting for better representation when needed, and a plea to support his small company that has been greatly affected by the global economy.

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He noted that the support for this year’s Gayming Awards was gratifying, as it was hosted on a livestream hosted by Deere and MiladyConfetti as part of IGN’s Summer of Gaming and across Gayming Magazine’s Twitch and TikTok channels, as well as a Spanish language co-stream by Mexican TikTok icon, Angelo Gamer.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Robin Gray is head of Gayming Magazine and the Gayming Awards.

Robin Gray: This is a piece of research and a way of gathering other people’s stats. We’re digging into what it all means. We’re not releasing it ourselves. We’re working with others on the gaming side, and working with an LGBT business podcast on the other side.

GamesBeat: How did you do the research?

Gray: It’s been an interesting year. It started with the GLAAD report that came out back in February, which identified their own stats and own research around the number of LGBTQ players, their value, the impact that they can have. We reference it in here. It says that 27% of LGBTQ gamers feel that major video game companies think about them when designing games. But it goes on to say that they’re 1.4 times more likely to buy games that have strong LGBTQ content.

We took that as a jumping-off point. The ESA has done their own work as well, showing that 11% of active video gamers identify as LGBTQ. GLAAD’s report has that number a little higher. We prefer the ESA figure. But we took the consumer spending value of the U.S. video game industry in total last year, which was around $57 billion. If you reduce that to 11%, that gives you about 21 million people in the U.S. with a total consumer spend around $6 billion. That’s obviously in actual games, peripherals, video game stuff. We then reasonably defined what disposable income spending power could be. For gamers, particularly things like drinks, snacks, and apparel–if you add in the average consumer spend for that on an annual basis, it jumps up to about $300 billion. That’s still just the U.S. alone.

The whole point of the report is pushing back a bit on the narrative that supporting LGBTQ gamers, engaging with LGBTQ gamers, is not just pride spend, pride budget. It’s a legitimate market segment. Particularly given the loyalty and the stats around how LGBTQ gamers are likely to spend even more money if they’re engaged with authentically.

GamesBeat: How would you contrast the presentation of LGBTQ characters and themes in games now, versus what the opportunity is?

Gray: We’re living at the moment in an age of everybody, particularly on Twitter, decrying how woke everything is. Having all these false narratives around that. The facts are, out of all the video games released in the last year, only 1% of those games actually contained LGBTQ themes, characters, storylines, etc. Yet the research by the ESA shows that 11% of gamers identify as LGBTQ. The reality is, we should be seeing more representation.

When it comes to tropes, there’s always that danger of straying far down negative paths. But on the whole, more is more. More is obviously better. There’s evidence to prove that game studios are starting to get it right. We’re celebrating that daily through the job we do at Gayming. I can’t honestly remember the last time I saw something that stood out as, “Oh, that’s not a good one.” I know there are a couple of concerns brewing around the new Life is Strange. When that first came out, the tropes back then were a bit heavy-handed. I think people are rightly nervous as to how that plays out.

Gayming Homepage
Gayming Magazine is the voice of geek LGBTQ+ culture.

But we’ve seen so much positivity, so many good examples of stuff. That comes back to how you engage with people, how you do it authentically. I love seeing that Overwatch–we interviewed the LGBT employee network at Blizzard the other day. They told me the story of how Overwatch uses the employee network internally for sensitivity reads and language checks and everything else. But also they reach out to GLAAD and other organizations. We’re starting to see more of an uptick around the realization that you can’t necessarily get it right just by going it alone.

That’s why we exist. That’s why GLAAD exists. That’s why other organizations exist. We’re happy to help. We’ve worked a bit with Microsoft and Xbox when they released Tell Me Why. That was a wonderful time, just to be engaged with. I like to think that we’re seeing an uptick in people doing it right.

GamesBeat: As far as the international picture, how does that compare or contrast to the U.S.?

Gray: It’s more difficult to judge across countries, particularly around Europe. There are trickier numbers when you try to get under the bonnet. We did look at that in a way of–let’s assume that 11% does carry over. We know that LGBTQ people overindex when it comes to playing video games. Video games are a release, an escape. We do believe that the 11% probably does carry over into Europe. You can start to take these wild swings – this many people play games in Europe, this many people identify as LGBTQ.

