Oh I ache for you - this was a gut-wrenching read.
Having followed some of the…luminaries of women in gamedev on Twitter, it’s remarkable to me the amount of hate and vitriol that’s flung their way even after making the most benign of comments.
And please forgive my mansplaining, but it seems to me that the topic of gender in games development has, at the very least, begun to trickle onto the radar of the average internet user. The cliche would be that we’re having the conversation, and awareness is growing, but that clearly doesn’t pay bills and it doesn’t make waving away the haters and reactionaries any easier.
“Some of us get harassed a lot and some of us don’t.”
The only women in game development I know who aren’t harassed have made careful efforts to be anonymous - that is, they have no Facebook account, no online identities at all that tie into their real identity or even reveal that they’re game developers. They don’t talk at conferences or in interviews, they get distinctly uncomfortable when company photos are taken. That is, they’re invisible. They still have to put up with shit within the confines of the office. I’m sure being told, for years, that “women don’t play games” by one’s colleagues must be exhausting.
The article touches on the notion that games are “supposed to be fun,” which I think is part of the problem. Not only does it constrain games from being serious means of conveying meaning, but it contributes to a negative working environment for people working in/with games. If the work is “fun” (and it isn’t - it’s work), then one doesn’t need proper compensation or a good working environment, does one? One doesn’t need to be taken seriously, because one is just “playing,” not really working. All of which contributes to the churn and loss of institutional memory.
I'm not sure what we expected to get. [...] My colleagues are still being told that their work on altgames or gender or games as personal expression or on personal writing is Important Work, quintessential, don't-miss, but that unfortunately there is no job available for them, no speaker's fee, no professional advancement.
I can’t help but frame this as an “integration vs. self-determination” issue.
The promise of integration - gaining respect and status within the existing power structure - sometimes seems so close, almost within reach. Especially at times when the cultural winds seem to be favorable.
But like the victory fakeout you describe, even when it seems that the fight is won, actual true integration is often elusive. Systemic factors like capitalism that weren’t initially prominent emerge and block the way.
This leads many to conclude that integration is a hopeless and naive goal, and that only self-determination can promise real respect and freedom. But the fight for self-determination is so much bigger and encompasses so much more that it can seem like a very far off goal. I can understand why it makes people feel tired.
I was rendered sad and old by the realisation that JC Herz was largely forgotten and inactive.
I should admit that I don’t really play games and don’t know much about them. And I do recognise it as a deficit in my ability to parse culture now. I’m trying to get into it with my young daughters.
Aww, you’re gone. And we were going to have such a fun time! Please do enjoy the frothy stomach acid of Falcor, jagoff!
Leigh Alexander, whatever your gender may be (I do know, but it should not matter, as I’m sure men also know women in video games), you are a tremendous wordsmith.
All flattery aside, I believe a huge component in all this is how we’re raised as children, and in particular how boys are raised and encouraged to behave. Like Emma Watson’s He for She campaign, acknowledging men’s participation in gender (in)equality would make great strides toward a less gender-focused culture. I say less gender-focused because I believe the less often we pay attention to the things that divide us, the more rich our conversations and experiences will become.
I believe I have something of a unique perspective on this subject, as I am a parent of two young boys, and I have also lived abroad and have been able to compare and contrast different parenting styles and attitudes.
From a young age, people (particularly in America, it seems) are very preoccupied with gender. With babies, it’s very difficult to tell at times what gender they are, but people seem concerned with making sure their baby isn’t mistaken for one gender or another. To me, it’s a strange thing to be concerned with. In fact, this behaviour starts before the child is even born, usually when people are selecting colours for the nursery, clothing, etc.
As young children, and there has been a fair amount of attention drawn to this, packaging, marketing and opinions on toys are often couched toward one gender. Luckily, my wife has been cognisant of this, and has actively encouraged (not in that sort of well-meaning, though slightly annoying urbanite fashion, but in a genuine way, or at least I’d like to think…) our children to play with toys that perhaps defy most gender “associations”. These aren’t the only toys our boys play with, of course. Being boys they like things like trains, cars, Star Wars lego, etc. But when they see their parents making dinner, or pushing a stroller, it’s not so strange to us that they would want to mimic that behaviour, whether its mum or dad. In fact, professionally it’s not just women who make their living cooking and preparing food, and there’s no stigma or particular gender association with the occupation of chef that I am aware of.
