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HR exec says it's on women to solve the industry's sexism problem | 10 Years Ago This Month

EA's chief talent officer saw a tidal wave of horrifying stories from women in games and decided the problem was women didn't want to sign up for that

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

This column has seen some galaxy brain Bad Calls over the years.

Steam is great for the retail PC software market.

Ouya is going to be as big as the iPhone.

The problem with game developers nowadays is that they have too much job security.

But I'm not sure anything we've covered yet compares to EA chief talent officer Gabrielle Toledano, who saw the #1ReasonWhy hashtag explode on social media with stories of the sexism women have faced in the games industry and decided the problem wasn't sexism keeping women out of games; the problem was women keeping themselves out of games.

It wasn't enough to simply have that bad take though. Toledano decided it would be a good idea to shout it from the mountaintops, publishing an entire guest editorial in Forbes about the subject.

"We've all heard the debate," she said. "Many have accepted as an article of faith that sexism keeps women out of game studios. As an insider, I find this argument is misguided. It's easy to blame men for not creating an attractive work environment – but I think that's a cop-out. If we want more women to work in games, we have to recognize that the problem isn't sexism."

"It's easy to blame men for not creating an attractive work environment – but I think that's a cop-out"Ex-EA chief talent officer Gabrielle Toledano

She added that gaming is no more sexist than other male-dominated workforces, because it's deeply relevant to this discussion that women don't get any more wolf whistles per minute in game studios than they do walking past construction sites. And if that's where we're setting the bar, then I would hope most studios can hang that "Mission Accomplished" banner and say we've solved sexism.

"Nonetheless, there are still too few women working in my company, so it's clear there is an issue to fix," Toledano continued. "Rather than blame the majority just because they are the majority, I believe the solution starts with us – women."

She then lamented that publishers like EA want to hire more women, but "there aren't enough to hire… yet."

And that's on women, she argued, because they're just ignorant about how great the industry will treat them.

"If women don't join this industry because they believe sexism will limit them, they're missing out," Toledano said. "The sky is the limit when it comes to career opportunities for women (and men) in games. If we want the tide to turn and the ratio of men to women to really change then we need to start making women realize that fact. From foundational employee benefits to playful and creative work spaces, the culture of video game design that I know embraces the values of all our employees like nowhere else."

I don't know how deliberately obtuse one has to be to look at a hashtag about sexism in games going viral with story after story after story from women who have had a Bad Time in the industry and think, "The problem is women don't know how great this industry treats them."

There's an implicit argument in there that the solution is to stop focusing on the bad stuff that happens to women in the industry and only talk about the good stuff. And it's an argument I might even take seriously, if the industry had a track record of handling incidents of sexism appropriately when they crop up.

But there's a pattern in the institutional response to sexism in gaming workplaces that we see play out again and again across the industry, one where women are not believed, where companies side with abusers over victims, where anyone who dares complain about these issues is pushed out the door for undermining the good vibes.

It's an industry where the people ultimately responsible for fostering deeply sexist cultures in the workplace are allowed to keep their positions, while the women they harmed are forced to fight for years for any kind of justice (or more commonly, simple compensation) for what they were put through. And it's an industry where time and time and time again, the HR teams are complicit. Even on those cut-and-dried occasions where the evidence is so overwhelming that HR suggests firing an employee, there's always the chance executives will overrule them to keep sexual harassers on staff.

There is a problem with sexism in the games industry and it is not on women to solve it

Since Toledano's column first ran, Ubisoft, Riot Games, Twitch, Activision Blizzard, and too many more have made it painfully clear that there is a problem with sexism in the games industry and it is not on women to solve it.

We can't say if Toledano's views on the subject have evolved over the years. What we can say is that Toledano parted ways with EA in 2017 and joined Tesla as chief people officer, working for a man whose company would pay $250,000 to avoid a lawsuit from a flight attendant alleging that he exposed himself to her and offered to buy her a horse in exchange for an erotic massage.

At the time Toledano joined Tesla, the car maker was facing a lawsuit from a woman engineer on staff who accused the company of "pervasive harassment," paying her less than men for the same work, promoting less qualified men over her, and retaliating against her for bringing up the issue. That suit was filed before Toledano signed on, so obviously she can't be blamed for that.

But The Guardian reported that less than a week after Toledano's hiring was announced, she fired the woman. Tesla released a statement to the outlet saying (perhaps unsurprisingly, given Toledano's Forbes editorial) that it was all the woman's fault, and tried to tear her down in the process.

