GDC 2014
Women Belonging in Video Games: #1ReasonToBe

Rowan Kaiser | 26 Mar 2014 00:00
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The most direct and pragmatic speech came from Double Fine's Anna Kipnis, who specifically discussed her experience and motivation pitching games for the company's Amnesia Fortnight, where all the employees can put in their game ideas, and a handful are chosen for Double Fine to work on (this process led to games like Costume Quest, for example). The games were initially only chosen privately by Double Fine's founder Tim Shafer, but in the past couple years, they've been made public so fans can vote on them.

Kipnis, who'd had ideas but never pitched, said she believed that she, and other women who didn't pitch, simply happened to not feel like pitching. "But if I'm honest with myself," she followed up with, "there was another reason I didn't pitch a game." There was a lack of confidence that her idea was good enough to be taken seriously. But the publicizing of the pitches helped her realize otherwise, when she spoke to her male co-workers. "I'd thought way more about my half-baked game than they had about theirs." So she made her pitch - and is now leading the development of Dear Leader. But this was more than just a personal story. Kipnis also gave strong, clear advice on how to give women and other under-represented people the space to express their creativity. These included office-wide creative days where everyone, no matter their role, is encouraged to discuss their ideas, alongside a general culture of giving everyone a voice.

Academic Colleen Macklin, an Associate Professor at Parsons The New School For Design, gave a subtle, clever speech where she encouraged the audience to seek out patterns in what they saw at GDC and the game industry at large, and she worked to counter a prevailing overly conservative attitude that nothing could be done about gender inequality in gaming because things were simply the way they were. "It is 100% our responsibility," she declared, before scoring a critical hit. "We're designers! We talk about designing systems, let's design them!" Game designers are so keen on their abilities to deal with systems that surrendering to mere sexism seems rather pathetic.

A similar irony took place in another panel an hour later, "An Empirical Study" of sexism in the industry. There, another remarkable undergraduate, Jennifer Allaway, discussed how she wanted to examine the data behind the issue of sexism, only to find that there wasn't any, either academically or available via gaming sources. If there are two things that I would expect from game designers, they'd be a willingness to play with systems, and a desire to have empirical data - that's the reason QA testers exist! And yet those game developers are utterly passive on those subjects when it comes to sexism and discrimination.

Writer and editor Leigh Alexander had actually started off the #1ReasonToBe panel by discussing those systems and how they affected her personally, back at her first GDC. She calls her past self "an immature emotional mess," but also discussed how relieved she was to discover the things that had hurt her when she was younger weren't merely about her, but were systems that affected all women. "My experience isn't unique" was a revelation to her, and motivated her to co-organize the panel because-citing Frozen - "Nobody wants to be alone."

Some of the numbers cited from the empirical study at the later study backed that up. 60% of the women surveyed "admitted to experiencing sexism to some degree" while 77% of women in gaming, and 55% of men, knew someone who'd experienced it. Also, "30.8% of women believe a glass ceiling exists, compared to 10.3% of men." There was an unfortunate lack of clarity on how self-selecting the respondents to the study were, which could mean these numbers (from a survey of over 300 people) aren't the entire industry, but they certainly still have value, especially in the discrepancy between men and women. There was also qualitative data, such as an interview with a woman who discovered she was being paid half as much as her male colleagues and was told they couldn't afford to pay her more.

The #1ReasonToBe panel may have started with a more specific goal in 2013, but its continuation provided a platform for a diverse set of people, stories, and conclusions. For Leigh Alexander, it was defiance, declaring that now, with this, "nobody's going to tell me to pipe down, or get back to the kitchen. I fucking dare you." There was hope, in Lauren Scott's goal of being a mentor for other girls, and practical conclusions, from the social science of the empirical study, and the recommendations of Anna Kipnis. And then there was Deirdra Kiai, whose burst of intelligent emotion will be considered a GDC highlight for years to come.

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