Video Game Sexism Under Attack


Money doesn't buy happiness, but it might foster gender equality in the video game industry.

Games are big business. Despite declining retail numbers the past two years, they still accounted for $13.26 billion in sales in 2012. That takes into account the huge growth on mobile platforms, where games such as Angry Birds, Words With Friends and Temple Run appeal to the many players who are not young white men.

And this might be why, ultimately, inroads will be made.

Last fall, when women were asked to respond to charges of sexism in the video game industry, the Twitter hashtag #1ReasonWhy blew up.

They told stories of being harassed, of being excluded from the creative process at work, of being mistaken for the office receptionist.

Rhianna Pratchett, lead writer on the new "Tomb Raider" game released last week, created the hashtag as a social media discussion of something many in the business felt was rarely addressed.

--"Because conventions, where designers are celebrated, are unsafe places for me. I've been groped," Tweeted @filamena.

--"Once heard an Art manager say 'We don't need any more women, they're more trouble than they're worth' as he viewed applications," wrote @GabrielleKent.

It should come as no surprise that the history of video games includes a pattern of heroines with beach-ball breasts, skimpy outfits and the general objectification of women. Many of the most popular games of the past decade focused on sports, sex and violence, and if there was a strong story line it usually had a strong hero at the center.

Just as women weren't welcome to report from NFL locker rooms, or as the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies years ago, the times are slowly changing -- especially now when women make up almost 50 percent of gamers. Women in the video game industry say it's possible to break down doors.

"Historically, when you're talking about hard-core [games], it's been young guys making games for other young guys," said Drew Davidson, director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

" 'Verbs' are what you can do in a game: the verbs around a first-person shooter are arranged around combat and fighting. As game designers have expanded the verbs of what you can do, it's opened up more possibilities for more people to want to play. And one of the biggest-growing areas is women over 45."

Melanie Lam, a producer and designer who grew up in Squirrel Hill and Singapore, agreed. "In the industry, we've moved toward more of a general audience.

"With the Zynga games, with 'Angry Birds,' games people are playing on iPads and iPhones, there is not as much room for polarization. You're going for the masses."

Ms. Pratchett has been doing the press tour for the new "Tomb Raider," a prequel that takes protagonist Lara Croft back to her former, pre-Angelina Jolie form.

Instead of pairing a stretchy top worn over pneumatic breasts with hot pants, this Lara is wearing layered camisoles any young woman might wear at the mall, and cargo pants. She has been purposefully redesigned to embrace the elements appealing to both male and female players.

"She [Lara Croft] had a pretty good female following when they first released 'Tomb Raider' and then, well, they kind of got silly," said Sheri Graner Ray, senior design adviser for Pittsburgh-based Schell Games and author of the book, "Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market."

"So they went back to her roots, which is good for her and certainly for them [Crystal Dynamics], monetarily," said Ms. Graner Ray, who lives in Austin, Texas, and was a longtime executive chair for Women in Games International. "It's going to be a way for them to recapture part of that market."

The latest Entertainment Software Association poll of gamer demographics indicates that 47 percent of those who play games in the U.S. are female, and that women 18 or older (30 percent) represent a larger part of the market than boys 17 and younger (18 percent).

Women tend to play online, rather than platform games. Of these online games, the most popular (representing 42 percent) are puzzles, board games, game show, trivia and card games.

That same makeup represents 47 percent of the kind of games players of both sexes enjoy on mobile devices.

Schell Games, which is based on the South Side, is staffed by a higher percentage of women than the industry norm.

"Our games are different because they're more for kids and families, and more educational, which tend to be more interesting to women," CEO Jesse Schell said.

A recent study co-authored by CMU's Anita Wooley concluded that in trying to predict collective intelligence, it was reasonable to expect a "smarter" group if it had some women in it.

"Women tend to score higher in tests of social skills and social intelligence," she told The Harvard Business Review.

"Every single study shows that diversity improves the bottom line with the company. Bar none. Period. There's no question about it, said Ms. Graner Ray, who was recently nominated for an industry lifetime achievement award.

Mr. Schell agreed it's better to have a variety of perspectives: "There are projects in our industry that go too long and try to do too much. I often think if there were more women in the game industry, things might be a little saner."

In general, he added, there might be four male applicants to one female. It's closer to 50-50 for artists.

Inequities are reflected in women's paychecks as well. Game Developer magazine conducts an annual survey among the industry and in 2012, male programmers (making up 97 percent of those responding to the survey) made an average of $93,000 -- almost $10,000 higher than their female counterparts.

Among artists (87 percent male), the difference was about $79,000 to $53,000.

At the highest levels, it's still a man's world. When the ETC conducted a West Coast tour for students to meet and greet executives at game companies large and small, Allison Sommers, 54, was wide-eyed.

A second-semester student so new to the business that "I've still got my nose against the bakery window of the video game industry," Ms. Sommers did indeed see women at the front of a room full of men.

And then, "I saw a lot of women, introducing us to men. Handing off the microphone to them."

Ms. Graner Ray, who said she contributed a tweet to #1ReasonWhy and its more upbeat spinoff, #1ReasonToBe, said that outrage over sexism is healthy and productive, to a point.

"When we started 20 years ago, one of the things that brought us together was the realization that a lot of us were being treated pretty crummy ... and we used that shared anger and that shared fury and we used it as power.

"It's had its place and time, but now it's time for us as a movement to grow up. We have to OWN our successes. We need to find those women and put them in the public view and lift them up so it becomes just as normal to see a woman keynoting a game conference as a white guy."

Young women in the ETC and other venues working their way up in the industry shouldn't turn a blind eye toward prejudices, but they also need to see the victories, she added.

"We got through this. You can do this. You should expect success."

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