5 Ways The Gaming Industry Is Way More Sexist Than You Think
Every time an industry dominated by one gender starts to become more diverse, the transition period is bumpy. Female politicians were dismissed by their opponents, women soldiers had to fight for their right to fight, and male flight attendants were ridiculed for their passion for infuriatingly tiny peanut bags. Now the video game industry is going through that same rough transition, so we spoke to a few women in the industry about it: Brianna Wu and Amanda Warner of indie game developer Giant Spacekat, game journalist Katie Williams, and another journalist who shall go unnamed for now, presumably because she understands how dumb the Internet can be about this stuff.
My God, The Harassment Is Coming From Inside The Industry!
Brianna wrote an article for Polygon about the anonymous harassment of women in the industry. So of course she got a lot of anonymous harassment for it, because irony is a complicated concept, but being shitty is pretty basic. Since we talked to her, it's only gotten worse, and death threats containing her home address have come pouring in. If you're a woman in the game industry and you're vocal about wanting to be treated like a human being, hate mail is just another part of your day. That constant stream of abuse can pour over into your friendships, marriage, and professional life, because negativity is a liquid, and it always settles at the bottom. And trust us, you don't want that shit all up in your soul: It tastes of old hot dog water and partially digested Jagermeister.
The best souls taste like cotton candy and rainbows.
Every woman we talked to has encountered the attitude "You just need to suck it up and be strong." But, as Katie points out, that's putting the onus on the wrong person.
"I see that as kind of victim-blaming. It's not other people's fault for being terrible human beings; it's your fault for not being able to deal with it. There's something wrong with you, not them. And that's a really sad attitude for people to have to put up with. But it's quite common. I think every woman in the industry knows it, whether they admit it or not."
"Honestly, have you considered Steve, Chris, Frank from accounting, and Chad's feelings
at all during this? Sounds like you're being a bit self-centered."
If you're a woman, you're not allowed to have an emotional reaction to threats that would obviously provoke an emotional reaction in anyone. At least, not without being accused of hysteria. Then you're just a crazy chick taking mean words on the Internet too seriously, and your problem isn't real anymore. That's an awful phenomenon, but it's almost expected at this point: If there's one thing the Internet is good at, it's pornography. If there are two things, it's porn and anonymous dickotry. What really gets you is the harassment that comes from within the industry, and you don't even have to be vocal to encounter it. Amanda ran into an old acquaintance that was looking to get into game development, so she gave him her contact information. She received an email with all the usual professional niceties, but also this gem:
"By the way, I don't want to sound like a creep, and I know you have a husband, but I just wanted to let you know I think you're smokin' hot. If your company ever needs any help play-testing or contract work, let me know!"
Try that line at a job interview and let us know how it goes.
"I know you have a husband, but ..." is like the "I'm not racist, but ..." of sexual advances -- whatever comes next will sound bad in the best of circumstances.
Amanda said, "I can hear the dudebros saying, 'You should just take the compliment,' but what's so hard to communicate is that it's not a compliment. It's totally out of context and unprofessional. It was unwanted and has no value beyond making the issuer feel powerful and generous."
The unnamed journalist (we'll call her Laserbeam, because our parents never let us name anything cool) we spoke to was chatting with a colleague about game review scores at a big networking event, when another guy butted in, looked at her, and said: "Yeah, I'd rate her 4 of 10. Well, I'd give her a 9 out of 10 for looks, but personality, 1."
So, apparently he sucks at both common decency and math.
Laserbeam walked off in stunned silence, because flaming uppercuts are sadly still limited to Street Fighter. Someone else approached her immediately after wanting to know what she and the editor of a major gaming news site were just talking about.
"That was a really terrifying experience for me, knowing that this guy who was disgustingly sexist and felt entitled to come up to me in a bar and rate me wasn't just some guy, but was the editor of a really well-known publication that has a lot of power. It's something I've only told a few people, because in this industry you don't want to make enemies."
Women Are Still Fighting Bizarre, Outdated Stereotypes
While society has moved past a lot of stereotypes surrounding women, the idea that they're inherently inferior at math, programming, and other STEM subjects is weirdly persistent. Despite the fact that study after study finds that boys and girls are more or less equally capable at math, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. In fact, the numbers are trending down, from 34 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2011.
As represented by this graph, possibly. It's not like we'd be writing Internet comedy
if we were good at this stat stuff.
There are a lot of social and cultural factors at work there, but the ridiculous stereotypes that women encounter don't help. When Brianna and Amanda attend conferences, people assume that their husbands are the game developers and they're just the doting wives. This is despite the fact that Brianna's husband, while very talented in his own right, once took around 50 lives to beat the first level of Super Mario Bros.
Jesus, we're sorry, but some sort of nerd implosion just happened in our brains. We're going to have to beat up your husband, Brianna.
There are like two jumps. Come on, man.
