Someone (FluxxDog) asked me, How does this attitude towards women get perpetuated in the first place.
I have talked about this at great length, in a bunch of different places, so here I will gather my thoughts on it.
First and foremost, the “boys club” is a cultural thing. Back when games went from being pen and paper and board to video, the people who knew how to program, the people who were into computers and the things they could do, were predominantly educated white males. Remember, we are talking about the 70s. In the 70s, the civil rights movement was still fighting for rights. Women are STILL fighting for the right to birth control today. Those of us born in the 70s and 80s tend to view these things as “ancient” history. They are neither.
So, when you have people who are into this new fangled thing called a “computer” but most of those people are college students and graduates in engineering fields, which were pretty homogenous, you are going to end up with a noticeable lack of diversity.
Of course, computers, and thus video games, became virtually ubiquitous over the next 20 years. But take a look at the turning point of where games went from being a hobby thing to being a money thing. You have guys who are making games as a hobby, and “publishing” those games by copying the .exe to a floppy, putting the floppy in a ziplock baggy with a hand made label. When they realized they could make money from it, they shifted from making things just to goof off to making things that would sell. When your audience is a bunch of hobbyist computer nerds, you make games that appeal to hobbyist computer nerds.
Don’t discount the cultural pressures on the sexes at the time either. I am 100% certain if not for my older brother, I would never have gotten into games and nerdy things. Even in the 80s, girls were being pushed towards gender roles. I remember being told that playing games was a “waste of time” and I should learn to do something useful, like learn to sew. I didn’t want to sew, I wanted to play games. Lucky me, my mother let me. This was in the LATE 80s and early 90s. Seriously, we are NOT past cultural pressure into gender roles. Look at Lego and Lego Friends. It’s RIGHT THERE on your toy store shelf. Walk up the aisle between action figures and Barbie.
So what happened as games evolved from Pong to World of Warcraft? Well, guys who made games and wanted to make money made games for guys who were willing to spend their money on “frivolous” games. Remember, the cultural norm for women was to spend money on clothes, shoes, and jewelery. Oh man, I suddenly remember in HIGH SCHOOL (96-2000) being asked by someone why I always wore t-shirts and blue jeans, since I could clearly afford “better” clothes because I was always buying books and games. THAT WAS 13 YEARS AGO.
Games were a luxury item. Consoles, computers, all of that, were things people spent their “extra” money on. And women generally didn’t have discretionary funds to spend on “useless” things like games. (I remember reading just a few years ago that young women were finally considered a worthy market with lots of money for marketers.)
So guys, making the games, made the games for guys. So when women came in and wanted to play, they would play games that were directly targeted at men. The art styles, designs, and fantasies portrayed in the games were all directly targeted at the people who were going to spend money on it. So why would a woman, who could care less about blowing shit up, want to spend the hard earned money she had on that kind of game? Even series like King’s Quest, designed by a woman, didn’t get female protagonists until the FOURTH one in the series. The second game, and the first game I remember playing, was all about finding your princess.
This created what designers call a negative feedback loop. Guys make game for guys, so only guys like games, so games only get made for those same guys. If you tried to break out of the mold, your game company likely went under. Even worse, these early games sold like crazy. Teams were tiny, and the development costs were low, so 4 people working out of a garage could make a game that sold 50k copies fairly easily. And there wasn’t marketing costs, publishing costs, etc etc, so most of the money made was profit. And what do people do when they suddenly get a ton of money? They go crazy. (Sex, drugs, and rock and roll!)
So you have this entire industry based on this history of being a boys club. Which means, even at the time, when women tried to push in they were met with rampant sexism. Only at the time, it was impossible to do anything about it. High profile sexual harassment lawsuits really hadn’t made companies afraid of them, and so women weren’t as protected. They were over looked, ignored, and treated like eye candy. So, of course, women didn’t want to get into that.
Again, cultural expectations are heavily at fault here. Even today, even in 2012, when I had my son, there were WOMEN who were appalled I was putting him in daycare to go back to work. Especially since my “work” was “playing video games.” (Oh and don’t even get me started on the whole “video games are a waste of time/only for kids” crap.) 2012. That’s right. How horrible was I for making video games more important than my son? If I am getting that now, how was it for women 20 years ago? *shudder*
The feedback loop kept going, and got the industry in a nice cozy rut. People don’t LIKE breaking out of their comfort zones. As it took more people to make a game, and cost more money, they started to not like taking risks either. Why take a risk and possibly not get your money back when you can make the same old stale game you have made 10 times knowing it will sell at least enough copies to get you your money back?