We know that in Australia, for example–a report came out this year saying four out of five Australians play video games, which is a ludicrously high number. But again, you can apply–even if you apply a community average to that, 7-8%, that’s still a fairly massive number. The only thing we struggle with, unless there’s better research available, is when it comes to turning the number of players, potential LGBTQ players, into their cash value, their spending power value. There are issues around different currencies and that sort of thing. Comparisons start to struggle.

In western Europe, to use an old-fashioned phrase, you could take a stab in the dark at the number of people who are LGBTQ. But the further east you go into Europe, you do start bumping into issues around people not wanting to out themselves for the censuses, not wanting to be too out because of a variety of political challenges.

GamesBeat: The Middle East still has a lot of issues as well.

Gray: Hugely, and it’s always disappointing, to be honest–particularly with the esports world, it’s always disappointing to see a lot of different majors in the space deciding to play their finals and stuff in a territory that would not physically permit LGBTQ people to compete. That’s always upsetting. We do know there are people there–we see in our own readership of Gayming. We have one or two readers a month from Iran, readers in the Middle East. They’re there. They just can’t obviously be engaged with it.

GamesBeat: On that front, how do you view the notion of boycotts by gamers related to some of these countries or events that flex that spending power in an activist way?

Gayming Awards 2023 credit Catalin Media
Gayming Awards 2023

Gray: Absolutely. LGBTQ are always at the forefront of social justice. They’re always wanting to reflect and be part of that conversation. Absolutely, using that spending power to make a statement–we’re seeing ongoing boycotts around Palestine and the problems there. You saw the announcements around the latest big esports finals being held out there. Two or three major LGBTQ Twitch streamers, esports personalities, have declined to be part of it. That’s the most powerful thing, probably, physically withdrawing from these things. It’s making a statement.

We interviewed CaptainFluke, who is a top tier esports caster in Rainbow Six: Siege, a couple of years ago. Rainbow Six was taking the finals to the Middle East, and said to Fluke, “You’re under contract. You have to come cast this.” And she said no. They said, “It’ll be fine. We’ll get you security.” She said, “Well, that’s fine for me, but are you going to do that for every LGBTQ person who comes into the country?” They didn’t really have an answer to that. She was able to bow out of that. But she took a hit for doing it.

LGBTQ people, given the sort of fight we’ve had to date, we’re proud to stand by a lot of different marginalized communities. We always do it in a very positive way, I think. Either withdrawing ourselves or withdrawing our money. Given the billions of dollars on the table, it can have an impact.

GamesBeat: Countries like Saudi Arabia are putting all this money into the space. It feels like they’re almost keeping esports alive. But they have policies that conflict with the values a lot of people have.

Gray: Quite honestly, it’s sportswashing. It’s going against every principle that sane and sensible people should be standing by. The risk is really around sustainability. As with a lot of other discussions that happen around the Middle East, the oil is running out. The money is running dry. Through tourism and other events, they’re trying to diversify very quickly to get away from the impending doom of the oil reserve. The problem is, human rights in the country aren’t keeping up. They can try to flirt their way around it a bit – it’s fine, business is coming in – but that’s not the point. It goes against the spirit of everything we stand for, and what video games should be doing, which is celebrating, informing, and uplifting each other. Not putting up walls, be they financial or any other kind.

GamesBeat: How would you suggest that game companies approach the issue?

Gray: We’re currently in an industry that’s financially struggling. Or doing fine, but everyone obviously wants to do finer. Money talks. Particularly with esports, which is relatively unrestricted, unguarded–there’s no world body, as much as various people are trying to set one up. It doesn’t come with many very guardrails when it comes to how events happen. Money does talk. I understand that at a time in the world where money needs to be protected, in a way, or people think so, I can understand the decisions from companies’ points of view, the moves to go to certain places. Obviously people are seeing reports coming out that say the MENA region is one of the most rapidly growing regions for video games, if not the most.

