Challenging the gender imbalance in videogames

Challenging the Gender Imbalance in Videogames was originally presented at the Education in Games Summit 2018 as part of Melbourne International Games Week.

Today I want to take the next step in a piece that was published earlier this year.

This article was inspired by the 2017 ACMI exhibition Code Breakers: Women in Games, which was the first exhibition in Australia to showcase the work of women in the games industry.

Whilst this exhibition was running I noticed that teachers would, at times, struggle to articulate how to talk about the gender imbalance in the industry and why it was important to showcase women in this exhibition. So I interviewed 5 amazing creatives on their experience of gender inequality in the gaming industry and the support they wished they’d received from teachers in school.

For those creatives their schooling was quite different from today. Videogames are becoming more and more embedded into teaching practice in both primary and secondary schools. With a revised Digital Technologies curriculum and a number of professional learning opportunities now available, videogame analysis and development have become a core component of our teaching. However, there appears to be a gap in the education of our students when it comes to understanding the experience of identifying as female in the gaming landscape. Let’s look at the data I want us to challenge…

46% of Australian videogame players are female

…which is awesome! However

15% of creatives working in the Australian videogame industry are female

… which is not so great.

When 46% of videogame players in Australia are female, we must consider why so few women are employed to make them and how can we, as teachers, change these stats?

Unconscious gender bias is embedded in our society and makes its way into our kindergartens, primary and secondary classrooms and universities. The lack of interest/pursuit in career in STEM starts at a really early age. And not to put you under too much pressure but it starts with us, as educators, mentors and supporters!

We know that women feel pushed out of STEM studies from a young age and there are early-established gendered-beliefs that STEM subjects are just ‘not for them’. Studies show these sentiments start at aged six. As a result you get less girls electing STEM subjects in high school, and then they become a minority gender in the university courses — which then trickles through into the workforce. It’s a pipeline problem which starts with the education system. See info graphic to the left.

We’ve reached a point in society where it’s absolutely critical there is more equality in the technology industry. When you think about how many tech devices, tools and apps we interact with each day you can see how ridiculous it is that they are created by one section of society. Today I’m speaking specifically about gender issues surrounding women. This data, unfortunately, does not reflect or recognise non-binary creatives or other minorities. There needs to be a diverse mix of people creating our technologies or the products won’t reflect or suit the needs of all the people who coexist within our society.

This research from 2016 suggests we can overcome this gender inequality by eliminating stereotypes and bias, by emphasising real-life STEM applications in our teaching, rewarding hard work to build confidence and encourage organisations to create supportive and inclusive workplaces. This is suitable in the broader realm from STEM, let’s dig a little deeper into the videogame sphere.

As educators we have a role to play in the steps towards gender equality in videogames. I think we can do this by striving to achieve the three following goals with our students whenever we use videogames in the classroom. I believe this discussion should be inherently part of our videogame lesson planning.

In the classroom we should strive to:

Today I’m going to explores ways in which we can do this.

The games industry can be an overwhelming place for women and girls, and the nature of the online gaming community can deter women from pursuing careers in this field. As teachers, we can supply tools to assist and encourage young women to survive and thrive on their journey into a videogame career.

Two thirds of children aged 9–11 draw a man when asked to draw a scientists. Representation of women in STEM roles is limited in popular media. Representation of women in games is even fewer.

If you google, “career in videogames, videogame designer or videogame developer” you get an overwhelming majority of images of men at a mutli-screen desk setup. This is society’s image of a videogame creative. It is what our students see and that can hugely influence their perception of what they can achieve in the future.

This is slowly starting to get better and better. And whilst thestats are very negative its important to focus on the positive. We’re always moving forward we just need to keep pushing. It’s achievable! Here are a few examples

Game Developer Barbie is a thing! And she actually codes herself compared to other Barbie’s in STEM careers who complete admin tasks, leaving the “real science” to the men *insert eye roll*

Good Game Pawn Point is an ABC program that reviews games rated G or PG. It’s currently hosted by Gus “Goose” Ronald and Angharad “Rad” Yeo Gemma “Gem” Driscoll. Two women out of three hosting a show about videogames allows young women to see a career path into the industry.

Hex, previous host of Good Game is another example. She regularly speaks at events encouraging girls to pursue a career in videogames, discussing her encounters with negatives comments and criticism and how she works through those moments. This is an image of Hex opening the Beyond Perception exhibition at Scienceworks.

