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5 Gender Moments from E3 2013

Gamasutra contributing editor Patrick Miller writes about five gender-related moments from this year's E3 -- and how each moment works to create a hostile climate to women in the world's largest games industry event.

While I was decompressing from E3 last week, I thought it'd be best to write up my own account of all the gender-related stuff my coworkers and I came across. I hate that sitting down and recapping offensive events has become part of my post-trade-show recovery phase, but the fact is that these events keep happening, and I'd be neglecting my friends, my beloved medium, and the industry I love if I didn't document this sort of thing. (Tina Amini also has a good post on Kotaku about the "Creepy Side of E3" which is worth checking out.) Note that I have opted not to disclose names unless an incident was either a) on the record or b) the person involved asked me to.

So: Five gender moments from last week's E3.

#1: The rape joke heard 'round the world

Man: Just let it happen, it'll be over soon.
(Audience laughs.)

Microsoft had offended plenty of people's sensibilities when they explained their next-gen DRM policy for the Xbox One; the above bit of unscripted, off-the-cuff banter during their Killer Instinct demo didn't launch nearly as many ships. To Microsoft's credit, VP Phil Spencer said that "This comment was offensive and we apologize" in a statement to The Atlantic Wire. I get it; people say stupid things, sometimes on stage. But I believe that this moment was indicative of deeper problems -- namely, that it seems so natural for people who play video games to trash talk about sexually assaulting each other during a multiplayer game. I am just as guilty of this as anyone; then I discovered that some people found it hurtful, and I cut it out. That this behavior can end up showcased during one of the largest events in the biggest games industry trade show is downright depressing.

#2: "Your glasses are cute, but you're not"

I had the unfortunate luck to witness the world's worst pick-up "neg" attempt at an industry afterparty on Tuesday; games writer Jenn Frank described the incident to Kotaku thusly:

I and a female friend went up to the bar to obtain drinks. We were buying drinks for a group of coworkers, and this includes a drink for my friend's brother, an editor at a major video games news outlet. As we were waiting, a man at the bar started mocking me, saying my glasses were cute but I am not, and my friend laid into him. I, an idiot, repeatedly apologized for her "behavior." Soon enough we were flanked by two men, one of whom admonished my friend for "being insecure."

"Negging", for those of you who are (luckily) unaware, is basically the practice of outright insulting a woman in order to make her want to sleep with you. (If that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me, well, bless you.) I asked one of the men how insulting women at bars was going; he replied, "Well, you know," and shrugged his shoulders. "I mean, don't you think she's kinda insecure? Don't you want a strong woman -- one that can just, you know, shrug that all off?"

I told him that in my experience, strong women reacted how Jenn and her friend did. He looked crestfallen; I think he was expecting me to let him off the hook. He also seemed to expect that Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft would also let him off the hook, which was baffling to me because Kris had already identified himself as the brother of "the insecure one". Later, both men identified themselves as working for Bungie.

I'm not going to get into the stupidity of the "seduction" community that champions these "negging" and "rapid physical escalation" practices; suffice it to say that I think this stuff is a) crap and b) crap that you don't bring into a professional space. And yes, E3 is a professional space; you are talking to identified colleagues in the industry, and even if you're off the clock, your behavior will speak ill of you, your work, and that of your colleagues. So: Cut that shit out. If you absolutely must be a terrible person in your private life, that's your prerogative, but do your colleagues and employer a favor and conduct yourself like a professional for the entire week of E3. And if you must be a dick in public, under no circumstances do you drag your poor female colleague into the mix to get her to try and persuade us that you're actually an okay guy, really (yeah, he did that too).

#3: So, do you play video games?

I'm sure this isn't the first time a man at E3 said the above to a woman at E3, but when said woman is wearing a big badge that says GAMASUTRA on it, it's spectacularly dumb. Yet a Gamasutra contributor sent me this story:

I went to the Horizon mixer at MOCA after E3's show floor closed. While there, I was hanging out with a mix of industry types (devs, some PR people, fellow journos -- mostly the same crowd that had been there for the press conference that morning), when one guy in business casual came up near my group and started playing on one of the games on display.

I was a fan of this machine so I walked him through it, and then came the usual mixer banter: names, occupations, and so on. He said he worked with a major games publisher based out of Hong Kong, exporting Western casual and mobile titles to the Chinese market; when I said I worked for Gamasutra he said he knew of and read our site. Then he asked if I was a gamer.

I thought this was a weird thing to ask, first because this was such an indie-focused event, second because he worked in casual/mobile publishing, and third because, well, I'd already established I worked for a major game news publication. I asked why he would ask that.

He pressed further: what systems did I play on? Playstation? Xbox? "Why does it matter?" He could tell things were getting awkward so he tried explaining himself. "I'm just trying to get a sense of what you're into."

"Would you ask any of the guys here if they were gamers?" I asked, gesturing to the crowd we were with (which included a couple Double Fine guys and someone from Activision) "Yeah, I would," said the publisher guy. "Some of these people aren't--" He lowered his voice. "--You know, they aren't really into games."

