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The Reality of Sexism in the Game Industry

I did a year long study on the prevalence of sexist practices in the game industry, and whether that affected game content. Here are those results.

Jennifer Allaway, Blogger

March 31, 2014

12 Min Read

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains stories and verbal depictions of sexism and harassment in the video game industry.

“I’ve been to GDC every year…since 2007…I have someone ask me if I’m lost. I have someone ask me if I’m looking for my boyfriend… And I’m just like I’m standing here, in a World of Warcraft T shirt and a Nintendo bag. Do I look lost? And yet, it happens. It’s constant. Constant. If I comment on Kotaku, and people realize I’m a woman, and I design games, I get told I should quit my job. And like, I’ve never known guys in the industry that have had to put up with that.”

Meet Subject 12. She’s a veteran game designer who wants to make games more than anything. Unfortunately, since launching her career in 2007, she’s been turned away at interviews, paid half the salary of her peers, been made greatly uncomfortable by sexual harassment, and even lost out on full time job positions – all due to her gender. She had suffered from two types of sexism identified in my forthcoming study The Prevalence of Sexist Practices in the Game Industry and their Relation to Game Content. Overt, obvious sexism, which explores the pay gaps and direct discrimination directly linked to gender and covert sexism, which is more subtle. Her story has a happy ending, but being a woman shouldn’t be punishable by tragedy and abuse.

I didn’t expect to get far applying for a research grant on sexism in the game industry, and its effect on content. I expected to interview about five, maybe six women, write a small school paper, and move on. After GDC 2013, I had 48 women signed on for interviews. Later, men wanted to interview. People were already asking about statistics. These interview subjects were not only eager to share their diverse stories with me – they were hungry – hungry to know more, and hungry for me to keep researching. So, I did. After one solid year of research, I presented my findings at the 2014 GDC.

Here are the numbers. Here are their stories.

60% of women in the game industry have experienced sexism. For the purposes of my study, sexism is defined as any discomfort or discrimination that is caused in a situation as a result of a person’s gender. Almost 77% of women and about 55% of men have female friends in the game industry that have experienced sexism. 34.6%, over 1 in 3 of these women, admitted to experiencing discrimination from one of their coworkers, and 39.2% of women were not confident that HR could handle their disputes in the event of a problem with their coworkers. Even worse, 36.1% of women know or suspect a pay discrepancy due to their gender; Game Developer Magazine’s 2013 Salary Survey also shows a number of pay gaps between men and women (we’ll get to those in a bit).

 Allow me to introduce some women to help give examples to these numbers. Meet Subject 4, a female designer, who was disappointed when she had the opportunity to meet an industry icon. His gaze was so sexual and prolonged that she had to leave his presence. Meet Subject 30, a female marketer, who attended a party after her studio's acquisition by a larger company where they had relabeled the only women’s restroom for men and left pornographic magazines all over inside. While these experiences are not acceptable, nor necessarily typical, the most important thing to understand about overt sexism is that it’s psychologically demoralizing. Subject 7 elaborates:

"At some point you just become, well not desensitized, but you grow numb to it [sexism], because it's the same thing every week. You know, "This is isolated, this isn't representative of systemic problems", those two can get you feeling pretty numb. It's not just a numbness of, "I feel nothing", it's also the numbness of I can do nothing, I feel totally powerless."

The powerlessness Subject 7 describes is indicative of larger overt sexist practices. Numbing and desensitizing women to sexism lessens the likelihood they will speak out against it, reinforcing more sexism. In an industry that’s roughly 90% male, this power dynamic removes a woman’s incentive to stay with (let alone try and advance) within a company. In the games industry, they rarely reach the point where the glass ceiling is an issue.

Glass ceilings, that point to which a woman will no longer advance due to her gender, are shown in my data to exist. 59.2% of women disagreed with the statement that men’s and women’s voices are respected equally during meetings at work, compared to 33.6% of men. Women were three times as likely (30.8%) as men (10.3%) to notice a glass ceiling in their company. An integral part of glass ceilings is pay gaps, and as cited above, over 1 in 3 women in the industry know or suspect a pay gap of some kind. Pay gaps reinforce literal power dynamics in the industry – they literally state that women’s efforts are not of equal worth to men’s. In an environment where women don’t feel respect, don’t see success, or don’t feel valued, it’s becomes much easier to understand why the industry is only 10% female.

Subject 25 – a male to female transgender woman – told a particularly awful story about pay discrepancy:

“I didn’t realize this until year and years later when I was looking at my tax cards next to each other…the year I transitioned, and I had no other notice of anything – my salary actually went down by about 10%, which is like, oh my god.”

I clarified with her after the fact, that she had no drop in performance, no hostility between colleagues, and no other events that could or should have affected her wage in any way.

Wage discrepancies have the potential to affect the work performance of those undercut, especially where justifications simply do not exist. In some ways we can’t begin to discuss how this impacts glass ceilings, because women don’t stay in the industry long enough with these practices to even be considered for higher management positions. Many feel pressured to either accept the lower wage offered, or leave the studio altogether, with little social acceptance for bargaining discussed among the interviews.

How did this happen?

