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Moving Beyond the Women in Games Argument
by Alice Rendell on 01/29/14 11:38:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Over the last few years the conversation about women in the games industry has escalated somewhat, in part matching the increasing diversity of game audiences across platforms and in part because of some more open conversation from leading individuals; Leigh Alexander, Brenda Romero, Mattie Brice to name but a few. Of course the issue really hit its peak a couple of years ago when Anita Sarkeesian launched her Kickstarter for a video series analysing female characters in games from a feminist perspective (at this point I'm assuming we are all familiar with the story so I will skip the details, but check here for more information). Whether you agree or not with the individual opinions of the aforementioned women or indeed are in favour of the debate as a whole, the reality is that the conversation is out there, here to stay and important to a great many people.

It is out of this environment that Beyond was created. Beyond is an organisation focused on not only the discussion of women in games, tech and science, but also on how we can take the conversation one step further and turn some of these points into productive and practical action, that can make real changes and progress. I - and a handful of others - were lucky enough to attend the Beyond Kickoff in Amsterdam on the 18th-19th January. The weekend consisted of workshops in which we discussed our individual concerns of the position of women in games and tech and how we saw progression in this area. We then expanded on these points to come up with concrete ideas to aid this progress, using games and media. The workshop was greatly enhanced by the various different backgrounds of the people involved coming from a variety of industries, countries and walks of life, so we were able to get a wide perspective on the matter. Of course over the weekend many points were raised - as you would imagine from a group of people passionate about the topic and excited about initiating change - but I believe these were the key topics:   


Game marketing is targeted at men. Is this really still relevant?

Although the percentage of female gamers has been steadily increasing over the years the general consensus is still that the majority of gamers are male and is very much treated as men first, women second. This is often reflected in the marketing with product advertising, PR events and cover art. A good example of this is the way the Mass Effect games have been marketed. Although the main character Shepard can be played as either a male or female, both the box cover and the trailers mostly focus on the male version and although not exclusive of women in this instance, it clearly works on a male first, women second basis; presumably due to marketing indicating that their target audience is predominantly male. Now, this is absolutely fine if this is genuinely the case, however, it does beg the question: does marketing focus on men because there are less female players, or are there less female players because marketing focuses on men?


There is a lack of women in tech subjects. Is this by choice or by default?

The amount of women in the games industry has been increasing over the years. This is something I have witnessed myself even in my 4 years as a Game Designer. However, it seems that the rolls are often in design, art or management and I have rarely come across women in programming or engineering roles, despite knowing full well that they do exist! The reality is that this is the same for many science, technology and mathematical subjects across many areas and often in these disciplines the male to female ratio is heavily swayed towards the former. There are several theories as to why this is. For example, one such theory describes how these issues could stem from the way both boys and girls are treated in school when they are younger. Heidi Grant Halvorson (2011) in her article "The Trouble with Bright Girls" explains that "bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.". This theory could possibly indicate why boys tend to overtake girls in STEM subjects, suggesting that the problem starts very early.

Another theory, also focusing on young children, could be an association of how toys are presented to kids. If you go into a standard kids store the girls' section is laced with babies, cooking sets and glorious amounts of pink. The boys' section however is full of cars, Lego and Meccano sets. Even a fairly gender neutral item like a toy science kit would more often than not be placed in the boys' section rather than the girls'. It is therefore embedded in us from an early age the separation of gender interests and hobbies that are associated with "normal".

The final argument is that it is possible many women simply do not want to be working in these areas, as opposed to them feeling that they can’t because it’s "for men" which is fair and perfectly valid. However, all of the above points are theories and the reality is we don't really know why there are less women in tech and science.


How can we move Beyond?

As you can see the above points are neither new or unique and are discussions that have been circulating for some time, but they briefly describe the main issues and reasons as to why Beyond was created. The aim of Beyond is not to repeat or reiterate these issues, there are many people already doing this just fine. Beyond's mission is to take these points, research them and come up with real solutions to the problems, turning each argument and point into something constructive and resolved.

