GDC Diary, Day 2: Video Games Have 99 Problems, and Bitches Comprise a Large Number of Them

How much of the games industry’s acknowledged lady problem is an image problem?

On Sunday night, I attended an indie gaming “mixer,” where, as an experiment, I made a point of telling everyone who asked that I write for a LAAAADY website (dubious a claim though that might realistically be) primarily to savor the confusion this response elicited.

I feel guilty about it now; these guys (and they are mostly guys) have by and large poured their hearts into these projects, and are probably nervous enough delivering a "Hi, this is my game!" spiel even to people who write for publications they actually recognize.

My sudden appearance in their world -- a world where the vast majority of press write for websites and publications that are about games and only about games -- was like going to a gun show and announcing to everyone on the show floor that I write for Knifin’ Stuff Monthly.

What do you say to the LAAAADY writer, to this possibly unhinged, overexcited broad who wants to hear about your work? Women are not the demographic. If women play a particular game, it is most often an unforeseen side effect and not an intended outcome. If it is an intended outcome, then the game was likely designed specifically with women in mind. This can be both a good and a bad thing.

I experienced two outcomes to my LAAAADY proclamations: In one, the developer or marketing person would feel compelled to immediately switch gears and make the subject "palatable" to me, and ostensibly to all of ladydom thereby. In the other, people would talk to me the same way they'd talk to anyone else, and say, “Hi, this is my game!”

If I’m honest, as amusing as I occasionally found the former, I much preferred the latter. If your game is good, it shouldn’t matter who I’m talking to about it; good transcends gender. That’s all you need to know.

The Smallest Room

This afternoon I was planning to attend a lecture called “Why I Hate Women in Games Initiatives.” The initiatives in question are the chronically discussed handwringing that goes along with trying to attract diversity to a non-diverse industry; in this case, to draw women into games design and production. It’s a variety of gender-based affirmative action and as such is often both controversial and passionately defended, depending on who you talk to about it.

I could guess where the lecture would wind up going. The problem with such initiatives is that they can tokenize women (or whatever the diversity-applying element might be) and create divisions and resentment which ultimately make broader acceptance even more difficult; the question is usually whether they hurt the very people they’re trying to help.

Of course, I still have to guess about it. Because I got shut out of the lecture. I was sitting just down the hall tending to email and Twitter when I realized the session was due to start in 10 minutes. When I got to the room, there was a cluster of anxious-looking people waiting outside talking to a handful of conference volunteers. I approached and one of them told me he was sorry, but they were at capacity, indeed beyond capacity, and they could not let anyone else in without violating fire codes.

But I was going to write about this! “What if I can make myself VERY VERY SMALL?” I lied, bold-facedly.

The volunteer was not impressed. “Everyone is making themselves very small. We’re full.” As he was closing the door (not QUITE in my face, but close), I got a look inside the room itself, and sure enough it was packed, every seat filled, the back wall lined with the lucky final entrants who’d managed to secure standing room that may or may not be entirely legal.

It was also a very small room.

The spaces where these conferences take place are immense. The massive convention centers that host them are expressly designed for modular room-construction and the persistent flow of tens of thousands of people. GDC takes place in San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center, which comprises three separate buildings through which nearly twenty thousand individuals will pass.

PAX East -- another video game convention, albeit a fan-centered one -- takes place annually in Boston’s massive waterfront Convention & Exhibition Center, which is easily the largest building I have ever been in. Looking down on the expo hall floor from the glass footbridge a few stories up results in head-swimming vertigo. The BCEC has to be big, as PAX draws roughly 60,000 attendees over three days.

And still, even there, the panels about women, the panels about race and gender and other marginalized gamers -- they are always stuck in the smallest rooms too. Two of the best panels at PAX 2011 were on these subjects, and both happened in two of the tiniest spaces I saw in my whole time at the convention, and both of them were filled to capacity.

Maybe these topics need a bigger fucking room.

Shoving gender into the tiniest available box in this incredibly literal way vividly illustrates the problem; too often these are issues assumed to be unimportant, and it is easy to make this assumption when you are limiting -- physically or intellectually -- the spaces in which they can happen.

