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Why Women Game Developers Matter

As the world of gaming expands, the need for more women game developers grows.

By Patricia SarkarPublished 7 years ago 13 min read

If you take a look at the top five games of 2015 according to MetaCritic, you’ll be pressed to find a female name among the credits. You may find names that sound like they should belong to women (here’s looking at you Leslie Benzies), but unfortunately the presence of women is nonexistent with the exception of Undertale’s Temmie Chang and Journey’s Robine Hunicke.

Some might argue that the absence of women in the industry is because of women game developers' perceived lack of talent. If this stinks of sexism, it’s because it should. Chang and Hunicke’s very presence is proof that women can make amazing video games that people, regardless of their gender, may enjoy.

Turning Female Gamers into Designers

The problem instead is that the gaming industry has made it difficult for female game designers to thrive. While this is tricky moral territory, the industry also suffers in the long run thanks to the distinct lack of female developers. Not only do women in gaming fill the increasing demand for diversity, but they also offer unique perspectives and experiences that can enrich the games they make. In short, increasing the amount women in the development and production of gaming can only benefit the industry and its audience.

Though sexism has always lurked in the dark corners of the industry, the GamerGate controversy of 2014 was perhaps the first time that gaming communities were scrutinized by people in mainstream society. The popular media website Gawker published a guide to the issue for “non-Geeks,” indicating that blatant sexism would no longer go unnoticed. The most important part of GamerGate was the visibility it provided regarding how women in the gaming industry can be viciously attacked whenever they make themselves present.

If you need a refresher on the course of events, it all began when female game developer Zoe Quinn put forth a text-based video game titled Depression Quest. Admittedly, part of her harassment was based purely on blogs posted by her ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni. But to ignore the frequent and unwarranted harassment of female game developers is foolish. In short, Gjoni’s blogs added fuel to a fire that had already begun against Quinn.

Image via Kickstarter

Misogyny in Game Culture

In that same vein, the fact that certain gamers took the conspiracy surrounding Quinn’s success as evidence that all successful female developers had only gained popularity through sexual favors revealed a glaringly obvious tendency to view women in gaming negatively. Thus, it is impossible look at GamerGate without seeing certain parts of the gaming community as a hostile environment for womenespecially if they are highly visible developers.

While sexism against women in the gaming industry appears limited to personal anecdote, unfortunately there is now scientific evidence supporting its prevalence. In a 2015 psychological study conducted by Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey Kuznekoff, it was discovered that male gamers (particularly those with less skill) respond with sexist behavior in fear of their position in a social hierarchy being disrupted. Those same lower-skilled players, (the game in question was the relatively gender-neutral Halo 3) however, do not respond with hostility if a higher-skilled player is male.

Ultimately, this study paired with the personal anecdotes of Quinn and many other female game developers further suggests that some male gamers see the inclusion of minorities (meaning non-white males), as threatening to the imagined integrity of the community. This line of thinking—that the gaming space is some sacred place only belonging to men of a particular race—does little to defeat the stereotype of gamers as recluses living in basements while fantasizing about virtual anime girls.

Harassment in Gaming

If you’re a gamer and your goal is to obtain respect within larger society, then diversity is the fast track to its achievement. The important distinction here is that diversity does not mean giving special attention to female gamers and female game developers. Instead, it means giving them the same courtesy and respect that their male counterparts are offered.

It seems obvious that diversity would be the best way to counter group stereotypes. After all, if a gamer can be any person that enjoys gaming, there would be no reason to assume that this means only dudes killing each other in Halo. The “geek” table in high school has the power to change from just a bunch of nerdy guys to everyone in the class talking about the latest PS4 bestseller.

However, the problem of sexism continues to persist. If it seems like a topic that is overdone, consider that in the situation of GamerGate, there’s a tendency to cover sexist hostility under the guise of a hipster-like mentality to keep the community isolated from the mainstream. GamerGate failed to argue that its purpose was to re-establish journalistic integrity. When faced with actual evidence against accusations that writers were giving Quinn special treatment, it was clear that the issue regarded women's space in media rather than video games themselves.

