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Women in Games: Rebalancing The Scales

Women in Games: Rebalancing The Scales

Tue 01 Oct 2013 2:12pm GMT / 10:12am EDT / 7:12am PDT
BusinessDevelopment

Game designer Whitney Hills shares her insights on gender inequality, fighting against apathy and why the indie space may improve things

The video game industry is several decades old now, and while the medium of games has seen numerous evolutionary changes and some of the audience has matured, there's one unfortunate constant: it's still predominantly a business that's operated by and caters to males. If the industry wants to be taken more seriously, this is something that clearly has to change.

There are plenty of women gamers out in the world and just as many young, talented women designers looking to inject their creativity into an industry that could surely use it. Game companies should be doing everything they can to welcome women into the field and to make content that's enjoyed equally by men and women. Unfortunately, that's not the case just yet, and working as a woman in the games business can be challenging, frustrating and discouraging - yet also rewarding.

A few weeks ago, Whitney Hills, an independent games designer and writer, wrote a fascinating and eloquent blog post on her experiences as a woman in games. GamesIndustry International caught up with Hills recently to get some more perspective on the issue.

Q: For those in our audience who aren't familiar with you, tell us a bit about your work and the games you've contributed to.

Whitney Hills: I've worked in games since 2007. I've contributed to about a dozen shipped titles, including Fable II, Viva Pinata, Toy Soldiers, Crackdown 2, and Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster.

I've done some indie projects, too -- in 2009, some friends and I made an Xbox Live indie game called Hieronymus Bash. In 2010, I began making an iOS game called Ghost Chef, but that's been in deep freeze for a while. I'm currently an independent writer/designer.

Q: Your blog entry Games! Girls! Onions! was an incredibly heartfelt read about what it's been like working as a woman in a male dominated games industry. What inspired you to write it and have you been surprised by the reaction it's getting?

Whitney Hills: I'd never written anything like that before. As I mention at the beginning of the post, a lot of the existing writing about women and minorities in games (including the recent Penny Arcade brouhaha) felt angry, accusatory, or irrelevant to my experience. I was worried that the current discussions were setting harmful precedents that would make it even harder to talk about the issue.

More fundamentally, I was simply processing some personal realizations, experiences, and feelings that had haunted me for a while. It was the sort of stuff I'd normally write and then bury in the depths of my hard drive, but I wondered if it might be potentially helpful to others. It was scary as hell to publish - I didn't want everyone I'd ever worked with to think that I was accusing them or secretly thought ill of them, because that wasn't the case.

I was happy to hear from other women who had experienced some of the exact same things but felt they could never talk about it, and felt relieved that I had. The response on Twitter and on the blog itself was positive, and elsewhere on the web it seemed to spark some good discussions… And some awful ones.

1

When it was republished on Kotaku, some of the unmoderated comments were so awful that people skipped the article entirely and shared the link just to comment on the comments, like rubbernecking at a flaming car crash. This was a bummer: I stopped reading the Kotaku comments after a while, because mining for the constructive ones was just too unpleasant.

Outside of that troll's nest, though, the responses I got made me glad that I published it. One response I saw occasionally is that some of the experiences or feelings that I described are pretty standard for everyone in corporate America, not just women.

I generally agree with this - American work culture can be pretty toxic, and women certainly haven't cornered the market on feeling left out or hurt or isolated. Those are universal emotions, and everybody, male or female, is usually part of a pecking order.

However, I do maintain that feeling as if people treat you differently because you're the new guy or because they have their own agenda is different from feeling like people treat you differently because of gender or race - because those are things that are fundamental to you and that, unlike a habit or behavior, you cannot change.

Q: In your blog you describe how you've felt like a “fraud” or a “novelty” as a woman in this business. Do you see gender inequality improving at all? The fact that it's now frequently discussed has to be a step in the right direction right?

Whitney Hills: I see a lot more women getting into games, which is the best and biggest step toward rebalancing the scales. I wouldn't say that the fact that it's frequently discussed is in and of itself a great thing - to me, the caliber of the discussions is more important.

Q: Are you concerned that young women in college studying game design or thinking about joining the games industry are being frightened away by some of the horror stories? What advice would you have for women aspiring to get into games?

Whitney Hills: I don't think this is a risk, for a couple of reasons. First, most women who are looking to get into games have been gamers all their lives - so they've probably already experienced some aspects of discrimination in the adolescent "prequel," when you're the only girl at the LAN party or in programming class, or when you get verbally attacked on services like Xbox Live. You end up having to deal with this stuff whether you're a professional or not.

Second, I've never met anyone whose youthful passion for games (or any other dream career) would be tempered by someone telling them that it's going to be extra hard. Savvy young women take statements like that as a dare.