It is not all women in these sessions, either; although it might be convenient to assume that the people interested in these subjects are minimal and fringe, that has not been my experience. The people cramming that space today were mostly men, because GDC is mostly men, and men are freaking everywhere, even in the sessions about ladystuff.

Luckily Leigh Alexander takes up way less space than I do, and also writes for conference sponsor Gamasutra, a venerable publication known both for its smarts and its sharp writing, so we can all hear about it from her:

[One] reason for the underrepresentation is pervasive stereotypes, which are automatic, misleading and often ingrained. Stereotyping “underscores the feeling echoed throughout our culture that women are abnormal, unusual and different,” [speaker Mare Sheppard] says. “This feeling that they don’t fit or don’t belong keeps many women from entering game development and similar fields.”[...]“These women in games initiatives push us closer to a gender-stratified industry, where we have game developers and ‘female game developers’… these designations separate us, emphasize our differences and marginalize one gender while privileging the other,” Sheppard says.

Booth Babes and Video Games' Perception of Women

Booth babes are not a device specific to this industry; at almost any major conference with an exposition hall, you’ll find them, conventionally attractive young women in revealing clothing and absurd heels, reeling in hapless dudes to hear a pitch for whatever they happen to be selling.

Booth babes are essentially marketing bait: They are hired to work a specific event, to dangle tantalizingly from whatever hook-shaped product or service they're being paid to promote. This is their job. And if that were all their presence did, I would have little to criticize about it, but unfortunately, the presence of booth babes has effects on women (and men) far beyond the personal experiences of professional babes themselves, whose job is far less easy that it may appear, given that their positioning makes many men perceive them as objects without personal boundaries.

Many booth babes spend a fair amount of any job fending off unwanted physical advances. If she’s a female wearing stripper heels in a convention hall filled with men, she must be a filthy slut, willing to give it up for anyone, right? No matter how a woman is dressed and regardless of her private sexual proclivities, she never forfeits her right to decide who can touch her, or how she is treated. Even in an environment ostensibly about business, the rules of consent apply.

(One person I spoke to about this today told me how her friends who had worked in these jobs would put spray deodoant on TOP of their shoulders prior to events, because of the volume of funk that would accummulate after so many unwelcome “hugs” from men with less than stellar hygeine. Can you imagine? Because I really can't.)

The presence of booth babes can also make life difficult for women working in the industry in a non-marketing capacity, even unintentionally. Because the babes are so visible, and women in other areas are often not, frequently the assumption in this male-centric industry is that ANY women present must be some kind of promotional prize to be ogled, and nothing more. Every female-identifying game developer I know (and I know a fair number!) has a story to tell of promoting their work at an event and being outright blown off by attendees who did not believe they could have possibly had anything to do with the actual making of a video game.

When booth babes dominate the visible side of games marketing, it seems all women become booth babes, willing or no.

The use of booth babes as promo sirens is even insulting to men: it presupposes that dudes will do ANYTHING to talk to a pretty lady -- even a pretty lady being paid to draw them in -- and are creatures driven more by their out-of-control desperation for sex than their professionalism, or even their common sense.

Of course, the trouble is: very often it works. Many men are perfectly happy to believe the fantasy that these women are actually interested in them as people, and that they might have a shot at a date with one of them, and this faith brings them into the babed-up booths and keeps them there for a sales pitch. And so the booth babes stay.

“Pink” Games: Sorority Life and Girl Fight

Monday afternoon I went to a postmortem of a self-described “pink” game on Facebook.

I’ll need to unpack all of that before I go any further. A postmortem is a sort of retrospective on the development, evolution, success and failures of a previously released game. In these talks, the game developers discuss what they would have done differently, what they learned, and what they would repeat next time.

I attended this one because of the specific mention of the game in question as a “pink” game. This seems to be an industry term to describe games specifically targeted at women (or girls). It’s an interesting convention. If it weren’t problematic enough that certain games are only “for women,” while most games are for normal people, i.e., men, the application of “pink” makes it clear.

The game in question was a Facebook game called Sorority Life, which first launched in 2008 and is still being played. Sorority Life boasts a player base that is 94% female. It is certainly very very pink, but I remain unsure of what it has to do with sororities, as it seems the primary purpose is to compete with the cartoon avatars of other players, with winners determined based on the clothing and accessories they “own,” all of which is acquired (or bought, with real money) in-game.

