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Here's How We Failed Women at GDC 2016

So many strides have been made towards re-forging our industry as a place that is welcoming to women. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

Elizabeth Sampat, Blogger

March 21, 2016

9 Min Read

GDC is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Not only is it a great time to reconnect with old friends, it's invariably the one week every year when I'm surrounded by amazing women in the game industry— women I either know or don't, women just getting started or whose careers began before I was even born. There are a wide variety of opinions about the state of the industry among us: some women think "fighting the good fight" is a lost cause because the game industry is beyond the possibility of redemption, while others have glowing stories about how they've never had any negative experiences in the industry related to their gender. It's amazing to get all of these diverse, fascinating, opinionated women in one place, because the topography of our experiences creates a map of our industry through the lens of womanhood.

There is one thing that is true for all of us, however: an anxious feeling that starts on monday and is usually gone within a day or two.

What's "the incident" going to be this year?

And there's always an incident. I attended my first GDC because I'd been asked to organize a panel around the #1reasontobe hashtag; that inaugural panel happened the same day that the IGDA threw a party in partnership with YetiZen that featured scantily-clad go-go dancers on stilts. The very next morning, a large number of IGDA leadership— particularly in the Women In Games Special Interest Group— resigned in protest.

And the IGDA issued a statement of apology:

We recognize that some of the performers’ costumes at the party were inappropriate, and also some of the activities they performed were not what we expected or approved.

We regret that the IGDA was involved in this situation.  We do not condone activities that objectify or demean women or any other group of people.

One of the core values of the IGDA is encouraging inclusion and diversity.

Obviously we need to be more vigilant in our efforts.  We intend to be so in the future.

Fast-forward another three GDCs. The "anxious feeling" went away on Wednesday this year, after Microsoft/Xbox hired scantily-clad dancers dressed like underage schoolgirls for their party. The standard public apology came the next day:

It has come to my attention that at Xbox-hosted events at GDC this past week, we represented Xbox and Microsoft in a way that was absolutely not consistent or aligned to our values. That was unequivocally wrong and will not be tolerated. This matter is being handled internally, but let me be very clear – how we represent ourselves as individuals, who we hire and partner with and how we engage with others is a direct reflection of our brand and what we stand for. When we do the opposite, and create an environment that alienates or offends any group, we justly deserve the criticism.

It’s unfortunate that such events could take place in a week where we worked so hard to engage the many different gaming communities in the exact opposite way. I am personally committed to ensuring that diversity and inclusion is central to our everyday business and our core values as a team – inside and outside the company. We need to hold ourselves to higher standards and we will do better in the future.

These are the incidents that get everyone's blood going. It's an endless cycle: a clueless event-organizer who was contracted out and doesn't realize that sexism is a hot-button issue in our industry thinks "You know what gamer nerds would love? HOT WOMEN!", we all feel really good about tweeting our outrage, and the next day comes a public apology that subtly includes all of the good work the organization has done for women and a promise to do better in the future. (And, as far as I know, there hasn't been a repeat sponsor for the Annual Incident: the incident always happens, but at some new party, with some new unsuspecting host.)

And the thing is, honestly, this outrage is tiring. The same thing always happens, with the same response and the same apology that comes with the same promise at the end. And it drains us, so this annual tradition of accident and apology can act as a smokescreen, ensuring we don't have the awareness or energy to call out more insidious issues.

This post is actually about something more awful than a party.

In a year when "Women in games" seems rote, in a year where the watershed #1reasontobe panel shifted its focus away from the experiences of women that birthed the hashtag in the first place and on to international game developers, mostly male: I get how it might seem that the focus on women's experiences in our industry has outlived its usefulness. That "how do we respect the women in our industry, and how do we get more women to join us?" might seem like a solved problem. But all I have to do is point at one single GDC talk to show you how far we still have to go.