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Nicolas Gras

My challenge, really, is to do something good with the money. If companies insist on going into those spaces for the money, do something good with it. Pressure those governments. Lobby those governments along the way. Go into those spaces wanting to make proper change. How do you hold people accountable? How do you go into that space knowing what is happening, seeing what is happening, and being able to say, “We’re not going to bring our games to you unless there’s major change happening?” There has to be pressure on the big companies that can then put pressure on governments.

I think people in those countries deserve it as well. This gets a bit lost in the shuffle. We can look from the outside and say, “Saudi Arabia, they’re awful to LGBTQ people, I’m never going there,” but what about the LGBTQ people that live there? We know they’re there. As I say, they’re reading Gayming. We’re not just benefiting ourselves. We should be looking at this and thinking about whether we can benefit LGBTQ people as a whole, both in the country and outside? Esports needs more queer people. The idea of shutting it away in a country that, on paper, ethically and morally, you shouldn’t be going to, it’s slamming the door. There are errors at all stages.

GamesBeat: Companies think about the money they might lose by staying out of events in those countries, but they don’t necessarily weigh the cost on the other side.

Gray: Absolutely. This is why–we’re seeing it very much in the industry now with these layoffs. Nobody’s looking at the five- or 10-year plan. We’re laying a lot of people off now. Who, on paper, are usually the first to go? It’s always the last people in. Considering the games industry for the last two, three, four, five years has been on a real spree to try to diversify, to try and bring in more people of color, more women, more everything, who’s probably on the chopping block first? There are two people I follow on LinkedIn who’ve been doing a bit of a straw poll to look at the type of people who’ve lost their jobs, and unsurprisingly it is falling heavily on minorities and underrepresented people.

The industry isn’t thinking about the next five or 10 years. It’s the same with the whole esports thing. They’re grabbing the cash now and shutting out women and LGBTQ people now. In five years, then the question becomes, why aren’t these people in esports? Where’s the future of esports? Well, five years ago you shut them out because you took the sport to a country they couldn’t go to. All of this just needs a bit more thinking into the future when it comes to diversity in the games industry. At the moment the cash-grabbing may be working on paper, but it’s not doing any good for the next five to 10 years.

GamesBeat: Is there any fracture within the LGBTQ space about these kinds of things? On a subject like Israel there seems to be splits everywhere.

Gray: That’s always a difficult one. It’s not as simple as “the LGBTQ is for or against.” It’s always more nuanced than that. The problem is, everyone can say this, but they’re all sat in their own little bubbles. From my bubble, I do see that the LGBTQ community, probably more significantly, is raging about what is happening out there in a positive way, boycotting and really making it loud, because as a minority segment we support other minorities. That’s been the same across the beats. People have supported us in the past. We always like to follow that back.

Gayming Awards 2023 Credit CatalinMedia
Gayming Awards 2023

That’s what I see from my bubble. Everybody’s bubble is a bit different. But I do believe that the lion’s share of the LGBTQ community is wanting an end to hostilities there for sure. Then you start to cut into different demographics and communities, whether it’s age or background. World politics is always a tricky one anyway. But I think the greater community does come down on the right side.

GamesBeat: People have to think about whether that should paralyze them or make them think harder about what they value.

Gray: People are starting to realize that these boycotts are working. There’s evidence to show they are working. That goes back to the significant spending power that the LGBTQ community does have. Outside of gaming, off the top of my head I think LGBTQ spending power in America tips over $1 trillion. As a homogeneous bloc we can unite and make a difference.

I think as well, people are perhaps a bit wise to some of the issues that I know Israel has engaged in previously, when it comes to the art of pinkwashing. Seeming to be pro-LGBTQ, seeming to do all these things, in order to basically wash off some of the less savory decisions they’re making. Again, as a community–whether it’s gamers or LGBTQ people as a whole, and I suppose this applies to Israel and Saudi and other issues as well, using a certain group of people to try and protect yourself relative to other things that are happening in the world, it’s always tricky, and a bit ugly at the best of times.

GamesBeat: How do you see the road map for your research going forward? Is there a way to further guide people?

