Women Get in the Game

Mary Flanagan at Tiltfactor, a studio at Dartmouth that is dedicated to designing and studying games that have a positive social impact.

Mary Flanagan at Tiltfactor, a studio at Dartmouth that is dedicated to designing and studying games that have a positive social impact. Photo courtesy of Tiltfactor

March 24, 2015

Video games are maturing as an industry and an art form, generating $21 billion last year in U.S. revenue. Thanks to smartphones and tablets, the gaming community is expanding beyond the stereotype of teenage boys playing Grand Theft Auto. “Instead of celebrating the expansion of the industry, though, some who self-identify as ‘hard-core gamers’ attack these types of interactive experiences as too casual, too easy, too feminine, and therefore ‘not real games,'” Anita Sarkeesian wrote in a New York Times op-ed in October. Sarkeesian, a feminist blogger and media critic, created Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, an online project dedicated to examining the stereotyped roles of women in many video games (e.g., the damsel in distress and the murdered prostitute).

For her trouble, Sarkeesian has received death and rape threats and was forced to cancel an appearance at a university after someone threatened to mass murder audience members if she spoke. GamerGate, as the campaign of online threats directed at critics of the genre (especially women critics) was called, ensnared many others and took its toll. Some women quit the industry. Many dropped plans to major in gaming in college.

But another, less noticed piece of news arguably portends a brighter future for this technology-driven field. At the University of Southern California, home to what is widely considered the top gaming program in the country, the 2014 incoming freshman class of gaming majors had more women than men.

“That was part of a huge push,” said Tracy Fullerton, chair of USC’s Interactive Media and Games Division. “That has been on my agenda since I became chair.”

Brenda Romero (right) on a panel at the Game Developers Conference in 2014. Photo by Dennis Stachel, Flickr

Brenda Romero (right) on a panel at the Game Developers Conference in 2014. Photo by Dennis Stachel, Flickr

It can be hard to get perspective on historical events while they are happening. But talk to women game developers about the past year, and you’ll hear an equal measure of hope and concern. Along with the meteoric rise of video games themselves, the numbers of women playing video games and working behind the scenes on their development is on the rise. The ubiquity of smartphones and social media has exploded the market, personalizing the gaming experience and luring thousands of women who previously had never gone near an Xbox to games such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga. Finally, in part because of GamerGate, there is a sharper focus on the culture that has long pervaded the industry. More voices, male and female, are calling for change.

Brenda Romero, a designer whose credits include the popular Wizardry series and Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes, said she and her colleagues noticed a telltale sign of progress while attending the Game Developer’s Conference in 2006.

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“There was a line for the women’s room,” she said with a laugh. “That was pretty exciting for us, believe it or not. There used to be five women in the industry, and we all knew each other.”

Romero, the director for the games and playable media master’s program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and USC’s Fullerton were part of a small group of female designers who came up in the industry in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many got their start as gamers.

As a teenager, Mary Flanagan hung out at local arcades playing early games like Centipede and Tempest. In those days, home video game systems like Atari marketed themselves to families. While women in the industry in the 1980s reported that they sometimes felt alone in the workplace or earned lower salaries than their male counterparts, most say that neither the games themselves nor the work environment felt hostile.

“I grew up playing Atari, and I loved video games,” said Flanagan, now a professor at Dartmouth College. “It didn’t seem to be just a male-dominated space when I was a kid.”


Myst versus Doom


Then, in 1993, two titles were released that altered the video game industry forever. Designed by men, both games represented huge leaps forward graphically and experientially, by immersing users in the detailed world of the game. Myst, a graphic adventure and puzzle game, was hugely popular, particularly among women. It became the best-selling personal-computer game of all time before being superseded by The Sims in 2002.

Then there was Doom, which arguably cast a longer shadow. The game features the exploits of a marine fighting hordes of demons and “undead” on an alien planet. With its 3-D graphics and convincing spatial maneuverability, the game pioneered the genre that has ruled the gaming industry ever since: the first-person shooter.

But several female game developers, while lauding Doom’s technical wizardry, say it was the beginning of a great bifurcation in the industry in which women, both as players and as creators, became increasingly marginalized.

The ubiquity of the first-person shooter turned many women off from playing video games as industry marketers glommed onto the format as an easy route to market success.

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In the late 1990s, Celia Pearce, a designer of games and theme park amusements, visited a vice president of marketing at Atari about making more games for girls. She recalled: “He told me, ‘Our job is to take lunch money away from teenage boys. We don’t care about girls.’”


Refugees in Academe


Like many others, Pearce turned to academe. She is now an associate professor of game design at Northeastern University in Boston. “The fact that I changed careers at that point is not an accident,” she said. “I was really depressed in the late 1990s by what was happening in the gaming industry. A lot of us in universities now are actually refugees.”

For Pearce and others, the move to higher education not only allowed them an alternative career path but the chance to mold the next generation of game designers.

Initially, she said, she “had to beat some assumptions out of my students” — among them, the notion that a video game had to involve killing. In fact, she expressly forbade students to create games with a body count. Many of these university labs became known for offerings that were experimental, reflective, and whimsical.

At the same time, students were hearing “horror stories” from recent graduates who moved on to the mainstream industry, said Flanagan. “One of them Skyped into the class and said, ‘I’ve managed to get our design team not to force players to rape a woman, but I couldn’t do anything about the lynching of a black man,'” she recalled. “They talk like that.”

Video games currently generate more U.S. revenue than the film and music industries, and a study released by the International Game Developers Association last year showed that the gaming workforce is still predominantly male. Only 22 percent of game developers are female. Nonetheless, that figure is nearly double what it was the last time this study was done in 2009.

But GamerGate has succeeded in shocking the conscience of industry insiders and embarrassed legions of gamers who felt unfairly tarred by the ongoing noise. And for the first time, long-standing issues about misogyny and sexism in video gaming are seeping into the popular culture.

Erin Hoffman, lead systems designer at GlassLab, a maker of innovative learning games, said she knew something had shifted when she heard about an episode of Law & Order: SVU that was loosely based on Sarkeesian’s experiences with GamerGate. “It’s odd,” she said. “As bad as this year has been, if Anita can fill lecture halls and have a television show made about her, then the overall state of being both female and a feminist in the gaming industry is better now than it’s ever been.”


This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine. For more stories like this, subscribe to Outlook today.

“Women Get in the Game” was written by Andrew Brownstein, a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C., area. You can reach him at andybrownstein@gmail.com.

By:   |   March 24, 2015

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