Sexism in the Gaming World

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A few months ago I listened to an interview on NPR with Laralyn McWilliams, a woman who works in the gaming industry. (She was the lead designer on games like Full Spectrum Warrior and the creative director for the online game Free Realms. Currently she’s the chief creative officer at The Workshop, a game studio based in Los Angeles.)

About a year and a half ago, what became known as #Gamergate stirred up a tremendous brouhaha in the video game industry. Although it wasn’t specifically about the role of women in that industry, charges of misogyny and sexism soon began to dominate the discourse. Incredibly, women gamers received rape and death threats for daring to speak out about their experiences.

Even though McWilliams herself doesn’t feel that she has been impeded by sexism in the course of her career, she still feels that it is a big enough problem that she was willing be interviewed about it. When asked why she thinks sexism is rampant in the gaming industry she offered these comments:

Tech itself is male-oriented; software is even more male-oriented than that. And because games for many years have mostly made games for men, it’s even more male-oriented than the rest of them. So it’s sort of this more condensed version of all of the problems in tech…

There is a tendency in tech, and in games in particular, that if you are a woman who talks about the issues facing women in games, that becomes what defines you. You become “the woman who talks about being a woman.” When honestly … it largely continues to feel like my gender should be irrelevant.

When I heard this I had an “aha” moment, because what she describes is a perfect description of the reaction many people have to feminists. Even if all you do is point out that women don’t make as much as men (all other things being equal), you are labeled a “woman who talks about being a woman,” or, God forbid, a feminist.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to women talking about “women’s issues.” Any time a member of a group that is discriminated against dares to speak out about that discrimination, he or she is shouted down for playing the “victim” card. I’ve heard commentators on the (mostly conservative) radio stations dismiss claims of discrimination by calling the claimants “whiners” who want the world to feel sorry for them. Any criticism of the status quo is seen as a ploy to receive special treatment.

They just don’t get it: people who feel that they have been discriminated against don’t want special treatment; they want equal treatment.

I know, I know: I can hear the arguments now against quotas and affirmative action. I’m not here to argue for or against such tactics that are often used to level the playing field. But those tactics wouldn’t be necessary if it were possible to change people’s minds without them. What employer is going to hire a woman if he’s convinced she’s going to take off work too much because of family responsibilities? Or if he assumes she can’t carry her weight because “women are weaker/less competitive/too emotional”?

Some people think that laws reflect the prevailing views in a society and should only be enacted only when there is a consensus for them. But I think that the opposite can also be true: sometimes laws have to be enacted to force society to confront and correct certain problems.

On the other hand, some things can’t be mandated. For instance, you can’t force women to enter the tech field. Nor can you force the public to buy games that were created by women. But women aren’t asking to be accepted just because they’re women; they’re just asking for the same opportunities that men are given.

I realize this is a tricky business. How do you prove that a man was given preferential treatment just because he’s a man or that a woman was denied an opportunity just because she’s a woman? Usually you can’t. But laws can be put into place that protect women who are merely attempting to have the conversation.