Gray: This came from a conversation that my business partner and I were having. We know what we do. We know we do it well. Gayming is reaching about 3.5 million people a month, all around the world. We’re starting to examine what the capacity is. What more could we be doing? There was a bit of frustration from our side. We’ve not been shy about this. We’ve had a difficult year as a platform. It started with the whole Bud Light debacle last year, which was an absolute mess. Various contracts we had with large companies disappeared on us. They’ll never admit that it’s related to what happened to Bud Light, but you’re already seeing reports coming out on LinkedIn from various marketing experts saying that pride spend is down this year.

We’ve fallen afoul on that front, and also on the video game industry front. From an industry point of view, when you start laying people off, the first thing that has to go as well is the doing-good budget. Over the years, a lot of what Gayming has benefited from is spending related to pride, pride-related budgets. We want to start to bend the needle away from–we’re not just a DEI play. Even that phrase has been picked up now by the Twitterati to be a negative thing. That’s the next on the chopping block.

It comes full circle back to–the queer community is worth more than a bit of lip service and a bit of your hand in your pocket in June. It’s a legitimate marketing segment all year round. We’re talking to you. We’re talking to other people. We’re starting to get the message out there. I’m hoping to get over to Devcon soon and start to bang that drum. This is not just a pride play. The statistics around the fact that LGBTQ gamers are nearly 1.5 times more likely to buy games that have representative characters and storylines–that’s a huge positive. The GLAAD report also mentioned that even non-LGBTQ people would buy games more that had LGBTQ people in them.

We’re trying to drill this down into business decisions. We seem to be in a time, as I said earlier, where money is talking. I’m trying to talk back as to what people can potentially get a slice of. That $300 billion is waiting for people to engage with it authentically and do it properly. Businesses want to support LGBTQ activations. That’s why we do a lot of our work outside of June. But I think the problem is, it’s not so much about wanting to do it. There’s always a drive to do it, a desire. There is a significant chunk of people still left in the industry from the LGBTQ community who want to be a part of and share these messages far and wide. The conversations I had with Blizzard the other day, talking about the actions they take all year round–there’s a lot more than just doing it in June.

But from a purely financial point of view, the issue we’ve been finding is that no matter how you try and spin it, everyone comes back with the same answer. “We’ve run out of our pride budget for this year.” Or the ERG budget. I’m not after that, I’m after the marketing department.

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Florian Gagnepain

GamesBeat: Do you get many responses along the lines of, “We don’t want to invest in something political”?

Gray: Sometimes. But to be honest, the fear of getting it wrong is easily fixed just by engaging with companies that know how to get it right. Such as ourselves. Obviously working through, working with people who can do things authentically in the world, that can run events properly, that know what the LGBTQ community wants. But it’s also outside there as well. It’s not just around the LGBTQ community. Plenty of stats out there show that people prefer to buy content, prefer to buy things from companies that are diverse.

If you lose a customer to one of these anti-woke boycotts, statistics actually prove that if a brand backs down from LGBTQ advertising to pander to that one person, they’ll lose 1.8 consumers that walk away because they see that brand backing down. It’s a straight choice between losing one consumer for backing the LGBTQ community or losing nearly double that for backing down. Again, that’s not just the LGBTQ community. It’s the broader community. Most people in the community now are perfectly fine with LGBTQ people.

The debate, really, is over when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion. Coming back to business, it’s the intrinsic–do you want a piece of this pie or not? Doing it authentically now is the challenge.

GamesBeat: Is the U.S. election an issue where the situation is clear for the LGBTQ community, or unclear?

Gray: It should be fairly straightforward for everyone, to be honest with you. On the one hand you have someone who might not be everybody’s first choice, but when do you ever get that in politics? Someone who at least is doing right by a lot of different minority communities, and is trying to do right by the world. On the other hand you have someone who has basically admitted that on the first day in office, he wants to declare that there are only two genders, male and female, and that’s it. You can kiss trans rights goodbye almost immediately the second Trump walks into office. You can kiss goodbye to any and all reproductive health when Trump walks into office. It’s fairly straightforward.

The issue, really, when it comes to politics, like anything else, is that most big companies have to follow the prevailing winds. The beauty of the video game industry–we saw it surviving and mostly thriving through the last Trump presidency. While it’s very technical, it’s an art form. Art always takes the form of protest. Just like film and TV, it leads the way on trying to be on the right side of the equation.