As far as advice goes, I think the most important thing for anyone - whether you're a woman or not - is to learn how to communicate your needs assertively, in a way that minimizes the odds of making others feel blamed, accused, or defensive.

The communication skills that I've found personally helpful, and that I wish I'd learned much earlier in life, were outlined by psychologist Thomas Gordon (whom I also mentioned in the original post). In his view, conflict is inevitable and unavoidable, and it can even be healthy. The existence of conflict is not the problem, but rather how it is resolved.

All of Gordon's books teach the same skill set, but "Leader Effectiveness Training" is the version he tailored for a business environment. His wife, Linda Adams, wrote a book originally titled “Effectiveness Training for Women,” which was later retitled to “Be Your Best.” It seems to be out of print, but teaches the same skills and is targeted at women. Don't be put off by the dated covers! This is useful stuff!

"I haven't played GTA V, and I'll be sorry if my enjoyment is spoiled because one writer, or a collection or writers, was allowed to introduce content that I find alienating or hateful"

Communication and conflict resolution skills are particularly important for women. We're often told that if we have a problem within the workplace, the appropriate course is to go to a manager or to HR, and them have them solve the problem from the top down. This can be a threatening, unproductive, and unpleasant experience for everyone involved - the offended's sense of personal agency is deferred, the manager has to play mediator for a conflict they weren't originally part of, and the offender is told through the grapevine that they've done something unacceptable, so they usually feel blamed or threatened.

If people feel capable of handling conflict themselves in a constructive way, I think it would be much healthier.

Q: Would you agree that there's a sort of “boy's club” mentality that's pervasive in the industry and among its followers? When someone like Anita Sarkeesian is attacked with such vitriol just for pointing out some "damsel in distress" tropes in games, it's disheartening. What's your view?

Whitney Hills: I think (and hope) that it's a simply a vocal minority. I also wonder whether or not some of that vitriol stems from men who feel accused or blamed, even if that wasn't the intent. Of course, it may just be that there's a contingent of people who have a lot of time of their hands and who like to post mean shit on the Internet, and it's the responsibility of moderators to make sure public discussions are constructive.

Q: This may be a chicken and egg scenario, but it seems like the industry is still catering more to young males than to anyone else. When the record-setting game GTA V is criticized for being misogynistic and you have other titles like Killer is Dead that features a gigolo mode, the problem with the content being produced is obvious. Is the solution simply to get more women into game creation?

Whitney Hills: At risk of sounding contrarian, I'm not sure I agree that the problem with the content is obvious. I was personally disappointed to hear that GTA V has such a strong undercurrent of misogyny, because I enjoyed GTA IV and don't recall feeling alienated by its content. I haven't played GTA V, and I'll be sorry if my enjoyment is spoiled because one writer, or a collection or writers, was allowed to introduce content that I find alienating or hateful.

The game industry has, essentially, the same breadth and range of quality of content as film or television. Everyone's bar of acceptance is in a different place. I couldn't get through the first episode of “Game of Thrones” because I found it dull and misogynistic. I found the portrayals of women to be disturbing and it made me sad. But there are a lot of people who would disagree with me, and some of the writers on “Game of Thrones” are female. Whether we're talking about TV or games, some people appreciate and enjoy content that some other people are disturbed or repulsed by, and that's okay.

I do think that having more women as content creators is much needed, not only in games, but in film and TV as well.

Q: As a writer and a designer, have you ever felt restricted by what you can or can't write/design because an exec was worried that it wouldn't appeal to the aforementioned male audience? Isn't part of the problem not just getting women into the industry but also getting people at publishers in a position of power to actually greenlight certain content?

Whitney Hills: Yes -- my colleagues and I were often pushing for more and better representation of female characters, and our efforts were often met with some form of apathy or resistance.

I have a strong memory of one meeting in particular, concerning a game that had both a male and a female playable character. The game was ambitious, and there were concerns that the schedule might be slipping. A female exec was the first to volunteer a solution that the female playable character be cut altogether - and I just wilted. I thought the female playable was so important to the success of the game - because many of its players WERE going to be women - and I felt so disheartened that she was first on the chopping block. (I also had people tell me that we shouldn't have a female playable because “Women are harder to animate.”)

I'm not saying every game needs to have two different character options, or that the default need be female - heck no. But for this particular game, it felt important.

The only time I ever heard someone mention a fear of scaring off the male audience was during the marketing phase of a game that had both a male and a female playable character. Only the male character was shown on the cover of the game, which drove me CRAZY, since the female playable was (in my mind) one of the biggest features. Aside from instances like those, it's much more common to simply be restricted by project budgets or aesthetic differences, and not so much because the male audience is given priority.

