Sex, Sexism, and the quest for gender-centric identity in GameLand

Posted by: Mohini Dutta

“Gender is performance anyway.” – Matt Boch, Harmonix (as quoted by Leigh Alexander @ Nexus)

I am an aspiring narrative designer hoping to carve a niche in the intrepid world of games. I dream of a French New Wave variant in the world of games where we can discuss more “art-house” topics such as sexuality, intimacy, love, memory etc… in a mature way. But saying things like that on a games blog as a woman will propably just get me nasty comments about aprons or sandwiches or both (just read the comments section of this blog). This phenomenon warrants closer observation, because by God that can’t be normal! Or acceptable, right? Right? Er…

As a woman hoping to enter the game-industry, I am often shocked and disgusted by some of the comments that women bloggers get, add to that the usual jokes made about female game designers and their many inadequacies, all as casual banter. Some of these things make me reconsider my life trajectory and wonder, is it really worth fighting for? Another boy’s club, why even bother, why even care? More than my own petulant life-crisii, I am curious to know how other female game designers deal with this sort of situation. Is it even a real problem? If not, why are so many people talking about it, and where do we draw the line between being crazy militant feminists, and just normal vocal females looking to be treated with respect?

This blog post was a curious journey if anything which started off as a response to a little article in Forbes about “the tragedy of rampant sexism in video games”. Ed Kain wrote a somewhat reactive post about the problems of gender bias in video games, quoting the issue of Vette, the Slave Girl given to the Sith warrior class, in Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG, where he demands that game companies be more responsible, and AVOID such a situation from occurring again and again. This little matter of “avoiding situations” is what rankled my nerves for one. At the time, I felt like an interesting conversation opportunity had been created with fans of the film-series, canonical literature and the games commenting surprisingly thoughtfully about the meta-narrative of the Star Wars Universe. The prime argument by the commenters was that the series is misogynistic at it’s core, especially the Sith community, which revels in it its Rand-ian virtues of selfishness and ill-treatment of all; and in order to make a realistic cannon game BioWare had no choice in the matter. As a late Star Wars convert, I have a new converts fervor for the series, and could see the valid points here. The Sith are a self-centered and negative group, so of course they need to underline that by torturing their slaves, who happen to be women. When it rains, it pours and all that.

I still stand by my initial reaction against a censorship-based model (as was obtuesly suggested by Mr. Kain) in game content. That won’t do anyone any good, it never has. All censorship does is create more repression, leading to more bull-shit. However, an important takeaway from Mr. Kain’s post, and what I think he originally intended to discuss is the need to encourage more women to participate in “gamer culture”, and making it less critical of their participation in it. If we have more women working in games, not just the indie ones, but wide-reaching commercial ones, then women might have a chance to be part of the initial sculpting phase of a game, and introduce a fresh perspective to the rote representational debate. This bring me to this great article by Mark Sorrell, which made me think about the ingrained, often humorous disregard of women in games.

Does a traditionally male-centric cultural group make women behave strangely? Do we feel the need to sit down and accept more and more, to be “one of the guys”? Can we be “one of the ladies” and still be cool? Will our opinions be considered, critiqued and discussed like those of our male colleagues? Do we eventually need to “go make a sandwich”?

Negative comments aimed at female bloggers, and the poor treatment of women gamers create an unfriendly environment that makes me think that it is a very inhospitable world out there for women in games. As a woman about to embark upon a career in games, this makes me very worried. Parsons has a lot of great female game designers and teachers, who are wonderful role-models in this respect, but one has to wonder, what lies outside of the sanctuary of Parsons, and is it really worth taking on the beast of sexism, is it is as pervasive as blog posts like Mark Sorrell’s would have us believe? (This is certainly not a critique of Mr. Sorrell’s post, which introduced me to a whole other parallel universe of sexism in the otherwise enticing world of games.)

A total rip of Margaret's pic on her page

Margaret Robertson’s wonderful article on Kotaku in which she dosen’t try writing like a man, made me realize some things about myself. As an on-and-off feminist, why am I more and more accepting of casual misogyny, and willing to contort my opinions to “fit-in”? It is a perplexing question. I always pick on character representations on T.V. who overcompensate for being women by being overtly masculine; so could I unconsciously be channeling the same? Was I more accepting of “sexist jokes” to maintain my “rational” un-crazy stance and credibility in the sexism debate?

Film and video-games share a similar reputation and trajectory. Both began as purely entertainment media, and film for one has aged into a more respectable medium after nearly a century of trial and error (the evolution still continues and is far from complete). I recommend reading the Hulk’s great article discussing this overlap and divergence. The key point here is to encourage a diversification of genres. Indie-games are certainly making moves in that direction, and it is evident in the rich and diverse alternative that it offers to commercial games and gamers.

