Women in Games: Rebalancing The Scales
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.
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.
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