Moving Beyond the Women in Games Argument
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.
*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.