This piece might come across as man-splaining to some, but it was written as part of my university course, with the goal of shedding light on what some members of the games industry have had to struggle through. If your a woman who wants to join the games industry, or a man who thinks opportunities have always been equal between the genders, this might of interest.
Women have an uphill battle when it comes to becoming a part of the patriarchal medium we know as video games, however the advent of new technologies is also providing weapons in this fight against stigma, inequality and harassment.
Video games have traditionally been viewed as a male dominated past time. When most people, whom are ignorant to the evolution of the medium, are asked what video games are, they respond that they’re all focused around driving cars and shooting hookers. That’s a pretty adequate description if you’re talking about Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto 5, but viewing video games this way is like believing every single film is a horror movie. Which would be an outrageous statement.
There are dramas, comedies, romances, children’s animated films and action flicks too. Video games are exactly the same. Yes there are action focused games like Halo and Fortnite, but there are also narrative driven games that deal with sexuality and mental illness. There are peaceful games about exploration and creativity, which some individuals use to meditate or design art.
There are such a wide range of genre’s, stories and ways to play, that it seems like everyone would play games. Books and films aren’t exclusively consumed by one gender, so why would this medium be any different. Yet there is this preconceived notion, ingrained within our society, that video games as a hobby and video games as a career choice, are a male only space.
It’s not hard to see why society views this relatively new medium in such a segregated way. If we look at the most well-known names in game development, the individuals behind some of the greatest games ever made, women aren’t represented at all.
So why is the video game industry, a patriarchal one? Rather than making assumptions, it’s more informative to go to the source and look at what current female game developers have said about the issue. In 2017, games journalist Lucy O’Brien interviewed 55 game development professionals about the state of the industry. Within these interviews many contributing factors are acknowledged as causation’s for the lack of female representation within game development.
Despite only making up 22% of the game development work force in 2017, many women found a passion for gaming in the same way their male counterparts did, through experiencing, enjoying and socializing through video games as children. Yet many of these women were discouraged from pursuing this passion professionally from a young age, and even those who studied computer science at university were uninformed and uneducated in the possibilities of game development, despite possessing the appropriate skill sets (O’Brien, 2017).
This stems from the effects of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). For decades there has been a stigma around women pursuing these fields of study. There has also been a stigma around women playing video games. Many still view video gamers as ‘pimple scarred, unhygienic male nerds, spending time on computer games because they can’t get a date.’ So parents didn’t provide much encouragement, let alone acceptance, of a young girl interested in possibly pursuing a career in gaming. Even today many of these women struggle with explaining to their friends and family that the work they do isn’t just about maths and shooting (O’Brien, 2017). The mainstream isn’t aware of the many roles in game development and neither are potential female advocates for it. Game design isn’t just programming, it also includes; creative writing, art, business management, community management, sound design and acting.
The female gaming professionals interviewed also highlighted another issue. Many feminists have argued that ICT’s exclude women from the creation process, leading males to be the pioneers of new technology, and video games to be viewed like many other technological phenomenon’s, as toys for boys (Frissen, 1992). Therefore there is an assumption that if men are making this product, men are also the sole consumers of it. This is demonstrated in video game marketing, which caters to the stereotypical male desires, and alienates women. Duken Nukem was a popular series of FPS (First Person Shooters) in the 90’s, and even as late as 2011, the series was being marketed with advertisements like this.
The most notable female games creator of the last decade is undeniably Amy Hennig, who led Naughty Dog throughout the PlayStation 3 generation and created the wildly successful Uncharted series. Yet even with a woman at the helm, the Uncharted series caters to a male audience. The series stars the one man army Nathan Drake and relegates female characters to being either annoyances or sexual sirens. This is how women have been represented in games right up until this decade.
However thanks to the evolution and advent of new ICT’s, these views and portrayals are slowly but surely shifting. The ability to gather more data on who’s playing their products has shown games publishers a number of facts. The average gamer is around 35 years old and 65% of households own a video game console. Strangely 41% of the market is made up of females, and there are more women over 18 playing games than men (Lofgren, 2017). The video game industry made $24.5 billion in software sales in 2016 alone (Blore, 2017). So ignoring a female audience, roughly 50% of the market, is no longer desirable.
With this new knowledge, AAA developers are attempting to adapt their franchises to be more gender neutral. The Assassin’s Creed series has long been male, violence and action focused. In Assassin’s Creed 2 the player takes on the role of charismatic Italian Ezio. Ezio attempts to charm most of the women he meets, and even uses female prostitutes as a means to sneak his way through certain areas (Perry, 2012). However in Assassin’s Creed’s latest installment, Origins, women and men hold equal amounts of power. The player gets the chance to control both husband and wife, Bayek and Aya, who fight passionately to avenge their son’s killer and better Egypt as a whole. Females are no longer used as window dressing, and instead hold positions of dominance, with much of the games story focusing on Cleopatra.
Bioshock Infinite was the story of Elizabeth, who over the course of the campaign evolves from a damsel in distress, to an enlightened figure of power. The Last of Us was the story of Ellie, a young girl who grew up without the preconceived notions of what a woman should be, and was instead molded by the savagery of a post-apocalyptic world. Yet despite the rise of independent and inspiring female protagonists, it seems the patriarchal foundations of the games industry are still hesitant to change. Despite both these stories revolving around women, the player must actually play as a protective older male figure, and despite the story being less about these men and more about the women they are helping, they are the ones on the front of the games promotional material. Why? Because of the idea that this will sell more copies and avoid alienating males (Connor, 2014).
