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Tackling sexism in gaming, 140 characters at a time

sparking an industry-wide discussion on sexism in gaming

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

When Luke Crane mused on Twitter, "Why are there so few lady game creators?" on Monday afternoon, he wasn't expecting much of a response. But when Filamena Young replied and included a hashtag, #1reasonwhy, she sparked an industry-wide conversation.

Within hours, the question had generated thousands of responses from all kinds of gaming fans: women and men; developers and players; supporters and haters. You can follow along with the anecdotes — as of this writing, they're still coming — at the #1reasonwhy hashtag.

Crane is the project specialist for Kickstarter's games category, approving gaming projects on the service, and he also designs tabletop role-playing games on the side. "In my job at Kickstarter I see a lot [of] games, but very few women creators," he told Polygon over email. "I assumed that there would be a better gender balance in submissions. It's unfortunate that there's not."

Although he has over 1,800 followers on Twitter, Crane said, "No one responds to my tweets. I didn't expect this tweet to be any different."

One of Crane's followers, Young has written for tabletop and video games for the past six years, and has begun publishing them in recent years. She told Polygon in an email that she was initially skeptical of using Twitter to "have a deep conversation about such a big issue." But she decided to give some examples of her frustrating experiences as a female professional in the game industry, tagging them with #1reasonwhy, in the hopes that other female tabletop game designers would join the discussion.

"I had no idea it would move past [tabletop] gaming, though I know it's just as painful in video games," she said.

"at Kickstarter I see a lot [of] games, but very few women creators"

The reasons why there aren't more "lady game creators" or women working in the game industry are numerous and varied — whether institutional or societal, whether from companies or people. But the fact remains that not only do men vastly outnumber women in the industry, they out-earn them as well, sometimes by a significant margin.

Game Developer magazine's most recent survey showed that in 2011, just under 11.5 percent of game industry employees in the U.S. — across all departments, from quality assurance up through design and production to programming and business — were women. There's a pronounced gender gap in pay, too: The survey showed that female employees' salaries ranged between 67 percent and 90 percent of those of their male counterparts, depending on the field. The U.K. industry is even less diverse, according to the newest Creative Skillset survey: In 2010, women made up only 6 percent of people working in the game industry there.

Meanwhile, 47 percent of gamers in the U.S. are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

One of the reasons Young gave for the lack of women in gaming was that employers who present her with freelance opportunities often tell her to focus on writing the story, as opposed to designing the game mechanics. "I'm lazy for not resisting that," she admitted.

Elizabeth Sampat, a designer of mobile and tabletop games, wrote, "Every post-release positive review I've seen of games I've designed/published has couched praise for it/me in sexual innuendo." Many others, including writer Lillian Cohen-Moore and game designer Jess Hartley, said they find it risky to even complain about sexual harassment, for fear that it could prevent them from being hired in the future. Writer Katie Williams put a long list of her personal reasons on her blog, saying she was "scared to post this on Twitter."

Female game developers also encounter resistance when they point out that many elements in games are designed to cater to heterosexual men. "I got blank [stares] when I asked why a female soldier in a game I worked on looked like a porn star," said designer Caryn Vainio. And game designer Jane McGonigal, author of the bestselling book Reality is Broken, pointed out that the industry's big-budget AAA games are still geared almost exclusively toward boys and young men, with subjects such as "war, cowboys, football [and] cars."

"there's not enough investment in AAA games about something other than war, cowboys, football, cars"

A number of skeptics and critics used the hashtag for sarcastic jabs. Some merely chalked it up to the assumption that boys and men are the primary audience for games, so the low percentage of women in the industry makes sense. Others decried so-called feminists moving in on their hobby. And plenty of individuals, both male and female, noted that they were jeered for being "white knights" just because they spoke out in defense of women.

But the discussion also produced many more positive outcomes. Rhianna Pratchett, writer of Mirror's Edge and the upcoming Tomb Raider, created the #1reasontobe hashtag so women in the industry could "share why they're in games [and] what they get from it." And PopCap Games community marketing manager Tara Brannigan suggested a #1reasonmentors hashtag, with people volunteering to shepherd others into the industry. Hundreds of inspirational tweets followed.

Writer Wendy Despain said she wants to pave the way for a better future. "If I can improve the games going out today, the next generation of gamers will be less sexist," she wrote. Game designer Erin Hoffmann said her reason to make games is that "the form, the art, so desperately needs female perspectives."

Both women and men in a variety of fields offered their experience and expertise as mentors. "Ladies of the game industry," began Deep Silver PR manager Aubrey Norris, "Happy to mentor any of you." Colette Bennett, community manager for ShiftyLook at Namco Bandai and a longtime freelance writer, said, "I'm happy to help others any way I can." Aleissia Laidacker, team lead programmer for AI and gameplay at Ubisoft Montreal, said she's "happy to help any aspiring female devs." Justin Berenbaum, vice president of business development and strategic relations at publisher 505 Games, said he's "happy to provide insights" in his field.

#1reasontobe #1reasonmentors

In her Twitter bio, Filamena Young characterizes herself as an "advocate of inclusion." When asked how that spirit manifests in her work, she explained her personal efforts to make the industry more diverse. "I make the art I want to see. I hire women artists and writers. I mentor women writers and try to connect women to the right jobs when they come my way," she said.

"There's been some pretty foul things sent to my email box and my [Twitter] feed" as a result of the hashtag, she noted. But the good far outweighs the bad. "There has also been a lot of beauty," said Young. "So much beauty. Guys are reaching out to help. Women are working together to build. Beautiful, just damn beautiful.

"I know a hundred capable women, two hundred, and I want them all out there, doing great thing. New things. Awesome things."

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