We want to move beyond the preconceptions of the "feminist movement in games" and turn it into something productive, collaborative and inclusive. Move beyond the anger, hatred and general negativity and turn it into something channelled and positive. Move beyond the women debate and tackle the general issue of diversity in games and improve the quality of our industry.


If you are interested in joining in the conversation, please check the Beyond Facebook page or get in touch through the Website.


*A big thank you to Lital Marom and Sarah Dickinson for creating Beyond and organising this brilliant event. Also a big thank you to everyone I met at the kickoff for making it such an inspiring and enjoyable experience.

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Wylie Garvin
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Pink for girls and blue for boys is a relatively modern convention that wasn't established until around World War I (edit: and it took a few more decades to settle the specific colors..)

I think there are some innate differences in the brains of boys and girls, but my guess is that the gender disparity in tech fields has more to do with nurture (and culture) than with intrinsic differences. In the aggregate, girls and women seem to like playing games just as much, or nearly as much, as boys and men do. Perhaps the type of games that appeal to them are a bit different. But I think the long male-dominated state of the industry has led to a situation where game content and marketing campaigns are both tailored to supposedly appeal to average 20-something males with disposable income. There's a relative lack of interesting female characters in games; of playable or lead female characters, who are portrayed realistically and who female gamers can readily identify with. (I know there are examples, thats not my point, I'm just saying there aren't enough of them and far too many games take the lazy way out by using female character just to titilate male players and/or provide angst and plot progression for the male lead character.) Anyway, I think part of the solution is getting more women onto game design teams, where they can be a voice advocating for more interesting female characters in games, and where they can help shoot down misogynistic content before it finds its way into a game. It would probably also help if the executives green-lighting big game projects had a few more women in their ranks.

The audience for games is already as diverse as any large batch of humans can be, and it's probably about 50% female. The industry ought to try and make games that appeal to everyone--or at least try not to make tonedeaf content that drives away entire large segments of the potential audience. We ought to write more diverse characters into games, and stop exploiting female characters solely for their sex appeal (male-gaze, etc.) I can't be alone in being tired of impossibly-proportioned bikini-chainmail-clad, two dimensional female characters who get killed off in the first act to give the male lead character a revenge motive. I mean, I've played THAT game a hundred times already and it kind of gets old.

SD Marlow
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I liked the trope videos, both in content and presentation, but the harsh reaction by many "internet males" in not allowing "a woman" to have a valid point (and saying she was simply wrong was the nicest of responses) was gross. It's sad that a toy store without a specific girls section would likely go out of business because mom's are locked into the same cycle they are passing-on to their daughters. Also not sure how much fun gender-neutral toys would be if boys and girls can't relate to them (can't bond, emote, suspend disbelief, etc).

I'd like to think that, as a girl growing up, I'd have the same fascinations and attractions to toys/games/movies that I did as a boy. I hope to see many gender role studies that focus on early childhood, even down to parent/child interactions during the first few years of a child's life. I suspect gender roles are passed-down behavior modification (positive reinforcement and such).

A final thought... from my own reaction to many (but not all) posts about women in games/tech, there seems to be a built-in distrust.. no, that's not the word. Nagging? Not so shockingly, I'd have to go back to an earlier phase of development to describe it "more perfectly." Cooties. Yes. Men don't react well to a woman talking about "women's issues" because of cooties.

Mark Velthuis
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On the other hand, anyone (man or woman) who disagrees with Anita's videos is given an equally harsh reaction by Anita's fans. She definately didn't deserve the harsh reactions she got, but I think it's important to note that harsh reactions came from both sides. The reason why I think that is because it can be an indication that the backlash caused by the videos and how that backlash is handled, might in fact serve to drive the genders further apart instead of bringing them together.

