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Another Castle: Women, Gaming, and the Fight for Diversity on the table at “Open Worlds”

45% of gamers are women. Do you:

  • Hire more female developers
  • Have a discussion about how you should hire more female developers, and then do nothing
  • Think “that’s not my problem”

Anyone who plays games regularly (whether you call yourself a gamer or not—but we’ll get to that in a moment) knows that the choices you make can drastically change the outcome of a story. When it comes to game design and developer demographics, the people building the games we love have only recently started to reflect the same ratio as their fanbase.

At our recent event “Open Worlds: Women, Diversity in Gaming,” we had an amazing opportunity to hear from four women who have been leading the diversity charge: Holly Liu, CoFounder and CEO of Kabam; Purnima Kochikar, Director at Google Play Apps and Games; Sarah Fuchs, VP and GM of Covet Fashion at Glu Mobile; and Casey Wu, Senior Developer at 343 Industries (more commonly known as the makers of Halo). Over two intensive hours at Microsoft’s Reactor Studio in San Francisco, our panelists took careful aim at the gaming industry’s complex gender parity issues, the meaning of the word “gamer” itself, and the experiences that drive their careers.

“I didn’t find gaming—gaming found me. Or rather, it ran me over like a truck,” Holly Liu said in her opening keynote My Complex Relationship With Gaming. “Gaming is incredibly innate—it’s a very human trait,” she said. “It’s how we learn and interact with each other.” Gaming is also one of the only industries that’s truly global—unlike other creative careers like technology or filmmaking, which are concentrated into a few square miles of California, successful games have hit the market from every corner of the world: Australia’s “BioShock,” Finland’s “Angry Birds”, China’s “Arena of Valor” series, and Spain’s “Gris” are just a few. “But when you look around the average GDC expo floor, the demographics don’t really reflect opportunities for women,” Holly said.

She reflected on her gaming experience, and complicated relationship with the word itself. “My dad was too cheap to buy an Atari, so I played a lot of joystick games. I never felt quite good enough to call myself a gamer — I was playing stuff like ‘Farmville.’” The term is complex and, after enough time in the pop culture rock tumbler, extremely fraught. “There’s this whole idea that just because you don’t play a certain type of game, you don’t get to call yourself a gamer. It’s so crazy—you can’t tell someone they’re not a fan of music because they don’t listen to a specific band.” Gatekeeping mixed with womens’ tendency toward imposter syndrome can make the landscape inhospitable to even basic gender parity. “Games are a hiding place, a safe place, where all people can feel included,” Holly said. “The challenge is building a world that’s truly inclusive and welcoming.”

She finished with a message to gamers and developers: “No matter how complex your relationship is with games, all it takes is one ‘yes’ to start building something better.”

 

The panel then took the stage to continue the conversation, with Holly in the moderator seat. Some comments have been edited for clarity and/or brevity.

In interviews, I always get asked “are you a gamer?” and I hear “oh, no, I’m just a person who plays games.” should there be a different name? Is it a sexist term?

Sarah Fuchs: “It’s interesting. When you ask people if they’re a gamer, they’ll say no, a gamer is an awkward person who lives in their parents’ basement. I Just play 7 hours of Sims at a time! People shy away from labels and everything they mean—if the label turns you off, it’s not necessary. You don’t need to put yourself in a group to enjoy the game.”

Purnima Kochikar: “A few years ago there was a hashtag that went viral #ILookLikeAnEngineer—maybe people need to embrace the term to open it up. 49% of women are gamers, 51% of people buying games are women (though women spend less on games). Look at the topic in multiple dimensions—how do you design for women? How do you allow women to drive the industry?”

Sarah: “Some women feel guilty spending time playing games—they should be working, working out, caring for something or somebody, doing anything else. It’s why they don’t invite other women to play—it’s the fear of being judged. It’s why we’re reluctant to adopt the term Gamer.”

Casey Wu: “The term is flexible—we’re living in an interesting time. Everything is getting redefined. Look at comics—10 or 15 years ago, comic readers were nerds. And now it seems like if you DON’T know the Marvel lore, you’re a total cultural outcast! The gamer cliche goes if you didn’t play a lot of first-person shooters and drink a lot of mountain dew, you’re not a gamer.”

 

GamerGate struck a few years ago and blew up—if you were a woman in gaming, it was a dangerous time. It was heartbreaking that something so small became so scary, the whole community turned on each other. Women were being threatened with violence or worse. What impact did it have on you three?

