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Video Game Vets on Industry Sexism & The Need to “Fight Negativity with Positivity”

by  in Video Game Comment
Video Game Vets on Industry Sexism & The Need to “Fight Negativity with Positivity”

Last weekend, five video game industry veterans came together at PAX East to speak about the challenges they’ve faced in the industry, signs of positive change they’ve witnessed, and what gamers can do to improve the community. Cara Kelly (Producer, Harmonix Music Systems), Dawn Rivers (Lighting Artist, Harmonix Music Systems), Danielle DiFalco (Marketing and Production Artist, Game Show Network) and Cassandra Lease (Quality Assurance, Mobile Aware) joined host Alex Scokel (Senior QA Tester, Ready at Dawn Studios) for an upbeat — if raw — session about the path to inclusivity in gaming.

Scokel began the discussion by outlining the goals of the panel. “People are the games that they make and games are the people who make them, and I think that the idea of a wider variety of people in the industry will lead to a wider variety of experiences…. We’re going to take it as a given. It’s not what we’re here to convince you of. What we’re here to do is talk about our personal experiences in the industry, things that could have been better than what happened, things that are awesome currently and ways that we could do even better moving forward.”

From there, he moved into his own experiences as a queer person in the industry. “I knew that I was equally attracted to males and females and identified against either of the binary genders for basically as long as I knew that I was interested in anyone. I was kind of an ass about it growing up. It took me a really embarrassingly long time to come to a point where I was accepting other people’s experiences. Clearly, my worldview is not a standard one… and yet, even for me, it was really easy to universalize my experience. I suspect that, to an extent, that’s true for a lot of people… When we, as an industry, are shortsighted, it’s very rarely out of antagonism towards anyone. It’s a failure to listen or a failure to even notice what’s being said by others. I think that people who have been marginalized find it difficult to speak up about these kinds of thing, which makes them even less likely to be heard.”

Following Scokel’s heartfelt introduction, Rivers described some of her more unpleasant experiences as a gaming industry professional. “I feel like I’ve had a lot of good experiences,” she began, “but… I remember the first two GDCs [Game Developers Conference] that I went to, I would be waiting in line to pick up my badge for the game company I’m CEO of and sometimes get questions like, ‘Are you a developer? What are you doing here? You don’t seem to fit in here!’ Thankfully, I find as the years have continued on, I have to prove myself less and less. It’s really hard starting out, but seeing that experience improve has really given me a lot of hope for the direction this industry is going in.”

Kelly, who had just arrived from GDC herself, explained how seeing a woman like Laura Fryer, the General Manager of Oculus VR, as a keynote speaker at a video game convention was a confidence booster. “It’s been really awesome to go to these huge events where there have been a variety of representations of men, women and any gender identity, really. To actually see these much bigger events have that kind of backbone and support that we didn’t really see as much of five years ago. That felt really good for me personally, to be in that room and see two women being keynote.”

Lease took the microphone next. “When I was still in the Tabletop industry, I came out as trans in my freshman year of college. Because I wanted to continue working in the Tabletop company at that time, I came out to the editors I worked with… and I was expecting an array of responses. What I was not expecting was one queer editor to immediately turn around to me and go, ‘So, do you just hate your dick?’… It ended our friendship as well as our professional relationship.

“The other experience I had was more a microagression,” she continued, “In this game, there was an option for a male and a female character. In character creations, you saw them in a certain outfit and you could get different outfits in the game. I notice that the male character is in heavy armor and the female character is in much the same, except that her midriff is bare, and I’m thinking, ‘There are a lot of organs there that you want to keep inside.’ So I got together with the other female testers and we were all agreed that we didn’t think this was fair. The characters weren’t presented as equally badass if the woman was in impractical armor. We sent it off to design and design just flatly said, ‘Well, some of the other outfits are super-sexualized and we don’t think it matters that much.’ We had to really press on this argument that this is the first impression that a player is going to get of this character. The design was changed, but it was difficult and baffling to me to even have that conversation. I find that things that seem self-evident, people haven’t thought about those things. Communication is key.”

