Can we fix sexism in gaming? Professor Jennifer Jenson and Grace of Fat, Ugly or Slutty have some ideas

Jennifer Jenson, far left, running the Women in Games panel at GRAND 2013.

Jennifer Jenson, far left, running the Women in Games panel at GRAND 2013.

After the lecture, Jennifer Jenson sat down for a roundtable discussion about games. About fifteen were gathered, three women, the rest men. One man spoke up and shared a story about World of Warcraft. He played in a guild with a single mother of two. One evening, the guild was to go on a raid. The mother didn’t log on – both her children were sick. In the team chat, frustrated, he called her a “c***”. Jenson was shocked. The man, dumbfounded, said, “I don’t see why that was wrong.”

It goes without saying that sexism is a serious issue everywhere in society, but gaming is different. In terms of both the culture and the industry, Jenson, a professor at York University, argues that there is something unique about the gaming context.

“There’s a level of entitlement to be an asshole,” she said, “that isn’t in the rest of the world. That is the difference. I don’t get asked in any other context how that [the WoW player’s story] is an incorrect speech act.”

In the games industry, only 1 in 10 employees are female. However, roughly the same amount of women play games as men. Online, women are often harassed, degraded and marginalized. Grace, co-founder of the website Fat, Ugly or Slutty, which collects submissions of sexism from (mostly female) gamers, remains optimistic.

“Incremental change is how to get people to see that there’s a way,” she said. “Changing it all at once isn’t as easy as eroding the current structures that we have. You can do this small thing and watch the huge impact that it has, then go on to the next one.”

Fat, Ugly or Slutty has been one small but significant step for Grace (knowing what it means to be a girl on the Internet, she does not share her last name and achieves androgyny online by being known only as “gtz”). The website has slowed down recently as she focuses on other mostly sexism-related projects (like this and this), but she stands behind the site’s legacy.

“What I’m really proud of is the rhetorical power of the site [in] the archive format,” she said, “where I’m learning that it’s not actually a requirement for daily posts to make the argument that there is something different in women’s experiences online.”

The idea for the site, with the tagline “Every message is the same. I’m always either fat and ugly, or a slut,” was to simultaneously draw scrutiny towards the issue while primarily making others laugh.

“It’s stratospherically absurd how each individual message is,” she said, “and when you take them as a whole, it’s still funny.” She is quick, however, to note the fact that although it started as a joke, it wasn’t long before it took on an additional shape. “We were laughing,” she said, “but it wasn’t until later that I realized it was because I was so surprised and shocked that I was laughing. So it has this serious element, but it absolutely comes from a place of humour.” 

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Looking through the many images on the site, I noticed how in that majority of cases, I was surprised to notice that the offending gamertags or handles were not blanked out.

“We have had a couple people contact us, or come into the comments and act just as you’d expect the original behaviour that got them on the site would have them act,” Grace said. “But there was one person in particular that contacted us, and he said that he didn’t mean for it to be that way and he understands how none of that was appropriate, so he wouldn’t want to have his gamertag presented that way. He didn’t exactly say the perfect words or say he’s sorry, but we took his name off the site. He got it just that little bit, just enough. If you understand some of it, at least you’re on your way.”

In the future, she plans to stop including the gamertags.

Grace brought an interesting example to describe why women have such a harder time when gaming online.

“What I think it is for a lot of people is just straight up ignorance,” she said. “For example, what’s the likelihood that when a guy plays online, he’s going to pick a feminine gamertag, a feminine avatar? The odds are gonna be pretty low. For women, the odds that they would choose a male avatar, a male name, are going to be higher in comparison.”

“So what happens,” she continued, “is that you have women who will actually see the difference in treatment that they get being perceived as men versus being perceived as women. But if men don’t actually spend any time making efforts to be perceived as women, they are ignorant of what that experience is like, because they’ve got no reason to think that it’s different, so they assume that it’s the same. But there is a difference in the experience.”

Overall, Grace sees gaming’s issue with sexism as part of a much larger whole.

“Sexism in gaming is a tiny piece of the larger sexism problem in our culture,” she said, but she explains her optimism. “Other companies are taking notice, and we’re gonna start seeing tools being put in the hands of players. It’s so hopeful. This is why whenever people are talking about harassment and trolls, they get depressed and I get excited.”

“This is why I say baby steps,” she goes on. “What I’m really happy about is that the shock I had, and the shock so many guys [have] had with the site, it’s that it opens their mind even just a little bit, to start looking at the world through a different set of eyes.”