There are a ton of small things that all add up to this thought that it is better to hire men than women. If it’s all men, no worries about maternity leave or babies. If it’s all men, no sexual harassment lawsuits. If it’s all men, at least we will all agree on the design goals. If it’s all men, we don’t have to behave and this can be like our frat house from college, man weren’t those the good old days?
Sadly, it’s just true that for people who enjoy the kinds of things that lead to one enjoying games, that they will end up being more comfortable with people LIKE themselves. So for the super nerdy programmer who has spent a great deal of time only around other super nerdy programmers, it can be very difficult to overcome the social anxiety of dealing with people who aren’t like them. So when that guy is in the position to hire… he is going to hire someone he likes.
The problem just compounds on itself. Because the bigger the industry got, the bigger the money got, the bigger the boys club got. Games like Duke Nukem attracted a certain demographic of guys. Who then went, DUDE this is awesome. Then they looked at the frat house culture of the studio that made that game and went, HOLY CRAP I WANT TO DO THAT AND GET PAID. Women looked at it, and went, UGH. And walked on. Even further, the people who had the money to find games were generally rich, old, white males. They didn’t trust female lead startups. So they wouldn’t fund them. So they would fail. And then the funders would say, “See, I told you it wasn’t a good investment. I told you they would fail.” It’s a self fulfilling prophecy.
But the culture slowly became more inclusive. Games got made that weren’t wildly offensive. Games got made that weren’t exclusionary. And Nintendo went, hey guys, let’s make games that *everyone* can play. Not only that, let’s make it EASY for everyone to play. Over time the number of women playing games increased. It’s now around 40%. The number of women making games increased too! It’s up to 12%.
That number seems low right? It’s because the cultures of studios are affected by the personalities of the people who form them. By the collective personalities of the people who work there. If you have a Dudebro form a studio and hire a bunch of Dudebros… guess who is going to feel wildly uncomfortable, unwanted, and disrespected? The industry is still growing. I would say we are just now hitting the early 20s. Games, generally, are becoming more inclusive and becoming more artistic. But you still have people who cling to the old ways and thoughts.
The problem gets perpetuated by the fact no one wants to speak up. Even through the whole 1reasonwhy women STILL weren’t posting some things. They weren’t naming names. They weren’t naming companies. They weren’t naming games. Because it’s SUCH a small industry. Everyone simply knows everyone and chances are, you are going to work with people time and time again. Speaking up, causing a fuss, and shaming men for their treatment of women isn’t going to make it better, it’s going to get you fired, unable to get a job, and make you a target for even worse aggression or treatment. Look at what happened to Jennifer Helfer. Look at what happened to Anita Sarkeesian because she wanted to talk about tropes vs. women in games. Not the gaming community or developers, just within the games themselves. And you would think she suggested that all gamers eat babies, kittens, and puppies from the way people reacted.
Even if you are comfortable speaking up, even if you are brave, even if you are in a safe place, sometimes the shock is just too much. I was sitting in a meeting, with designers, producers, and publishing execs, when one of them made an extremely sexist comment. Not at me, but just in general. I looked at him in shock. I was so stunned someone would feel that way, much less say it out loud with a woman IN THE ROOM, I was literally speechless. I probably looked like a complete idiot for the rest of the meeting staring at him with my mouth half open in shock. Would you believe I was praised later for not speaking up and “causing a scene”? I pointedly informed the person that if I had been able to form words, I would have.
But nothing was said. He wasn’t told how inappropriate and wrong what he did was. So he has no reason to believe he shouldn’t do it again. People don’t say anything. I have had men tell me things said to me upset them, but when I am not around, many of them won’t speak up. People are also generally taught as children to play nice, don’t make waves, and just go with the flow. This leads to everyone being aware of the problem, but no one wants to talk about it. They hope if they ignore it, it will go away.
We can’t just ignore it. We have to confront it. We have to be willing to risk everything in the hope of making a change. Simply asking someone to stop. Simply saying “That’s not cool.” Being willing to say, “I would rather make indie games and eat ramen than work with someone who is going to treat me like crap. ”
By staying silent, by simply accepting the status quo, we are perpetuating the problem. We have to be willing to help and support each other. I commented that one of the most important things is knowing which studios are good ones. When looking for a job, look at these places. Toys for Bob, Double Fine, Telltale, 2k Marin… All great places to work, that are woman friendly, all right here where I live (all of which I can personally vouch for). Make the list of good and bad places. Be aware of the good people and good leads, then follow them. When these places make great games (and they have and will again) and people ask why, explain that it is the culture and awesome people working there. The rest of the industry will figure it out.