I've spent quite a bit of time in the PlayStation Home virtual world over the past year and a bit since it went live, more than I actually thought I would. Originally I had imagined a space where Gaymers could meet up for 'phobe-free online gaming and while that's certainly true, especially due to groups on FaceBook and elsewhere, something else entirely has been happening as well.
I didn't think about being out on the service too much before it was released, since I basically considered it just another type of internet forum or something similar to the Yahoo Groups and Live Journal communities I've been part of previously. This mindset meant I figured I'd just carry on as usual being an out Gaymer and not taking any crap from anyone.
So on I went, creating a moustachioed gent with a crew cut and blue eyes, almost the complete opposite of how I look in real life, considering I kept him Caucasian. Naturally I was a bit hesitant to reveal my sexuality at first, unless it happened to come up or someone was being hassled, since I figured there were probably kids around and why bring it up at random right? It turned out not only was there not much hassling going on, but thanks to the initial user base of the PS3 being at the higher end of the gamer age bracket, there were actually a lot of comfortably gay and gay-friendly people checking out Home.
Even in the service's early days, it wasn't rare to see groups of guys rave dancing in the Central Plaza area, sporting sunglasses, cowboy hats, and leather pants; some of the initial items available for purchase to customize a user's avatar. Later on, thanks to bare chest options via Street Fighter outfits and club accessories like glow sticks, it was occasionally starting to look like "Gay Day" at times in the communal spaces.
Naturally, the fact that groups of half-naked male avatars can be seen dancing together didn't go unnoticed by the general public using the service. This has led to conversations that include statements like "I've seen a lot of purposely gay-looking avatars before, but you win hands down", or "All the chicks at the SingStar space are lesbians". I've also had unanticipated interactions such as being "collected" like a pokémon by high school girls as the first gay guy they've met in Home.
The content creators at Sony seem to have noticed as well. Recent items made available have been inclusive to say the least, if not outright targeted at a gay audience. Who else would consider buying outfits that pretty much cover every member of the Village People and then some? I was expecting a lot of game-based content, which there is, but much of what's available seems either obviously gay-friendly (cowboy and sailor outfits anyone?), or easily pervertable, such as the new items based on the Twisted Metal game series that include a leather harness and gauntlets. Why would they release these items when there's no new game in the series and hasn't been for a few years? Not that I'm complaining, mind you.
What this means is that when someone sees me in Home, there's likely very little doubt about my sexuality these days. Recently, a fairly typical looking avatar approached me as I was dancing in my newly updated western gear and asked "is that what I think it is around your chest", meaning my harness, of course. I mentioned as much and they asked if I was gay, and soon after, (them being Black) asked if I "had ever tried dark meat". Now usually, even if I think someone's baiting me (which happens occasionally), I'll play along just to see what they do and mess with them a bit when the time comes. This was different though, it was very direct, and the person sent me a friend request almost right away. He takes off and says he'll send me an invite, leaving me figuring I'll never see him around again, as is often the case.
A few minutes later, he invites me to his personal space (in Home, all users have at least one space they can text or voice chat privately with about a dozen people by invitation). I figure, even if it's a joke, I'll still have my say and accept. It turns out this guy is not gay, but likes to play with men on occasion. We ended up having a great conversation and I was hopefully able to say a few things that help him out. What's most interesting here though, is that similar situations have happened before. I've talked to teenagers in the closet who change the subject randomly when other people walk into the family den, middle-school kids caught in the middle of complicated custody battles, and other people in situations you just don't expect to talk about with strangers.
It seems like Home is attracting its fair share of people who simply don't have someone to talk to in their close circle, so they go online just as they would go on a forum. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise though, since the service is basically a giant 3D chat room. Who knew that a place where kids were supposed to meet up for some fun would so quickly evolve into a space where not only can gay gamers feel welcome and be open about who they are, but the ones who need something more are finding that as well.