The Death of Games Journalism — Part 3: Woman Problems

Scrumpmonkey continues his examination of the death of Games Journalism. Today he explores the "women in gaming" divide.


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Part Three of a multi-part se­ries. Start from the be­gin­ning of the se­ries ‚vis­it the parts in­dex or read Part 2 – Business 101 here

Women play video games. Women de­vel­op video games. Women love video games. This shouldn’t be such a hard con­cept to grasp. Games me­dia talks about “women in gam­ing” and “women in the in­dus­try” like they are gen­uine­ly in­ca­pable of grasp­ing these painful­ly ob­vi­ous ob­ser­va­tions. You want to know the real con­spir­a­cy against women in the games in­dus­try? Here’s the scoop.

side woman 1Let’s first ad­dress the per­ceived lack of fe­male char­ac­ters in games. In 2008 the world ex­pe­ri­enced a fi­nan­cial con­trac­tion that af­fect­ed all in­dus­tries, es­pe­cial­ly in west­ern economies. This added to a sit­u­a­tion where mas­sive­ly in­creased de­vel­op­ment costs for high-definition gam­ing and in­flat­ed mar­ket­ing bud­gets cre­at­ed a cli­mate where if a flag­ship con­sole re­lease failed then it had a shot at bring­ing the pub­lish­er down with it. This shaped a gam­ing land­scape in which the pub­lish­ers for “next-gen” gam­ing con­soles were shit-scared of los­ing mon­ey and adopt­ed game cre­ation prac­tices that were ul­tra cau­tious in their ad­her­ence to the for­mu­las of pre­vi­ous suc­cess­ful ti­tles, whilst also at­tempt­ing to em­u­late the suc­cess­es of their com­peti­tors. It’s not that “women in games” were sti­fled, every­thing was sti­fled. We al­most lost en­tire gen­res. Publishers damn near stopped push­ing big-budget RTS (real-time strat­e­gy) games in the last five years and yet no one goes on about the in­tol­er­ance and big­otry to­wards RTS fans with­in the games in­dus­try be­cause these games are not get­ting rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Until the re­cent re­lease of Grey Goo their rep­re­sen­ta­tion had shrunk to Starcraft 2 and pret­ty much dick all else. Excluding re-makes and re-masters, name five big bud­get AAA RTS games in the last five years. I can’t do it and I’m a fan of the genre.

For the longest time the hor­ror game genre seemed dead in the wa­ter as well. It took the re­lease of low­er bud­get PC ti­tles to give it a kick in the pants and stop hor­ror games from be­ing com­plete­ly fold­ed into the ac­tion game genre. Look at the ho­mog­e­nized piles of box-ticking that was the Dead Space se­quels or Resident Evil 6 and think about the sor­ry state much of the out­put of ma­jor pub­lish­ers has been this area.

Creativity and in­no­va­tion has suf­fered across the board. There wasn’t a re­sis­tance to fe­male lead char­ac­ters be­cause of sex­ism, big­otry, misog­y­ny, pa­tri­archy or con­spir­a­cy; it was out of fi­nan­cial cau­tion and part of the wider pic­ture of games be­ing made to stick clos­er to tried and true for­mu­las. It’s not a unique prob­lem but rather a symp­tom of the wider is­sues that, for oth­er sec­tors, games jour­nal­ists seem to have read­i­ly iden­ti­fied. It would seem ob­vi­ous to any­one with even a hint of mar­ket­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that games were be­ing over focus-tested and that the bal­ance of pow­er be­tween mar­ket­ing and cre­ative de­part­ments has shift­ed to an un­healthy de­gree. How can a games jour­nal­ist who gets paid to do their “craft” not see that the rea­son for Dead Space hav­ing its at­mos­pher­ic hor­ror as­pects gut­ted is the same rea­son for a lack of pro­gres­sion in lead char­ac­ters that don’t al­ready con­form to a proven for­mu­la? Let’s do the same ex­er­cise from our RTS ex­am­ple again, name five big bud­get AAA games in the last five years, but with strong fe­male leads in them:

  • Tomb Raider (2013): A game re­ceived to much fem­i­nist fan­fare by both the gam­ing press and gamers alike.
  • Remember Me: With mixed re­views but a de­cent fe­male lead. Sold poor­ly but still con­sti­tut­ed a wide scale home con­sole and PC release.
  • Bayonetta Two:  A kick-ass and icon­ic fe­male lead that para­dox­i­cal­ly gets many to grab a torch and pitch-fork. As I’ve said be­fore, an ex­cep­tion­al game.
  • Portal 2: Chell is woman, for what lit­tle dif­fer­ence that makes to the game; Portal is a very high pro­file game from a very well-known de­vel­op­er with a sin­gle hu­man char­ac­ter. And it’s a female.
  • Lollipop Chainsaw: Yes, this was a ma­jor re­lease and a ma­jor­ly un­der­rat­ed game. Fun, sil­ly and with a mad sense of humour.

