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Gamazon: Dead Girls Have More Fun

A day in the life of a female game developer, with a little insight into the representation of women in gaming. When can we legitimately argue that a game needs more women?

[A day in the life of a female game developer, with a little insight into the representation of women in gaming. When can we legitimately argue that a game needs more women?]

There are moments when working in game design is very much like working in live theater.  Long before the actors step onto the stage, long before an audience is ushered to their seats, a great deal of thought and effort goes into designing, building and dressing the stage.

The design work for Fort Zombie, a low-budget horror game, was very similar to the set design and building we might do for a low-budget horror movie.  This game was about the End of the World, specifically about the end of a world very similar to our own.  It was set in the fictional town of Piety, Indiana--capturing a “small-town America” feel was key. 

We built a world with cars and houses, lawns and gardens, pawn shops, supermarkets and diners, gas stations and fast food joints, sporting goods stores and vet clinics.  And then we went in with torches, blood, bones and spray paint, transforming this world into an Apocalypse.

As I artfully draped a human corpse through the broken windshield of a car which had crashed into a telephone pole, something occurred to me:  specifically, that the dead man I was using as a prop was a dead man.  I had already populated the world with a few female zombies here and there, so clearly there had been women who had died and been resurrected.  But what about women who just....died?

I went to the level editing suite and quickly flipped through the available corpses.  Man sprawled on his back.  Man collapsed on his side.  Man slumped against a wall.  Half a man.  Parts of a man.  Sure enough, not a single woman!  Not even in pieces.

I went to the Lead Artist’s desk.  “Degrassi.  We need dead girls.”

Chris “Degrassi” Gerspacher gave me his best long-suffering look.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean that it’s the Apocalypse, and women are 51% of the human race, and there isn’t a single female corpse available as a prop.”

Unable to hide his unrelieved joy at having more work added to the art queue, he nonetheless agreed that there were in fact women in the world.  And that it was in fact logical to assume that some of them might have died during the Apocalypse.  So I did in fact get a few dead Barbies to play with.  However, the incident brought up a few issues for me as a female game designer and developer, and eventually I realized that these issues might be of general interest...at least to the few people who sometimes wonder about the representation of women in games, and why it tends to skew in certain odd directions.

I’ve started up a developer blog here on Gamasutra to post some of my thoughts and experiences on the subject of women in gaming.  I’m calling it “Gamazon” because the Amazon is a traditional icon of a woman working in a “man’s world”, and I’m one of very few female developers who has worked long enough in this industry to become visible to the general public.  After 15 years, I have a few thoughts to share, and the first thought I’m going to post is this:  sometimes women are under-represented in a game universe not because the men creating a game hate women, but because they actually like women.

As a rule, my co-workers in the computer gaming industry are over 90% male.  At Kerberos, my co-workers are also extremely nice, the sort of men who have no “issues” or hostility toward women in general.  In fact, they have a certain amount of subconscious resistance toward the idea of harming a woman.  Without me there to push them? I don’t think the idea of making a “dead girl” prop would ever have occurred to them.

Is that because they don’t like women?  Or have some agenda to deny the existence of women?  No.  It’s actually because they have not even the tiniest shred of a subconscious urge to hurt a woman.  Nor does it give them even the slightest pleasure to imagine a woman suffering or dying, or to envision what a dead and partially devoured woman might look like.  This is not about talent, about dev time, or about sexism:  it’s about a man’s own emotional limits as an artist.  There are some things that just don’t necessarily make a person happy with himself after a day’s work.  Fiddling with the mutilated corpses of women is high on the list.

 In the making of Fort Zombie, some of these emotional limits were addressed explicitly and openly when it came to the depiction of children.  The team decided unanimously that although living children would exist in the game, we would not be strewing the landscape with the corpses of little kids.  We would not depict any of the infant victims of the Apocalypse.  No cribs spattered with blood.  No dismembered grade-schoolers strewn around the schoolyard.  Kids could be among the survivors; some older kids could be among the zombies.  But children would not become objects or props.

The issue of adult women, however, was open to debate.  In the end I won that debate.  I included many living women and girls as NPC’s in the game, including women with significant powers; I also got a few dead ones made as props.  It’s a small thing, but it’s one of many ways that a female developer can bring a different worldview and a different agenda to the table.   

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