Sexist practices, pay gaps, and glass ceilings don’t come from a void, with no context or history. Most issues of sexism begin on a subtle level; once covert sexism is accepted in an office – the rape jokes, the constant sprawl of sexed up female characters, the boys’ club culture – overt sexism can begin to develop. Almost all of my interview subjects, 70% of women surveyed, and over half of men called this industry a boy’s club.  69.3% of women and 44.4% of men admit that at least one colleague has acted in a way that they found offensive on the basis of gender. Moreover, 70.8% of women and 54.2% of men disagree with the statement that men as a whole are informed or educated on the issues surrounding the treatment of women in the video game industry.

Office dialogue in a majority male industry might be one explanation. Subject 24 was one of a few women who felt excluded altogether by male employees, who attempted to “spare” them from potentially inappropriate humor:

"I was the only girl," she said. "They hung out together, the boys…and talked a lot and told jokes to each other, and I was kind of just left out. And I don’t think I was given a chance, and part of that was because I’m a girl, but I have a sharp wit and I like inappropriate humor…I don’t mean inappropriate as in sexist, but just being fun and silly at work. I felt pretty lonely and outcast, really.”

I also want to emphasize even men were uncomfortable with covert sexist practices. Subject 17, a male artist, told me of how his art team constantly was designing hyper-sexualized women for their games, oftentimes when it didn’t make contextual sense.  Even trying to bring up dialogue about character objectification seemed to paint him as the target of ridicule. Subject 21, a male director, told me how uncomfortable he feels when his male industry friends hit on clearly disinterested women at trade shows. Subject 27, a male designer, has had to report multiple colleagues over his career for condescending, behind-the-back remarks about female colleagues. Even the most exhausted of clichés, such as, 'I don't expect her to understand it, because she's a woman,' or suggesting they would look better with makeup.

There exists a lack of awareness of how such behaviors and statements can make coworkers uncomfortable, regardless of their gender. If neither men nor women feel comfortable defending themselves, it’s unlikely they’ll be comfortable defending their characters. Contemporary games suffer from glaring gender biases. 84.6% of women surveyed and 76.6% of men do not believe the portrayal of women in games is fair. What has worse implications, is that 77.7% of women and 62.6% of men believe the way we portray women in games has negative side effects on the game playing community. By stifling the voices of the women of the game industry in their careers, we have limited the scope of our game designs, and possibly the perceptions of the players. When subject 20 says that she wants her female characters to look “more like Olympians, and less like Playboy bunnies,” there was something striking in the brevity of that. Additionally, Subject 26, a female student, told me this colleague's story of how a boy’s club culture in an office directly impacted a game’s design:

"A lot of times guys go off in their little corners and you just hear them laughing about different things and, um - I think another reason especially in our design department that there's no females and I think there's only one female writer now and that's a lot of male voices against one female's. And, you know, she's new. So she's probably not going to be making a big fuss about trying to change these characters. I hope that she does. But I think that just having - and design really is where decisions are made and how the games are going to become how it is and without having a strong female voice or having a male friend like I do who is very passionate about not over sexualizing characters, it's become a boy's club, because they want to make their games the way they want to make them. If that means having a sexualized female, then that's what they'll do."

After one nonstop year of compiling, processing, and presenting these numbers, it would be fair to ask what I think they mean for the industry. Am I sobered? Disgusted?

I feel hope.

Not all the numbers I found were grim. Many were seeds of hope, both for the industry, and for gender inclusive content. For instance, 85.4% of women and 73.4% of men believe active gender inclusion will benefit the working environment of the game industry. 83.1% of women and 73.9% of men believe that the more diverse the workplace, the better the games the studio creates will be. Moreover, 77.7% of women and 71.1% of men support actively attempting to hire more women in the industry. The dialogue of the past few years has been working, despite the harshness of the data above. There is still much progress to be had, and it won’t end for a long time to come, but it is on the rise as this dialogue grows around us.

My data also has some promise to debunk myths that gender inclusive game design isn’t profitable. For instance, last year the Remember Me game team discussed that they struggled finding a studio that would produce their game, simply because their game featured a female protagonist. However, I found that only 1.9% of men surveyed need protagonists to be their gender in order to relate, and that 87.4% of men feel comfortable playing as a protagonist of a different gender. Additionally, almost 90% of women and almost 70% of men in the study want more female protagonists in games. This is progress. This is good.

So where do we go from here?

We have to end the culture of silence in the game industry to create progress. A number of my female interview subjects, and a couple of my male ones as well, would not talk to me without utter confidentiality, for fear of repercussions if it was found out that they shared their stories with me. Clearly, there is still much to be done. Even with inclusiveness being such a powerful topic at the recent GDC, Critical Proximity, and around the internet, games companies need to make it unambiguously clear that they are safe places. However, there’s a roadblock. When asked if the discussion of gender issues in the game industry is critical to its growth, 36% of men answered neutrally or negatively. This means that in an industry that’s 90% male, over a third of those men don’t care about the sexism all around them. In order to move this industry’s view on gender forward, we need every person in this industry to be active in the discussion.

Neutrality means not calling out sexism when it occurs, which gives it permission to stay. Neutrality and silence are no longer acceptable courses of action if we mean to see serious progress. I hope everyone in the game industry sees these numbers, hears these stories, and does the exact opposite of remain neutral. The more people who stay neutral, the longer it will take for the industry to grow.

Edit: an error was made when describing one of the statistics - it has been corrected now. Overall, the point made with the statistic was unimpacted by the error, and the implications/discussions should stand as they are. I apologize for not noticing the slip up sooner.

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