Either subconsciously or consciously, in America boys seem to be encouraged to play with boys and girls with girls. Even from a fairly young age. It has been very important for my wife and I, that our sons have good relationships with boys and girls. In fact, my son has had most of his best and strongest relationships with girls. I don’t see this as anything unusual, and in fact, I find it encouraging for his future interactions with women and his development as a healthy individual.
A former colleague of mine in the UK recently had a baby girl, and one of the first comments he made was “I am already dreading things like boyfriends”… I know this is sort of a mantra for fathers of girls in most western cultures, but should it be? I mean, and I don’t mean to deconstruct my friend’s mostly harmless comment, but I thought it was a bit early to make all these sorts of assumptions. And why would he not make the same sentiment about his firstborn, a son? To my mind, it’s an archaic way of thinking. A couple of years ago, I read a really great article by a father, encouraging and supportive of healthy sexual relationships for his daughter. I wish I could find the article, but I think I may have read it on Boing Boing. Anyway, he was not a pervert, he did not want to know any details about his daughter’s sexual relationships with men, but as a relatively normal, heterosexual female, he had hoped that she would have good, healthy sex with guys her age. This defies the “I’ve got a bullet with a young man’s name on it” attitude that most fathers of young women seem to regurgitate.
I find this attitude backwards, repugnantly violent and ultimately, promotes an unhealthy attitude toward sex for young women. As I’ve read repeatedly on Whisper, “How come it’s okay for a man to sleep around and be called a ‘stud’ but if a women expresses her desire [or, even, denies it], she’s called a ‘slut’?” It’s a confusing dichotomy that I still struggle to understand.
So now we come to video games. How many people, like Tina Fey, Zoe Quinn, or Rhianna Pratchett have found themselves lumped into a particular category or other (ie. The “nerd” girl) as they were growing up, because of their interest in video games? I think this is changing, because for people of Anthony and Ashly Burch’s generation and younger, video games are a pastime like any other, equally enjoyable independent of gender. They may not be universal in their appeal or approach, but that divide has certainly eroded to some degree. But without any significant role models, young people often aren’t exposed to positive experiences or career avenues until much later in life. And gaming development “rock stars” are an important part of the puzzle, not just for video games, but for all careers and industries. But it is particularly evident in video game development and analysis.
I don’t think anyone can argue at the sheer lack of diversity of experiences, and you would think that even a person weaned on outmoded ways of thinking would want to experience something a little different from what they have consumed since the first blocky pixel was drawn in anger.
I think there’s another point, ancillary to this, that bears mentioning, only because it has become such a fundamental part of our daily decision-making process that I think most people (in America at least) have ceased to become aware of it. And that’s the problem of black-and-white a.k.a. The False Dilemma, or as I term it, “binary thinking”. The reason it is important is that we (in America at least, I noticed the behaviour much less stridently in Britons) have become so preoccupied with the signal-to-noise ratio that we tend to boil down all our thinking to one binary choice. Something is either good or bad. It is good or evil. A person is a “bad guy” or a “good guy”. I think it is relevant because this way of thinking has so thoroughly infested modern life, that it has led us down the path of False Equivalence and impeded proper discussion of one important issue or another. I mention it because I want you, the reader, to realise you are probably doing it while you’re ingesting this lengthy response. Life is not simply composed of on-and-off choices. In most cases, things cannot simply be either “good for you” or “bad for you” or for the community as a whole, either. And I think it applies to this gender discussion in video games as well.
Okay so here I am, writing a response wherein I say we shouldn’t pay attention to gender roles, but then spending paragraphs talking about it that very thing. But I think this conversation is important, if not for equality, than for our sanity. Do we really need Yet Another Game just like the ones we had before? And, to my point about binary thinking, just because I’m saying we need more diversity in the development of the games and media we all enjoy, does not mean everything else immediately goes away. If there is an audience for a thing, then by all commercial reasoning, it should exist. And just because some people share the opinions I have expressed here, does not mean that all development of previous forms of entertainment should or will cease. If you really love FPS multiplayer man-shoot 'em ups, with a silent protagonist and a male face, then you are probably not alone and they will still continue to exist in some form. But enriching that story, bringing new perspectives should be the way forward for the “industry” (as it stands) as a whole. And part of that communication is bringing in people with new perspectives. People who see more than just one particular target audience. People who have a perspective worth sharing. And some of those people are women. And I for one, would like to hear from more of them.
