March 8th is International Women’s Day (or, as it is known in some areas of the internet, “but when is it international mens [sic] day”?) and it offers a perfect opportunity to think about how to celebrate and make visible the contribution women make to game design and development.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress – a call to “motivate and unite friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.” One hundred years after women gained the right to vote in the UK, there are – depressingly – too many areas of politics, society and economics where progress is sorely needed or, else, occurring at a sluggish pace.
The video games industry is often accused of having historical and cultural problems with gender equality and diversity. Writing in the Guardian, Chella Ramanan notes that although many games now feature a more diverse cast of characters, “look beyond the games and into the companies that make them, and you get a very different picture.” She identifies three major problems: a vicious cycle of underrepresentation; a toxic and abusive culture exemplified by the gamergate furore; and institutional discrimination. Australian games developer and academic, Brooke Maggs notes that while some companies are improving their practices and attitudes are changing, much more needs to be done. A 2014 report by the International Game Developer’s Association suggested that the number of female developers had doubled since 2009, but figures show that men still dominate the field.
The #girlsbehindgames campaign grew out of these debates. The community-inspired hashtag appeared in January and was taken up by gamers and games developers across the globe who wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of the women who work in the games industry. Instigated by a New Zealand games development company, Runaway, #girlsbehindgames aimed to inspire more women to pursue careers in game development. More than celebrating the accomplishments of female game designers and developers – rarely credited for their influence and creativity in the industry – the hashtag also served to make women in games more visible.
Though it’s impossible to list them all here, women work in all areas of the video game industry and are driving innovation. Examples range from best-selling mobile games designed by EA’s Chelsea Howe and Robin Hunicke’s work on the SIMs franchise, to indie interactive fiction authored by Emily Short and the “death positive” A Mortician’s Tale designed by Gabby Darienzo.
Whilst some companies – like Runaway – are working to change the industry, female developers are self-organising. The “Women in Games” Facebook group boasts 3000 members. There are also local community networks such as Manchester’s own “Manchester Geek Girls,” who organise a range of network and capacity-building events for women working and studying in a range of STEM fields. In 2016, female game developers collaborated on this collection of essays, outlining their experiences and recommendations for changes needed: Women in Game Development.
Much of the focus of #girlsbehindgames has been on video games, but what about the world of analogue gaming? Co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax once told Icon magazine that “gaming in general is a male thing … everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.” Thanks, Gary.
Many now challenge the idea that women aren’t interested in board games but representation of women within games needs to catch up. Writing in February’s Tabletop Gaming, Martin Wallace argues that many games still objectify women and that this is a “complete turn-off” for female gamers. He suggests that change will be driven through market forces as female consumers command more power. In the meanwhile, gamers could be more mindful of the games they purchase, choosing not to give their money to companies trading in sexist stereotypes.
Though the pervasive cultural image associated with board-, war- and role-playing games is male, there are many women players and designers. Unfortunately, these women are perhaps even less visible than their counterparts in video games. Certainly, the community needs to do more to recognise and celebrate its female game designers. A quick search of the highest-earning table-top games on Kickstarter reveals mostly male-dominated development companies. However, there are many female games developers working in a variety of analogue forms. Kira Magrann’s blog, for example, details her work as writer and player. Recently, Veronica Hendro and Hayley Gordon of Storybrewers made a big splash on Kickstarter with their Jane Austen role-playing game, which has far exceeded its modest £2,250 goal.
It was nice, then, to see some of the bigger games companies using #girlsbehindgames to celebrate the women who design some of the world’s most popular games, including Wizards of the Coasts’ Magic the Gathering (take that, Gygax).
Of course, much more work is needed here too, from both developers and the community at large, to make the world of analogue games development more equitable. In this rather depressing thread on Board Game Geek, community members were naming men in their lists of “top female board-game designers”. Oops.
And what of #girlsbehindgames in the even murkier field of Live-Action Roleplaying (LARP)? Gamer and blogger, Charlie insists that LARP has a “woman problem,” revealing a census that shows women make up only 30% of LARPers in the UK Beyond the data, she catalogues a range of problems women face within the culture of LARP, some of which are sadly familiar to me. And yet, there are, even here, a growing number of female players, designers and community leaders. Women occupy key positions at Profound Decisions, the company behind Empire LARP, are founding members of the Smoke – a UK-based LARP convention, and design and manage games for a host of smaller LARP groups with which I am more familiar, such as the Dark Door, Disturbing Events and Aeon Horror. This is a tiny snapshot of LARP activity, merely within the UK, in which women play vital roles. Though I struggled to find any #girlsbehindgames posts about women in LARP, there are also plenty of women blogging, twitching and you-tubing about LARP, as well as many women writing, running and playing games. LARP, though, is not an industry, and most game designers and developers build and run games in their spare time. This unprofessional, or “hobbyist” image, of LARP, means its women struggle even more to gain the recognition now being sought by designers and developers in more lucrative fields.
Whilst #girlsbehindgames has created a celebratory moment for many of the women working in games, clearly more effort is needed by various industries and communities to make gaming a more equitable space for female players, and for women pursuing careers in game development and design. I’m encouraged by the activities of groups like Manchester Geek Girls, who offer networking and capacity building events for women working in STEM. More focussed activities of this kind around game design and development would help capitalize on the visibility #girlsbehindgames has endeavoured to unleash. Here is an opportunity to move beyond visibility and celebration. We need to create stronger networks for female game designers, develop more opportunities for capacity-building, and extend support systems to help combat ongoing institutional and cultural prejudices many women in games still face.
Can we switch to #WomenBehindGames, though, please?
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