So we need more images of women in videogame spaces in our students lives. Why not put up a poster in your classroom of women working in the videogames industry? When you use examples on slides or handouts make a choice to prioritise the representation of women in those images.

We have an issue with representation yes, but when a student comes to you seeking advice it’s also good to know where to go. Girl Geek Academy is a global movement. They run all kinds of amazing programs for young women including #SheHacksGames #MissMakesCode.

Keep an eye out for talks, support groups and exhibitions that may be of interest to your students. Tell them about them — even attend yourself, to get a feel for the community. It’s important that as teachers we are ready to support our students pathways and not to typecast and assume someone can’t do something because of their gender, race or sexuality. By doing this we’re normalising the fact that women work in the games industry and encouraging them to pursue their interests here, like you would in any other industry.

For example, it’s Melbourne International Games Week and there are so many talks and panels featuring amazing female creatives. Students will be heartened by the fact that there are other women in the industry who will support and encourage them.

Find awesome role models. These women don’t need to be people students know personally. These are women students can aspire to be. They can follow their careers, look at what they’re working on, read articles and research they share. Here are 5 women who are wonderful role moments for students.

Lisy Kane is a Melbourne-based video games producer and co-founder of Girl Geek Academy. Lisy planned and produced SheHacks2015 (Australia’s first all-female hackathon) and SheMakes_Games 2015 (Australia’s first all-female game-making day).

Brooke Maggs’ specialty is in writing, narrative design and production. She is the writer, narrative designer and part-time producer for The Gardens Between by The Voxel Agents, and was the narrative designer on Earthlight, a VR game. Brooke is a recipient of the Women in Games Fellowship and was last year named in the top 100 most influential women in the Australian and New Zealand games industries by MCV Pacific.

Nicole Stark entered the games industry during the formative years of Krome Studios. She started a game company with her partner and they made one of my favourite games, Ninja Pizza Girl — a game about self-esteem, bullying and resilience and pizza delivering ninjas. Its story follows Gemma, a sixteen-year-old girl working as a pizza delivery ninja.

Stephanie ‘Hex’ Bendixsen is an television presenter and author. She was previously host of ABCTV’s Good Game and has since gone on to present and produce for Seven Network’s screenPLAY. Stephanie is a regular speaker at events surrounding tech, video games and women in the online space. She has also written a series of books for children titled Pixel Raiders.

Leena van Deventer is an award-winning writer, game developer and teacher based in Melbourne. In 2016 she co-authored , Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny. Her commentary on game development, online culture and feminism has appeared widely in publications. She sat on the curatorial advisory committee for the Code Breakers exhibition.

Remember, games are made by teams of people with very diverse skills. Don’t let your students feel like they have be a programmer to create games. The list of roles in the industry is endless. A good example is Brooke Maggs, who began as a writer of literature and a teacher. Teach students to explore the subject areas and skills they enjoy, and then think how it can be applied to games.

Know what’s available and how to support students in their career pathway. Here are a bunch of courses for videogame creation available just in Victoria. Keep in mind that if students want to be a narrative designer, artist or another role, a course specifically focused on videogame development may not be the best pathway into the industry.

Many women in the games industry receive abusive comments and threats, especially online. As educators, we can encourage the next generation to be respectful towards women and support equality for all players and creatives, to build a more inclusive videogame community.

The long and mortifying history of aggression towards women in the videogame industry snowballed in 2014 with ‘Gamergate’, an online harassment movement targeting women in the games industry. Since this time, abusive treatment of women in videogames — creatives and players alike — has only continued.

I thought about sharing some of the comments online targeting women in the videogame industry. However, they were too disgusting and aggressive to share here. Instead I’d like to share a short section from Game Changer: From Minecraft to Misogyny which gives you an idea of what women can experience. *Here I read the first few pages of Game Changer: From Minecraft to Misogyny*

Online abuse is never okay in any forum, and it’s a shame it’s so prevalent in the gaming industry. I believe the discussion I’m wanting teachers to have here is related directly to online bullying. We talk about social media all the time but forget that games also have messaging, posting, as well as voice sharing capabilities in direct communication and public forums.

It’s good for students to know what they should do if they witness or experience abusive comments or threats while playing a videogame. As teachers we can start to work to shift the culture. This starts with with teaching students that everyone deserves to feel safe.