Image via Wellesley College

Adding Diversity to Development Teams

In other words, to expect video game development teams to remain unbalanced in gender is to ignore a whole other half of the gaming consumer base. At best, this notion is financially foolish. At worst, its imprint of sexism is unmistakable; alienating women from the gamer world assumes women have few or conventional interests. These interests would presumably have little to do with science, technology, or anything that was previously considered a masculine community.

Fortunately, it is not all gloom and doom for female developers. Some women have persevered in navigating the otherwise exclusive boys club. Despite the unfortunate harassment, the two women mentioned above broke into the top five games of 2015 as parts of their respective development teams. Other honorable mentions include Kim Swift, Chelsea Howe, and Amy Jo Kim.

Another trend that is noticeable among the current powerful female game developers is the Ubisoft brand. The company, known for games like the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Rainbow Six, and Watch Dogs, has also employed two of the most memorable female game developers in high-ranking development positions. Jade Raymond, who helped produce the first three Assassin’s Creed games, and Pauline Jacquey, the company’s current Managing Director of Reflections, both represent how diversity can improve the current state of games being released. It’s hard to acknowledge the rapid improvement Ubisoft has made over the past 10 years without also noticing their inclusion of women in their development teams.

There is much evidence to suggest that video games in all of their various forms are now being consumed equally by both men and women. The fact that consumption skyrocketed according to the number of self-reported women who enjoyed video games is evidence of two things. The numbers have increased exponentially, according to a recent psychological study, which highlights an interesting trend in the industry. Firstly, this is evidence of an audience that would enjoy more opportunities to play games reflective of themselves (i.e. female protagonists, fewer sexist tropes, etc.).

What Does 'Gamer' Mean in the 21st Century?

Secondly, the data is evidence that the socially-constructed idea of what constitutes a “gamer” has rapidly changed. Going back to that psychology study, the rapid change is perhaps a reason why there has been as much progress as there has been backlash. The destruction of the alleged social hierarchy where boys are good at video games and girls are not may indeed be threatening those low-skilled male gamers. It’s not wrong to feel anxious about increased competition for jobs and attention, but to use this energy as an excuse to harass, threaten, and attempt to destroy the careers of other people does little good for the perception of gaming in popular culture. It also does little to gain any real positive results in the gaming community. Basically, the industry cannot expect to survive if it can no longer meet the demands of its increasingly diverse audiences. There is a tendency to believe that addressing the sexism in the gaming industry has created more controversy than good. But consider the alternative silent suffering on the part of female video game consumers who may take their money elsewhere. We should also note the beauty and success that comes from diverse gaming teams.

Image via Boston Magazine

Women Make Their Mark in Gaming

You could say that games like Undertale and Journey may have been exactly the same without the women that made those games. But any game developer (or any person who has worked on a creative team) can immediately recognize that the opposite can also be argued; neither game would be what it is without Chang or Hunicke’s respective contributions. In the end, there’s no good reason to stop the inclusion of women in the video game development process. Instead, there’s only the potential for both positive financial and moral returns from encouraging their presence.

If you’re still not convinced, consider this final thought: so far, the male dominated video game development industry has produced both good and bad games. Assuming that women can (as they have proved) be either just as good or as bad as them, the only argument against female game developers would have to be the female identity itself. In other words, the only argument against the inclusion of female game developers is sexism.

Women Changing The World of Gaming

While the ratio of women to men in the game development world is still disproportionately lopsided, there are still warrior women who are making their mark in the world of gaming and bringing more diverse voices into the fray. Given that gaming has grown into $100 billion industry it is now more important than ever before to ensure that the medium evolves to cater towards more people’s tastes. Generally, most games have been built to appeal to straight white men, but little by little the tide is shifting thanks to the tireless work of women in gaming. We wish we could could spend all day listing some of the kickass developers who are working their butts off to make something else besides the latest Call of Duty or Halo game, but here are a few of our favorites.

Brianna Wu

Photo via reddit

Originally working as a journalist, Brianna Wu switched gears mid-career to become a game developer. She worked to produce Revolution 60 for the iOS. It was demoed in 2013 at Pax East where it was impressively was named one of the top 10 best indie games of the show. After a great debut they launched a successful Kickstarter to raise funds for the completion of the game itself. While making a fully 3D action game on iOS using the Unreal Engine is an impressive feat in of itself, what really made Brianna Wu a true superstar was her brave direct confrontation towards Gamergate harassment. Despite the horribly disgusting death threats and bombardment of harassment she stood up to thousands of internet trolls. She did not buckle under the pressure and even began a legal defense fund for other women harassed by the misogynistic trolls that have defined the Gamergate movement. If that doesn’t count as a power-up mushroom in real life, we don’t know what is.

