In March of 1999, at the age of twenty-one, I moved from Syracuse, New York to Costa Mesa, California to take a job with GameSpy Industries. I wore a ton of hats over my five years there, but I was first assigned the role of managing PlanetQuake, which was at the time the company’s flagship website and the one which had put them on the gaming map.
During this period, I began running a “shoutcast” with some of my fellow employees — a predecessor to podcasts which was interesting because it was done live, with a chat room full of people “talking” to us. We called it the Friday Frag, and the idea was that every Friday we’d talk about games for an hour or so and then all hop on a server with the listeners and blow each other up for a while.
During one such broadcast, we had a visitor to the chat channel who called herself “Hellchick” and I ended up inviting her to call into the office so I could put her on the show to “prove she was a woman.”
Yes, this actually happened.
I won’t defend myself for succumbing to what was, even in 1999, already becoming an amazingly stupid stereotype: that women didn’t use the internet and it was exclusively the domain of sweaty dudes in their mom’s basement (we were a startup of only fifteen people and we already had four women in the office, for Christ’s sake). It was a dumb moment of casual … sexism? Misogyny? I’m not sure what it was, exactly.
To Hellchick’s credit, she not only put up with it, but she actually called in. In retrospect, I’m both amazed and very happy that she did. Hellchick — who I’ve called Caryn for the last thirteen years — became a very good friend. We hired her. She eventually ran PanetQuake and 3DActionPlanet. After a while, she moved on to Activision to work as a liaison with companies like id Software and Raven, with whom she had become close due to her work at GameSpy.
Then Caryn moved on to Raven itself. Her journey had taken her from astrophysicist who gamed, to game journalist, to gaming company liaison, to game developer. She is currently a User Experience Designer with Z2Live in Washington. She loves her job, loves her industry, and loves video games in general.
My stupid, unthinking sexism was not the first she’d ever had to put up with (nor was that “innocent” kind the most common), and it certainly wasn’t the last. As a woman who games, Caryn has been the target of both nebulous and highly-targeted sexism for her entire life.
Moving from “woman gamer” to “woman in gaming” changed things, though. Now it was not only sexist attacks from other players, but day-to-day institutional sexism as well. Women are still a significant minority in game development, and as a result they are badly underrepresented and misrepresented in the final product. The classic stereotype of “the male warrior is covered in armor while the female warrior goes to battle in a chain-link bikini” exists for a reason. Many women developers have complaints that have nothing to do with how they are treated by gamers, and everything to do with the rampant and often unconscious sexism at work in the very offices they go to every day.
When the #1ReasonWhy phenomenon — women in game development tweeting one reason why there aren’t more women in game development — started up a few days ago, Caryn took to twitter with her own reasons. She has a lot of them.
The backlash that followed was predictable and disappointing. The same old tired bullshit. “Games with women in them don’t sell” (false), “Women don’t play games” (amazingly false), “Men are just as objectified as women in gaming” (specious), “I’m not like that so whatever” (not good enough), “The Female Shepard in Mass Effect is awesome so everything’s fine” (ridiculous — and yes, that’s a real argument that many people make). There were many more. They’re boring and stupid and not what I want to talk about here, because every single argument of that type has been utterly destroyed by fifty years of feminist thinking by people — most of them women — who are much smarter than I am.
What was not predictable or disappointing was the absolute tidal wave of supportive tweets, blog entries, and press coverage that came along. Gamers, game developers, and journalists — female and male — embraced the hashtag. They wrote articles about it, had discussions about it, posted to forums about it. They engaged in lengthy debates on Twitter and Facebook. New friends were made. Some eyes were opened. Most importantly: the discussion was shoved into the spotlight. That’s a good thing, no matter how much backlash it brought. Like the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, marriage equality … nothing gets done if no one will talk about it. Progress is only made by shining a big, bright light on the ugly warts that no one wants to look at.
Men who go to bat for women in these instances are often accused of “white knighting” — basically trying to come in as the savior for the weak little woman who can’t defend herself (the suspicion often being: in the hopes of getting sex, or other favors). There are probably men for whom this is the case, but there are a lot of us who understand that people like Caryn and the many other female game developers out there don’t NEED any help. They’re already out there doing what needs to be done to change the game. They’re tolerating the vile comments on message boards, the “accidental” gropes at conventions, the managers who ignore their ideas but then embrace the same ideas when parroted by a male developer. They’re dealing with all that shit because they love games that much, and the industry is changing because of that.
In time, gaming will be a gender-neutral industry, and we’ll look back on the early days the way we look at the era when women weren’t allowed to vote. “Wait … seriously?”
In the interim, women in gaming still have to deal with everything — EVERYTHING — being couched in their gender. One of Caryn’s most frequent complaints is that she’s never asked about her work. She’s asked about being a woman. As I tweeted: Q for male dev: “how’d you come up with that monster design?” Q for female dev: “what’s it like working in games and also having boobs?”
This is where the work really needs to be done. You can’t change the minds of rampant sexists, and it’s not worth the time and effort. If you change the minds (or just open the minds) of everyone else, the lost causes can be marginalized klu klux klan-style. You do this by addressing the real problem, the very same problem that I suffered from back in 1999: the innocent, unthinking sexism that comes with just accepting the status quo and not considering or, more importantly, talking about this stuff.
That’s what has to change, and that’s why this movement is so important and awesome: it’s got people talking, and talking is what counts. We need to shine that light on those ugly warts so they can be excised. We also need to stop asking women in games about the “women” part and start asking them about the “in games” part. Yes, we need to acknowledge the very real problems that exist right now, but it needs to be done with an end-goal of it just not mattering anymore because it’s no longer relevant.
In 1999, I asked a woman to call into my internet radio show to prove she had boobs. In 2012, I read her blog to learn about UX design and frankly don’t give a shit whether she has boobs or not. It doesn’t matter to me anymore, and I don’t remember why it ever did. More and more gamers, game journalists, and game developers feel like that. That’s progress. Let’s keep it up.
Caryn’s Twitter: http://twitter.com/hellchick
Caryn’s Blog: http://carynvainio.com/