“A similar thing happened with one of the titles at Harmonix, where one of the female characters during development was suggestively not wearing a shirt,” Kelly added. “We have a small team, and everyone is working together all the time. During play test, I kind of bit my tongue, because the structure of play test at the studio is that there’s a series of open questions that are asked at the end. So, at the end of my test, I was like, ‘I don’t want to be that bitchy woman, but she should just wear a shirt. There’s no reason to oversexualize this character.’ That was sent off and very well received. I think there was something inside of me that was waiting for that defense or hostility, and everyone was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s common [sense] and we’re going to change that.’ And it was fixed.”

“I interviewed at Harmonix years ago,” Lease added. “I remember, Harmonix is the only place I’ve ever worked where the interview explicitly asked me about sexual harassment.”

DiFalco took the mic next. “I know a lot about being a girl and playing games and getting that feeling that guys want to be like, ‘What are you wearing?!’ while you’re playing games. I used to be really into competitive games, and there’s this game I used to play all the time. I really enjoyed playing that game, but I decided really quickly to never speak into the microphone because the only girls that did that were immediately targeted by guys. I just didn’t talk; I was no one on this game. I lost my identity from being afraid of guys that I couldn’t see who couldn’t see me. I was still good at the game, but I asked, ‘Is this for me? Is playing games for me?’ At that point in my life, I felt that, but I didn’t want to give up.

“I experienced it again, because I started doing Twitch, and you show your face in that and you start getting weird comments,” she continued. “Somebody actually said, ‘It’s a scientific fact that girls can’t play games’ on my chat. The other people on chat were like, ‘You know what, man? Leave! You’re the worst!’ There’s just enough people out there to make you feel like you can’t be yourself, and that’s horrible.”

“I think you touched on something really awesome there,” Rivers responded. “There’s the idea of building communities that foster protection of that community. I was talking to neuroscientist at a party who was studying Facebook and Twitter and social media forums and found that people get these groups together and they get really protective of their groups if the group fosters a really safe, collaborative community. If that group gets really toxic, then they will kind of hunt together in a way. Even your Twitch community members are willing to go out on a limb to make sure you have a place where you can be yourself and have your voice. I think if any of you guys out there manage forums, Facebook groups, Twitter groups, anything like that, I think it’s up to you to set these standards for what is a healthy community and how people should treat each other and enforce that. You don’t have to let toxic people into your house. It’s important to set those standards.”

Kelly added, “I think one thing I’ve appreciated about events like this, events like GDC, networking, Twitch streaming, all this stuff, is that we are building these crazy communities. We are building these relationships and friendships with people. At the end of the day, it’s kind of us to push those ideals out and to push our ways of thinking to our communities that we’re working with.”

Scokel recounted an encounter he had at GDC, “There was this young woman who worked on a project, and they started on a pretty small team. The leadership on that studio had gone off and come back with a new set of guidelines for the company, and one of them was to hire the right person for this job. Their team, as the project went on, started ramping up and getting larger. It got to about three- or four-times the size it had been, and this woman was still the only female on her team. She went to her manager and said, ‘Hey, what’s up with this? It’s a little weird and problematic.’ And his response was, ‘This is a comic game. I wouldn’t even know how to start hiring women for this.’ So, she ran it up the chain and got it changed.”

“I was also at GDC,” Kelly chimed in, “I was having a conversation with a woman who works QA at a small company in Toronto. She’s actually the QA manager of a team of ten people, and seven of them are women. You don’t usually see that kind of balance. She was talking about the gender split with her managers and the sex split in the industry when one of the other developers made a snarky comment like, ‘Well, if I had the opportunity to hire a cute lead, then I would, too,’ and she went into some detail about the feedback she provided in that moment. It’s important for people to speak up, to give that feedback, to not keep your mouth shut and just accept it. It was really good to talk to people at GDC who also had these real experiences and also aren’t scared to speak up.”

“Something that keeps coming up is the assumption that you can’t speak up if you’re in a terrible situation or, if you’re in a workplace scenario, that somebody is deliberately doing something against you because it’s a personal attack,” Rivers agreed. “Sometimes people just don’t know. They don’t know that what they said was offensive. In those circumstances, having a civil conversation is enough to start bringing awareness as to why this experience is inappropriate or uncomfortable.”