If the student feels safe to stand up for someone being abused, or to let the abuser know that what they’re doing isn’t acceptable, then that can be a powerful act. A lot of creatives in the game industry suggest using a stratgeiy that asked the abuiser to articulate their own prejudices by simply not getting the joke. For example, if a boy has told a girl to ‘get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich’. You could, in a non-confrontational way, pretend like you’ve never heard that ‘joke’ before: ‘Oh, why should they do that? Are you hungry?’

It is important that students know that sending threats online is illegal in Australia, and if you see this happening to you or someone else, you should report the comment, screenshot it, and save it somewhere if you need to access it later. The police CAN also get involved.

Opening the dialogue will also allow students to feel comfortable to inform a parent, teacher or guardian. There are also excellent resources for people who’re experiencing abuse online at Crash override is a crisis helpline, advocacy group and resource center for people who are experiencing online abuse.

Teach your students that if you see or hear someone getting harassed online don’t’ stay silent! We need to turn bystanders into allies.

As educators we’re in a position to initiate classroom discussion regarding the representation of women in videogames. This is Princess Peach’s crown —a character from Nintendo’s Mario franchise. This is Mario’s love interest and frequently plays the damsel in distress.

There is a long history of hyperreal and overtly sexualised representations of the female body in videogames, not to mention the sexualised violence towards female characters many students will have played out or witnessed during game play.

Many character designs and are deliberately made to look unrealistic. It’s important to think about how both femininity and masculinity are portrayed in videogames and their promotional images. When interviewing Brooke Maggs she recommended that teachers explore both sides of the fence with your students. Female characters are often posing seductively with their weapons, whereas males are shown wielding them. Male characters are strong, in control, without emotion, and have broad shoulders on which the world rests. Female characters are often passive and submissive, and power is taken from them by their portrayal as they are sexualised, and therefore dehumanised. When we only show one kind of masculinity and femininity, it does no-one any favours.

Women are commonly the token female characters in a group of male characters — there is a history of a lack of realism and diversity in this representation of female characters. Let’s look at an example from Metal Gear Solid. *I showed a video from the helicopter scene here* Who feels uncomfortable watching this? An all male development team created this character named Quiet *insert eye roll*. Quiet wears a bikini for the simple and OBVIOUS reason because she breathes through her skin. *insert eye roll*

We can deconstruct this representation in the classroom, just as you would any media text. Media represents through a process of selection, omission and construction. It is not possible to depict the world in its complex entirety, the creator selects those essential elements it requires to convey a message, ignores those elements it considers unnecessary and constructs representations for a particular audience and purpose. Given the lack of women in the videogame industry the development teams are majority male so representations can be one sided. You can imagine why young women would be resistant to be involved in the industry or even play the game. These are not characters we can identify with.

A lot of games don’t try hard enough with their character deisgn. It’s important to recognise that this is a shallow and unfortunate way of representing women and talk about it; build a discourse that demands better. It’s more than just how they look — it’s also how they act. There is a lot of unconscious bias in the world. As a society, we’re slowly bringing these issues to light, and I would always encourage girls and women to be brave enough to identify these issues and work together demand a more inclusive world.

While it’s important to criticise negative representations of female characters, there are amazingly high numbers of strong female characters in our videogame narratives. This includes women with all kinds of awesome skills and powers that they can use to save themselves — a nice contrast to the common damsel in distress trope.

One of gaming’s most well-known icons Lara Croft was redesigned. When Tomb Raider franchise was rebooted Lara looked much more realistic as a result of a female writer being hired to craft the story. Lara was given PANTS to wear and female players loved it!

Encourage students to support games that have good representation, and talk about and champion those. It’s more useful for teachers and students to give attention to people who are making amazing, diverse games. Some awesome games include,

  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • Life Is Strange
  • Uncharted: The lost legacy
  • Mass Effect
  • The Witcher
  • Transistor

Incorporating issues of gender equality into teaching practice is not a new idea; however, it is especially necessary when teaching videogames. By doing so, we can help deter inappropriate behaviour — which will help make the world of videogames a safer place — and encourage young women to pursue a career in game development. I encourage you all to feel empowered and comfortable to broach discussions of gender inequality in the games industry with your students.

This is an topic that is dear to my heart and I hope I have persuaded you to make it a priority in your classroom. I’m going to leave you with this quote from Anita Sarkeesian.

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