Dead in the midst of a heated SXSW #Gamergate controversy (in which two panels about the gaming community for SXSW 2016 were cancelled due to threats, but then reinstated as an all-day harassment summit after public and business pressure) comes Girl Gamers, a five-part documentary series from Fusion that tells a more complete story about the women who play and make games.
The series creator, Fusion deputy editor Latoya Peterson (herself a gamer) says, “The narrative about girl gamers, especially in pop culture, has become one that is just about harassment. But we are so much more than that. I wanted to showcase a diverse look at girl gamers and show that we are not all having the same experiences.”
For instance, video game director Amy Hennig, who started a studio with Jade Raymond to work on a Star Wars game for Electronic Arts, has been working in the gaming industry since the ’80s. She says that harassment has not been the theme of her experience in gaming. And there are other women, even African-American ones, who say their reality has been far different than the prevailing narrative.
Peterson points to the girl gaming and family gaming revolution of the ’90s, where marketing departments pushed gaming consoles as family entertainment. But then somewhere along the line, that narrative shifted. Studies started reporting that boys played games more than girls, and we started seeing this hypermasculine culture emerge.
“It became, ‘Why would girls want to play games if they’re violent?’ And then statistics were cited saying the majority of people who own consoles are men. No, the majority of people who register consoles are men. That doesn’t tell the story of who is in the home actually playing the games. There’s a lot of misinformation around the data,” says Peterson. In fact, she says 40% of the console market is comprised of women gamers.
Peterson’s hope is that the series will shed some light on these inaccuracies. Overall, Girl Gamers looks deeper at gaming culture and what it means to play while female, including the finer points of game design, working in the industry, identities, and why a good female heroine is so hard to find.
It seems that when it comes to gaming, the story of who’s gaming becomes more about what kinds of games women are playing. Statistics will report that women are majority casual gamers (or MMORPGs). But according to Peterson, as she talked to more and more women about gaming, many had stories about growing up playing Donkey Kong, Super Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda or Duck Hunt (although they didn’t always think of themselves as gamers). “Women have all of these amazing stories, but they’ve been taught to socialize themselves as not being gamers and to not identify themselves as gamers,” she says.
The gaming market, including online and mobile games, is a $91.5 billion market, Peterson says. So what’s the narrative when it comes to women, or even African-Americans, working as game developers? “22% of game developers identify as women, 2% as transgendered or androgynous,” Peterson says. “The diversity numbers, and these are from 10 years ago, were like 2% Black developers, 3% Latino developers and, like, 7% Asian developers. It’s extremely low. But a lot of the women I met talk about creating and developing games.” To that point, Episode 2 of Girl Gamers includes the voice of game designer Catt Small.
While young Black males play games at a high level, they’re often dropping out of the kinds of computer science and technological studies that bring them into the gaming market. Peterson notes work done at Georgia Institute of Technology that looked at gaming masculinity and focused on increasing the participation of African-American males in the computer sciences. It revealed that African-American males grew up with “a premium placed on athleticism, physical power, appearance and physical performance. There was little value placed on technological agency.” Meanwhile, the groups that were succeeding in CS programs had been working with programs since they were in elementary school.
“When people don’t see people who look like them, they tend to think that field is off limits to them. There are people like Nichol Bradford, who was the director of business operations for the China and Asia Pacific region for Blizzard/Vivendi, which makes the World of Warcraft games. She was very prominent in the game field before switching to transformative technologies. But most people have never even heard of her,” notes Peterson.
Today, most of the tools that developers use to design games are free. In Episode 2, Peterson also talked about Steam, Twine and Unity platforms that enable smaller game designers to develop and distribute their games to the public. These types of tools, she says, are helping to change who has access—and with that, the face of the gaming industry.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.