Andy Wallace
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I don't think you can call it equally harsh. I have yet to see rape threats tossed at anybody criticizing her videos or games about beating her detractors to a bloody pulp.

Jean Louis
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Anecdotal and tangential as this account will doubtless prove, I've noticed an interesting phenomenon in miniature wargaming, specifically with Star Wars minis. I have taught about 60 people to play, including about 20 females. Without fail, girls (I use this term generally) lose interest in the game rapidly, where as boys become almost fanatically engaged. I can't explain it, but it took me by surprised, particularly since the Star Wars minis are not lacking in strong female leads that are over-sexualized in their presentation.

Michael Joseph
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we can't discuss this without being free to make potentially flagrantly wrong and offensive statements in the name of truth seeking

"wargames and most pen & paper rpg's are made for males and are inherently male activities, girls aren't supposed to like them"
"changing the gender of the player avatar or lead protagonist doesn't change the fact that a FPS game is still an inherently male game"
"girls are cool and wargames and pen & paper rpgs are uncool"
"girls don't like to sit one place for 6+ hours playing make believe"
"girls are more practical than boys and don't get all OCD about toys"
"girls mature and grow out of childlike behavior earlier than boys"
"playing games all day is something beta males do within a fraternity of beta males where they get to pretend to be alphas"

whether we believe in any of these things is not as important as the fact that many people do. I don't know how anyone goes about proving or disproving these notions but we can't simply refuse to talk about them because it's not pc.

And make no mistake, someone(s) still has to actually prove that girls can be as profitable an audience as boys. Pointing to 1 successful "girl game" here, 1 there isn't enough. Otherwise all we have is the theory that if you get CompSci ratios at 50/50, fixed game industry hiring and get more women designing games, then it will result in the production of games that girls will want to play and buy. Who says these women would even know how to make games for girls? Games that appeal to boys have a well known history. What does the history of games for girls look like?

really it would be interesting to hear and learn more from the experiences of female wargamers and pen & paper rpg'ers and perhaps even cosplayers about what would make these types of games more appealing to girls. To what extent is cultural indoctrination that tells girls what behavior and roles they should aspire to a factor?

Julianne Harty
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I'm an avid RPGer and have only avoided wargaming for monetary reasons (I have enough hobbies thank you!).

Most of the difficulties in engaging female attention come from the players themselves. Some players are just only about the combat; any thing else that resembles interaction or social elements, they just get bored and become disruptive. The DM then responds by giving them more combat instead.
These combat-focused players also see everything as a heavy competition - even against their other players. They have to have the most OP builds, have the most kills, etc. Some egregious players even take away player sheets and criticize their builds for not being good enough.

It's the heavy competition focus that alienates females. I personally don't mind competition itself - I'm addicted to League of Legends - but I can't relax and enjoy myself if I have to be on the defensive all the time.

I'm not saying this happens every game or with every group. But there is a reticence in me from joining unfamiliar groups because I don't want to compete with my teammates.

Sometimes I also don't want to battle with the stereotype that is assigned to "girls" that arises from a surprisingly large number of gamers (women included)

Kaitlyn Kaid
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as someone who has wanted to get into the whole wargaming thing I can (equally anecdotally) tell you that it's not that we lose interest in the game, it's that we often lose tolerance for the "dudebro's" playing them.

Kaitlyn Kaid
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I should add that I'm not trying to say that everyone playing those games are problematic, but it only takes one at a table to make most girls feel unwelcome.

SD Marlow
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I had friends, and friends of friends, that were deep into role playing, and while I enjoyed the character building and backstory part, most sessions seemed to hit a wall about 3 hours in. But related to your comment, there was always at least one female player, and most times 2 or 3. Perhaps it's less about loss of interest and more about lack of comfort "getting into character." General banter among (male) friends may make female players feel further isolated, and less inclusive to the game at hand. I'd suggest trying some non-gaming sessions, like a video night or "art class" (lack of art skill makes it so much funnier doing water colors of favorite characters).

