The last two panels on the final day of Australian independent games conference Freeplay this weekend weren't designed to address the issue of gender imbalance in the industry, but that was the topic that ended up dominating the discussion both on-stage and among audience members.
A panel on the role of game criticism and reporting quickly changed gears with a comment from fellow conference speaker and Sidhe Interactive designer Rob MacBride, who said he didn't "get a lot of critical, serious comics or articles from females in games."
Writer and poet Alison Croggon, the lone woman on the panel, responded with an eloquent look at entrenched gender inequality in literature and theater, but her lack of direct experience with game criticism led her to throw the question back to the other panelists: "I play games, and a huge constituency of game players are women. Is that reflected in games criticism? Or is it all boys?"
The male panelists found themselves unable to produce the name of a single female games critic or journalist, leading attendees to respond with irate Tweets on the #freeplay11 hashtag
listing such women. This list included games writer Leena van Deventer, who spoke at the preceding Freeplay panel, and Walkley-award-winning
journalist Tracy Lien, who was in the panel audience.
When the microphone was brought out for audience questions, the Twitter drama finally bubbled out into the panel itself. When one audience member suggested that the issue would solve itself naturally, as it supposedly has in other industries, Croggon pointed out that "in literature that it has not gone away, despite years and years and years of people talking about it."
The subject was revived during the conference's next (and final) panel, a look at "The Next Twelve Months" led by Emerging Writers' Festival Director Lisa Dempster. Her first question: "Are there going to be more women involved [in the games industry]?"
Responses addressed the disproportionately low numbers of female students in game design and programming courses (when compared to other kinds of design and communications courses) and the unhelpful representation of female characters within games.
"It's ... this huge vicious cycle; it's like this spinning cog, and we don't know where to put the bar to stop it," said panelist Trent Kusters.
But then a more hopeful Tweet came through, read out loud by panel chair Matt Ditton: "Gamers are problem solvers. If there's a community that can figure out how to recognize the women amongst us, it's us." That sentiment got a smattering of applause.
But maybe such a solution isn't something that's going to be deduced through a programmer's logic. "It's a big issue," said Ditton. "I would suggest next year we should have a panel on this." The implication? The very act of discussing the problem is the best way to work towards solving it.