It's hard for me to understand exactly what train of thought leads you to attend an indie game mixer, at E3, and start a conversation with a woman wearing a Gamasutra badge by asking her if she plays video games. But I do understand that, as a man, no one ever asks me that question at E3 or any other event, because I am understood to "belong" there in a way this contributor doesn't. And that's pretty messed up.

#4: "When was the last time you got fucked?"

This next story comes courtesy of a friend I ran into while getting some post-E3 pizza:

I showed up at the Women In Games International party with a male friend of mine. While wandering around, I bumped into a guy who appeared a bit older but was clearly grasping onto youth in an effective way. He immediately struck up a conversation with me; he identified himself as a senior effects artist from Infinity Ward.

We discussed why I was at E3, what I am pursuing in the game industry, and how my prior experience related to the industry. He turned to introduce me to another man, who identified himself as the art director of another major triple-A franchise. The second man leans in toward me and snarls "So you design games?!" I explained no, but that I do community, social media, and PR side of things.  His "Ugh" reply spoke volumes.  I quipped "Yes, well it's a huge part of this industry." He looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder and said "No, it's not."

I was almost in tears, so I excused myself to get a shot and get that bad experience out of my brain; the senior effects artist followed.  He insisted on paying for the drinks then followed me outside to smoke.  Note that at this point our discussion had entirely been about E3, how we were enjoying it, and my career path -- nothing else.

As I lit my cigarette, he smirks, looks me dead in the face and says "So, when is the last time you got fucked?" Taken-aback, I hadn't much of a reply other than a nervous forced laugh.  At this point he continued to tell me about a new house that he built, one of his cars, and how he's recently broken up with actress Heather Graham.

Luckily his friends came out and got him, and we all walked back inside.  They invited me and I declined; I needed to find my friend and get the hell out of the sexual harassment playground known as the E3 WIGI party (oh, the irony). Driving home that night, I was kind of in a daze.  I hold a respected position in social media/community in a different industry and no one would ever dream of speaking to me like that. I've spent about six years of my adult life trying to break into this industry and it wasn't any easier in college.


#5: It's a man's world

This last story isn't offensive in the same sense that the above stories were; rather, it was a moment that reminded me how all the individual stories and micro-aggressions described above actually shape the way the industry works.

My E3 started on Sunday night, when I attended a press dinner hosted by Ubisoft at some relatively swanky restaurant in downtown LA. Looking around, I noticed one thing; the press guests were men, and the Ubisoft interview opportunities (executives and senior-level development and publishing folks) were men. The only women in the room were either Ubisoft PR, or part of the event venue staff. Which basically meant that most of the evening came down to a bunch of (mostly white) men were sitting around tables Talking Business -- a scene that made me decidedly uncomfortable.

I don't know why Ubisoft chose to invite who they did (either on the journalism side or the Ubisoft side) but considering the Game Developer Salary Survey routinely pegs the industry-wide gender balance at around 11% female, and Ubisoft staffers informed me that Ubisoft's own ratio is higher than that, it didn't exactly fill me with hope for the rest of the week. We had been invited there to get pre-briefings about The Division, among other things, so most of the rest of the reporters in the room were understandably focused on those details.

By the time Ubisoft Montreal CEO Yannis Mallat came around to the table, I was surprised that no one else within earshot had brought up any questions about gender and demographics up -- particularly considering how the game industry's consumer demographics have continued to widen with the rise of mobile devices. (The ESA reports that 45% of all game players are women, for example.) So I asked Mallat if he had noticed a similar demographics shift with the rise of mobile -- he had -- and then I asked him if he thought it was a challenge to develop games for different demographics when Ubisoft's dev demographics don't reflect that of the consumer base.

Mallat looked at me, sighed, and rubbed his face. A reporter from IGN sitting next to Mallat looked at him and said, "Don't worry, you got this." Then Mallat said: "Maybe. I don't know, to be honest. I would think so. It's not only a question of is the team demographically represented as the market is, it's also a philosophy of how much do you embed your own market in your creation? We conduct playtests way early in the dev process, in the conception phase...maybe it has an impact. We haven't seen it yet." Fair enough, Mallat; it's a tough question to answer, and the "I don't know" and "I would think so" bits were much more frank an answer than I had expected to get.

(After the event, I mentioned my gender misgivings to Ubisoft PR's Heather Pond; she expressed regret that she couldn't have included Ubisoft Toronto's managing director Jade Raymond.)

I want to be clear that I don't find this moment "offensive" in the same way that I found the Xbox presser snafu. Rather, I am describing this moment because I want to point out that it is all of the above stories -- the messed-up crap that women in this business have to deal with on a day-to-day basis -- that lead to moments like the all-male Ubisoft dinner.

I'm willing to bet that whomever organized the event did so in order to produce the best outcome possible for Ubisoft, and it just so happened that their ideal interview candidates and journalists were all men because it's way easier to work in this industry as a man than it is as a woman. It makes me look around at my female colleagues and think that they are statistically much more likely to think, "I love video games, but they're not worth this bullshit," and when that happens over and over again, we end up with a literal old boy's club.

--Patrick Miller

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