This session illustrated why panels about lady-things are likely relegated to the smaller spaces; the room was rather large, but maybe one-third full. Of course, the difference here was that this was not a session in which the interests of a female audience were being critically discussed; this was mostly a business conversation about how a successful “pink” game is made. As such, it tended to accept stereotypes rather than interrogate them. Well, except at the very end.

Sorority Life evidently began its life as a clone of another, non-pink Facebook game called Mobsters, re-skinned for a female audience. During the Q and A session after the talk, a dude got up and asked, “How did you compensate for the fighting mechanic in Mobsters when re-purposing this game to Sorority Life? I mean, women don’t like to fight.”

The speaker explained that they did develop other game mechanics to appeal to their audience, but of the “women don’t like to fight” comment, she said, a little bemusedly, “They do.”

Meanwhile, over in the GDC Play exhibit half a block away, a selection of games by independent and lesser-known designers is being demonstrated. One of them is called Girl Fight.

It is a fighting game. With girls. Girls that fight. And maaaaaaybe make out with each other. The story, if it needed one, is that these women are being held as test subjects by some evil megacorporation, and must escape using their fists and their “psionic” fighting abilities. Possibly their breasts will also play a critical role, given their prominence in the available screenshots.

The praise so far calls the game “fun” and “sexy.” The criticism calls it misogynist. I find it stupid, especially given the lack of a significant hook to make it any more compelling than any other bog standard fighting game, and double especially given the fact that there is a whole Internet full of real porn out there for this title’s target audience to look at; yes, even porn with girls fighting and THEN having sex! I’m sure of it.

I’m reluctant to slap the “misogynist” label on it myself because I prefer to only use that term when I really mean it, and although this game may be ridiculous and insulting, it is no more so of either to women than any other hypermasculine dude-dominated fighting game would be toward men.

That said: is this game -- a callow, unvarnished attempt at appealing to the lowest common denominator of the male gamer stereotype -- yet another example of everything that is wrong here? Yes. In my (always humble) opinion, yes it is.

The problem with pointing out video games’ girl problems is that doing so risks minimizing the contributions of the women who are here, working and building and making great games. But the fact remains that men do most of the talking, and the creating. At the Indie Game Soapbox session -- independent games ostensibly being more democratized than mainstream ones -- all 10 speakers were male. At the Game Design Challenge, all three competitors were male.

It's an open secret. A speaker at one panel I saw said, point-blank, that “the industry needs more women.” If you hang out with thoughtful game developers for any length of time, you’ll hear this refrain again and again. This particular speaker hedged his assertion by saying it wasn’t satisfactory to just grab “any” women and yank them into game development by any means necessary, but that the women also need to be lovers of games from an authentic place.

There is money to be made in this field for sure, but as in most creative endeavors, much of it traditionally goes into the coffers of publishers & distributors. For every one indie success story, there are untold numbers of people who went into significant debt to create a game that will never be sold. The people who do this work do it primarily because they are passionate about it, and the concern may be that by relaxing those high standards and letting in “just anyone” who happens to be a woman on the basis of gender alone, the effect may be to dilute that passion.

I have been simultaneously pleased and disappointed by the number of women I’ve seen at GDC. Pleased to see them at all, pleased that many of their names I already know, but then disappointed at the number of occasions in which I have sat in a room with a hundred people and had to stand up and look around to locate another lady-presenting person.

My kneejerk inclination at seeing almost any non-dude the past couple of days has been to cheer out loud, YAY, YOU’RE NOT A DUDE! And then possibly hug that person. I resist because I don’t want to essentialize, I don’t want to assume that simply because we share a particular gender socialization we have lots of other important things in common.

I don’t want these women to be “women at GDC,” I want them to just be at GDC, like everyone else, and I want their contributions to be identified, appreciated and ranked on the same level as those made by the ubiquitous dude majority. I don't want games made for me, the woman, but for me, the person who enjoys awesome games, games ideally built in a space where women are recognized not as booth babes, not as "pink," not as sexyboobed avatars, but as individuals, experts, and icons, no matter their gender.