“I’m just a person trapped inside a woman’s body.” – Elayne Boosler
Work in game development long enough, and if you are female, you will inevitably encounter this question: “As a woman, what do you think your role is in the business of making videogames?” I’ve heard this question in various forms more times than I can count, and it’s completely stymied me each time.
The problem is that I don’t do anything “as” a woman, not anymore than I do anything “as” a multi-cellular organism or “as” a fan of Crab Rangoon – and neither does any woman I know in the industry. The attributes that label my life apply from the outside, not from the inside. And I am willing to bet that the next time you hear someone start a sentence with “As a … ,” something stupid is about to come out of his mouth. Otherwise, why do they need the extra punch of the label? Strong ideas stand on their own.
But the political quagmire associated with being a woman in the game industry, or a member of any minority group, is sadly inescapable. Because labels come from the outside, they apply to anything you do if you happen to fall into the category to which they apply. The “as a woman” questions are well intended, but they most frequently fall on ears that have no concept of doing anything “as a woman” – or they wouldn’t have wound up in the game industry in the first place.
In League with the Enemy
One of the main blockades that keeps mainstream women out of gaming, even on a mindspace level, is the absurd notion that videogames are naturally anti-family. When one of the most prominent family-oriented (and female) politicians engages in a moral crusade against the mind-eroding effects of videogames, this can hardly be a surprise. With games being trotted out as the latest “save the children” demon by political pundits aching for low-hanging fruit, what might otherwise be a simpler issue of individual challenge (which is substantial enough around here!) rapidly becomes intensely political on a larger scale.
We all know it’s stupid. We all know there’s no evidence supporting the claims that violent games affect normal people. But politicians will be politicians, and unfortunately there’s not much we can do besides wait for the tide to pass. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll decide that sunshine promotes violent behavior. Don’t most killers have a disturbing amount of exposure to solar radiation? Seriously! It’s time there was an investigation.
In the meantime, individuals will keep working to spread games to their parents. Titles like Brain Age help distinctly, even if they don’t tell gamers anything they didn’t know before. Such titles make inroads into expanding demographics until everyone is playing a game of some kind, including Penny Arcade writer Jerry Holkins’s mother. Slowly, a crazy notion that games might not be the enemy is percolating its way through the social consciousness, and those whispered rumors represent the vanguard of a coming avalanche in the social mindset toward games.
But the main body of game development still focuses on the tried-and-true foci of mass media: sex, violence and intrigue, and here is where things get a little tricky. Social history and culture would tell us that it’s perfectly healthy for a man to have an interest in sex, and probably for him to be interested in violence, too. “Boys will be boys.” But women? One can hardly suggest in proper political correctness that a woman might be interested in a little violence. And God forbid a woman should want to play something to do with sex – someone call Nathaniel Hawthorne, stat. The whitewashed political world would have us believe that any woman who has an interest in such subjects – and it isn’t a far leap to include games as a whole as well – must be some kind of deviant.
Hot or Not
Women that are deviants in the world of the politically correct: Enter the “grrl” phenomenon and the media circus. One aspect of the subculture response to the alienation effect has been a strong “girl power” movement that loves to highlight sexy, young women who play games competitively.
But isn’t this just another form of subjugation? (Uh oh, she used the s-word, get out the feminist-beating sticks!) It’s certainly objectification, and sure, it’s fun to be sexy, but women shouldn’t have to do this to keep their cred and be accepted as developers and gamers. A housewife mother of four who loves Precious Moments has every bit as much a right to this industry as a Frag Doll or a live-at-home 20-something with delicious disposable income. But this demographic disappears because it is not as media-glamorous as an all grrl Quake clan with a catchy anarchist-cyberpunk nickname. Come and stare at the spectacle! Women who play videogames! And they’re hot!
It should come as no surprise that, whatever noble intentions might have been lurking in the marketing neuron high up in UbiSoft’s shared brain, the Frag Dolls found themselves sadly but rapidly relegated to booth babe status.
The problem is that if your body type or personal style differs from the Hollywood femme-du-jour, you get called a dog – which, considering the source of these comments, is pretty damn ludicrous on its own – and if you’re attractive, it isn’t much better. Guys on the internet even seem to think they mean well in drooling over an attractive woman associated in any way with the industry, and it can be flattering at first, but in the end, it’s the same old debasement, the same old problem in a nicer wrapper: You can only be worth something as a woman if you are – scratch that, if your body is eye candy.
Is there anything wrong with the grrl clans? No, of course not, and watching them wipe the floor with cocky adolescent hot shots is a unique and singular pleasure. But we should never fall victim to the illusion that they represent women in the industry, or – and this is worse – that they help solve the problem of gender disparity. A solution to that issue would be one that does not involve a photograph clipped to the resume.