Luis Guimaraes
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@Julianne Harty

"It's the heavy competition focus that alienates females."

I remember whenever in school teachers would organize boys vs girl knowledge/task competitions, we'd always win because the girls' group would be full of internal problems and leadership disputes while we'd focus on the given tasks. And at work I've been countless times in situations where something went wrong within a harsh deadline and our department (mostly made of men) would quickly unite to fix the problem ASAP, while the other room (mostly made of women) would spend the whole afternoon arguing about who screwed up and trying to find the culprit, trying to make each other look bad to the bosses. New employees always found a welcoming introduction in our room, learned lots of new things and were impressed about our streamlined pipeline in comparison to their previous jobs. New women on the other room would always feel excluded and quickly have a few enemies around.

Just anedoctal experience though, and I'm from a different country so I can't speak for other cultures. But seems like people often seek contrast in their escapism in comparison to their real lives. Keyword being "escapism".

It also counts that people in groups and people on their own are different. As @Michael said:

"girls are cool and wargames and pen & paper rpgs are uncool"
"girls mature and grow out of childlike behavior earlier than boys"

Both sentences mean the same thing: women try to look cool and mature, and care for what others (specially other women) think of them.

Not all themes and genres are like that anyway, it just seems whatever is bringing the big numbers of sales will usually skew the perception of gender matters. The genre I'm working with currently is one I believe for a long while to be made of a majority of female gamers. I don't have the data to prove it, but I'm pretty sure that's the case.

Jean Louis
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Apparently my English was malfunctioning this morning. I am including some edits below:

"I can't explain it, but it took me by surprise, particularly since the Star Wars minis are not lacking in strong female leads that are NOT over-sexualized in their presentation."

An interesting twist that occured to me after my initial post: I have been experimenting with adding plot elements beyond combat and survival, and this HAS had a positive impact on female engagement. In adapting a combat-centered game to include things like relationship-building, dialogue, and character development, I'm interested in seeing what it is that might grab the female imagination in a tabletop RPG-lite game. I know that this will probably get me crucified, but I split my time fairly evenly between Western and non-Western cultures and the female tendency to be less enthusiastic about predominantly violent gameplay is pretty solidly widespread. It doesn't matter if this is PC or not, if it's empirically observable, it will impact your sales.

Christian Nutt
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While I think the real hot water you can get into (if you aren't someone who's done the research) is positing the causes, I don't think it's necessarily sexist to point it out. I mean, Square Enix and Namco Bandai take this to the bank every year with Final Fantasy and Tales of: women and men both love JRPGs. JRPGs encompass a lot of features that (broadly speaking) appeal to different constituencies of their audiences, including both women and men.

Hell, Nintendo/Intelligent Systems took this effect to the bank in 2013 with Fire Emblem Awakening. Now, it would be stupid to say that men enjoyed the tactical battling and women enjoyed the relationship building. It would also be wrong, since both enjoyed both. But the synthesis of these two elements made FEA what it was, and what it was was a war game that appealed to women and men.

Theresa Catalano
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There's kind of a Catch 22 here, isn't there? How would you notice marketing that was for girls? It's not as though pink flowers and hearts will adorn any advertisement for girls, nor should it because that's not necessarily what girls want.

Change usually comes slow, but I think we're already seeing a change in how some games are marketed, with more of a female target. You brought up Mass Effect as an example... Bioware games tend to be very popular with girls. Bioware is very aware of this, and I'm pretty sure I have seen female shepard in some of their marketing. (She's more popular with both men and women, so it only makes sense!)

Then you have games like Persona with it's cute style and social gameplay. Or Harvest Moon, or Rune Factory. Those games seem to be pretty big with women as well. You might say that anything with a cute and appealing style can be said to be marketed towards women. And look at something like Pokemon, if anything is marketed towards women it would have to be Pokemon. I don't think I've ever met a girl gamer who doesn't play Pokemon.

