The Culture Of Sexism In The Games Industry

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It should be said that a lot of mainstream companies in the games industry are run by progressive and decent human beings, who go out of their way to make sure all their workers are able to conduct their business in a safe and friendly environment.  However, there are also a lot who don’t, where the office culture is a truly horrible place to be if you happen to be without a Y chromosome and are targeted by a male colleague.

Prior to writing this article I sent out emails to every female contact I have in the games industry, tentatively asking what their experiences in the workplace had been like – with the condition that, should they choose to tell me anything at all, I would treat it as off-the-record unless they instructed me otherwise or gave permission for their stories to be told.  I didn’t attempt to guide their responses in any particular direction (at least I hope I didn’t), I just tried to get an open line of dialogue on the matter.

The responses were varied and interesting.

Independent developers proved to be the most forthcoming about their experiences, probably because the ones I contacted had been people I’d met and talked to directly; people I’d written about and whose games I’d played.  There was a basic foundation in place for trusted one-to-one dialogue, which is a huge help when trying to talk about potentially upsetting and sensitive topics (after all, I had no idea what any of my contacts might have experienced).

There was optimism in the emails I got, if not outright positivity.  The indie scene has been regarded as the most progressive by gamers, developers and critics alike since it really took off in the mid-2000’s, and this certainly appears to be true with regards to how its developers approach the unpleasant storm cloud of sexism.

“Demanding more female leads in-game (like the [Assassin’s Creed] Unity discussion) is important and we need to talk about that!” one developer told me, “I don’t care if people are annoyed by so-called ‘artificial’ scandals, because you cannot change things by being quiet about them.  But what is even more needed are girls that want to become game devs, female speakers and studios that send their women on stage and not just their men.  And of course creative writers like Joss Whedon who don’t fear the female character to have…a character.”

The women I contacted in the indie sector acknowledged that sexism was an ongoing problem, but that they and most other indie developers they knew were working to change that.

The few female contacts I had in PR all came back with glowing remarks on how positive and supportive their working environments were, suggesting that things are a lot better in the world of media relations than they are behind the scenes in developers’ offices.  If anyone reading this works in games industry PR and thinks this doesn’t reflect the reality of their workplace, I want to hear from you.

Out of the contacts I have in the mainstream sector (those working under triple-A development outfits) I got a couple of emails back telling me very politely to get lost.  I can draw no conclusions from these responses to my queries, but I’ve got a rough idea of the status quo.

The hush-hush nature of the games industry’s struggle against sexism is a persistent problem.  Twenty days into 2014, a games reporter by the name of Josh Mattingly was revealed to have approached a female developer with a general query, followed by an offer to “lick [her] vagina”.  The conversation degraded into more overt sexual suggestions and advances, and it was subsequently posted by another developer, Laralyn McWilliams, on Twitter.

Rachel Edidin, writing on Kotaku, quoted one female developer  – who requests not to be named – saying: “As a woman in game development, I have only so much political capital to spend before I get dismissed as a chick, [as] crazy, hysterical, shrill, stupid, not a real woman, not a real gamer.  I’ve been soaking in it so long, I mistrust my own internal calibration.”

Edidin’s article is in many ways the most revealing look we have at the industry’s greater attitude towards sexism, examining the case of ‘Alice Mercier’ (a false name of the developer who was harassed by Mattingly), as well as a number of other instances of sexual harassment.  There is a culture of denial and self-denial, demonstrated by the above quote alone, when it comes to putting female workers in a toxic and male-dominated environment.

But why does this attitude exist?  More worryingly, why does it continue to exist and thrive in the mainstream gaming sectors?

The games industry did not just ‘happen’.  Multimillion-dollar companies do not spring up out of nowhere and adopt whatever pattern of workplace behaviour that randomly occurs to them.  There is always precedence to the way people think and act, and sexism in the workplace is certainly no exception.  When we stop and consider the fact that the games industry is 30-years-old, and has operated on a big business structure for almost as long a period of time, that should tell us something about its attitude towards women.

What I’m basically saying here is that the workplace cultures of the games industry were carried over from other business environments.  Environments where the female workforce has a long and documented history of being abused, made to feel unwelcome and paid less than their male counterparts. The hope is that this will gradually change, and perhaps it will, but I suspect a more realistic outlook would be to let the indie sector make the changes and provide the ideal working environment female developers are looking for.

Unlike the slow, lumbering dinosaurs of triple-A business, indie companies are maintained by a small number of people – sometimes couples – who share a set of values that presumably don’t include the notion that sexual discrimination or harassment is something that should be encouraged, ignored or hidden away.

The culture of sexism isn’t going to change quickly enough to make a difference to a lot of mainstream female workers in the games industry.  The better option is for the more flexible, more progressive indie sector’s workplace cultures to supplant it, because the people who work in this area of the games industry will not tolerate mistreatment.

Certainly not to the extent where workers feel like they have to stay quiet about it.

Written by Alex Lemcovich

Illustration by Alex Lemcovich

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