GRAND 2013 Women in Games panel confronts sexism and inequality in games
Network researcher Dr. Jennifer Jenson is engaging academics, activists and industry in one of the biggest challenges facing the games industry.
Posted by GRAND NCE, May 30, 2013

Network researcher Dr. Jennifer Jenson is engaging academics, activists and industry in one of the biggest challenges facing the games industry.

Dr. Jennifer Jenson (far left) introduces the Women in Games panelists at GRAND 2013. Photo by Jonathan Nuss.
Dr. Jennifer Jenson (far left) introduces the Women in Games panelists at GRAND 2013. Photo by Jonathan Nuss.

When it comes to digital games in the 21st century, women and men are far from sharing a level playing field.

Women account for only about 1 of 10 employees in commercial games industry, one of the largest, fastest-growing cultural entertainment industries globally. Those that do enter the workforce face a chronic inequity between the sexes in pay and careers otherwise known as the ‘digital divide.’ Many also encounter sexist and even hostile work environments.

The inequity does not, however, reflect a lack of interest in gaming among women. Women and girls play digital games in numbers roughly equal to men, yet remain seriously underrepresented in the gaming community. As gamers, women are beset by stereotypes, double standards, and outright harassment by fellow gamers, leaving many feeling marginalized or unwelcome. Researchers also criticize systemic prejudices in game storylines, which often cast female characters in secondary, hypersexualized and at times degrading roles.

These facets to gender inequality in games were at the forefront of a well-attended Women in Games panel discussion at GRAND 2013, held in Toronto on May 15, 2013. Organized and moderated by Dr. Jennifer Jenson, a game designer and Professor of Pedagogy and Technology at York University, the four-woman panel lead an open dialogue on the gender imbalances and biases, and how the game industry and gaming community can become more inclusive.

Panelists representing perspectives from the industry and the wider gaming community included Cecily Carver, co-director of Dames Making Games, Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, CEO of Silicon Sisters Interactive, Grace, developer and co-founder of the Fat, Ugly or Slutty (FUoS) website, and Anita Sarkeesian, media critic and creator of Feminist Frequency.

Jenson herself has been extremely active in leading feminist research of the games industry. She leads GRAND’s FRAGG project (Focusing Research about Gendered Gaming) looking both at the mechanisms and principles that underlie gender inequality, and at ways to address the ongoing paucity and marginalization of women in the industry. Through a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant, Jenson also founded Feminists in Games (FiG), an international network of feminist theorists, researchers, activists and industry professionals working to better understand the origins and consequences of gender inequality, and to develop ways of preventing its propagation. Jenson will be hosting FiG’s second annual workshop May 31-June 2, 2013 at Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media.

“There is no doubt that women are writing, making and critiquing games, however, many women find themselves isolated from game culture, both as producers and consumers of games,” said Jenson. “The Women in Games panel at GRAND 2013, and the Feminists in Games organization more generally, is working to intervene in the status quo which positions women on the margins of game play and production, legitimating and giving voice to women's work and play in games.”

Women fastest growing market in games, most underrepresented

With the shockingly low numbers of women in game development, the games industry is among the least inclusive in an already traditionally male-dominated technology sector. One of the barriers to entry, as stressed in Cecily Carver’s panel talk, is the view among many women that you can’t make games if you can't code – something her organization is trying to overcome.

Carver wants to get women (and men) creatively involved in making games, which involves much more than the typically masculine field of programming. Through education, socials, incubators and game jams, her Toronto-based non-profit Dames Making Games (DMG) is helping women at any level of experience learn the craft. DMG uses a “learn as you go” approach to game making, premised on the notion that people will acquire programming skills more easily when applied to a creative project.

For Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, the shifting demographics of gamers (women over 18 represent one of fastest growing markets in the industry) also offers a huge opportunity for women to get into game development – not to mention a potential lifeline for Canada’s struggling games industry.