I think there are already lots of games out there that are being marketed towards women, but maybe we're not noticing because it's not obvious?

Kaitlyn Kaid
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well, here is a good example:


number of female players: 0

Epic Night Out...

number of female players: 1 (YAY!) but she is there to titillate the men who are the "real stars", so -1 points for that.

People aren't saying to dress FPS games up in pink ribbons and bows, but the simple act of normalizing female players. "Yes, girls play this too! You, girl gamer, are welcome to play this game and we don't want you to be treated as an object because of it" is a powerful marketing message, ESPECIALLY when no one else is saying it.

Theresa Catalano
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Counter examples:

A commercial for Harvest Moon, depicts a woman playing the game and enjoying it. This is obviously a commercial targeted straight at women, in a very benign and non crass way. I just picked the top Harvest Moon commercial on youtube... there's probably a lot more like this.

A collection of various Pokemon commericals. These are aimed primarily at kids, but clearly both at boys and girls. There's nothing obviously feminine about those commericals, some of them are pretty goofy, but yet this is the kind of marketing that works on girls.

The problem with your examples is you're just picking two random commercials that are aimed at guys. It's not a crime for commercials to be aimed at guys, and quite frankly with those type of FPS games it makes sense. Not a lot of women play FPS games, even today. Speaking as a woman, quite frankly I don't care... I have no interest in those sort of games, and a more feminine FPS commerical isn't going to change my mind. So I have no problem with the way they market those games.

I just don't think it's as one sided as you're making it out to be. There are plenty of examples of games being aimed at general audiences, or specifically women. Maybe not as many as games targeted by men, but that's changing all the time.

SD Marlow
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You kind of point toward an important distinction between toys for girls vs toys marketed for girls. Barbie, on her own, is "clearly" for girls (though her size 14 friend Stacy, with hourglass body and softer plastic skin could be a hit with a large number of men). That shouldn't mean all other toys are for boys only, but with no inferred reference (via color or other "girly" tropes), how does a mom to know what to buy.

I think it should be less about trying to market for women and more about not needing to specifically market for men (since, by default, those toys are "clearly" for them).

Benjamin Quintero
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I wrote a blog post not long ago titled, Gaming is a Man's World, that may come across as male chauvinistic pigory, but it was written as an observation of my world; the people around me including family and friends and how we and our children are reacting to games.

Though the post was more of an anti-activist commentary of the feminist movement that is quick to blame and short to produce, the points still stand for the greater question of girls in games. In short, I was hard pressed to find a girl who didn't have constant exposure to video games of all types from casual to core, from playful to all-out violent. And still, I've found mostly the boys being attracted to the experience of games and show longevity (ie: potential profitability from this demographic) of interest for more. The girls mostly will pick up and play maybe 1 game in short bursts over a short period before moving on to non-gaming activities; seldom returning to the game, or a new game, for weeks or months. If we have such broad flavors of games and girls still aren't getting entrenched or willing to spend dollars on this form of entertainment then maybe it's just not for everyone. Maybe there is something innate in video games that make them more enjoyable to boys than girls, and just blaming the game design isn't enough to explain why many girls (most in my family) just don't care about games, in spite of it being served in all shapes and sizes and colors of the rainbow.

scott anderson
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I'd make the opposite claim, that there are a lot of experiences that aren't well represented in games, especially for a mainstream consumer that doesn't actively search for variety and has to be heavily marketed to. There are some niches that do a good job of representing different experiences and themes (IF, visuals novels, Twine), but a lot of baggage and assumptions come with those genres that make them not accessible to the average person that isn't involved with those communities.