So it falls on smaller creators, less focused on the corporate cash flow and driven by the pursuit of art. It is easier to join the game development industry than ever. With software like Game Maker Studio 2 and Unity being publicly available, without cost. Independent studio Dontnod was able to fully commit to a female focused game, eventually creating the BAFTA award winning, Life is Strange. Thanks to social media, and out spoken advocates, a game about being a teenage girl went on to be wildly successful, selling over 3 million copies, despite ignoring traditional games marketing practices (Handrahan, 2017).
The problem is, it isn’t women who are moving female characters forward, but men. Each of the aforementioned titles was creatively lead by males. Which brings us back to the same archaic notion that men and women relate differently to technology. Women drive cars, men fix them. Women live in houses, men build them (Zoonen, 1992). This isn’t however from a lack of desire, but a lack of opportunity.
Dontnod Entertainment Staff
Thanks to social media and online platforms like YouTube and Twitch, female gaming professionals are slowly finding tools to combat inequality and harassment, just like their in game counter parts.
The hardest to combat issue is inequality in the work place. An IGDA (2016) survey found that there were three times as many men as women earning $150,000 or more. The nature of childbearing is often cited as a contributing factor to the issue, yet 36 percent of the men and only 17 percent of the women reported having children (Blore, 2017).
Jessica Curry, one half of the husband and wife duo behind games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, left the games industry in 2015. She exposed in a blog post on her company’s website how the industry had stripped her of her creative ambition and self-worth. “I’ve had journalists assuming I’m Dan’s PA, I have been referenced as “Dan Pinchbeck’s wife” in articles, publishers on first meeting have automatically assumed that my producer is my boss just because he’s a man, one magazine would only feature Dan as Studio Head and wouldn’t include me,” (Curry, 2015 p. 4).
In many cases this inequality evolves into sexual harassment. On top of dealing with men unwilling to see them as equals, gaming professionals often have to endure creepy remarks and rape jokes in the office (O’Brien, 2017). According to O’Brien’s sources, this has been a long known issue, which is now being brought to light and fought against using social media. Misogyny in game development was publicly exposed in 2014 through Gamergate, which began when community organizer and game developer Zoë Quinn had to relocate after receiving an onslaught of online rape and murder threats. The 2017 #metoo movement affected the games journalism site IGN, when the majority of the company walked out in protest after it was publicly revealed that the website had tried to cover up a sexual harassment scandal.
The broad reach of social media has allowed women in a multitude of industries to shame the misogynistic practices that occur within the confines of the work place and forced said industries to change. In the wake of Gamergate, Intel pledged $300 million to an initiative called, Diversity in Technology. Prominent games publisher Ubisoft has also begun hosting panels aimed at embracing diversity. Games Journalist Alannah Pearce used Facebook to contact the mothers of teenage boys sending her rape threats, and sent them screen shots of the harassment. When used correctly social media is a powerful tool for change.
Outside of games journalism and development, other sub cultures are now being embraced and incubated by women. Women who’ve dealt with a life of fat shaming and body image issues are now finding a sense of self confidence and beauty through the cosplay community (McKinney, 2014).
That doesn’t mean they aren’t receiving backlash, still. Despite the fact that some women are now embracing their sexuality, rather than it being used as a tool by corporations and men, they are being shamed for it. Male Twitch Streamer Sky Williams told Kotaku, “You’re benefiting yourself at the cost of condemning your own gender. If another female is streaming, playing in non-provocative attire with her attention on the game, she will be subject to the same torment that you get when you just flaunt your body… You are creating a standard for the female streamers that want to continue,” (Grayson, 2015). It could be argued that males who once dominated the popular ‘Let’s Play’ space are speaking out in fear, rather than because of moral integrity. Despite Williams’ comments, he has publicly available videos where he and his male friends rate the attractiveness of women. It seems that with the rise of online video, men who were once fine with objectifying women, are now afraid of women embracing their sexuality and using it to rise in popularity.
Women are seemingly embracing the competitive nature of entertainment gaming and relishing in the equal opportunity for success. Australia’s Kayla ‘Squizzy’ Squires recently became the first competitive female Call of Duty player, and believes that the industry is opening up and providing opportunities for women (Charleston, 2016). Studies show that despite 75.9% of women being harassed when playing FPS’ online, 79.4% of women feel empowered playing those exact same games (Allison-McDaniel, 2016). Games provide a set of rules, and unlike the real world those rules don’t bend in the favor of specific genders or cultures.
There is a long way to go in regards to the role of women in the games industry. There is still a massive amount of inequality and harassment between genders. Yet social media and online video sharing platforms are allowing individuals to bypass corporate giants and expose misogynistic practices. Both men and women are coming together to make change and succeed. Companies are also devising ways to eliminate sexist behaviors. Developers like Riot Games have even invested in social researchers to study where toxic behavior originates and are forming ways to encourage players to be more civil (Blore, 2017). Change is on the horizon, technology is helping, but it will take time.
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