Image from the RESPONSIBILITY project

Grassroots Responsible Research and Innovation & the video games community

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI — warning, long PDF on European policy!) is an emerging research and policy area that looks at how we, as a society, can develop technology that is good for society. There have been a number of efforts to do this over the years, but they have largely been caught up in unwieldy frameworks, hoop-jumping, and other less-than-motivating top-down approaches that industry generally do not want to incorporate into their processes, so are, for the most part, restricted to academic research.

It’s easy to regulate how researchers at universities and similar institutions do research. If a researcher wants some money to do research, they go to a funding institution, which requires they do things like ethical reviews, technology assessments, etc. before agreeing to fund their research. In industry it’s a lot harder. Since the industry is — to a degree — self-regulating in their field (though there are many rules to be followed, especially when it comes to health and safety), they are largely able to decide what sorts of technologies to develop, what markets to exploit, and what ways to monetise their developments. In the video game industry there’s no big Industry Ethics Committee — such a thing would be laughed out of the room.

Academics researching RRI in industry are currently trying to work out how to bridge this gap. How can we motivate industry to develop responsibly? How can we make sure it’ll be something they can — no — want to do?

Recent events in the video game industry, notably the very public and particularly vitriolic harassment of several high profile, critical women (Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn) in the video games sphere, have brought the long-standing issues of treatment, representation, and acceptance of women in video games to the fore. It has brought out a particularly nasty segment of the video games community, the (usually) male “brogamers” that believe that video games “belong” to them (despite all the evidence to the contrary — women play games in pretty much equal numbers), who have threatened these women and their supporters, sustained a prolongued campaign of harassment against them, and concocted completely ridiculous claims that they are concerned about “ethics”.

This has rumbled around for a couple of weeks now, with these “brogamers” believing they had the strength in numbers and implicit support from the industry. But in the last couple of days the affair has continued on in such a way that it is now obvious that the harassers and bullies, the boys club gamers, are slowly being pushed back against by not only the community’s women, feminist supporters, games media, ordinary media and industry associations but high-profile pop-culture idols (e.g. Joss Whedon) and now, finally, the bottom-up industry itself, summarised beautifully in the form of Andreas Zecher’s Open Letter to the Gaming Community. This pushback, particularly from individuals representing their companies in the industry, is a prime example of what I’d like to call “grassroots RRI” — the industry itself calling for more responsible innovation, in this case as a response to a paradigm shift in acceptability of the treatment of women.

It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few months and/or years, and whether this translates into women-friendly studios that create thoughtful, sensitive video games that are more accessible to women, treat women as more than just eye candy, and… most importantly, shifts the culture around video games to shut down the poisonous sexism that makes it such an unwelcome arena for women in all aspects. If such a culture shift can occur in this industry, it will be for the betterment of society, and those working in RRI in industry efforts can learn a lot about how industry can respond to the community’s concerns and improve their practices. Let’s hope it does.