Casey: My family were texting me constantly to ask if I was okay. It was so sad to see that whole thing happen. Microsoft is very protective of their employees, which is fantastic—our (male) lead sandbox designer got death threats for just making changes to games. Male colleagues were offering to walk me to my car. It allowed us to start to have some important conversations and take things more seriously than ever before.

Sarah: It was kind of a slow build—I remember being terrified by the power of anonymity. People feel empowered to threaten you and worse, threaten your children. What came out of it was even stronger, more supportive communities of women and allies.

 

Purnima: Since I was running a global team, making sure my team was safe was huge. With every cowardly act, with every anonymous threat, we get to meet more allies, we get to see who actually supports women. We have to find stronger voices to keep calling things out that are unacceptable. The gaming community still has a lot of toxicity in it—drawing hard lines is the only way to combat it.

Holly: GamerGate evolved into the #MeToo movement, in many ways. At the time, it felt like GamerGate was insular and scarier because of it—I wonder how it would be different if it happened now.

 

You’ve spoken about diversity on your teams—have you seen the gender split change over time, and how has it changed the quality of your company culture?

Purnima: For me, it’s just logical that if you’re building for the world, your team should represent the world. Google is an American company—how do you build a global ecosystem in an American company? You have to think globally—I had to learn how to listen to my Japanese team differently than my American team, for example. Building that kind of global team makes an organization more open to women.

Sarah: I echo that completely—gaming is for everybody, and the people making the games should look like the people playing them. When I started 19 years ago, I was one of two women on a 100-person team. Covet Fashion is 50% women now. If you can have constructive conversations, you’re going to make a better product. To have women on your team, you have to make your team a welcoming place for women. Respecting boundaries make it easier to be in games.

Purnima: And I’d like to say to the young people in this room tonight—creating boundaries is not always your problem. If you need to create more space in your life outside of work, a company that truly values you also has a responsibility to make it happen. Reach out and have conversations with your coworkers.

Sarah: It’s not just mothers who want to have a life, too. It shouldn’t be about the physical time you’re in the office, but the quality of work that you do.

Holly: When you educate a woman, you educate an entire village.

 

A few questions from the audience:

On creating accessibility in games:

Purnima: we’ve just barely started to scratch the surface. We do a lot of research on contrasts, tactile aspects of physical controllers—one hand and even one-thumb controllers. It’s still a small list, but we’re working hard. The best part of my job is doing it as a community. We build blank canvases, and others paint on it. Not enough people are building accessible gaming—I think we might need people to build it themselves to show us the way.

Casey: At Xbox we take accessibility very seriously—we have a special controller for it. We recently heard about a young man from the UK, who’s vision-impaired and is supremely talented at Halo! He was able to beat most casual players simply by using surround sound. Something we’re very cognizant of is color blindness, as well—we try to view things through different lenses so people with color blindness aren’t at a disadvantage. At Xbox we have an initiative called “gaming for everyone”—we believe games ARE for everyone.

 

On managing toxicity in the gaming community:

Casey: Toxicity is definitely a huge problem—on Xbox live they’ve added more features to help block and report attacks or bad behavior.

Purnima: About 2 years ago, we sat down at Google and asked ourselves what we could do. We looked at games from three vectors—we wanted to shine the spotlight on what’s good. What kinds of games work without objectification? What do female gamers value? What kinds of design changes can we make to make women feel like they’re part of the community? We had to show developers just how much more money they could make by showing them the data from inclusive games. We’ve also started encouraging girls in game design and play, with female executives as mentors.

Sarah: Representation does really matter. The last two games I’ve worked on have features where you can create anything you want, any look you want—we want to be fully aligned with a modern world that encourages people to truly be themselves.

Casey: Our production team took a test and found that we all fall into different Harry Potter houses—we found out that we’re a collection of super-powers, and we all have something different that we bring to the table. It was an adorable way to underline something very real.

 

Special thanks to the awesome folks at Microsoft and Microsoft Reactor Studio for hosting and partnering on this event with us, and our networking sponsor UIS for keeping us knee-deep in pizza!


Blog Author:
Micaela Youmans
Director of Communications

Micaela YoumansAnother Castle: Women, Gaming, and the Fight for Diversity on the table at “Open Worlds”

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