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Tackle sexism and gender inequality in games by speaking up, panel says (update)

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.

One of the first questions addressed on the PAX East 2014 panel about gender inequality was whether it's a hot-button issue these days because we're just becoming more aware of it, or because it's actually getting worse. Either way, the panelists agreed that it's a problem, and essentially agreed on the best solution: Everyone has to speak up in order for the situation to get better.

"It was always just something you kind of accepted," said Susan Arendt (second from left above), managing editor for Joystiq, about sexism in the game industry and in games. But now, people are "more willing to call bullshit on that." Brianna Wu (above right), head of development at Giant Spacekat, believes we've hit a critical mass: Women are almost half of the gaming audience and they're an increasing segment of the development industry, and avenues like Twitter make it much easier for people to get the word out about instances of sexism.

"men, and specifically, straight white men, lead the conversation"

According to Tifa Robles (above left), former brand manager for Magic the Gathering at Wizards of the Coast, the audience for that card game is 90 percent male and it's "not welcoming to female gamers." Male Magic players often see women and assume that they're not there because they actually like the game or that they're not good at it. So she founded the Lady Planeswalkers Society in an effort to create a safe space for female Magic aficionados, which led to people assuming she wanted to exclude men. However, said Robles, her group is 30-40 percent male — the aim isn't to exclude anybody, but to bring everybody together.

Robles also noted that many people aren't able to empathize with women who put up with sexism — they say that because they haven't seen blatant instances of sexual harassment, it's not a problem. Wu added that many men aren't intentionally, maliciously sexist; sometimes, they don't realize how their words and actions are being perceived, often because they haven't considered their privilege — "men, and specifically, straight white men, lead the conversation."

In addition, said Wu, "Sexism in 2014 is not a Mad Men moment." In other words, it tends to not be as obvious as a PAX East attendee asking if he could touch a cosplayer's butt (although that actually happened this weekend, Wu explained). Instead, it comes in more subtle, insidious forms: Men invalidate women's opinions, or minimize or try to dismiss their experiences.

When men speak up to call out issues such as sexism, they can often be labeled as "white knights" — people who are supposedly defending women just to impress them or get attention for doing so. But media critic and activist Duane de Four (second from right above) believes that's a "bullshit term," and the panelists agreed. The best way to help reduce gender inequality and sexism, they said, is to speak up — regardless of who you are.

"You can't help it if you were born a white dude," said Arendt. "Now it's your responsibility to not be an asshole."

"We have to challenge each other on this"

Wu noted that it's particularly important for men to step up in this effort, since — sad as it is — they're often taken more seriously. "We really need you guys as allies," she said. "Being a [male] feminist doesn't mean you turn in your man card." De Four, a black man, also emphasized the point that gender inequality isn't the only issue. "I'm tired of the black character being the tank," he said.

Robles echoed his sentiments. As a white woman with a Mexican husband, she said she's thought about what would happen if she had a daughter — namely, that her child would suffer abuse for being a woman and for being a mixed-race person. She told the crowd that we all have the same goal: social equality for everybody, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever.

"We have to challenge each other on this," said de Four.

For more on the topic, check out our coverage of the #1ReasonToBe panel at the 2014 Game Developers Conference.

Update: The panel's moderator, Gamebits' Ken Gagne (center, photo above), recorded the entire panel. You can check out the video below.

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