However, one cannot exist without the other. Films have action-films, romantic comedy, art cinema any many many other genres, coexisting and each having their own audience and creating interesting dialogue and discussion between themselves. So the question is, can this happen in games? Can there be more commercially viable game genres than the ones “aimed at teenage boys”, and can commercial game culture ever truly embrace diversity? Will GameLand ever truly want me?

  1. Colleen
    Colleen
    at //Reply

    Thanks for writing this Mohini! It’s a great addition to a discussion that often doesn’t get articulated so clearly and without overcorrective PC-ness or on the other end of the scale, total ranty-ness. You raise a couple issues here though, and I think instead of putting them all in one post, you could write a series of posts on this focusing on one each time – and the issues merit it! Representation of women in games, the visibility of women in the game industry, more variety in game themes, etc. There’s so much worth talking about here. Thanks for the considered reportage!

  2. Cynthia
    Cynthia
    at //Reply

    Yes, thank you for this post! With the job search at Parsons it has become apparent to me that this field, one about which I know very little, is dominated not just by men, but by white men. What can we, in MFADT, do to change that? I think a lot! Working group, anyone?

  3. Fiona
    Fiona
    at //Reply

    As a (young-ish) woman in the games industry, aspiring to be a games designer one day, I’m lucky enough to work in a place where despite being in the minority as female (we haven’t won the fight yet!) I’m a very welcomed member of the team and don’t have to battle with any gender issues, or at least not more than any other normal workplace. I know that I’m extremely fortunate to be in that position, and I’ve had fellow girl gamers tell me to “stick it out” when it gets tough, because they’re sure it will.

    This does make me sad, and might one day make me reconsider my career – but I’m new to the industry, and I can see from an outsider’s point of view where it’s going. The option of “gamification” is being applied to all kinds of things – TV, work tasks, there’s even talk of “prescription games” that have been proven to help people with symptoms of certain mental and physical disorders. In a world where game design might define how we work and play, and not just on a console, there’s no room for angry woman hating nerds. Can you picture one of these hateful anti woman gamers being remotely useful when designing a game to help people get over mental illness?

    Even in the earliest days of the internet, there were message boards for nerds to bitch on before there were even fully fledged search engines – but those bitchy people are still where they were, stuck on Reddit or wherever else bitching some more. On the other hand, the people who were genuinely passionate about the possibilities that the internet could bring are successful and well involved in it now, regardless of gender.

    At the moment, the games publishers have a guaranteed audience of teenage boys who will buy any macho game if it’s marketed at them enough. They can carry on doing that. I, on the other hand, look forward to being involved in the part of the industry that does produce pioneering games with mature themes. Just think of all the untapped genres! Who knows, maybe one day in the not so distant future you’ll be designing a breakthrough game that opens up all those other genres to the industry. I’m sure it’s going that way, it’s just down to us to get on the bandwagon, or even be at the cutting edge, at the right time.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  4. Andrea
    Andrea
    at //Reply

    Mohini, I really appreciate this post. I used to work in the casual games industry and encountered a lot of sexism. The casual games that we were making were aimed at women aged 45-60 years old, but for most of my term at the company, I was the only female staff member (until I hired another female artist to be my sidekick). I think you would be hard pressed to find any game company that has even a 50/50 split of female/male staffers in development. You’re lucky if you find more than one. The game site we put our games on, stated that their biggest customer was female; but why are females not developing the content? I think that the discouragement of females and female viewpoint in the gaming industry is extremely real and present. It’s also horribly ingrained, and therefore appears to be a kind of industry standard, rather than what it actually is; pure sexism. It is a battle worth fighting, but it is a mega boss fight that I don’t have the levels for yet. It might be worth it to start your own game company with some trusted allies and build your ideal universe, rather than try to enter an existing hostile environment. In that situation, I found it too difficult to stand up for what’s right and ended up conforming instead, to my own detriment.

  5. Jess
    Jess
    at //Reply

    To the question in your last paragraph: Yes, this can happen in games. So get in here and help us make it happen. ;) You will indeed run up against sexism at some point. Still worth it, in my opinion.