"[The woman suing the company] was given special treatment and opportunities for advancement that were unwarranted based on her qualifications, and that negatively impacted other more qualified individuals," the car maker said, adding that her accusations were false and a "miscarriage of justice."

It's a strange defense to accusations of labor law violations to say you gave an employee special treatment and undeserved opportunities for advancement, but sure, let's go with that.

Another lawsuit from a woman who joined Tesla just as Toledano was leaving accused the company of allowing "nightmarish conditions of rampant sexual harassment" and a frat house atmosphere at its factory, where women were subjected to frequent groping.

(According to a Vox report, a National Labor Relations Board judge also found Toledano took part in some illegal union busting while at Tesla when factory workers raised safety concerns, which isn't sexist but certainly doesn't show much concern for the rights and well-being of her employees.)

You can't solve systemic problems indirectly

The point here is that you can't solve systemic problems indirectly. If greater representation were all it took to eliminate sexism in a field, flight attendants wouldn't be out here turning down horses.

Recruiting more women into the industry will not magically fix sexist gaming culture on its own. It won't change the fact that we still treat misogyny as a marketing campaign. It won't make companies side with the new hire when she's harassed by the creative director. It won't fix HR departments that prioritize reinforcing the status quo and keeping things running smoothly.

Recruiting more women without actually fixing the broken aspects of the industry will just ensure a more robust pipeline of people to victimize.

Consoles are doomed, again, for real this time

One of the problems with writing a monthly column about things that happened 10 Years Ago This Month is that history repeats itself, so you end up talking about the same stuff again and again. And as regular readers will no doubt have picked up on, people weren't too optimistic about the future of consoles a decade ago.

Proclamations of the console space's demise have been showing up in our Good Call, Bad Call section pretty regularly for a while now, and last June we dug a little deeper into the ways some of these doomsayers were sort of right, if you look at how much the console paradigm of today has shifted over the years.

So for January of 2013, I figured it might be good to take a look at why these predictions of consoles falling by the wayside may have been particularly resonant with industry-watchers.

The obvious first place to start is the console cycle. The console space had always had good years and bad years, and you could basically predict them reliably by asking how long it had been since the major new systems launched.

2012 had been a bad year. The NPD was reporting full-year sales for 2012 were down 22%, with the key December sales period down the same amount.

"Our conclusion is the Nintendo Wii U launch has been slightly disappointing"Stern Agee analyst Arvind Bhata

We had gone six years since the PS3 and Wii capped off the previous generation releases, the PS4 and Xbox One still hadn't been announced yet, and the just-launched Wii U wasn't looking like any kind of savior for the console space.

"Our conclusion is the Nintendo Wii U launch has been slightly disappointing," Stern Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia told investors in January of 2013. "Keep in mind investor expectations with respect to Wii U were already fairly low going into the launch."

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata was apologizing for the dearth of post-release Wii U software, which was adding insult to injury considering he had previously addressed complaints about the Wii U's weak slate of launch games by saying Nintendo deliberately wanted to hold first-party titles back so it could ensure a steady cadence of quality releases after launch.

And EA, which hailed an "unprecedented partnership" with Nintendo as it promoted the Wii U before launch, was already visibly cooling on the system, with Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli saying he wanted to bring the studio's upcoming Crysis 3 to Wii U, but it was up to EA and Nintendo, who believed "there's not enough business drive in it."

The past few years had seen traditional handhelds struggle at launch, all while the iPhone, iPad, Facebook, and free-to-play gaming had taken off

At the same time, the past few years had seen traditional handhelds like the 3DS and PS Vita struggle at launch, all while the iPhone, iPad, Facebook, and free-to-play gaming had taken off. The old world was clearly dying; it was just a matter of which disruption would put the final nail in the coffin.

Would it be Ouya? Oculus Rift VR? Streaming services like OnLive and Gaiki? January of 2013 saw a couple new potential killers added to the list with NVIDIA's Android-based Shield handheld console and Valve's Steam Box solution for bringing PC gaming to the living room.

Surely one of these up-and-comers would upend the table and put an end to the console model once and for all, right?

In another case of a developer making a bold-but-inaccurate claim in a guest editorial on a big website – this time from a former EA employee rather than a current one – DeNA head of Scattered entertainment Ben Cousins wrote a piece for Kotaku explaining "How and Why Consoles Will Die."

Cousins argued that the majority of console sales come late in the cycle from mainstream gamers who don't care about having the latest and greatest tech and those gamers would soon find "a high-end tablet or smartphone actually suits their gaming needs better than a console in terms of the balance of price/convenience/performance.

