The original version of this article was published on PSFK on December 16, 2015.
Diversity in tech seems to be the topic du jour. That said, often those conversations are about ways to increase the numbers of under-represented groups, with less attention given to the nuances of what and how they’ll create impact once they’re there.
Given this context, I was happy to hear about Latoya Peterson‘s Web series that looks at women in gaming. Peterson is the Deputy Editor for Voices at Fusion. More importantly, she’s been been gaming since 1989. She has written game criticism and commentary for places like Jezebel, Kotaku, her blog Racialicious, and the long defunct women-focused online gaming magazine Cerise. She also organized a SXSW Screenburn panel in 2010 on Social Justice in Video Games and wrote about gaming while female for the June 2015 issue of ESPN Magazine.
Rob Fields: In that famous Raymond Carver sense, what DO we talk about when we talk about women in gaming? And what should we be talking about?
Latoya Peterson: We spend way too much time talking about women in the context of harassment.
We do not spend nearly enough time talking to women as experts. As gamers. As players. As artists. As world-builders. Women have been in games since games were created, and every few years, this kind of conversation pops up around harassment, without asking women what they’ve been doing in the meantime.
How many women are on the cusp of world shifting technologies heading up major game studios? (Answer: 3)
What women are leading the charge in terms of games and neuroscience? (2)
How many women are leveraging their experience in games into transformative technology? (1)
There are so many stories that are going untold, and it’s because we are only looking for one type of story from women who game.
Do you have a general sense of how women are approaching gaming—both personally and professionally—in the wake of Gamergate? What did it change for women, and did it change anything for the better?
I’m not sure how to answer this question, partially because it takes a few years for people to really know the impact of events like this. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed a few different reactions. One, there are lots of women in gaming that don’t identify as feminists. So a lot of women were attracted to Gamergate, especially outside of the United States. For a few women, they’ve become targets of Gamergate and spend a lot of their time and energy dealing with that reality. For a lot of people in the industry, Gamergate just brought into focus a lot of the crap they were dealing with already—if you listen to the stories told in the GDC panel #1ReasonToBe (chaired by Leigh Alexander and Brenda Romero) most of the stories don’t deal with Gamergate, they deal with dozens of other issues facing women in the game industry. And for some women, the rise of Gamergate just made people more defiant to make their own voices and own stories heard.
Is there any sense that the kind of violent, misogynistic attacks that were exemplified in Gamergate are on their way out due to a shift in cultural attitudes?
Gamergate got so much attention because it was a concentrated look at a much larger problem: the harassment of “others.” It’s been happening since the days of Usenet, and was luckily documented by scholars like Lisa Nakamura. We can always hope that this kind of thing surfaces because of a shift in our cultural landscape—but as we’ve seen in history, there are waves of progression on social issues followed by waves of backlash and conservatism. Gamergate may mark a particular period in games history, but most of the mobs tooling around the Internet aren’t interested in video games.
During the course of putting this series together, what surprised you the most, i.e., was there a strongly held assumption you went into this with that got completely overturned?
The largest one was the idea of who is a gamer—I didn’t realize so many women didn’t identify with the term. Going in, I thought people were turning away from the term “gamer” because of all the Internet drama; it didn’t occur to me that they never identified with it in the first place.
But honestly, there’s a lot that was challenged by discussing the issues with a fascinating group of women. I re-wrote big chunks of Episode 3 because of talking to researcher Dr. Laine Nooney about heroines and sexiness. Is sexiness the problem, or the fact that women have no other roles besides being eye candy?
Naomi [Clark] created a game called Consentacle and has a fascinating conversation about what it means to reclaim tentacle porn. Her game is all about sex and consent. Andrea talked about the American lens on the world being full of war, which I hadn’t realized – on an intellectual level, sure, we know a lot of our most popular games are shooters and war sims. But to hear it from someone that didn’t grow up here, marking war as something very American—it threw me, I have to admit. I’m still thinking about it.
And there was just so much more. Game designer Mattie Brice talks about cyborg theory and the ghosts of ourselves we leave in machines. Another game designer, Mary Flanagan, talks about the history of gaming being shaped by women (and often co-opted). Sugar Gamers founder Keisha Howard made an off-handed comment about learning to read from playing Final Fantasy that someone else also echoed. And there’s so many people who were down that I didn’t get to talk to. There’s just too much content.
Keisha Howard, Sugar Gamers
Let’s assume that women aren’t leaving gaming—that they’ll continue to play and more will start creating and producing games. What impact might this have on the types of games that get made? I’m also thinking of a related idea that when there are more women in boards of directors, those companies perform better. Are you seeing any effect/impact in that sense?
Good question. So on one level, this has always been the case. I saw Lucy Bradshaw [former senior vp] from Maxis Arts speak at Games for Change a few years ago, and she noted that when there are more women on the development team there is a correlation with the numbers of women who play the game, even if the game isn’t specifically marketed toward women. We saw that with Centipede (1981) that was created by Dona Bailey; we saw it later with The Sims and Spore. So this dynamic isn’t unheard of in the games industry.
I think any shift in storytelling is a benefit—I don’t agree with everything in this piece, but Cyrus Sanati is right that the big budget games feel stuck in a time warp. It’s the same rut that Hollywood is in, honestly—that games are privileging nostalgia over innovation and new experiences. There are a lot of fascinating stories that can be told through games but it’s going to take more diversity in the industry and particularly in the executive suite for that to happen.
What are you playing right now?
A mix of things, as always. The game I play the most is Journey, because my son loves it so much. If I can get some alone time, I’m replaying Final Fantasy X and X-2. And I will soon cop a Wii U which I am buying completely for Super Smash Brothers since my editor caught me slipping on the new version. If I need to de-stress, I’m playing Slam City Oracles, which is Jane Friedhoff’s game.
Game designer Jane Friedhoff
Author’s note: check out the currently available episodes of Gamer Girls via the following links:
Episode 1: Who Are Girl Gamers?: Who gets to call themselves a gamer?
Episode 2: Why Do Women Make Games? – The process involved with making and designing a game.
Episode 3: Where Are All The Female Heroines? – Examining the lack of female heroines in games.
Episode 4: Identity Issues – Talking gender, race, and transgender identity while in game world.
Episode 5: Let Her Play – Our first gaming memories, play practices, storytelling, and power.
Lead Image: (l to r): Series creator Peterson; Princess Zelda; Slam City Oracles; Faith from Mirror’s Edge