“No female lead characters,” was the alleged word from Activision’s top brass. “Female characters don’t move units.” And with that they pulled the plug on the development of a major female-fronted gaming franchise, after a hard-working development team had put significant effort into creating a character who could actually live up to an exquisite title like Black Lotus.
I suppose that as a female gamer, a former female game reviewer and a female developer, I am expected to be surprised and outraged by this news. I’m not. I just have the same sick sense of inevitability that I have been nursing for the last decade, as I have watched an industry that was built and developed by the efforts of hard-working, creative and visionary men and women taken over and run into the ground by bumbling Widget Salesmen from other industries—who have no idea how to make games OR how to make money in this business.
The events transpiring at Activision recently are simply symptomatic of a larger trend. What did we really expect? For the past decade, the top leadership slots of the company have been occupied almost entirely by outsiders who parachute-dropped into positions of enormous power in the computer gaming industry after having been executives for companies like Proctor and Gamble and ConAgra Foods. What do these people know about games and gamers? What do they know or care about the industry, it history, and its audience? Nothing whatsoever. They are hired because they have expensive suits, expensive haircuts, and a business pedigree; they are brought onboard to manipulate stock prices and increase share value—nothing more.
And honestly? All this would probably be fine if such people would be content to smile, sign the checks, and let the people who actually know what they’re doing make games and decisions about development. But they’re not. They come into this business and they feel compelled to change our industry to reflect the corporate culture of the places they come from—complete with the nightmarish top-down sexism and glass ceilings for women and minorities, the Frat Boyish ideology of “what sells” that dates from 1952, and all the other joys of entrenched corporate anti-capitalism.
In the past decade, these Widget Salesmen have descended on our industry like locusts. They came running at the smell of profit in the mid-to-late ‘90’s, and after having “proved their worth” at companies like Pepsi-Cola or Hasbro they descended on successful companies in electronic entertainment to reap the benefits of other people’s hard work. Rather than working their way up through the ranks with proven success and earned profits from actual games, they came in at the top to take “leadership” positions at companies like Activision…and now they are essentially paid huge salaries to drive people who actually DO know what they’re doing out of this industry, and to impose an absolutely blinding and stupefying ignorance of the computer gaming industry, its products and its audience on both developers and consumers.
It’s a shame that none of these new CEO’s and Chief Financial Officers and Presidents of Publishing ever bothered to open a dossier and read up on the industry that they decided to take over. The truth of the matter is that computer gaming—as an industry and as a hobby--did not start off as a sexist little pigpen where outmoded ideological sputum ruled the day.
Some of the earliest entry-level gamers always were, always are and always will be female. I started off in the arcades when I was 10-12 years old playing Space Invaders, Galaxian, Centipede, etc.--and I was hardly the only girl in the place even then. Both my daughters have been raised on video games; my sixty-year-old mother is now a stage two entry-level gamer, who has moved beyond her first Popcap titles and is starting to play modern adventure and puzzle games which remind me of old favorites like Myst.
And women are not only common gamers—they were also, in the early days, some very important developers. PC games are the wellspring of modern console games, and in the early days many of the most successful PC games were designed by women: in fact, one of the early giants in this industry, Sierra Entertainment, was built on the backs of female lead designers, specifically the work of Roberta Williams and Jane Jensen.
And yet the industry has actually become steadily more backward in this regard as time has moved on, rather than becoming more progressive. Women gamers and strong female characters are not the only victims of Widget Salesmen in positions of power. When was the last time you saw a high-powered game franchise with a significant team size, budget and ad campaign which had a female Lead Designer?
What strikes me as especially pathetic about this latest black eye for Activision is that this same company actually has the nerve to run an “Independent Games Competition” to “help foster creativity” and show their “commitment to supporting the creative spirit and innovation of developers”. Seriously—why in the world would anyone pitch a new idea to a company when its top brass clearly have their heads stuck in Beaver Cleaver’s rectum?
Here’s a new idea for you, boys—women enjoy games. They play games. They buy games. They make games—and they always have. So far as strong playable female characters and powerful top-selling franchises go? I don’t see the Biohazard/Resident Evil series standing in line at the welfare office, and Lara Croft hasn’t had to sell her diamond-studded bra. So no matter how hard you work to push them aside, silence them and render them invisible as you appropriate the industry they helped to build, women are a reality that you’d best get used to.