side woman 2Now many in the “games are sex­ist” camp will ar­gue they don’t like some of these fe­male pro­tag­o­nists, but their pref­er­ence are im­ma­te­r­i­al in the free mar­ket. To say “that ex­am­ple does not count be­cause I don’t like it” is shift­ing the goal posts and in­ject­ing a sub­jec­tive qual­i­fi­er that lets you dis­miss ev­i­dence. Those five ex­am­ples off the top of my head are games that saw a wide re­lease and had a high bud­get that also have a strong solo fe­male lead char­ac­ter. The list for games in which you have gen­der choic­es is pret­ty long too: every­thing from the Dragon Age se­ries, the Saints Row se­ries, to the Elder Scrolls se­ries. There are plen­ty of games with an en­sem­ble cast that give equal foot­ing to fe­male char­ac­ters as well, like Borderlands. These are only touch­ing on the up­per tier of games pub­lish­ing. The prob­lem of cau­tion I men­tioned ear­li­er didn’t pre­vent the last five years from hav­ing a large amount of games with fe­male leads, fe­male cast mem­bers and a huge amount of games with a choice of fe­male char­ac­ters that have come from the more in­de­pen­dent­ly de­vel­oped arena.

Some people’s as­sump­tions are also pred­i­cat­ed on the no­tion that women can only re­late to fe­male char­ac­ters. This doesn’t seem to be the case and what re­search there is out there looks to point to there be­ing lit­tle pref­er­ence to lead char­ac­ter gen­der, as peo­ple play­ing video games tend to project them­selves onto a game’s char­ac­ters. The no­tion that fe­male NPCs have “no agency” is also a gross mis­un­der­stand­ing; NPCs of­ten get more de­vel­op­ment and are more re­lat­able than lead char­ac­ters (see: Elizabeth from Bioshock: Infinite). They can be more fleshed out as char­ac­ters be­cause we are not meant to be pro­ject­ing our­selves onto them. I’m sure most peo­ple who play video games as a hob­by could tell you the ef­fect of see­ing your­self as the main char­ac­ter, that’s why so many main char­ac­ters are blank slates and  why I think the fierce de­bate about “fe­male leads” is moot. We would be here all day talk­ing about how many games have de­cent fe­male NPCs or side char­ac­ters. If the main char­ac­ter all but dis­ap­pears af­ter the in­ser­tion of your­self, apart from in non-gameplay sec­tions, how is it any dif­fer­ent than be­ing an NPC?

side woman thingy thingSo why do we have so many jour­nal­ists run­ning around like head­less chick­ens telling us the sky is falling be­cause there are too few fe­male pro­tag­o­nists in games? There have cer­tain­ly been less in re­cent his­to­ry, but as I’ve said, that is out of lazi­ness and fi­nan­cial para­noia. Do you re­al­ly want to get more fe­male char­ac­ters in games and on the front of video games cas­es? Prove they sell well. Put your mon­ey where your mouth is and do some real leg-work in­stead of bitch­ing about it. Making games is a busi­ness. Attacking it pure­ly from a moral­is­tic, sex-negative, per­spec­tive will get you nowhere. It’s hard for com­pa­nies to know what you want in­stinc­tu­al­ly. They know what you don’t want when you swift­ly grab your pitch-forks in the next “think of the women” moral pan­ic that comes up, but that of­fers no con­struc­tive points to work with. If I worked as a de­vel­op­er, I wouldn’t have a clue what the gam­ing press was shriek­ing for aside from the fact that if I do de­cide to cre­ate a fe­male char­ac­ter, I’m walk­ing on egg-shells when it comes to my ex­e­cu­tion. There is an army of writ­ers out there just wait­ing to twist your words into the next “women are too hard to an­i­mate” non-scandal that will whip their read­ers into a right­eous fren­zy. There are peo­ple like Jason “Lolicon Fantasy” Schrier who will glee­ful­ly at­tack you as a “14 year old boy” for hav­ing ex­ag­ger­at­ed char­ac­ter designs.

