Women on Stage–and at the Margins–at the Game Developers Conference

Picture 9The Independent Game Developers Association party at this year’s Game Developers Conference sent a clear message to its members–one that has members resigning leadership positions.

At the party, held March 26, attendees found networking opportunities, drinks–and provocatively dressed female dancers. For an organization that champions inclusivity and diversity among professional game developers, the choice was disappointing, to say the least. IGDA has since apologized, saying the entertainment was chosen by party co-sponsor YetiZen. However, the party is one incident among a seemingly infinite number through which the games industry makes clear that while men are to be taken seriously, both as professionals and as players, women can and should be treated as window dressing.

It’s no secret that the games industry has gender trouble. The workforce has evolved from the days when Dona Bailey, designer of Centipede, was the only woman in Atari’s design and development department–an atmosphere she likened to working at a fraternity–but that evolution still has a long way to go. In the U.S., women make up just 11 percent of game design workers, and many women working in the industry report harassment. The video game industry is not a niche market; it is the highest-grossing sector of the U.S. entertainment industry, and the marginalization of women in it both limits women’s professional opportunities and pushes women to the margins of popular culture.

In November, the #1reasonwhy hashtag on Twitter captured thousands of incidents of discrimination and sexism as recounted by women game design professionals and by women gamers. Rhianna Pratchett, lead writer of the recent Tomb Raider reboot, then started the #1reasontobe hashtag to celebrate the reasons women continue to work in the industry. The two hashtags have also generated resources like #1reasonmentors, a list of professionals willing to mentor women interested in the industry, and GDC included a #1reasontobe panel in which industry women encouraged others to join them in the ranks. The work women in the industry are doing to organize and support each other is heartening. However, real change cannot happen without consistent industrial and organizational support.

And change is necessary both for the industry and for the surrounding culture. Women make up 47 percent of all gamers–compared to that trifling 11 percent of of game design professionals. Since the days when the coin-op video game was king, video games have emerged as a major cultural form and a massive entertainment industry. Gaming can and should reflect the diversity of human experience, both on-screen and behind the scenes. Organizations such as the Entertainment Software Association and IGDA, along with a company like Sony Online Entertainment, have done progressive work to address this problem by advocating for women and other underrepresented groups and by offering scholarships for aspiring designers and grants for related initaitives. These efforts are helpful but not enough, and the prevalence of incidents like the conference party undermine this kind of work.

That IGDA, an organization which has long advocated for diversity in the profession, should be caught in a situation so distasteful speaks volumes about the assumed standards of industry events–even professional events, and even events where organizers know women will be among the attendees. In a statement issued in response to the scandal, IGDA both expressed regret at the organization’s involvement and promised greater attentiveness to such event details in the future.

The cost of liberty is eternal vigilance, but so it is the cost of true diversity. IGDA should have known better and so should have YetiZen. But in an industry and a surrounding culture too-often assumed to be the playground of young men and teenage boys, the default settings are ones that leave women at the margins.

Photo courtesy of Benegizer via Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Christy says:

    A small correction, that in my opinion actually makes it worse, is that there weren’t hired dancers at the IGDA/Yetizen party. Yetizen hired female models from Charisma+2, a modeling agency that specializes in models that have game playing knowledge. (In spite of having a good amount of male models on their site, only women were hired.) According to the CEO, their intent was to hire women to have in-depth discussions about games with the patrons of the event. There was a very popular Suicide Girl paid to be there as well (I assume she’s part of Charisma+2 but I haven’t really investigated) and men were taking their picture with her. Some of the models decided to dance on stage at one point, leading some people to think they were hired dancers. The Yeti girls on stilts were hired from a separate company.

    The problem with this, of course, is that every woman in the room’s credibility is shot. Instead of networking with potential peers, the men in the room now have room to doubt whether or not they’re networking with a professional woman that works in gamedev, or whether he’s talking to a woman who is paid to talk to him. Women already have to deal with the assumption that we’re someone’s girlfriend, so this really doesn’t help. I’ve had friends who were assumed to be “paid entertainment” at GDC parties even when no women there were being paid to be there.

    In my experience, there are also an alarming number of men in the industry who confuse models with sex workers, which is just…unfortunate and *super* weird. Obviously it’s not all men in the industry – I’d say the vast majority of men I’ve worked with have been sane and cool, but there are enough weirdos that I don’t go to these “networking” parties anymore. Some guys start getting really grabby. A lot of people don’t understand why this is problematic compared to a normal nightclub, but what people need to realize is that getting groped by a potential coworker or worse, current colleague is so much worse than a random guy being a jackass at a nightclub because your reaction could possibly affect your career. I’ve been in that situation and it was difficult enough that I’ll no longer risk it.

    FWIW, the IGDA released another statement yesterday. Among other things, they’ve mentioned that they will no longer be doing parties and only doing networking events. I think the farther they get away from the nightclub atmosphere, the better. If it’s along the same lines as the networking event by Women In Games International, I look forward to it. The WIGI networking mixer has always been a fantastic event, and usually the highlight of GDC for me.

  2. Yes, absolutely. Thanks for adding this comment — I wrote this piece pretty closer to when the event occurred, and some of the information wasn’t public yet. So, I’m glad to have it here to add to the conversation. Additionally, it appears they had a very similar scandal break last year related to the IGDA party, so this is something of a second strike. It does seem to make more sense for IGDA, as a professional organization, to stick to networking events, which are definitely less risky, and also seem potentially more useful for the organization’s membership.

    It makes me a little hopeful to see how much discussion this year’s event generated; I feel a few years ago, this kind of thing would have passed without comment.

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