Run by women, Vancouver-based game studio Silicon Sisters Interactive is riding this wave creating games that appeal specifically to women and girls. Bailey Gershkovitch illustrated the potential of a game like Silicon Sister’s Everlove: a racy medieval romance game lead by heroine Rose who encounters a series of handsome male suitors in a storyline not unlike a Harlequin novel. Bailey Gershkovitch sees the game connecting with the over 28 million women readers of romance novels across North America. And with more women over the age of 30 now playing games than teenage boys, there are incentives for women developers to infuse new and diverse ideas, and positive new female characters, into games.

The scarcity of strong, leading or positive female characters in games was also noted by feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian. Far worse, according to her analysis, popular games commonly incorporate stereotypes and tropes that, though not necessarily sexist, do help normalize negative, patronizing and paternalistic attitudes about women. Through her Feminist Frequency video series, a runaway project crowdfunded through Kickstarter, Sarkeesian aims to provide tools and a new language that people can use to deconstruct games and other media.

Screening the first installment of her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video series, Sarkeesian focused on the  “Damsel in Distress” trope as the most widely used gendered cliché in gaming. The video offers a critical analysis of many beloved games and characters. For her, to begin changing how women are portrayed in games a dialogue must begin that seriously examines sexism in the industry. She also spoke of the power of story telling in providing alternate narratives that introduce more female protagonists into the plotlines of games.

Sarkeesian, along with fellow panelist Grace, has also been pivotal in bringing the problem of targeted harassment of women in online and gaming spaces under wider public scrutiny. Herself a target of extremely abusive YouTube comments and online attacks from critics of her video series, Sarkeesian has taken her experiences to the media and to conferences such as GRAND 2013.

Through her website FUoS, Grace has turned the spotlight on the abusers themselves, creating an online repository of the appalling and often degrading voice and text messages received by gamers (most often women) from fellow online players. Grace’s slideshow presentation gave some humorous and also disturbing examples. (The name of the site is explained by its tagline “Every message is the same. I’m always either fat and ugly, or a slut.”) Though initially created as a humorous site, FUoS recently received a flood of attention on Twitter and Reddit, helping bring widespread attention to the problem of harassment in gaming. As discussed by Grace, the site has also helped women feel less alone in being abused.

In her talk, Grace took up John Gabriel's “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory," which claims that an ordinary person given anonymity and an audience becomes a "total fuckwad" (who uses abnormally abusive language), arguing that the problem is not "anonymity,” but a lack of consequences for inappropriate online activity. Her aim is to find how real consequences can be integrated into games, and to pressure game companies to do more to hold players accountable. She mentioned Riot Games as one company looking to both study and address “toxic player behavior” in their League of Legends game.

“The visceral nature of the material is helping to push game developers into tackling the problem of harassment and abuse in the communities grown around their products,” said Grace. “But the game industry and academia need to develop a closer relationship and assist one another to truly examine, experiment [with], and understand [the problem] to grow today's video game culture into a welcoming place to -- I know this sounds crazy -- enjoy playing video games.”

In summing up the panel talk, Jenson said, “[It] has given perspectives that lay bare the harassment that many women experience when playing online and to begin to actively work to change it, creating alternative pathways for women to make games through grassroots organizations that support indie game development, and claiming space and recognition for female developers of games in a male dominated industry.”

FiG workshop to bring a feminist perspective to the games industry

The conversation about women in games will continue at the second annual Feminists in Games (FiG) workshop at Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media (May 31-June 2, 2013). Sponsored by GRAND, the three-day workshop will present talks from Cecily Carver, Anita Sarkeesian, Grace, Kirsten Forbes from Silicon Sisters, and other invited speakers including Brenda Laurel, a pioneering female game designer. FiG is funded by SSHRC (Partnership Development Grant) in partnership with Jenson at York University. So far, FiG has funded 8 proposals for projects to receive incubator funding.

“What FiG is trying to do is to ask for an explicit commitment to basic equity, to be attentive to persisting forms of exclusion and abuse, and, significantly to work to enact principles and policies that contest those forms of exclusion,” said Jenson.




Spencer Rose
Communications Officer