Lease kicked off a discussion about positive experiences in the industry, saying, “A couple of years ago, when Turbine was bought out by Warner Bros. Games, the company became subject to their policies, and their whole plan, and all that. I was going from a MassHealth plan where I knew the doctors, to a Warner Bros. plan, which I had no experience with. A lot of HMOs don’t cover transitional aid care at all. My HR manager gets back to me a few days later and tells me that WB Games Health Plan covers everything. It’s something that a lot of companies don’t think about, just because we’re such a small part of the population. I’m glad to see that some companies, like WB Games, are thinking about and are taking steps to include trans employees.”

“I had a really great one yesterday, that I was not expecting at all,” Rivers chimed in. “I’ve demoed at smaller conventions before, but this was actually my first time demoing a product at a really big convention, and I’d been hearing horror stories from the game industry about women getting harassed at booths and having really uncomfortable conversations and questions. I wasn’t totally prepared to deal with that if that was going to happen, but yesterday was amazing! Everybody who stopped by was so energetic and excited and enthusiastic, and nobody questioned my game developer cred — and nobody questioned my gamer cred.”

“I have really good experiences here, too,” DiFalco offered in agreement. “Maybe online I didn’t have a great experience, but — as soon as I get to PAX, I can sit down with anyone and play ‘Super Smash’ with a bunch of guys, and it doesn’t even matter. We were all just having fun.”

“PAX is like the best parts of kindergarten,” Lease enthused. “It’s so easy to go up to people and play and make friends. I’m not saying that PAX is perfect, but I will say that I’ve never felt excluded here.”

“I could tell you many war stories, but getting an e-mail from Alex asking to do this panel was like, ‘Whoa! Yes!'” Kelly added. “The turnout in this room, and all of you being here, feels incredible. Having avenues to do more stuff like this is the best feeling of it all, being able to just share this community and share this culture.”

“There’s this common argument in Hollywood and the game industry that the desirable audience is white men of a certain age,” Lease explained. “I really think that saying white men can’t identify with women or minorities, you’re really giving your audience too little credit. At the same time, women and minorities of all kinds have been identifying with white, straight men for years. If we can do it, everyone can do it, I promise. Really, thinking back to ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and the controversy about, ‘No, we can’t have a female protagonist, because women are too hard to animate’ — body language varies from person to person. I really don’t for a second buy that, even if you don’t have time to rig a separate set of animations, you can’t have a female character with the same set of animations.”

“Thinking back to that famous quote of, ‘women are too difficult to animate,’ there was really interesting, crazy energy after that,” Kelly agreed. “It was really interesting to see how many developers were just exposing their toolset and how they do their work and saying, ‘No, this is a cop out.’ I thought it was really amazing to see how much positive recourse came out of that.”

“We, as developers, really love talking to our fans,” Scokel said, “We read our forums, we search Twitter, we sometimes look at the comments sections on reviews. If we hurt your feelings, let us know. We want to know when it happens, so that we can make amends or do better next time.”

“It’s never our intent to hurt people’s feelings,” Kelly added. “Be open with that kind of communication because, like 90% of the time, it’s going to be, ‘Oh, I didn’t know. I’m sorry. Yes, I will change that.’ Being clear about that kind of communication is really important. We totally want to talk to everyone about that stuff.”

“Giving feedback respectfully and constructively is really important,” Rivers clarified. “We’ve all been on the Internet, and the quickest way to shut down a conversation is to tell somebody they’re stupid and you want them to die. You’re not telling them why you’re actually upset, what part of the game was offensive or where we did make that misstep, and you’re not letting us know what it is that you want to make things better. We love the games that we make, and we want to put work out there that we can stand behind and that we know our fans love. If we can have a really constructive conversation about that, I am always happy to listen.”

“As we’ve seen over the past year or three, some of the more conservative elements in the fandom are very loud,” Scokel said. “They’re used to being listened to, and so they speak up a lot. If you disagree with them, then I encourage you to be loud as well, but loud and positive. Fight negativity with positivity.”

When asked about minority representation in particular, “Rivers responded, “See if any of their art team is represented and talk to them. A lot of those guys have a lot of power making those decisions. That’s definitely a conversation worthwhile.”

With a word of solid advice, Lease rounded out the panel by talking about her involvement in the Backup Project, which pledges to help victims of harassment, and said, “I always think that, as soon as you notice a problem, you should talk about it. My advice is, anytime you’re having a conversation, if you feel prepared to go in there and ask the question, then ask the question.”

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