Helping the Game Industry Face Itself

 (courtesy Game Developers Conference)

A new study finds what we've know for a while now: the video game industry is sexist. When a huge swath of people working in the field were asked if they had "experienced, to some degree, sexual harassment either at my office, or in another game industry gathering," the divide was clear: 60% of women agreed and only 20% of men. To get behind the numbers and learn more about how sexism is affecting one of the world's largest entertainment industries, I sat down with the lead researcher, Jennifer Allaway, a delightfully brash undergrad studying at Willamette University in Oregon. We started with inspiration.

The study was sparked by this article focusing on the male gaze in games by Brandon Sheffield over on Gamasutra:

"I know why we put ladies in ... ridiculous costumes, and I know why [we don't] get what the problem is. It's because we, the people making the decisions on these games, are largely men, largely heterosexual, and as such we like looking at boobs and butts, and we are making this game for others who feel the same way, which is inherently limiting."

From inspiration to the study's completion was a bit of a whirlwind. "I talked to my advisor; he recommended a grant project the school funded. I applied, was accepted, and here we are over a year later!"

Jennifer Allaway
Jennifer Allaway

Why such an enormous undertaking for one undergrad? "No one has actually tried to... document the sexisim in the games industry." No one. Ever. This study is the first of its kind. But why do a study to prove what most people already assumed was true? Because anecdotes aren't evidence. Much like the recent discovery of gravitational waves, which proved a long-theorized model of the expansion of space after the Big Bang, these numbers prove our working model. Empirical studies give us numbers to point to and use as guides for hiring decisions and management of workplace culture. Jennifer put it this way: "I personally feel that the discourse about gender in the game industry has been productive but is also facing an impending downward spiral. I was hoping that ... by bringing statistics to the table I could add a layer of academic discussion" to a subject that has otherwise been only anecdotally supported.

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This isn't just diversity for its own sake. The Entertainment Software Association's 2013 demographic survey found that 60% of mobile players and 45% of players overall are women. The audience has grown up, and the industry needs to as well. The industry's male-centric population makes games it wants to look at and play, which is great for one segment of the overall gaming population. According to the ESA survey, 58% of Americans play video games, which makes them a huge cultural force these days. Developers, intentionally or not, export their likes and dislikes, culture and values into the games they make, and if that developer population is homogeneous, it gives one point of view unchallenged power over a hugely lucrative market.

Grand Theft Auto V alone sold almost 12 million copies in one day. Allaway's work gives developers reassurance that diversifying their games won't alienate their audiences. When asked if they "feel comfortable playing as a protagonist of a different gender," more the 80% of respondents, men and women, said yes. Video games are the entertainment medium of the moment; we dedicate so many hours to exploring these other worlds that the human stories and portrayals that make it into games have a huge impact on our culture.

But that doesn't mean that men in games are awful people out to crush everyone who's not like them. As Allaway said in our conversation: "I certainly don't think that the game industry is full of male chauvinists who live to suppress women." Unconscious habit is a hard thing to change.

Something men and women do agree on is there is scant education on the subject. Only 29% of those asked (across both genders) believed that "men in the game industry as a whole are educated and informed on the current issues surrounding the treatment of women in the video game industry." The hope is that education can steer improvement with low female hiring rates and retention, but part of the problem is certainly how women are treated when they do get jobs in the industry. Allaway said, "I think there's a lot that goes on that men don't realize affects women in a negative way. And the culture of the industry leads a lot of women to keep their problems to themselves, rather than speak out or explain to their colleagues why they feel uncomfortable."

Men and women alike have a responsibility to contribute to the improvement of working conditions. Allaway hopes that her study "can provide more room for women to discuss their struggles without being afraid of losing their jobs or the respect of their peers as a consequence."

Where is Allaway headed? She plans to join the game industry after graduation, perhaps using her sociological superpowers to improve community management and game design. "A video game-oriented sociologist would be tasked with understanding who gamers are, why they play, how various factors (gender, race, socioeconomic background, etc.) affect how and why and what they play. They're also acutely aware of the struggles each of these groups face and take them into consideration when it comes to game design. Socially aware designers are more likely to make deeper, more creative stories and game content, rather than relying on lazy tropes and stereotypes."

After all science can help improve the cycle of diversity, of people and their gazes, which will mean more people will see themselves represented, and representation will sell better to diverse communities. Allaway put it simply: "My study helps the industry face itself."