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.