  6. K
    K
    at //Reply

    There is no point letting sexism slide to maintain credibility or a “rational” stance. Truth is, a woman who protests sexism is rarely seen as rational, no matter how carefully composed she is. The term “crazy” is used by misogynists to invalidate any point a woman may make regarding treatment of her gender – that’s it. So don’t hold back; don’t fear criticism or the dismissal of your views. Yes, you should absolutely tackle sexism. Things will not change unless more women speak frankly of their views and experiences. What you can offer, as a woman, is particularly important to a scene as capable of immaturity and close-mindedness as the games industry.

    (For more thoughts on female “craziness”, I recommend this link: http://thecurrentconscience.com/blog/2011/09/12/a-message-to-women-from-a-man-you-are-not-%E2%80%9Ccrazy%E2%80%9D/ )

  7. Stevie
    Stevie
    at //Reply

    Reading your article as a male non-gamer (or not much of one any way), I was going to comment on the ‘crazy militant feminist’ part, but K summed it up quite well above.

    I will add though, that for all of us, in many situations, when there’s a strong force trying to push you into somebody else’s fixed perception of ‘what you are like’, then you can go where you’re pushed, or you can fight against it and go to the other extreme. Finding your own ground in the middle is extremely hard. You need to find the space to work it out for yourself where you really stand, and have put down firm foundations to be able to hold that position. Perhaps a serious ongoing discussion of these issues while you’re still in college (where you’ve got the space, and you’re not being pushed about) would be useful.

    Also I’d just like to quote GB Shaw.
    “The reasonable person tries to adapt themself to fit in with the world. The unreasonable person tries to adapt the world to fit in with them. This is why all progress is made by unreasonable people.”

    Don’t be afraid to be unreasonable.

  8. Athena
    Athena
    at //Reply

    As a woman who has worked in games for 10 years and will continue to do so…have I seen sexism? Certainly. Did I let it stop me from building my career or stating my opinions and make changes where I can? Not in the least and I think my co workers respect me for the viewpoint I offer. I have probably worked with more men happy that there was a female viewpoint on the team than those that wished i would just go away and “make a sandwich.” As a woman on the inside I say if you want to make a change in games come work on them and the more female opinions on the inside the more the industry will grow and expand due to that, which is good for everyone. The more of us not pretending to be “one of the boys” to get by, the more it becomes ok to not be one of the boys. Of course you have to do all this with respect to all the other opinions around you as well. Walking in and trying to bulk change designs claiming “sexism” is not the way to make friends. Present alternate ideas and compromises and be prepared to explain why something feels offensive to you, it may be that they just didnt see the same thing you did. And don’t let trolls on comments and message boards discourage you either. Most of them don’t even work in the industry. Feel free to email me if you are seeking any advise on what you can do to break in or welcoming places to do so. I am happy to share my experiences.

  9. Jesse Fuchs
    Jesse Fuchs
    at //Reply

    This is an excellent and well-reasoned post. My one thought, as a male on the prog-indie fringes: what’s the overlap, if any, between this subset of male game designers and the subset that I’ve already written off for a multitude of other reasons? In my (highly anecdotal) experience, it’s been greater in game design than in my previous social circles: that is, I can think of male cartoonists or musicians or college acquaintances whom I got along with well enough and admired to some extent, but whom I’d be leery to introduce to my female friends. Whereas in games, I’m hard-pressed to think of one.

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  11. fireflyofchaos
    fireflyofchaos
    at //Reply

    Hey Mohini, thank you for writing this. There is definitely an inherent issue of gender roles in games, and some of that does bleed out into the industry. Take, for instance, the existence of booth babes at trade shows like E3- an issue that was covered and opened the door for some very constructive discussion. As a woman roughly three years into my experience in game development, I have yet to experience direct sexism. Many of my coworkers are in or around my generation, and they know better. The atmosphere (as with most industries) is still rife with indirect sexism, however. It’s never intentional, but every time I’ve reached my limit and had to say something. I was treated with utmost respect and the problem was addressed immediately. So while some studios still have a ways to go, things are changing for the better.

  12. Allison
    Allison
    at //Reply

    This was a very refreshing read and look into the culture of video games.This is a frontier that still needs to be explored.Do I think sexism in video games and gamer culture will be 100% gone,sadly no however I believe with some hope that with people like you pointing the light on this topic will help start the move to make the gamer culture and games it self more inclusive to women in general. One big thing is that non-binary female rolls should not be marginalized or ridiculed by having the female in question in most of the time ridiculous costumes and the like. /rant…..To make long short reading this is a thought provoking insight on what is a long time coming on gender equality.Good job!

  13. Arvind Dutta
    Arvind Dutta
    at //Reply

    The concept was so very interesting ,do bring out some more stuff as half our population is woman & they sure are nurturing the other half.Looking forward to some more stuff from you-well done keep it up.

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