This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the Penny Arcade Expo in Boston, more popularly known as PAX East, a gaming convention that offers a place for gamers to meet, try the newest gaming technologies, and attend panels (usually held by game developers/journalists and the like) about the future of the industry. One such panel I attended was entitled “Sex, Sexy & Sexism: Fixing Gender Inequality in Gaming,” which I hoped would address some oft-neglected gender inequality issues facing the community. The panel consisted of Susan Arendt (managing editor for Joystiq), Brianna Wu, (head of development at Giantspacekat), Tifa Robles (former brand manager for Magic the Gathering at Wizards of the Coast), Ken Gagne (a game reviewer) and Duane de Four (media critic and activist).
The gaming industry has always been a male-dominated industry. As such, it has been the target of feminist critiques like Anita Sarkeesian’s Damsel in Distress YouTube series, which criticize the content of some beloved games for contributing to sexist narratives.
Many feminists criticize female characters like Lara Croft for wearing clothing that is totally impractical to their actual jobs.
Artist Raffael designed a male counterpart to Lara to emphasize the absurdity of her hypersexualized outfit and posture.
This panel however focused more on the sexism that is prevalent within the gaming community and industry, rather than the content of the games themselves. “Sexism isn’t just the ‘Mad Men’ approach,” said Wu before telling a story about how one of her female friends had been cosplaying a stereotypically sexy character and was sexually harassed by a male convention-goer (“Can I touch your ass?”). Yes, that is sexism, of course, but so is the typical female experience within the community.
Robles expounded on how as a woman within the Magic: The Gathering fanbase, her experiences and opinions are often disregarded or talked over because she is female. “When a girl walks into a gaming store, or sits down to play the game competitively, there is this assumption that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, that she’s bad at the game, she’s only there because her husband is, just because she’s a woman,” the panelist said. On the other hand, though I have never played a game of Magic in my life, were I to do the same, my presence wouldn’t even be questioned.
Women make up 45% of gamers, yet the industry again and again chooses to cater to straight, white males, ages 15-24. Representation of nuanced, strong female characters is rare, and characters that are non-white, non-straight, or non-binary are even rarer, both within the games themselves and within the industry. One panelist talked about her experience as a game developer at a conference for developers and journalists, where she was approached by a man she’d never met before and asked, “Are you part of HR?” Statements like this show that the gaming community needs to recognize how sexism is manifested in more ways than one.
I consider myself a gamer, and as someone who identifies as male, I fully support and recognize the validity of the female gamer community’s complaints about the industry and community. As a person in a position of privilege (a male) within that community, it is my obligation to challenge others who are in positions of privilege to change the industry to be more welcoming and representative of the people that consume it.
Jason Wong is an editorial intern at Warscapes.