At best, Brianna and Amanda find most people assume they work in marketing, HR, or another one of those girly fields, because who's ever heard of a female engineer? Like, why bother with all those numbers if they're not being used to calculate how much you can save on new shoes, right?
Katie went to school for game development and was the only girl in many of her classes. Her fellow students assumed she didn't know much about games, and her teachers assured her that they would make the class easier for her because they knew she wasn't really into gaming, which are weird assumptions to make about someone who explicitly decided to study the subject. It sounds ridiculous, but when you're told something ridiculous often enough, you start to believe it.
"I often felt like I couldn't contribute anything to the class, even though looking back now I know I absolutely could. It was very stereotypical stuff, which sounds ridiculous now, but it added up. I still find it really hard in hindsight just to describe how emotionally impacting that can be on a person."
Many Women Will Have To Choose Between Family And Career
Video game development is rarely a 9-to-5 job, especially in the months leading up to a game's release. And that makes development a man's game, because it's hard to work 80-hour weeks while also raising a child, which we're told need to be fed once a day and should have their diaper changed weekly.
"Remember, he needs to be watered at least twice, and make sure to roll him over now
and then so both sides get sunned. All right, I'm off to the office for 18 hours."
Amanda was working at a major studio and was about to go on maternity leave when she was asked, instead, to start putting in more hours. "Boy, I sure have a lot more free time on my hands now that I'm about to give birth!" is not a sentence you often hear. She was able to find more flexibility at Giant Spacekat, but not all women are so lucky. In her words, "Not having that flexibility drives women out in droves." She's not wrong -- 56 percent of women leave the technology industry mid-career, a rate double that of men. Men in the industry have kids too, of course, but because women have the babies they're traditionally the ones who end up taking care of those kids while the fathers spend their nights bringing us the gritty, violent, morally gray reboot of Kirby that we never knew we always wanted.
"Nightmare is good, but what about Death Land? And instead of sucking up enemies,
he eats their flesh, zombie-style?"
To be clear, there isn't a shadowy cabal of game makers looking to exclude women by forcing them to choose between their families and their careers. On the contrary -- most men in the industry would be happy to see more female colleagues.
But ... #notallmen.
If You Talk About These Issues At All, That's All You're Ever Known For
Katie once wrote an article about the time a PR representative took the keyboard away from her and played the game they were demoing on her behalf. All the while he explained the basics of the medium as though she were a newcomer to the phenomenon of "moving picture amusements" and not someone wearing a press pass. She was immediately accused of making the story up by some readers, because when has a man ever been condescending to a woman regarding technology?
Aside from, you know, all the times?
Other readers said it was her own fault for not speaking up and correcting the misconception, while still others suggested she was exaggerating it on account of all her crazy female emotions. The implication is always that she's just looking for attention -- these aren't real problems; Katie just wants to further her career. Brianna has encountered the same kind of thinking:
"Having an opinion on my own equality makes people singularly stereotype me in that one way. It's amazing to me that having the opinion that I should be treated equally makes people only see me for that."
"So let's get started on the game design, and please don't all be huge assholes to me. Thanks!"
By speaking out about these issues, she's no longer seen as a game developer who also happens to express her opinion on equality within her own industry; she's a radical man-hater who seems to be accidentally making video games once in a while. Just falling into piles of code and emerging with platformers stuck to her ass.
Progress Is Being Made!
If everything you just learned makes you sad, then we have good news! Everyone we interviewed agreed that the industry has made significant progress over the last few years. Also, Cracked bought a pony! AND YOU GET TO NAME IT!
The fact that we're even concerned about diversity in gaming is a huge change from just a few years ago, when most game studios were worried only about what shade of stubble their white, male space marine protagonist should have. But if it's going to keep improving, Brianna says, men need to take part too:
"I think what men need to understand is that their voice is, frankly, more important than mine in talking to other men and getting their behavior to change. If I call out a guy, he instantly gets extremely defensive, and I'm just some pissed-off feminist chick being hysterical like women are. But if it's a guy talking to a peer, it has more credibility with the kind of men that need to examine their behavior. So, when you see guys saying awful things, just speak up about it. Because we can't change this without your help."
"Look, the Covenant are the ones destroying humanity. Focus your death threats on them."
It's easy to see criticism of your beloved pastime as a personal attack, and that's why otherwise normal gamers have such a knee-jerk reaction to this conversation. Especially since most geeks have felt ostracized by society for their hobbies already -- any confrontation raises the shields, even if that confrontation is meant not as an attack but the start of a conversation. All you can do is try to highlight the "good" options in the dialogue wheel.
You can learn more about Giant Spacekat's first game, Revolution 60, at its official website. You can follow Brianna on Twitter here, and Amanda here. Katie's on Twitter too, and she also has a website. If you're not sick of clicking on links yet, you can read more from Mark at his website.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Things I Learned as the Internet's Most Hated Person. And also check out 5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women.
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