This idea of neg­a­tive sex­u­al­i­sa­tion is pred­i­cat­ed on the idea that women them­selves don’t en­joy the char­ac­ters and aes­thet­ics that have been brand­ed sex­ist or misog­y­nis­tic by some. Women have breasts. Some women have large breasts. I apol­o­gize if this makes you un­com­fort­able. Do I think there is an over­ly large per­cent­age of games like this? Yes, ac­tu­al­ly, I do. The key is breed­ing va­ri­ety. You shouldn’t de­mand some­one else shrink to make you feel tall and you shouldn’t try to grow one mar­ket at cost of an­oth­er. There is still vast un­tapped growth in the video games mar­ket and if you think you can sell to an un­tapped de­mo­graph­ic… then go for it. Romantic come­dies do not in­sist that ac­tion movies stop ex­ist­ing to be eco­nom­i­cal­ly vi­able. There will al­ways be a mar­ket for puerile big bounc­ing tit­ties. That’s the way it should be but that, by no means, should be the only aes­thet­ic out there. There is room for all kinds of fe­male de­sign; this isn’t a zero sum game. You can make fe­male char­ac­ters that look how­ev­er you want. Although judg­ing by the de­mure sex­less vi­sion some have for fe­male char­ac­ters, you might have to go back to more pu­ri­tan­i­cal times to find an au­di­ence for them.

Now we get onto the oth­er is­sue that has be­come sep­a­rat­ed from re­al­i­ty. There is much hand-wringing over “women in the in­dus­try” and loud trum­pet­ing of how un­wel­com­ing game de­vel­op­ment and the tech in­dus­try is to women. But if you ac­tu­al­ly talk to these women, you will find a dif­fer­ent sen­ti­ment. A use­ful but of­ten ig­nored ar­ti­cle on the sub­ject was writ­ten by Gabrielle Toledano, Executive Vice President and Chief Talent Officer for Electronic Arts. She wrote an im­pas­sioned plea in 2013 in Forbes:

Cast aside the pre­con­cep­tions, and look for the op­por­tu­ni­ties and places to make an im­pact.  And I can tell you first-hand that in the video game in­dus­try women are not just wel­come, we are nec­es­sary and we are equal.”

side gabHere is a fe­male ex­ec­u­tive for one of the biggest AAA de­vel­op­ers and pub­lish­ers lay­ing bare the myth of “ram­pant sex­ism and misog­y­ny” as be­ing just that, a myth. Pure scare­mon­ger­ing. As Gabrielle says, the lack of fe­male de­vel­op­ers re­flects the gen­er­al lack of fe­male can­di­dates. Equality in em­ploy­ment laws means you take the best can­di­date for the job re­gard­less of gen­der. These em­ploy­ment po­lices can’t have bias ei­ther way by law.

So those ask­ing for a “50/50” gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion in all ar­eas of de­vel­op­ment (an ar­bi­trary and mean­ing­less quo­ta in of it­self) are re­al­ly ask­ing for a mag­i­cal over­haul of the en­tire jobs mar­ket or to tip the scales in favour of fe­male can­di­dates. Equality of op­por­tu­ni­ty is all you can ever ex­pect in a fair and equal sys­tem. You’ve got a se­nior fe­male ex­ec­u­tive in one of the biggest video game com­pa­nies in the world telling you this. When is it go­ing to sink in for some people?

If she had put out that ar­ti­cle this week, I guar­an­tee she would be pil­lo­ried far and wide in the gam­ing press for ex­cus­ing sex­ism. She might have even been ac­cused of “hav­ing a GamerGate opin­ion” and thus ac­cused of “sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism”. This is the rhetoric we see in the games press; they would rather ac­cuse peo­ple of be­ing ter­ror­ists than ad­mit that maybe, just maybe, the larg­er gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty and game de­vel­op­ers out there are wel­com­ing and open to women, even above and be­yond most oth­er in­dus­tries. This wall of noise about how some kind of “anti-diversity” con­spir­a­cy in the gam­ing world is be­ing ramped up, but EA them­selves have been named one of the best places to work by the Human Rights Campaign, win­ning a dis­tinc­tion giv­en to busi­ness­es based on their “cor­po­rate poli­cies and prac­tices per­ti­nent to les­bian, gay, bi­sex­u­al and trans­gen­der em­ploy­ees.” This isn’t just for game de­vel­op­ers or the tech sec­tor. This is an award that con­sid­ers all large busi­ness and EA came out as one of the top. For three years in a row. Three years. EA is much ma­ligned for some of its anti-consumer mar­ket choic­es but its pro-female and pro-LGBT cre­den­tials seem to be one of the things they don’t have a prob­lem with. So where ex­act­ly is this “anti-diversity” con­spir­a­cy in the games in­dus­try we keep hear­ing about? Well, it doesn’t seem to be com­ing from AAA de­vel­op­ers like EA, as many in­die de­vel­op­ers and cer­tain games me­dia out­lets keep try­ing to sug­gest to us. It cer­tain­ly isn’t com­ing from the coastal in­die scene or in­dus­try bod­ies, who seem to have an al­most patho­log­i­cal fix­a­tion on talk­ing about race, sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der di­ver­si­ty. Where is con­spir­a­cy? Can any­one show me? Could it be that this en­tire prob­lem was trumped up by peo­ple who have an in­ter­est in stir­ring up emo­tion­al sto­ries for their read­ers or po­ten­tial backers?