I want to give you unsolicited advice, Leigh because your piece spoke to me, which must mean you’re a talented writer. You know that already. Anyway, I decided against giving you advice because for a second I thought I knew what your little project was that didn’t work out and thought advice would be a bad idea.
What I will say is that I’m sorry your small little project didn’t work out. It’s terrible it brought you low. I also feel like telling you, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.
There is more the universe of games and the women who play them than Gamergate, or for that matter, what Anita Sarkeesian covers in her narrow framework for criticism. I feel that the range of discussion has gotten a lot smaller, and the questions we find ourselves trying to answer are not as interesting. This isn’t to say that the toxicity of harassment isn’t an issue, or that talking about sexism in gaming is pointless. But from the very beginning I’ve been suspicious of an industry that nods its head, says to women, “Something should be done! Good job!” and then continues not to really hire women.
What a wonderful piece. Very moving. Thanks Leigh.
Hmm, partially true, but you’re being pretty presumptive in saying she doesn’t love gaming culture/ community. When did such a culture/community get codified, and who got to decide who was in and out? It’s a “No true scotsman” argument, right? From what I’ve read of Leigh’s work here on Offworld, its crazy clear to me at least she very much does love gaming (even if in a complicated way), it has a lot of personal resonance to her, and she has based many of her life decisions around it because of that… Click on her author name under the article, and take a look at the entries she’s written. Its an amazing spectrum of games and perspectives which never come on the radar of most other games coverage, because they think only of the industry, not the medium, not the two-way interaction between designer and player. Doesn’t that make her part of the culture/community, if not the one at large, then a subcommunity within it?
You are valid, and thanks for your hard work. I’ve liked and respected your writing for many years.
Whoa, guesses about my private work AND unsolicited advice about it from someone I don’t know? That would be awesome!
(You don’t know what it is, but I do appreciate that you wanted to encourage me)
Eugh. What an ignorant, condescending post that person made. “You have to learn to love gaming culture first.” How unbearable, these constant lectures on the culture of the field I work in from people who do not work there.
How about “you have to learn what gaming culture is,” bro
Leigh I just wanted to say how hard I empathise with you here. I’ve just made the very difficult decision to leave my own field of work having tried and failed to find steady employment for two years. I’ve been fortunate to have achieved quite a bit of success in some areas but it’s not translating to anything I can hold. The word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘valued’. I know my work is good, and I have endless offers of things I can do or contribute to, but there’s no sense that it equates to anything solid. And I know that in a couple of years (less) my presence in the field will have all but disappeared, it will be like I was never there at all. It’s a strange feeling.
Your work really is marvelous though, and I’ve enjoyed your writing on games so much through the years, certainly as a woman but mainly as someone who loves games and loves good research and imaginative writing. I hope you feel much better soon. Thank you for this piece.
Already had to have breakfast. I was hoping today I could hold out until brunch.
A very interesting, informative, and ultimately heart-breaking post.
And Ms. Alexander has my extreme sympathies. I’m not certain I can think of a worse fate than having one’s heart lie in a field that’s a dumping ground for millions of misogynistic boys and men (and in which every person who matures or is educated out of their misogyny is replaced by a new boy growing into theirs).
It’s sort of like those whose heart resides in lands that are more or less permanent war grounds. The land of their heart gives them tiny bits of hope, beauty and joy that are constantly overwhelmed by waves of human misery and pointless loss.
I saw that comment earlier and thought Falcor would be by for it, I’m glad to see I was right.
Disgusting. “Earn our forgiveness by capitulating like whasisname and we might stop harassing you.”
Loved this essay. Clear as a bell and straight from the heart, though painful.
Purely selfishly, I hope you stay. Most of what is written about games doesn’t even really qualify as pabulum - and I doubt it’s the authors’ fault. I find writing like yours - people who insist on taking it seriously - on imagining what this huge area of immersive media could be - and I just read and read and read and am grateful. I don’t want twenty identical reviews of the current top twenty first person shooters and I get exhausted wading through all of it. I want what you and your colleagues write.
And, almost parenthetically here, those writes I like seem to mostly be women. Not that that’s a thing by itself. It’s just an unscientifically collected point of data.
So, thank you, and I hope you stay.