Benjamin Quintero
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scott - that's kind of my point though. again, this is just my little world; I can't speak for the globe. I have a bounty of games that span the spectrum of devices and play styles and color palettes and game mechanics, and still my wife and daughter show only curiosity but not lasting interest these games. I have noticed that games that don't typically fall into a genre seem to interest them more but it doesn't last and it never monetizes; they are perfectly happy to just demo the game and move on. They have a much deeper exposure to video games than maybe the average girls and still fail to attach to the idea of games. The same can be said for many of my extended family and their girls and women. Just seeing the games, playing them, and even understanding why other people (most boys) are so driven to them still isn't enough for them to want to come back. Can we really blame that on the designers?! I don't know about that... I feel, there is more to this question than placing blame on the lack of exposure or lack of variety of experiences.

Luis Blondet
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The problem is immersion, as illustrated in this funny short:

But this issue could be resolved by simply adding main characters for both genders or simply to allow character customization. For the fixed narrative games, you don't need to make the character any different, they are both the same character under different skins.

Wylie Garvin
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I think Skyrim is a popular game with both male and female players. And its easy to see why. Skyrim contains a population of diverse characters, both male and female, who perform all of the roles in the game (guard, merchant, sidekick, quest dispensor, NPC central to the plot, love interest, etc.) Skyrim is also not purely a violence simulator or a male empowerment fantasy (although it certainly has those elements), it is an immersive experience in which you can spend a lot of time just wandering around, seeing the sights, climbing mountains, exploring wilderness and talking to people. And of course, it lets you construct a player avatar who is either male or female. And unlike some developers, Bethesda is able to put female characters in their games without making them all scantily-clad or focusing the camera on their ass in every cutscene.

Bioware is another company that does a good job with this (at least in the Mass Effect series.. its pretty rare to see the freedom to choose the gender for your playable main character in a game where he/she has so much recorded voice dialogue!) And there are a few other developers who are able to tell an interesting story and make strong, relatable female characters a part of it (such as Naughty Dog). I want to see that trend catch on.

Jacek Wesolowski
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The team I work with right now has a head count of about eighty people, including eleven women. Women are about 30% of our Art and Design teams. It's not that much, but it's much more than in any other team I've worked with.

Here are a few things that we have noticed:

1. There are very few women among professional programmers. However, people in certain non-programmer positions on our team (designers in particular) are required to learn some programming so that they can perform basic coding and debugging tasks on their own. We've noticed that women and men perform equally well when learning this new skill.

2. We get many CVs from men, but very few CVs from women. Most women on our team were recommended to us in one way or another, which allowed us to initiate the recruitment procedure. It appears that our female colleagues enjoy their jobs, but it wouldn't necessarily occur to them to approach us on their own if they had the opportunity. This hints at a possible perception problem: perhaps a job in gamedev *feels* like a men's job, even though it suits women as well.

3. For most women on our team, this is their first gamedev job. Our team has become more diverse as a side effect of our openness to non-veterans. Unlike most teams I worked with in the past, we are eager to hire someone who doesn't have any prior gamedev experience when we see that they show promise.

4. We actually hired a female candidate who was in her 8th month of pregnancy at the time. We knew well that it would be more than half a year before she would show up for her first day in a new job. It was a feasible deal, because our internal structure supports it. Namely, we try to avoid specialization as much as possible, and we try to make sure everyone in a given team can replace anyone if necessary. This structure serves everybody, for instance one of my colleagues is taking a three month leave for a huge trip around central Asia, while another is planning a surgery with side effects that may last for months. Again, our team has become more diverse as a side effect of our efforts to improve our work-life balance.

John Trauger
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"We want to move beyond the preconceptions of the "feminist movement in games" and turn it into something productive, collaborative and inclusive. Move beyond the anger, hatred and general negativity and turn it into something channelled and positive. Move beyond the women debate and tackle the general issue of diversity in games and improve the quality of our industry. "

I'd fund this kickstarter.

The answer is to make the games that illustrate the point. Show me the female protagonist you want to see. For no other reason than the sheer joy of diversity, of doing something new, I'll back you.

There's inherent risk and the money will be tight...right up until the first hit game tells the Suits they can make a profit.

You can't wipe out games that pander to males. You can contribute something new.

So do.