side women 4So AAA de­vel­op­ers are pro-diversity, gamers are pro-diversity, the in­die devs are ob­ses­sive­ly pro-diversity and the gam­ing press takes every op­por­tu­ni­ty it can to blare on about need­ing “bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion.” In seem­ing des­per­a­tion, el­e­ments of the press and in­die “scene” have tried to ac­cuse the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty of be­ing some­how anti-woman. This has been met with the ex­pect­ed re­ac­tion of “…u wot mate?”  For an in­dus­try to ac­cuse its read­ers and con­sumers of some­how be­ing the ba­sis of an anti-woman con­spir­a­cy is lu­na­cy. Nowhere was this more clear than in the World of Warcraft fo­rums in the wake of Blizzards slight gaf, helped along by the Doritos pope him­self Geoff Keighley. Many of the threads were sad­ly delet­ed, but the gen­er­al re­ac­tion from a great many fe­male WoW play­ers is that they had been a part of the MMO com­mu­ni­ty for many years with lit­tle or no ex­pe­ri­ence of feel­ing like a sec­ond class gamer. I’ve played WoW. My friends mum got me into it. The com­mu­ni­ty is di­verse; most MMO com­mu­ni­ties have a very strong fe­male con­tin­gent. If you’re try­ing to get fe­male gamers to tell you the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty is some kind of “boys club” you’re go­ing to be lis­ten­ing to a mi­nor­i­ty of voic­es telling you ex­act­ly what you want to hear. Go and ask most fe­male gamers how they feel. Why doesn’t the press do that more?

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You wouldn’t know any of this by read­ing mod­ern games jour­nal­ism. The “women is­sue” has re­vealed that gam­ing pub­li­ca­tions are in­ca­pable of putting crit­i­cal thought over out­rage and clicks. Incapable of fos­ter­ing a de­bate and in­ca­pable of fac­ing up to re­al­i­ty over ide­ol­o­gy. They con­tin­ue to push their mis­in­for­ma­tion to dri­ve a wedge in the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty; mak­ing their base of sup­port small­er and small­er un­til they turn off all gamers, male and fe­male alike. You wouldn’t even think game de­vel­op­ers had fe­male ex­ec­u­tives from the way the press bangs on about this “re­cent” cru­sade to get women into games. Naked self-publicists would like you to for­get the lega­cy and con­tri­bu­tion of women to the games in­dus­try through­out the decades. They dis­re­spect that lin­eage for the sake of their own fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­en­cy. In or­der to do this, one has to be deaf and blind to re­al­i­ty. They would rather do this than ac­knowl­edge the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty and de­vel­op­ment world is wel­com­ing to women and fe­male tal­ent, and that our hob­by is home to one of the most for­ward think­ing and di­verse groups of peo­ple on the face of the Earth. Massive game pub­lish­ers win awards for how they han­dle their em­ploy­ees and com­mu­ni­ties far and wide have been home to women for decades. This is the re­al­i­ty of the games in­dus­try and its com­mu­ni­ty: stri­dent, fierce, bat­tered by eco­nom­ic tur­bu­lence and be­set by many prob­lems but nev­er let­ting those de­fine and mire them.

The games in­dus­try and com­mu­ni­ty isn’t per­fect but the warped im­age put for­ward in the dy­ing cries of the gam­ing press — as they slide into their in­evitable and wel­come ir­rel­e­van­cy — are gross dis­tor­tions of re­al­i­ty meant to ex­ploit and prof­it from an imag­i­nary mon­ster and in the process drag the rep­u­ta­tion of the games in­dus­try and com­mu­ni­ty through the dirt for their own gain.

Continued in Part 4: The Mobile Menace

Visit the the Parts Index

Scrumpmonkey can also be found on YouTube, on Twitter and on Medium. You can also read more about him in his writer in­tro­duc­tion for SuperNerdLand

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John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.