Q: It feels like the industry just isn't trying hard enough. If you look at a show like E3, while “booth babes” are a bit toned down, there are still plenty of companies paying for scantily clad women to stand around. It's completely ridiculous when the focus should be on the games. Some PR women have even been verbally abused when being mistaken for a booth babe. Any message for the ESA or thoughts on this problem?

Whitney Hills: The booth babes are there because an individual, or a small team, believed that the presence of booth babes would help sell their product. The people who hire booth babes probably do not understand the severity of the knock-on effects that they create on female developers. They're not trying to be offensive or exclusionary. They're just trying to use hot women to help sell their idea.

This isn't some big conspiracy. This is a marketing tactic that's been around since the dawn of time. The booth babes are a result of decisions made by individuals, typically marketers, and their decisions happen to create a problem for myself and other female developers. I don't have any message for the ESA or the industry at large, but I do have a message for MARKETERS:

"I know at least a few women who prefer working in the indie space because they find it less isolating or threatening"

If you are a marketer, and you hire booth babes to promote your product, it creates a problem for me because it makes it harder for people to recognize me as a creative professional, and so it's harder to enjoy the shows and promote my own game.

I bet marketers have very real worries that if they DON'T hire booth babes, their game won't be as noticeable and it won't sell as well, and their jobs may be impacted as a result. That is a legitimate worry.

Are there ways that they can successfully market their game without using booth babes? I feel confident that there are. But until marketers understand the impact that their choices make, and until we understand why they made those choices in the first place, it's a waste of breath to tell anyone to stop hiring booth babes.

Q: Is the gender problem worse in the AAA space? Perhaps the freedom of the indie movement can help address the problem?

Whitney Hills: Yes, I'd say it's worse in AAA, mainly because the power dynamics are different in larger, more corporate companies.

There's more use of hierarchical power in AAA, but that's an issue that affects everyone's comfort and level of participation, not just women's.

I know at least a few women who prefer working in the indie space because they find it less isolating or threatening. That's sort of a factor for me as well, but my motivations for going independent were more linked to wanting more freedom to travel, time to write, and time to develop other interests outside of games.

Q: The end of your post asks those who would help not to act, but instead to just listen. Is inaction the right message to send? Are you worried that people won't help women in compromising situations because of this advice? How do these well-intentioned people help?

Whitney Hills: People frequently confuse “listening” with “inaction.” It's not the same thing.

They assume that listening is a passive endeavor and that it does not communicate anything to the speaker. But actively listening to someone communicates acceptance of that person and their feelings, and that acceptance is more powerful than simply agreeing, disagreeing, or trying to help with an instant solution. Active listening requires empathy, and it leads you to deeper conversations than you could have if you tried to jump in with solutions of your own.

An experiment you can do to see if you've really listened to the other person is to paraphrase what the other has just said to you, but in your own words - don't just parrot. And see if they think you got it right. This type of active listening is difficult to do well, but it's the first step in real communication. It's a funny paradox, but when we actively listen to someone and give them our acceptance - whether we feel in opposition to them or want to help - we give them the freedom to solve their own problems, or to change.

17 Comments

Helen Merete Simm Senior UI Artist, Codemasters

53 276 5.2
"Second, I've never met anyone whose youthful passion for games (or any other dream career) would be tempered by someone telling them that it's going to be extra hard. Savvy young women take statements like that as a dare."

yes.

Posted:A year ago

#1

Jason Avent VP, Studio Head, NaturalMotion

143 177 1.2
Stick with Game Of Thrones. There are some awesome female characters in it.

Posted:A year ago

#2
Wise and sensible words. Internet, do your worst.

Posted:A year ago

#3

Del Hartin Senior Designer, NaturalMotion

9 24 2.7
Popular Comment
Great interview, with insightful questions, reasoned arguments and good points all round.

Am I actually on the internet?

Posted:A year ago

#4

James Brightman Editor in Chief, GamesIndustry.biz

263 466 1.8
Haha, thanks Del.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Tom Keresztes Programmer

700 354 0.5
First in a long line of similar articles that are about coexistence and communication, and does not blame sexism and men for every problem.
Stick with Game Of Thrones. There are some awesome female characters in it.
And if you dont like them, dont worry, they will be killed off within a season or two.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tom Keresztes on 1st October 2013 5:28pm

Posted:A year ago

#6

Tyler Moore Game Designer & Unity Developer

52 14 0.3
"People frequently confuse “listening” with “inaction.” It's not the same thing.

They assume that listening is a passive endeavor and that it does not communicate anything to the speaker. But actively listening to someone communicates acceptance of that person and their feelings, and that acceptance is more powerful than simply agreeing, disagreeing, or trying to help with an instant solution"

Fantastic. Thank you for saying this.

Posted:A year ago

#7

Alex M Game Developper, Tribute Games Inc.