While FUoS provides an outlet for awareness, Jenson comes from a researcher’s perspective. 

“We do empirical research so we can identify problems and issues and talk about how we can fix or address them,” she said. “That really is the feminist agenda. It’s not to just document what’s happening, we’re saying we know what’s happening, now we need to work to change it.”

Riot Games, who are behind 'League of Legends', is taking steps to combat sexism and harassment with their behavioural control system.

Riot Games, who are behind ‘League of Legends’, is taking steps to combat sexism and harassment with their behavioural control system.

Jenson is the organizer of Feminists in Games, an annual workshop devoted to better understanding the gender digital divide and to finding solutions for it (Grace was a panelist at this year’s workshop). Most of the feedback, from developers, designers and gamers, has been positive.

“We’ve had people who’ve e-mailed us,” she said, “to say they’re part of the industry and they really want to have more conversations about this, that there aren’t enough conversations about this, and these are from both women and men. We’ve also heard from community members, people who’ve very much benefitted from some of the seed funding opportunities that we’ve made possible.”

“We had some interesting negative pushback,” she said, “someone called us feminist circle-jerks or something. [laughs] I think the negative stuff is actually useful, too, helping to prove our point.” 

Jenson puzzles over the rampant sexism in gaming culture.

“A lot of girls know they don’t belong,” she said. “All they have to do is open a magazine, look at an online gaming website. They’re told that where they do belong is in this marginalized pink way, if you look at the broad message that is out there.”

“For some reason,” she continued, “games companies tend to have these really hostile work environments for women, not just because of the kinds of jobs people are doing, but because women are subjected to porn on the walls and on computers, because they’re outright stalked or harassed.”

“I can’t tell you the number of people who I’ve talked to,” she shared, chillingly, “that said people feel like it’s perfectly their right to follow them around at GDC for 3 days. That’s not cool.”

Jenson and Grace both pointed out two recent developments, the Xbox One’s new approaches to matching players and monitoring harassment and Riot Games’ new tribunal behaviour system for League of Legends, as examples of systemic improvement. But more must be done.

“We have to take the reigns in our own hands and make the changes that we want,” Jenson said, “because they aren’t just going to happen.”

“I think the conversation’s changing.” Grace said. “You know when you see people get mad about, like, ‘Argh, we get it, you’re a girl and you’re a gamer, we don’t even care’. Even that kind of anger is borne from the idea that they accept women gamers as normalized. So the conversation is different. I play the long game, so these are baby steps.”

In the meantime, Grace still enjoys laughing at the archived submissions at FUoS. “The very act is so weird,” she said, “and bizarre, and without merit on almost every level that everything about it combines into this perfect thing.”

She shared with me her all-time, for-the-books, absolute favourite submission she has ever received, posted to the site on February 6, 2011. “Is he sending it just out into the ether,” she wonders, “or is it supposed to be some sort of escalating conversation? It’s just magical, every part of it.”

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Breaking free with a divergent creation: An interview with Karla Zimonja

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The gaming industry is now bigger than it has ever been. Blockbuster AAA titles are toiled over for years by teams of several hundred employees, and once released, they take in hundreds of millions within days or even hours. To leave that world behind and go independent takes a certain amount of bold confidence, and Karla Zimonja and the team at The Fullbright Company were not afraid of taking the challenge.

“We were just at points in our lives where it made sense to take a big risk. Steve [Gaynor, lead designer and writer at Fullbright] called us up and was just like, ‘Well, you guys wanna take the jump?’, and we all had situations in our personal lives where we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s go,’” Zimonja, Fullbright’s 2D artist and story adviser, said in a Skype interview, adding “we were all willing to take a jump and had confidence in each other.”

The three initial risk-takers were Zimonja, Gaynor and Johnnemann Nordhagen, all of whom had worked together at 2K Marin, most notably on the acclaimed DLC for BioShock 2 entitled ‘Minerva’s Den’ (Kate Craig soon joined them, handling environmental art). Having put that experience behind her, Zimonja is proud of the result but disappointed with the limiting nature of the AAA space.

“‘Minerva’s Den’ was a really good experience. That was my high water mark for years,” she said. “But there’s a lot of things you can’t do in AAA. There’s a lot of things that are very difficult to make happen. We just wanted to do something [that] we couldn’t do there.”

