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How industry and personal bias inspired a gender-based game jam

Before Kimberly Voll could run a gender-focused game jam, she had to come to terms with something she'd recognized within herself years before: that she was not without gender bias.

Male options in games like Mass Effect felt like the more natural choice to her. Admitting to playing casual games was to be avoided, lest she be labeled "girlie." Despite her best intentions to view her gender equally, Voll could look at a woman in the gaming industry and assume she was an artist, not a programmer.

To put it simply, she was part of the problem.

A professor of game design and software engineering at Centre for Digital Media and a lifelong gamer, Voll is the driving force behind the recent 48-hour iamagamer game jam. Its focus was simple — gather students, developers and gaming enthusiasts together to create titles with kickass female leads. No other categories needed.

Voll started the jam as a response to a Gamasutra article. It was an interview with Remember Me creative director Jean-Max Morris speaking about publishers who actively discouraged Dontnod Entertainment from its female protagonist. The warning they received was damning: you can't have a female character in games, because it won't be successful.

"It's not like it's this big news flash," Voll said of the article's implications. "But it was just to have this explicit statement and no sense of remorse or reform was so frustrating to me.

"We live in a world where publishers are openly saying that we cannot have a strong female lead character because it won't sell," Voll continued. "That's actively refusing content because of that. That, to me, is a very broken perspective."

"That, to me, is a very broken perspective."

The response to the jam was better than Voll could have hoped for. Developers from around the world gathered to make more than 80 games that used a female hero in a clever way. One team ran with the idea of scripts being rejected for leading ladies. The discarded heroine finds her way into the newly scripted game, where she battles the male lead. Another uses language barriers as a metaphor for how difficult discussions can be when people aren't communicating with each other.

Judges were open to each team's idea and didn't look for one specific quality over another, Voll said. People went "all over the place" with their ideas. Most important of all however, was that the jam got people talking in a positive way.

"I never thought I was going to 'change the world with this,' and that wasn't what I set out to do," Voll said. "What I really hoped for was to create an environment during the jam where people could come together and feel really comfortable in the space and secure exploring games issues."

The point has never been to demonize anyone or anything, Voll added. The jam wasn't about pointing fingers or attacking games with male characters, and not all games need a female lead.

"I don't think gender makes or breaks a game."

"I don't think gender makes or breaks a game," Voll said. " ... What I am saying is that I think we can take a look at the very small percentage of games that are featuring female lead characters and really look critically at them. I don't want to suggest that one-sided parodies or hyper sexualized characters are inherently bad, but they are bad when that's all that we have."

Instead, Voll wants to focus on how the community can come together to increase representation and avoid inherent biases. It starts with examining the jokes we crack or the assumptions we make, which are often the root of the problem.

"It's hard," Voll said. "You don't always want to step back and say, 'You know, I've been making these jokes for awhile, and maybe I shouldn't be, because actually they might be contributing to this.'

"I didn't want to call myself out on it," Voll continued. "Why would I want to do that? Your own defense mechanisms are saying ‘no, no, if you do that you're a horrible person. You're not a horrible person. You're not doing that.'"

People get often get defensive during discussions, and Voll gets that. Part of is almost a "past acceptance," she said — an understanding that it's just the way the world works.

"This is our world," Voll said. "I've been playing video games since I was two years old. They're very much a part of my blood and who I am; I don't want that disrupted. I identify as a gamer. But that kind of thinking was what allowed me to justify a lot of other kinds of thinking that were non-productive and perpetuating these kinds of biases."

The ideal for women is games is not to fill a set quota. In fact, Voll said, a true mark of success will be when people stop noticing all together. Voll calls it "a natural resetting of things."

"[It happens] when we start to create a more balanced ecosystem where these tropes start to fade away," Voll said, "because we're setting up more positive examples and affording agency to a greater array of character types. Male and female and beyond, however you identify."

The industry will still have sexualized characters and one-sided parodies, but the important thing is to have balance. A natural flux.

"I really believe it doesn't matter what gender is in a game," Voll said. "A great game is a a great game. Putting a male character in there or a female character in there, unless that's somehow integral to the story, is not going to in any way affect it."

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