For too long, women have been fair game in an industry that’s been anything but fair. What’s the state of play in the gaming world, and how do we go to the next level?
It’s a familiar paradox – an industry with almost 50 percent of its audience made up of women, run overwhelmingly by blokes telling stories with a dodgy record of both representation and diversity. We’re not just talking Hollywood here: it’s the same deal in the gaming industry, which in the US makes more money now than movies and music combined. While the 2018 Harvey Weinstein revelations have finally forced a reckoning in film production, it’s been a controversial couple of years in the gaming community, and they’ve got the hashtags to prove it.
Here’s a primer on the dark side of gaming, some brilliant responses to it, and some fabulous game-changing women from TED and beyond.
ANITA SARKEESIAN TAKES DOWN THE TROPES
Anita Sarkeesian’s video project Tropes vs. Women in Video Games critiqued the limiting and damaging go-to stereotypes of women as they are depicted in games. There’s the damsel in distress, the woman-as-background decoration or reward, and the Smurfette (women as superficially feminised versions of men with girly hair). Sarkeesian argued that the majority of games are constructed to mirror the male gaze. As she exposed the gender inequality in game narratives, she became the target of an online hate campaign. In her TEDxWomen talk Sarkeesian describes how she was attacked by a cyber mob, receiving rape and death threats. It’s hard to imagine how sharing a feminist critique could provoke such bile and violence, but it’s not a one-off.
Back in 2014, software developer Eron Gjoni posted a vengeful blog about his ex-girlfriend, game designer Zoe Quinn. When his supporters hashtagged the post ‘#GamerGate’, Quinn became the hate object of an ugly movement, that unconvincingly claimed to be concerned with ‘journalistic ethics’. Essentially, this was large scale online harassment.
#GamerGate emboldened the woman-haters, spreading throughout the gaming community and making it a pretty toxic place for women.
In his 2013 TEDxUSC talk Excuse Me Princess, Stirling Little reported that 68 percent of women playing video games online have hidden their gender to avoid harassment. More recently, Jessica Outlaw’s 2018 study on virtual harassment found almost 50% of women engaged in VR have been sexually harassed.
Sarkeesian explains how the gaming industry boy’s club works – ‘by creating an environment that is too hostile and toxic to endure.’ Sarkeesian says #GamerGate is ‘just a scary, violent, abusive, temper tantrum. It’s an attack and an assault on women in the gaming industry. Its purpose is to silence women.’
Plenty of women in gaming have not been silenced – many have been making some impressive noise.
REASONS & RESPONSES
Even though Twitter was the theatre for so much of this online abuse, women returned to the platform to stand up to the bullying and get their voices heard. The hashtag #1reasonwhy (there aren’t more women making games) gathered a vast collection of experiences of sexism from women in the gaming industry.
Shifting the emphasis, Rhianna Pratchett created #1reasontobe for ‘female devs to share why they’re in games and what they get from it.’ Now that hashtag gives its name to an annual panel at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco: the first one – which focused on the experience of women in gaming – had the audience in tears and ended in a standing ovation.
Getting away from the normalised violence and sexualised representations of women that dominate the industry is tough, when women make up only 19% of the Australian gaming workforce. So, cheers and chookas to game developer Ally MacClean for setting up The Working Lunch, a mentor program to support women and other underrepresented people to build healthy, happy and long term games industry careers in Australia. Diversity is coming.
Game developer Jane McGonigal wanted to create games that weren’t just about war, cowboys, football and cars. McGonigal’s most recent TED talk: The Game that Can Give You 10 Extra Years of Life, describes her creative response to a bad concussion. She created a role-playing recovery game called ‘Jane the Concussion Slayer.’ That game evolved into SuperBetter which is now both an app and a book.
‘The game helps people to experience what scientists call post-traumatic growth… a traumatic event doesn’t doom us to suffer indefinitely. Instead, we can use it as a springboard to unleash our best qualities and lead happier lives.’
Interactive film and game-maker Karen Palmer, a 2016 TEDxSydney speaker, has a similar agenda. Her game SyncSelf2 sits at the cutting edge of neuro-gaming, involving the mind and the body working together. Palmer credits her practising parkour in the real world with her courage to build the virtual world of SyncSelf2, where a player experiences what it’s like to do parkour, to be a free-runner, present in the moment.
‘Free-runners have to constantly update their belief system or personal operating system to overcome the obstacle. The user, like the free-runner, must focus or fail to overcome challenges. The user’s mental and emotional state is what controls the film.’ The goal of the game is to improve focus and gain self-knowledge, says Palmer. ‘It’s an immersive film experience which will enable a user to have a real-time indicator feedback to her state of mind and guidance on how to influence her state of mind.’
McGonigal argues that increasingly this is what the world of gaming is going to look like, a place that’s aiming for a ‘real-life impact … on our minds, our bodies, our ambitions, and our relationships’. A place that’s not about escapism and self-suppression, but growth and self-expansion.
It’s so important to have more women in gaming, because women are the game-changers leading the charge: calling out sexism and harassment, changing the focus of games and the gender representations within them, pushing for a cultural shift to empower under-represented people and give them equal agency. To the nervous chauvinists of #GamerGate, look out, it’s game on.