The Mirror Ceiling
This is not to say that sexuality, however, is what keeps women out of games; the game development working environment often does that well enough on its own. And it certainly isn’t alone in its sins. But the solution, like pulling out of a tailspin at six hundred miles an hour, isn’t easy and it isn’t simple.
The “feeder” conduits that bring people into games provide a natural starting point. So, let’s look at schools. One telling point for diversity is that women excel in professional computing environments, but often struggle in, or fail to enter, technical schools. Real-life development requires communication skill, social skill and teamwork, three things rarely taught in technical instruction facilities. Instead, they focus on an isolating independent project atmosphere that is largely out of touch with the reality of professional software development. Female programmers, some of my friends among them, often find themselves doing the work by accident as part of another job, and then finding – to their surprise – that they like it and are good at it.
On a local level, women in business of any kind face a complex social situation – in the United States, at least – fueled by hundreds of years of business history that tried to convince itself it was better off without women. The tendency to nurture, to support and not say “no,” not make demands – all tendencies that incidentally lend quite well to teamwork – come from social stigmas that create a minefield in the workplace, and in the case of an industry as male-dominated as the game business, often even stops women from applying for jobs in the first place. And these are single women willing to bust tail; the problems faced by working mothers are even more severe.
The concept of “self-sabotage” in the psychology of professional women is heavily established but not easily conquered. The new ceiling isn’t just glass; it’s mirrored, and a woman’s greatest enemy often becomes herself. Not only do women have to fight to retain their femininity – and then fight again to establish their own definitions thereof – once they’re actually in the workplace, they find yet another political battle that must be fought before they can do their job. Do it well, perform assertively, and you run into the dreaded b-word; be hesitant and you “prove” why women “don’t belong.” I would encourage anyone who knows a woman who has worked in the industry for more than five years to ask her about her discrimination stories. What you hear may astonish you.
All Work and No Jane
“So what?” some say. Many people – gamers and developers alike – are “tired” of hearing about women in games. They “don’t care” about diversity or, worse, feel personally threatened by its consideration. What they don’t realize is that the individuals who manage to survive this horrendous gauntlet possess incredible strength of character. As with many situations throughout history, facing adversity tempers a person – any sex, any creed, any color – into fine steel. This doesn’t make the adversity a good thing by any stretch, but it does make the survivors uniquely valuable in a world of dwindling daily challenge. And should we be celebrating them? Of course we should! But somehow, that celebration inevitably gets around to the “as a woman” question.
And it’s still the wrong question. The right question is: If you were going to make a game, what kind of game would you make?
The reality, alongside the reality of the largely over-25, non-dyed, non-Jazzercised female population in the industry, is not glamorous. It involves a steady, patient, unflinching process of slowly coaxing more young women into game development through direct mentorship – the same challenges faced in the even slower process of getting more women into boardrooms. This does not mean hiring someone of inferior talent simply because they are of a diverse group, as some automatically assume diversity to imply, it just means getting them in the doorway to begin with, and that means reaching out through game content and human resources. What some (white, male, 20-50-year-old) developers need to fully comprehend is that a larger talent pool is not scary.
The importance of this effort is clear, even without taking into account that the best-selling PC game of all time was created by a 40-percent female staff. Ask around the investment groups and you’ll find they’re looking for broad audiences; ask around diverse dev houses and you’ll find that their quality of life is often substantially better than it is elsewhere.
But the prevailing reason for the importance of a female presence in the development process is that the future is coming. The internet, once a pretty geeky place to be, has surged with a highly adaptable, highly hip, highly lucrative teen girl presence. If you’ve got a relative in this age demographic, you’ve seen what I mean: Blogs, instant messages, text messages, and online communities are how these girls communicate with each other, and they do it with staggering proficiency. Is it really much of a stretch to think some tech-savvy teenage girls might become interested in computer science at the collegiate level? And they’ll bring that social dynamic with them. If we really want to know how to bring more women into the game industry, we need to ask the right questions of the right people, and that means asking young women of this massive demographic, women outside the current game industry.
Of the games that they would make and the games that they would play, I can make three predictions. Ponies will not be involved; pink will be used only sparingly; and most importantly, the current developer generation won’t understand – at least at first. Albert Einstein said that the problems of today cannot be solved with the same kind of thinking that created them, and that applies as well to game development as to astrophysics or world peace.
For game development, social gaming represents the next new frontier, beyond the dollhouse play of The Sims and skewed away from the strange loneliness of Solitaire. In an environment where we are rapidly running out of new gaming genres, high-speed mediated social games are the gateway to a whole new world and a whole new definition of game design.
More and more women will enter the game industry every year. The decision each of us has to make individually is whether to continue to fight the inevitable – the fight that lashed out against rock music, comic books and television – as a force for inertia, or to leap wildly with the rushing wave.
And hopefully, in the process, try not to drool too much.
Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.