"From a performance point of view it may be below console, but the device is more convenient to use, the software is cheaper or free, and the device has a low or zero perceived cost, because the user owns one anyway or pays for it in instalments via a carrier."

And with the bulk of the audience fleeing to mobile devices, the remaining hardcore gamers insisting on a traditional experience would instead choose PC gaming because of "free-to-play and indie games, controller and TV support, as well as incredible digital distribution on platforms like Steam."

What Cousins apparently did not expect was that the platform holders – perhaps worried by all the proclamations of their imminent demise, perhaps simply adapting to the clear needs of the market – would spend the next few years embracing free-to-play and indies games, as well as digital distribution (and the frequent sales it enabled), negating some of the PC's biggest advantages away while also retaining their existing advantages of offering a relatively painless and streamlined gaming experience for less than the cost of a proper gaming PC.

To recap: Consoles were not actually doomed. I can see why some people thought they might be, but those people were still wrong, so this one will remain a Bad Call for now.

What Else Happened in January of 2013

● Less than two months after it launched the Wii U, Nintendo set the table for its future success, announcing plans to merge its handhled and console gaming divisions, sparking speculation about what the company's next-generation system would look like.

"It's thought that, as well as working on new technology for and possible iterations of current platforms, the new facility could work on future hardware which could seek to combine the potential of home and handheld systems in a single device," our own Dan Pearson wrote at the time.

As if that weren't enough, Nintendo also held a Nintendo Direct where it announced two new Zelda games for Wii U: The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, and an original title that would be "rethinking the conventions of Zelda." That game, Breath of the Wild, would release on the Wii U, but will be far better remembered as the game of launch for the Switch.

● The Switch wasn't the only far-future hardware being hinted at in January of 2013. In an interview with The Verge about the Steam Box program, Valve's Gabe Newell confirmed the company was working on portable hardware as well.

"So this [Steam Box] is called 'Bigfoot' internally, and we also have 'Littlefoot'," Newell said. "[Littlefoot] says 'What do we need to do to extend this to the mobile space'?"

Valve wouldn't formally announce the SteamDeck until 2021.

● Toys-to-life was officially a thing, as Activision announced that Skylanders had brought in half a billion dollars in the US alone, while Disney threw its hat into the ring with the announcement of Disney Infinity.

● At the same time, Disney was shutting down Junction Point Studios just a couple months after the launch of Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two.

● Gas Powered Games had an awkward month as it launched a Kickstarter for its next title and then laid off a big chunk of the company a few days later. It would eventually cancel the Kickstarter campaign, and World of Tanks creator Wargaming would step in to acquire Gas Powered Games in February. The studio was rebranded Wargaming Seattle, and was eventually shut down in 2018.

● BioWare had built up a fair bit of good will as an early AAA developer depicting same-sex relationships in its games, but it burned through a chunk of that with the rollout of same-sex relationships in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Not only did it backburner the feature so it could focus on giving the subscription MMO a free-to-play overhaul, when it finally did launch same-sex relationships, they were going to be restricted to a single planet and locked behind an expansion that players would have to pay for.

Good Call, Bad Call

GOOD CALL: IDC and Wedbush's Michael Pachter were not among those proclaiming the imminent death of consoles, with the former predicting consoles would be a revenue mainstay for years to come and the latter saying traditional gaming companies were poised to do well in the upcoming years.

"It is clear to us that those companies who primarily focused on traditional gamers were largely unscathed by the declines over the last few years, and those same companies will disproportionately benefit once traditional gamers drive industry sales into positive territory in 2014 and beyond," Pachter said.

BAD CALL: The flipside of IDC's Good Call was that it included what would turn out to be an erroneously rosy forecast for the Wii U. IDC predicted the Wii U would sell 50 million consoles by 2016. Nintendo reported selling just 12.6 million in that span, and less than 13.6 million in the system's lifetime.

BAD CALL: Cloud gaming startup CiiNow predicted that 2013 would mark the tipping point for cloud gaming. A decade later, the tech works well enough for lots of games, but I'm not sure even its most ardent supporters would suggest a tipping point has been reached.

GOOD CALL: In talking about the difficult launch of the PlayStation Vita, Sony Kaz Hirai said the system is about where the PS3 was at the same stage in its lifespan, adding that you're often not able to properly evaluate a system's success until five or ten years down the road.

This is a Good Call not because we needed that long to see the Vita was a resounding failure, but because it's an inspired power move to say your business can't really be judged until years after you retire.

I am definitely stealing that one for my next annual performance review.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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