There was a time when the word “gamer” conjured images of a lonely nerd playing video games in his parents’ basement.
Not any more. Today’s gamers are more diverse and more social. There are meetups and groups and gamer clubs across the country, including LGBTQ-specific ones like the Houston Gaymers.
“We are the largest gaymer group in Texas,” says 33-year-old Ryan “Penny” Pennington. “We have an online user base of nearly 2,000 players, and about 500 local members who attend events.” Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas also have gaymer groups.
The word “gaymer” first popped up on usenet boards in the 1990s. In 2006 and 2009, the University of Illinois and the game design school Full Sail University teamed up to conduct a survey of LGBTQ gamers, which drew 17,000 respondents.
The games provide a healthy distraction for patients, which helps promote healing and provides some of the comforts
“Houston Gaymers was started in 2009 by Eric Hulsey and a group of friends,” Pennington says.
“That first meetup we had 30, 35 people show up,” Hulsey says. “It was very clear that there was a need for this.
“Of course we have games at our meetups,” Hulsey adds, “but it’s really about putting the focus on socializing. It’s about interacting with others. We have giveaways and themed drinks. We had zombie drinks based on Resident Evil for Halloween. It’s a great way to meet new people and make friends.”
Pennington found that out firsthand.
“I moved here from Los Angeles and didn’t know a soul,” he says. “But once I joined Gaymers, I met all kinds of people, and now about 90 percent of my friends are gaymers.” He has been on the board of the nonprofit for four years, and currently serves as its business and social-development director.
A music teacher, Pennington started gaming early.
“My mom says my grandmother bought me a Game Boy in the 1990s, and it went downhill from there,” he laughs. Pennington’s husband, Tagir Galiyev, is also a gamer. “Not as much as I am, but he kind of has to be to be married to me.”
The Houston Gaymers host about 75 events a year, including two monthly gatherings: the Handhelds Connect that meets the first Monday of every month for board games, card games, and handheld devices; and the Gaymer Meetup on the fourth Saturday of the month, which includes video games and a movie at Guava Lamp.
Besides the social aspect, Houston Gaymers has a philanthropic component. About five years ago, the group started helping raise funds for the AIDS Walk, HRC Houston, and Bunnies on the Bayou, in addition to food drives for the Houston Food Bank. Then three years ago, the members started their own charity. Project Blue Shell, named for a helpful item in a Mario Kart game, provides signature blue boxes packed with a Nintendo, two games (yes, one is Mario Kart), and information about Houston Gaymers. The Houston Gaymers distributed about 10 of the boxes each year to children’s hospitals, homeless shelters, Hatch Youth, and Tony’s Place.
“The Houston Gaymers have been longtime supporters of Texas Children’s Hospital,” says Jennifer Smart, manager of philanthropy at the hospital. “In addition to raising money through Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Extra Life program [and sponsoring] a 24-hour game marathon, they also donate handheld gaming devices for our patients to use during hospital stays. The games provide a healthy distraction for patients, which helps promote healing and provides some of the comforts of home.”
Pennington says the group is even attempting to design a rolling cart with a TV and games for hospitals.
Studies have shown that games are therapeutic, relieve stress, and can provide pain relief. In 2011, the military conducted a study of soldiers suffering from burns at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Those soldiers who played the virtual reality game SnowWorld required less pain medication than other patients who didn’t play the game.
“Gaming and games for the gay community are getting better,” Pennington says. He cites BioWare’s Dragon War game, which features a gay main character, as an example. Yes, there’s been some backlash in the straight gamer community, but not as much as in the early days when LGBTQ characters were removed from games or portrayed as stereotypes and minor characters. Other games simply didn’t allow avatars to form relationships with same-gender avatars at all. That changed with The Sims in 2000, which allowed characters to form same-sex attachments and even marry. Within two years, it became the best-selling PC game, making video-game designers take note of the LGBTQ gaming market.
“Early on, it wasn’t as welcoming as it is now,” Pennington says. Not only are there gay characters in games and gaymer groups, but there are also conventions for LGBTQ gamers like the 2013 GaymerX conference that drew thousands of players.
Hulsey, the founder of the group, says it’s hard to believe that Houston Gaymers have been around for nearly 10 years.
“We are planning a really big anniversary party for June 1,” Hulsey says. “It’s going to be a really big deal.”