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Men need to speak up against toxicity targeting women – and on their own behalf | Opinion

Skillfull's Gina Jackson on the need for men of the games industry to be better allies

Image credit: Gina Jackson

In the wake of GDC earlier this year, several reports emerged on social media and in various games publications detailing incidents of sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and discrimination experienced by attendees.

These reports ranged from inappropriate comments and advances, to physical assaults and drink spiking. It has been alleged that these had been perpetrated by both fellow attendees and industry professionals.

Psyop's vice president Games Mick Morris posted one article on his LinkedIn sharing his shock and upset about the report. He really didn't mince his words.

"This is the sort of shit that women in our industry have to put up with at events and it's unacceptable," Morris wrote. "It's unacceptable for these men to behave like f***ing animals. It's unacceptable for men who are aware of, or are witness to, this kind of appalling behaviour, to not intervene or speak up.

"If you can't behave like a decent human being, then get the hell out of this business. We don't want to work with you, work for you, or do deals with you. This however needs to be dealt with."

[Men] have voices to speak on their own behalf; to be with us and call out bad behaviour

My reaction to Mick on LinkedIn was simply that I am shocked he was shocked. Mick and I have known each other for over 20 years. So why the gulf in our reaction? We have been to many of the same events, both worked in business development roles, but we've seen and experienced things so differently.

This LinkedIn discussion felt different. Firstly it was being initiated by a man, openly declaring his anger against what was going on; he wanted to route out the problem and felt we could do something about it. He was also getting backing from both men and women, mainly supporting him speaking out and it seems this was felt particularly acutely by some, as fathers of daughters.

I suggested now could be the time for a roundtable led by men to discuss the issue of men's behaviour. Mick has taken up this challenge and the Develop:Brighton conference has agreed to host one this year where these issues will be discussed up front and centre, Wednesday at 4pm.

As much as a roundtable and discussion can help, the issues remain. Why the gulf in experience and what has changed to make this the time to speak about it?

I have worked in the UK games industry since 1992 within developers and publishers, attending GDC many times from San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco. I have also attended events ranging from ECTS to Develop, China Joy to Gamescom. I have attended in big groups and on my own. I, like many women in the games industry, have had shocking experiences and more shocking reactions from my peers when I have spoken out.

Here are a couple of examples of experiences I have had at conferences that I want to share. These are certainly nowhere near the worst, but I think demonstrate some of the challenges we face and why I feel we need to act together on these issues.

So many people seemed to be complicit, it felt that his behaviour was seen as okay, and I needed to just get on with it

At a UK conference, after attending the speakers' dinner, I sent LinkedIn invites to those on my table and went straight to bed after the dinner. In the morning I read through a whole series of LinkedIn messages from a fellow speaker on my table. He went from how nice it was to meet me, to how it would be great to catch up during the conference, to how his wife didn't understand him, to his room number in the hotel we were staying at, to was I popping along to see him, to why wasn't I coming to see him. Finally, an apology.

Some things to make clear that I shouldn't need to make clear: He was aware from a presentation made at the dinner that I was getting married in a month's time. We didn't have a conversation at dinner; he was too far away on the table. I didn't reply to any of the messages as I was asleep and my phone was on the other side of the room. And this was on LinkedIn – the world's largest professional network on the internet.

His comments unsettled me. By this stage I had worked in games for 20 years, I knew a lot of people at the conference. I stopped taking the hotel lift as I didn't want to get stuck in a confined space with him. I made plans to go to the conference site with others and I arranged to meet people, so I wasn't alone at any time during the conference day and night. I didn't understand why he was sending me these messages.

The conference organiser was amazing. He listened, he supported, he made me feel heard. I mentioned how the messages had unsettled me to the guy's publisher. He was empathic to how it made me feel but this guy was important to him, he had a contract with him, and he was looking to buy the company. This was unfortunate but 'hey let's be clear, business is always more important'.

It turned out I wasn't the only one targeted that night. In fact it transpired this guy did it a lot – but hey, he was important. I felt a total lack of agency, isolated, and that I was silenced. As so many people seemed to be complicit in his behaviour, it felt that his behaviour was seen as okay, and I needed to just get on with it. Surely if people weren't okay with this, they would have done something to stop it, or he wouldn't have been allowed to attend conferences and be a speaker.