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Zimonja was eager to point out the many benefits of working in the independent sphere. “You have hugely more freedom to do unconventional things,” she said, “story-wise, you can make experimental games about being a cyber-queen or something, you can do that. You’re going to have a really hard time being super weird and avant-garde in the AAA space.”

“I worked on a whole bunch of things with this game, and it’s way more satisfying to do that than to just be like, ‘Well, I made the textures for 4 out of the 6 guns and most of the armour,’ it’s like, thats cool, I guess. [laughs] With Gone Home, I did every single note, all the packaging, helped out with some models, casting, voice recording, video editing…all kinds of stuff. It’s much more interesting to be able to do a variety of work.”

Zimonja, 36, has been in this industry for a while, but it was never the goal to be here. She received a degree in animation from the Rhode Island School of Design, worked on some TV shows (like Dr. Katz) and commercials, ultimately feeling dissatisfied, and by chance started working in games.

“This was back in the day when it was maybe easier to move around career-wise,” she said, “and it wasn’t quite like it is now where it’s harder to get your foot in the door. Then I got into the possibilities of working on games rather than other kinds of entertainment, especially commercials, because, sheesh.”

“I grew to love it and I feel like I’ve gotten to do some cool things in games, which is nice,” she continued, “which is probably more than I would’ve gotten to do if I had been stuck in the mainstream animation industry. Games have a lot of freedom.”

To wit, Gone Home – Fullbright’s first game, released in August – appears at first to be a creepy horror game taking place in a haunted house, but ends up being a sweet, nuanced story about a teen lesbian romance in 1995, when Riot Grrrl was in full force.

The use of certain horror elements (and the presentation of these elements in the game’s marketing) was purely intentional to throw players off course. “We needed those [horror] tropes to set the scene and keep you uneasy. We used it as a tool to keep the player’s expectations in line,” she said, “something seemingly freaky appears and immediately there’s an explanation.”

“There’s a certain amount of scariness that you’re going to have in an empty house,” she added, “then once we have that we can use it to remind you that real-life situations can seem scary but have a logical explanation and/or can seem scary but the emotional truths are the real, important thing.”

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The choice of setting was also distinctly purposeful. “The area [in Oregon] in that time period [was] rife with cool feminist movements and Riot Grrrl is a big, visible aspect of that, so we figured it would be an awesome character trait to have our main characters be into that,” she said, “and it’s almost probable when you consider really rebellious teens in that time period, in this location, ground zero for Riot Grrrl.”

She said despite growing up in the 90s, she was mostly isolated from the feminist movements of the era. “It’s mostly in retrospect that that’s meaningful. I was in a small town in Massachusetts, so there was not a lot of that kind of thing present,” she said, “but I knew about it thanks to stuff like Sassy [a feminist magazine] and a couple of other cool publications. It’s mostly imagining how it would’ve been to have been engaged in that.”

However, Zimonja is very aware of the rampant sexism in the gaming industry today. “In my AAA life, there has not been a whole lot of super upfront, in your face sexism,” she said, “but the pay difference is real, the amount of authority and amount of times you get consulted versus guys with the same role is significantly different. I have never worked at a AAA company that is more than maybe 7%, 10% female. It’s preposterous.”

“I noticed this when I was talking to a college student at GDC,” she went on, “and there were booth babes around and I made a comment about it, like, “Yup, they sure are doing a great job respecting us!” and the student was like, “I don’t know, whatever, I can not pay attention to it”, and I was like, you shouldn’t have to ignore this and deal with the weird marginalization that comes with it.”

Gone Home, with its focus on feminism and female characters, stands out in a male-dominated gaming marketplace, and Zimonja 23r23rholds this as a sincere point of pride.

“It was really good to be able to do something that really reflected our values and to actually be progressive and allowed to have multiple female characters,” she said. “We pass the Bechdel test [which measures gender bias in media]. It’s really good to be a counter example in that regard, because it’s nice to show people that it won’t make the world explode if you behave better.”

Going independent may have been a risk, but on top of telling the story they wanted to tell, Gone Home has so far sold well over 50,000 copies, and Zimonja feels gratified.

“It’s very different from working on a AAA game. That’s not nearly as much yours, the team is so much bigger, so you share it with so many people,” she said. “It’s a strange situation, it’s hard to believe the praise is about us. It’s a very weird thing, it mostly just feels like people being very sweet.”

After switching between careers and going through the corporate machine of the gaming industry, Zimonja is content to challenge it from an independent standpoint.

“The space is narrowing,” she said, “so if you want to do something different, you have to leave.”

Buy Gone Home here.

– Jake