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The Women Pushing Gender Out of Gaming The Women Pushing Gender Out of Gaming

Kate Killick's unreleased game 'With The Dust'. Image courtesy of Kate Killick

The Women Pushing Gender Out of Gaming

Dec 4 2015

Gaming isn't the most women-friendly industry, but a new generation of female developers and gamers are trying to change things—or take gender out of the equation altogether.

At a quick glance, gaming doesn't appear to be the most welcoming of places for women. Switch on the television and you might be greeted by the sight of Kate Upton's breasts used to sell the mobile app Game of War to teenage boys. Female creatives who dare to speak out against the infamous Gamergate scandal routinely face death threats from anonymous male gamers. The industry itself resembles a boys' only club, with women making up only 22 percent of video game developers.

But first impressions can also be deceptive. It is 2015 and Lara Croft is now fully clothed. Major studios are no longer terrified of introducing multiple LGBTQ plotlines to big budget titles, as illustrated by the Left Behind DLC in Naughty Dog's excellent The Last of Us. Bioware has even introduced a trans character in its fantasy epic Dragon Age: Inquisition. The numbers are telling, too. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, around 52 percent of UK gamers are now female, while the figure is just under 50 percent in the larger US market.

Perhaps one of the greatest big budget examples of this gender shift is Creative Assembly's survival horror Alien: Isolation. It rewinds to the essence of Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic—intelligent woman gets chased around a spaceship by a single terrifying alien (to begin with, anyway)—and positions Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver's Ellen, as its lead character. The 2014 title was a more than radical departure from Sega's previous Alien game, the universally panned Colonial Marines, which featured brainless soldier bros shooting at endless hordes of Xenomorphs.

"One of the most surprising and heartening things is that no one has ever really mentioned Amanda's gender," says Alien: Isolation's lead developer Al Hope, "and at no point did Sega or 20th Century Fox question our motives."

Ripley, who remains fully clothed throughout, "is just an intelligent woman reacting to an extraordinary situation. We'd never compromise her femininity by doing something lewd," Hope says. "I'd like to think the audience is now intelligent enough not to require a muscle bound soldier in every single game."

In her role as the European marketing director of Sony PlayStation, Isabelle Tomatis has a bird's eye view of the industry's changing relationship with women. She claims she has personally never run into any discrimination. "Sexism has never affected me. I've had two children and been on maternity leave twice," she says. "Gaming is far more accepting when appointing females in senior creative positions than industries such as banking or retail, where there are far less women than men. We all feel a responsibility to write intelligent lead female characters." In the PS4's recent Tearaway Unfolded, Tomatis adds, the female character was more popular than the male as "she was better written."

When Ubisoft withdrew plans last year to include female characters in Unity, the Assassin's Creed game, some critics took this as conclusive proof that gaming was biased towards its male users. However, its latest installment—the London-set Syndicate—set things right by unexpectedly creating a female protagonist in Evie Frye.

Evie Frye in Assassin's Creed Syndicate. Screenshot courtesy of Ubisoft

The intention was very much to move away from gaming's historical habit of treating women as princesses that need saving, says Maëlenn Lumineau of Ubisoft's Quebec studio. "We tried to avoid female character stereotypes in Assassin's Creed Syndicate. For example, there are as many female and male criminals in the game. Women are not stereotyped or limited to being victims in the world." In Syndicate, Frye murders evil British aristocrats in 1880s London with just as much ease as her male counterparts. "Unfortunately there are still more men than women making games," Lumineau says. "But that is starting to evolve and I think we'll see what has traditionally been a male-dominated workforce become more representative."

Not everybody within the industry is as enthusiastic. Indie developer Kate Killick says the gaming industry can often be a very lonely place for young women. Her quirky mobile game Mush, which uses facial emotions to solve puzzles, was picked up by Microsoft in 2012. "There is always that feeling that people are looking at you differently. I'll go to the big conferences like GDC Europe and feel completely out of place as there are no female speakers; it chips away at you. In a room full of shouting men, it can be hard to get heard."

In a room full of shouting men, it can be hard to get heard.

Killick says many women are put off by working in AAA [gaming studios with the biggest budgets] teams and favor indie development as "that's where our voices can be heard". She is currently a developer on Hopster, a mobile app that creates magical worlds for toddlers to play educational games, and she believes that changing gender perceptions from a young age can be key to driving serious change.

"We've made the lead character's gender completely ambiguous on Hopster. We recently had our first session for kids, between three to six years old, testing the game and it was quite eye-opening. The majority are young enough not to have been conditioned but a few still favour masculinity or the idea of the princess."

Laura Kate Dale, the UK editor of Destructoid. Photo courtesy of Laura Kate Dale

"The industry still sees femininity as a downgrade and masculinity as an upgrade," argues Laura Kate Dale, a transgender games journalist and the UK editor of Destructoid. During the early days of her career, she was refused entry into conferences and subject to verbal abuse at the gaming expos she did manage to get into.

"It is still terrifying sometimes," she admits. "I agonize [over] going to public events as I'm very cautious of my own appearance. But things are improving. [My gender identity is] becoming less of a problem over time, which is reassuring." Despite Dale's ascension within games journalism, it isn't uncommon for the biggest games journalism publishers to ask female staffers to talk seductively about the latest Call of Duty release for video reviews.

"You can't help but wonder if appearance is all they want from a female games journalist," says Dale. "There are definitely certain outlets where not looking like a pin-up is a barrier for career progression, as it's all about video. But Gamespot just put Carolyn Petit on camera and she's a trans woman. I just hope that wasn't a one-off."