Patrick Harris, lead designer at Minority Media (makers of Papo y Yo), gave a thirty-minute talk about violating a woman's consent to mercilessly harass her in the name of slipshod science, and how horrible of an experience it was for him:

As part of his experiment to figure out the depths of VR harassment, the designer played his MMO prototype with an unsuspecting woman. Their gameplay session was shown to the audience with a short video that left the room in stunned, dismayed silence.

He described the shame he felt as he pushed the game's immersive capabilities to their limits, making obscene gestures with a "phallic" object, invading his fellow player's personal space and ultimately trying to make her feel as uncomfortable as possible — with great success. All of this was shown to the audience, too, as the video cut between the woman's palpable discomfort and Harris' increasingly disturbing victimizing tactics.

Afterward, Harris apologized profusely for the way he acted during the game session — he was so stricken by how real the experience felt, he said, that he immediately felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. Even worse, according to the woman he played against — and harassed in the name of research — it was "a damaging experience."

It's interesting: the Polygon article that quote is taken from later refers to Harris as a "faux abuser." He's a virtual abuser, but certainly not a fake one. If anything was faux in this debacle, it was the experiment itself: there was no indication in the talk that this "experiment" included any academics, scientists or psychologists, and that's probably for good reason. Dr. Jessica Hammer, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, put it best in response to this article:

I have been so enraged about this... It is deeply unethical to do what he did without consent. This is exactly why the IRB [Institutional Review Board] oversight exists - to stop researchers from harming and decieving others in the name of knowledge.

Why are we talking about parties with consenting dancers when a man is getting talks approved at GDC by taking video of a time he harassed an unsuspecting woman? Why is that man getting lauded for "bravery?" Why is it getting sympathetic coverage on a major game-news outlet that spends more time on Harris' own guilt for harassing a woman than on the fact the woman was damaged by the experience? Why did GDC approve this talk in the first place?

The wildly unethical and problematic nature of this talk should be clear, but since it was approved, I guess it wasn't. Let me put down some quick bullet points that should be glaringly obvious:

  • None of this is consensual: anyone who thinks that harassment isn't affecting if you know it's coming obviously has never been harassed before. Women don't have some magical "sensitivity gene" that makes them more succeptible to harassment than anyone else, and the fact that you know you're about to be harassed doesn't make it any less powerful or any more okay. Harassing an unsuspecting woman and calling it an experiment is like holding up a bank, getting away with the money and then calling it performance art. The harm has been done, the boundaries have been violated, and no one has given consent.

  • None of this is news:  VR stands for VIRTUAL REALITY. There's a game about tightrope-walking storeys above the ground, and video of people playing this game and of their abject fear already exists. It's easy to extrapolate from all of these similar experiments in the medium that VR harassment would create the same autonomic responses as real-world harassment! A man is being applauded for discovering that women don't like their personal space invaded, being shown phallic objects, or having their bodies touched without consent. How is that novel? How is that news?

  • None of this is brave: What a cowardly thing, to put yourself in the shoes of the abuser. How I would have loved a talk about how Harris designed a VR prototype in which you were a woman getting harassed on a San Francisco sidewalk or NYC subway. How brave and powerful it would have been to create an opt-in experience where people in positions of power could finally learn what it was like to feel small and afraid. What an innovative experiment that could have been! That's a talk I would have liked to see. How boring and predictable it is to replicate centuries-old power structures, use an unwitting woman as your bait, and gather applause and acclaim. How sad it is to see from the company that made Papa y Yo.

Ultimately, women as set decoration at industry events is a symptom. Games with "boob physics" or no playable women at all are a symptom. While these things are worth calling out, they point at a larger problem: how actual, real-life women are treated by our industry. "Research" and "Women in Games" luncheons are not credits that offset systemic misogyny. 

At least the dancers at the Microsoft party chose to be there, and were paid for their time. At least they knew what they were being used for.

At least Microsoft issued their apology.



We're still waiting, Patrick Harris. 

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