With that said, the risks are significantly higher that–the first Trump presidency, quite honestly I don’t think he knew what he was doing. I don’t think he thought he was going to win. He didn’t have any plans in place. The risk is they’ve had four years now to plan this one. If you see the Project 2025 document that’s doing the rounds at the moment, it’s harrowing, for everyone. Everyone in any shape or form, unless you’re a straight white man frankly, should be shivering when they read that document. I would be genuinely horrified–I’m going to be in the country, I realized. We’re going to the U.S. for my partner’s birthday on November 4.

GamesBeat: The election is alarming in the sense that it’s so close. With the votes stacking up half and half, it’s almost clear that if you weigh in on that as a company, you’re going to face a response no matter what.

Gray: We’re in the social media age. We’re in an age where everyone has an opinion – right, wrong, or indifferent. They have a mouthpiece to get it out there. The issue for me, as you say–it shouldn’t be that close. It shouldn’t be anywhere near that close. But it is going to come down to how companies are going to respond to that. From a government point of view–I think Washington state, the governor there has started to hoard abortion medications and things like that. That’s shocking. It’s good, but it should never have to happen. If the worst happens, you’ll start to see a return to the old times of different companies needing to be based in certain states. The exodus away from California we’ve seen from some of the larger companies might be reversed. People may need to get back to California, for obvious reasons.

Just talking about social media for a second, we’re obviously paying the price now for the world’s most psychotic rich person owning probably the biggest social media mouthpiece out there. It’s freedom of speech, but not if you’re saying what he doesn’t want you to say. It picks back up on the Bud Light boycott. It should never have gone anywhere. It was stupid. They’re all drinking Bud Light again, trust me. But most of it is because their favorite person on the internet said something, so now they have to go and say something. You’re seeing that social media effect. Now people have to go and shoot a case of Bud for some reason.

It comes back to how companies want to stand up and be counted. Even with a Trump presidency, those figures on the number of people that support the LGBTQ community aren’t going to get any smaller. If anything they’re going to get bigger, because we may actually start to see some persecution happening. Similarly, the abortion issue–across the piece, I think it’s 70% of Americans as a whole support the right to an abortion. It’s not even close to a 50-50 choice. When it comes down to companies, they have to stand up, be proud, and realize, quite frankly, what side your bread is buttered.

It will come down to that financial value. I don’t want to say it, but that’s why we’re doing this exercise, to try to put some hard financial figures against the value of our community. It’s to take some of that, dare I say, the niceties of supporting the LGBTQ community, and turning it into hard business facts. If those facts can be beneficial to the company, great. That will stand the test of time when it comes to if – hopefully not when – there is a change in global politics that may blow the wind in another direction.

The reality is that we may hate the system, but we have to play in the system. We have to talk about the system. If we can take that money and do some good with it as Gayming, as the LGBTQ community in general, I’ll take it. I’ll do some wonderful things. Gayming is five years old this year. We worked with nearly 200 different LGBTQ content creators over five years. We’ve put more than $100,000 in people’s pockets through working with them. We continue to work with wonderful content creators. If we can take some of that cash, that investment, and do good by our community, I’ll happily play the capitalist game.

I prefer the term “ethical capitalism.” If you can do some good with money, then I don’t think it’s quite as dirty as people think. It’s all interconnected. It’s unfortunate, but right at the moment we’re living in an age where money does talk. I’d rather make sure the money talks in a positive way.

GamesBeat: Are there any other big events on your schedule?

Gray: The Gayming Awards is on Tuesday. That in itself–we meant to be doing it back in April. There’s even a reference to that in the opening of the show. The reason for that is because we weren’t able to secure enough sponsorship to do what we originally wanted to do. We had to pull it back to a slightly pared back, but still impactful–we’re part of IGN’s summer of gaming, which is wonderful. That’s living proof. And then Gayming Live is returning in October, which is another wonderful virtual festival that lines up with LGBT History Month.

It comes back to what I was saying about authenticity. We’re providing opportunities for brands to get involved. Really, my challenge is to show that value.

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