Zoë Quinn

Photo via gadgetpronew

Zoë Quinn came to fame after she created her first game project after taking a six-week course in Canada on game development. From what she learned she created Depression Quest, a game that was inspired with her lifelong struggle with clinical depression. The game was eventually released on Steam, where it came to prominence receiving widespread critical acclaim and even being featured in a Playboy article. Quinn was also responsible for creating the Game Developer Help List, a massive Google docs spreadsheet filled with dozens of Game Developer contact info for people to help each other out. She also contributed and worked on games like Fez, Jazzpunk, and They Bleed Pixels. But perhaps her biggest contribution was becoming the eye of the storm of the Gamergate controversy. She was constantly inundated with the worst kinds of harassment on a constant basis as misogynistic gamers lumped on her for false accusations based on post written by her ex-boyfriend. Despite facing these trials she has remained firm, even establishing the Crash Override network to help combat against toxic harassment as well as writing a memoir detailing how she managed to cope with the hellish ordeal and come out stronger for it.

Anita Sarkessian

Photo via swift-storage

Anita Sarkessian is media critic made most famous for her feminist examinations of numerous media tropes. Originally she started by founding her Tropes vs. Women video series where she took critical examinations of popular sexist media tropes like the Manic-Pixie Dream Girl, Women in Refrigerators, and the Smurfette Principle. She then began a video series for her website Feminist Frequency to take a deep dive and examine many of the regressive tropes that have been littered throughout gamings history. Since it’s inception she has received nothing but harassment and death threats as well as many supposed “critical debunkings” with angry gamers trying to dismiss her criticism. But despite this she has remained strong, being profiled in numerous news outlets and even making her way to the Colbert Show. She has single handedly managed to shift the dialogue on games with many developers opening responding to her criticism and trying to be more inclusive and conscientious about their decisions when making games. One woman has managed to singlehandedly shift the dialogue of a $100 billion industry. It doesn’t get more impressive than that.

Kim Swift

Photo via gamespot

If there was ever a girl who has lived the gaming equivalent of getting a golden ticket to be invited into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, it’s Kim Swift. While still in college at Digipen, her and group of graduates developed Narbacular Drop and were scouted out by gaming legend Gabe Newell who immediately offered her and the rest of her team positions at Valve so they could flesh out their game into a full product that would go on to be featured in their Orange Box Half-Life 2 compilation. This game would go on to eventually become Portal. Kim was the lead and level designer and her work on Portal hit the world of gaming like a thunderclap. Portal managed to receive just about every award the game industry could offer and become an instant sensation inspiring memes and cosplay. Kim went on to contribute to other games at Valve software like Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2. She went on to pursue her own ambitions and left valve where she could maker her own games. Recently she was hired by Amazon to build games for their own internal studio. The world is still eagerly awaiting to see what her next creation will entail.

Carolyn Petit

Photo via youtube

Carolyn Petit is a transgender women who worked as one of Gamespot’s senior editors and game reviewers. Like many of the site reviewers she began filming videos to go along with her gaming reviews. Now if there’s one trend that you’ve probably noticed from reading about the other women on this list it’s that the gaming community is not exactly known for its generosity or tolerance. It didn’t take long for her reviews to be inundated with terrible transphobic comments. Despite this, Carolyn managed to persevere against her harassers and provide a stellar progressive prism by which she’d review her games. Of course this only continued to goad the trolls to continue with her harassment, culminating in a petition to try and fire her because she only gave Grand Theft Auto 5 a 9.0 on their review scale. With a skin made of steel, Carolyn blazed a trail for trans visibility in the generally toxic gaming industry. She now works at Feminist Frequency alongside Anita Sarkeesian where she continues to call out the gaming industries sexist and less than inclusive tendencies.

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About the Creator

Patricia Sarkar

Raised on a steady diet of makeup and games. Eager to share my experiences with the world and make a difference, article by article! :)

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