6 5 0.8
My experience over 10 years in the industry, it's more a schoolboy mentality than straight up sexism or misogynism. This is true for pretty much all "geek" domain : be it from comics, video games, tabletop RPGs, wargaming, computer science etc where women historically have been underrepresented (and still are in some).

I think a lot can be explained by basic lack of social interaction with women/girls which can lead to behavior that i call like the white knight syndrome and it's opposite that i call the assholes syndrome. Combine that with the low presence of women in work place, that means that coworker getting romantically attracted are bound to happen more often too. I consider myself lucky to have been able to work at one point in a small team composed to about 45% women.

This might be a little different depending on the geographic region, here in Quebec feminism is strongly represented and respected.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alex M on 1st October 2013 10:39pm

Posted:A year ago

#8

Yvonne Neuland Studying Game Development, Full Sail University

32 55 1.7
Trying to dissuade me from doing something by telling me it is to hard, or it can't be done does nothing but provide me with the incentive to prove the person wrong. There have been many times when I had almost decided doing something was not worth the effort, right up until someone told me I couldn't do it. I take it as a challenge, not a reason to back down.

I love challenges. :) There is nothing more satisfying than finding a way to achieve a goal that cannot be achieved.

This is a great article. It is very nice to hear someone discussing the issue of women in gaming in a balanced way. This topic is very important, but most of what is published on the subject comes from the extreme ends of each viewpoint. The extremes do not allow for meaningful discussion about the problem, and prohibit any actual solutions from being developed. The general population doesn't agree with either extreme, so regardless of which side of the spectrum the opinion comes from, it doesn't address the average persons concerns.

I have always liked to use the legal standard of a reasonable man when I evaluate an issue, rather than the standard of the most outraged one.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Yvonne Neuland on 2nd October 2013 3:01am

Posted:A year ago

#9

Christophe Danguien games developer

70 83 1.2
Popular Comment
I don't have any thing against the article in itself, and having more women in the industry is only a plus...but are we going to have an article about women in games every week or what ? It's been the Nth article in months....

Posted:A year ago

#10
Popular Comment
@Christophe I would agree with you but seeing as so many of those articles were badly received or ignored as irrelevant by some on this board, now I think we could do with some more. I've no interest in over-representing the viewpoint of any gender and disagree with a good deal of what some feminist-inclined gamers have attacked, but if these articles allow any ignorant throwbacks and redneck schoolboys on this board to hang themselves I'd call that a worthy service.

Posted:A year ago

#11

Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters

528 788 1.5
Plus if you're not interested... don't read it?

Posted:A year ago

#12
I take it before commenting everyone actually read the blog?

It's good to hear her experiences from a personal perspective as it will help others think before they act

Some people think that these kinds of gripes are just something you have to accept and get on with as most of her problems arise from the blurring of the workplace and social space which companies also encourage.

However I think we should all write blogs from our own personal perspective about the things that piss us off about other people. It would be very cathartic.

Posted:A year ago

#13

Katelyn Pitstick Level Designer, Hi-Rez Studios, Inc.

1 2 2.0
"You feel enormous pressure to pretend that nothing bothers you, because you don’t want to give others more power to hurt you, or upset people you care about or make them feel uncomfortable."

I like this statement, as it describes the pressure to not "contribute" to the problem. And often, it's hard to speak of things like this because we don't want people to roll their eyes and dismiss it as another cry for attention, or another feminist lobby, or another debate on sexism. It doesn't make the problem go away but, for many, staying quiet makes it easier to deal with.
Great blog/article, well worth the read.

Posted:A year ago

#14

Christophe Danguien games developer

70 83 1.2
@Barry, awesome comment :-)

@Dave, no idea where I said I wasn't interested....it just, that seems to be like a trend to put this kind of articles on websites.

Posted:A year ago

#15
that seems to be like a trend to put this kind of articles on websites
Perhaps because the industry and people who are interested in the industry are questioning and discussing why the workforce, the product and the consumers aren't more representative of half the population. It's like the debates and campaigns for women's enfranchisement in the UK, only not as slow (110 years). And it coincides with the growth in employment of women in predominantly male occupations.

If you look at the frequency of articles on this topic on GI, not in terms of how many a week but how many out of the total number of articles, it's not at all high - there is currently one on the homepage out of 62 in total.

Posted:A year ago

#16

Helen Merete Simm Senior UI Artist, Codemasters

53 276 5.2
@Christophe Danguien
"I don't have any thing against the article in itself, and having more women in the industry is only a plus...but are we going to have an article about women in games every week or what ? It's been the Nth article in months.... "

Not the most welcoming comment is it. And also, isnt that the whole point? To keep talking about women in games until its no longer something people object to being reminded of?

Posted:A year ago

#17

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