Beyond the reports that emerged from GDC 2023, there is a whole host of unpleasant and unacceptable behaviours at conferences

At the end of last year, I was delighted to be able to attend an overseas conference with senior global games leaders with a large contingency from the UK. We came together to discuss some of the key issues we are all being impacted by including access to talent, training, diversity, and investment. One attendee raised the issue of diversity and that his organisation, which developed first-person shooters, 'didn't hire women because women don't play first-person shooters'.

There was a collective intake of breath, then that moment that most women in the industry are familiar with: the meerkat moment where we all look at each other to see who is going to speak up. We all heard very clearly what had been said, as did all the men in the room. No one challenged his statement. A few of us caught up afterwards. We were all keen to understand why nobody challenged his obviously ridiculous sexist statement.

As women, we shouldn't have to defend ourselves against such a ridiculous statement... but why did none of the men say anything?

As women, we didn't feel we should have to defend ourselves against such a ridiculous statement, we shouldn't need an uncomfortable public confrontation; but why did none of the men say anything? This is where it got interesting. They felt they didn't want to speak on our behalf, didn't want to be perceived as jumping in and taking our voices. We were surprised, we felt they didn't have our backs and didn't see it as an issue. They felt confused as to how to act.

We agreed that in the future they should use their voices to challenge the statement but to talk on their own behalf, they could have said that they didn't believe the statement, they could say they felt that games players aren't about gender boundaries, that they know great FPS female designers, that we should hire the best people for a job not just define that on gender.

We were grateful they didn't speak on our behalf, but they have voices to speak on their own behalf; to be with us and call out bad behaviour. It turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened; we were misunderstanding each other. Their silence wasn't complicit misogyny but a lack of understanding of what their role can be as an ally and the power that can bring to changing the environment.

I realise that Mick's anger about the behaviour of these men could be more related to the drinks spiking, the assault, and the verbal abuse, but there is a whole host of unpleasant and unacceptable behaviours at conferences (and dare I say it in the office and online). A roundtable hosted by men to examine this behaviour and how to stop it is a great start.

For me, one of the key behaviours is gender supremacy, the belief that one gender is better at something not because of their skills or experience but simply their gender. You see this a lot with women and childcare. For our industry it feels like there is a group of men who believe they know how to make games better than women because they are men, games are for men, made by men.

Men in games, I am with you to make these changes. Are you with me to stop this [behaviour] happening?

I have experienced this on almost a daily basis as someone who works with external parties often in development roles, having to constantly justify my games industry credentials. I dislike the constant need to talk about the length of time I have worked in games and join in the point scoring status competition, but you end up doing it to stop the constant justification for being in the room. I would like to be judged on what I have done, the skills and knowledge I bring, and most importantly the difference I can make. I shouldn't have to convince people constantly because I am a woman and worst of all, a middle-aged woman.

However, Mick and others are changing things, they are looking to challenge this, they are waking up to what has been going on for years. Should I have spoken out sooner? Should my peers have done that too? Women have spoken out before about behaviour against them and I have supported them in private but rarely publicly; what was the point if we were just going to be silenced, what if this impacts our career potential even more than being a woman working in games – it wasn't worth it but now we are seeing more and more women doing it.

We need to act appropriately, supportively. We need to fundamentally shift things. We see helplines set up to support this, but this must be matched with the industry examining and agreeing to what is tolerated, what is acceptable, and what will change this toxicity. We have a huge advantage over other sectors, we are younger, more agile, closely connected and full of hugely passionate people who care deeply about the games industry.

As a good industry friend of mine recently told me, "Even well-meaning men are guilty of accidentally slipping into mansplaining, because it's programmed into you. That's not an excuse – it needs to end – but more an illustration of how early those seeds are planted. The education needs to start with kids/teenagers, instead of beginning with adult men where damage is done, and even good men trip up and bad men are monsters."

I agree with most of that, but I think we can educate ourselves as to what is acceptable within our working environments and raise awareness – this is our sector. We need to have these conversations and if that can be done by a 'men in games' group, I am fully behind it and happy to be your ally. I don’t believe we have yet had our #metoo moment because we have yet to create that safe place where people can tell the truth, but we can change it with a #withyou movement.

So, Mick and men in games, I am with you to make these changes. Are you with me to stop this happening?

Dr Gina Jackson OBE is the founder of Skillfull. Jackson has worked on around 300 games in both development and publishing roles from SNES through to PS5. She now supports developers and publishers as a consultant/coach, develops and delivers training for career changers and new entrants. She works as an activist for change across skills, diversity and mental health in the games industry.

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