Dale's own coming out is testament to the transformative power of gaming—she says that she came to terms with her gender identity by experimenting with character styles on World of Warcraft. She believes that virtual reality gaming could also be key to people transitioning in the future. "It's going to provide people with the ability to inhabit other physical bodies, and when I tried that for myself it was very reaffirming. The feelings it brought up reassured me that I made the right choice in my teens when I realised that being a woman was the only way I was going to be happy."

Robin Hunicke's game, Luna. Screenshot courtesy of Funomena

Celebrated American indie video games developer Robin Hunicke goes one further. "Gender is just unnecessary information," she insists. It is why you can choose to play as tortoises, mushrooms, birds, and owls on Luna and Wattam, the indie games she is currently producing. "It is all about personalities, not gender."

Hunicke is at the front of gaming's journey into becoming an accepted art form, having helmed the philosophically challenging Journey, an exclusive 2012 indie game for Sony's PlayStation 3. Many already consider it to be one of the greatest games ever made.

"With Journey we removed so much information," she says. "Your character is literally a whisp of moving cloth, which transcends gender, and just has this romantically acrobatic movement. It can't even speak, it just sings. It isn't a warrior. It isn't a princess. It isn't a football player. We thought long and hard about making a character that just ties into universally shared emotions such as discovery and exploration."

At 43, Hunicke has seen the industry evolve from very humble beginnings. She got into gaming by chance after studying computer science, where she used video games to inform her research. "For my first grant, I proposed a storytelling data cube to Nasa, which could be touched by astronauts and instantly created stories about their loved ones back at home. Space travel can get lonely, man." Her ideas quickly caught the attention of industry giant Electronic Arts, where she worked on a development team with a 50/50 gender ratio for The Sims. Then things changed.

"I went to work at EALA [EA Los Angeles], and the campus had barely any women. I felt we were completely out of balance at that time. In a larger team where 75 people are in a meeting, as a woman you can feel like you're speaking but it is very difficult to be heard. I'm always asking 'why' and trying to suggest something new, but the men perhaps just saw me as a squeaky wheel."

She says that indie development, which she first experienced at Journey developer thatgamecompany, and now at her own studio Funomena, is "freeing" in comparison. "We live in a society, which is fundamentally sexist and racist, that's just the truth," says Hunicke, a previous recipient of the Microsoft Women in Games Ambassador Award. "But we are all responsible for changing the ratio. There is no economic or social situation where balance isn't a good thing—if you're appealing to more than one social, ethnic or gender group then your game will reach more people, that's just a fact.

"At Funomena, we have eight to ten people. There are three women, but more or less each one of us is from a different ethnic or cultural background so that diversity informs all of our writing. There's no guarantee we will ever ship a game, indie development is fucking tough. But we know diversity produces the best type of creativity so the adventure we're all on feels worth it regardless of the outcome."

Morgz (right) is ranked as one of the best female Call of Duty players in Europe. Photo courtesy of Morgan Ashurst

For the female gamers who dare to venture into competitive gaming, or eSports, the opportunity for financial prizes can be huge. But choosing to compete at a tournament can also create plenty of disapproving stares from established male players.

Morgan Ashurst (aka "Morgz") is ranked as one of the best female Call of Duty players in Europe. Despite her protests to the contrary, she is also quite the feminist trailblazer. Back in 2011, she took the first ever all-female teamForeign.Girlsto a European tournament (EGL4).

"A lot of people gathered around us and made sarcastic comments but once they saw we could play, we won their respect," she tells me. "I've played with guy teams at events but I always go back to the all-female teams as there is more of a challenge and a point to prove. We're making a real statement, if you want to call that feminist then go ahead."

They can say 'Get back in the kitchen,' but I'll just out-kill them or return the banter.

Ashurst is fairly guarded after she recently took part in an Channel 4 News interview, which she says was spun to make sexism in gaming appear like "more of a problem than it actually is." Although she admits that the online multiplayer arenas of Xbox Live can be a "scary place" for women, she says the best tactic is just to beat the boys. "They can say "Get back in the kitchen," but I'll just out-kill them or return the banter. A lot of the time the abuse you get is just some little kid trying to impress his mates. If someone tweeted something awful, I wouldn't take it too seriously. The scene is just immature; it isn't necessarily an issue with women. The people who matter are very respectful."

However, it can be "disheartening," she admits, when women try to live up to "certain" stereotypes. "The reason girls have a reputation sometimes within the gaming tournaments is because certain girls will go to these events just for attention and turn female characters into slutty costumes. It's becoming less and less frequent now, but I try to be around girls who have the drive to do well as gamers."

Ultimately Ashurst, who has attended and finished respectably at a total of 14 eSports events since 2011, is focused on proving the "girls can hang with the guys." She concludes: "I recently formed an all-girl side as part of the Bulldog elite gaming team. We're looking to attend the Insomnia games festival in Birmingham this December and we're training on Call of Duty for hours and hours every single day. We're not wearing costumes or there for the publicity, we just want to kick arse. I want to buy my own house so prize money would be nice also!"

PlayStation's Tomatis believes women across gaming journalism, development and eSports are paving the way for the next generation. "There's a generational effect right now where parents who first played the original PlayStation 20 years ago are bringing their children up on games," she explains. "And they are teaching their kids that gaming isn't this bad thing or all about gender. It is just art."

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