This week marks the annual European Women in Games Conference in London. The programme boasts over twenty speakers and covers majority of the discourses in the gaming industry today - E-sports, storytelling, job search advice, all with a strong emphasis on gender and race diversity or lack thereof. The event concludes with networking drinks — a busy day for anyone who can afford the £100 for a ticket.
As a woman in gaming I absolutely celebrate a call for more competitive women players, developers, project managers and of course more representation of anyone who is not a white dude in the games themselves. Quite a few projects, media campaigns and journal papers exist stressing the urgency for the games industry to be more inclusive and hopefully we’ll be closing the doors on that boys club soon.
However, I’m afraid all of this is not enough.
The route that allows career prosperity in these areas is paved with blood and suffering of populations in the Global South creating the devices crucial for the game development jobs to exist. It’s a sad reality that these voices are grossly under-represented, even muted amongst the gaming community. Many of the gadgets used to enjoy and create video games will contain minerals mined in Democratic Republic of Congo — decades of conflict progressively dismantled long-standing economic systems based on agriculture and small-scale trade. Mining meanwhile emerged as one of a very few ways to earn cash quickly, particularly for widowed or divorced women without other job opportunities. It is hardly a secret that women are also uniquely vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and transactional sex is often demanded of women to gain entry into mining towns and acquire or keep customers for other economic activities.
The minerals mined in Congo are then transported, most likely to China where factories, squeezed by global brands to produce ever-cheaper high tech products, continue to cut corners on working conditions. In 2010, the publicity surrounding the epidemic of neurological diseases caused by so called ‘banana oil’ used to polish screens was meant to produce change, but in fact companies now have a motive to deny that workers were injured on the job. Government corruption and interference cause further delays and setbacks for patients, who are often left struggling to pay for treatment out of pocket for years, or are trapped in lengthy legal fights. Foxconn, which employs about one million people, makes many of the world’s most popular gaming gadgets, including Apple’s products, PlayStation and Xbox consoles. At least twenty suicides, have taken place at Foxconn’s plants since 2010, eight of them — women. One of them was Tian Yu — she had to skip meals to do overtime working more than 12 hours a day, six days a week. The teenager was one of 400,000 employees at Foxconn’s Longhua facility that produces the smartphones and tablets that are sold by Samsung, Sony, Dell, Apple and end up in British and American homes. At around 8am on 17 March 2010, Tian Yu threw herself from the fourth floor of her factory dormitory.
Yu’s voice is completely forgotten at the events for minorities in the gaming industry or for Bafta award ceremonies for outstanding games. The people that can afford having discussions about representation and top jobs creating the games are already lucky enough not to be dependant on jobs for manufacturing the tools that are paramount to the industry.
It’s a sort of Hillary Clinton feminism. A belief that if only we will have women in positions of power, paid just as well as men are, this effect will trickle down to the lower paid jobs. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that it was at a Women in Games event that I met the most ferocious supporter of Hillary Clinton yet. She was also a big fan of games developer and writer Jane McGonigal who, in the introduction to her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World writes the following: ‘Eventually, as a result of my research, I published several academic papers proposing how we could leverage the power of games to reinvent everything from government, healthcare, and education to traditional media, marketing, and entrepreneurship — even world peace. And increasingly, I found myself called on to help large companies and organisations adopt game design as an innovation strategy — from the World Bank, the American Heart Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Defence to McDonald’s, Intel, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the International Olympic Committee. You’ll read about many of the games I created with these organisations in this book — and for the first time, I’ll be sharing my design motivations and strategies.’
Collaborations with such institutions as the World Bank, McDonald’s and the US Department of Defence for the purpose of ‘change’ must be called into question and viewed critically from the position of historical materialism. Using video games as advertising for these oppressive institutions only solidifies their power rather than questioning it.
But hey, she’s a woman, right??
Uhhmm, it just doesn’t matter. Just because we have Theresa May as Prime Minister and Hillary Clinton as President, that is of little help for a feminist discourse. If no structural change is produced, placing more diverse figures in positions of power means nothing for the majority female workforce that is still overworked, under-appreciated and underpaid. This is what corporate feminism looks like. Billion-dollar corporations who screw over the working class and marginalised, time and time again use diversity at the top echelons to disguise the structural inequality.
Why do I place the responsibilities to fight this onto women you ask? We must refuse being seen as hypocritical — while asking for diversity in gaming we cannot fundamentally ignore the anguish of communities who make the industry possible. The fight for representation is certainly universal, but as women we have been subjected to oppression disproportionally more. We should know better.
While we are experiencing a massive expansion of roles in gaming on managerial and narratological level, it would be very sad to see it stop there. Feminism will only prevail when ALL women are liberated, not just the ones that earn more money. Perhaps the same can be said about all minority struggles, but as a cis white woman, it is not my say.
I am a woman who cares about diversity, politics and has a passion for video games, but I simply cannot see myself paying £100 for an event to discuss all day how can us lucky women of the Global West can earn even more. While it is possible that the tech industry is moving towards more sustainable ways of creating gadgets i.e. automation, currently it is not for the benefit of their workers, but rather the company’s profits. We need to urgently demonstrate support and appreciation for all the people that currently allow this industry to exist, often sacrificing their lives. Projects like Slum Innovation and Indian Girls Code, where young girls in orphanages are given resources to learn about robotics and coding are fantastic and need to be more encouraged.
The mission here is to refuse becoming complacent and think that if we have an equal figure of women at the top of our industries, the fight is over. Diversity can be convenient for capitalism — focusing on individual success stories, rather than structural inequality, is politically helpful to the Conservative squeeze on living standards. So if you’re languishing at the bottom of the corporate ladder rather than hammering on the glass ceiling, well, that’s because you didn’t want it enough.
19/09/2016: A follow-up article with more practical suggestions is now published here.