Women in Games Awards 2017 finalists on misogyny and how to tackle the industry’s diversity issues

Katharine Byrne
Women in Games Awards 2017 finalists on misogyny and how to tackle the industry’s diversity issues

Today marks our third Women in Games Awards, where MCV, Develop and eSports Pro celebrate the successes and achievements of women in the UK games industry. While the number of women playing and working in games has never been higher, there are still numerous issues that need to be tackled. 

According to a recent IGDA report, our workforce is still only 22 per cent female compared to the 45 per cent UK average, and 45 per cent of respondents from Next Gen Skills Academy’s 2016 gender balance research survey felt like their gender was a limiting factor in their career. Indeed, one of our finalists, Megan Garrett, said she was even quizzed about her appearance during a job interview at a “well-known publisher” and that her “looks and gender were the main attraction” rather than her skills. Fortunately, the experience didn’t put her off getting another job in games, but it shows even today there are enduring prejudices that put women on the back foot. 

Who better to address these problems, then, than our own Women in Games Awards shortlist? While the number of answers we received could have filled multiple issues of MCV, here’s what they had to say about dealing with misogyny, both inside and outside of the industry, whether games should directly appeal to women, and if putting more women in more senior roles will naturally lead to better titles. 

GATE CRASHERS

The past three years have done plenty to highlight the amount of harassment women in games face today, but according to our finalists, it’s actually the industry’s general apathy about maintaining the status quo that poses the bigger hurdle.

“Outright misogyny is a lot easier to identify and it can be directly dealt with. It’s a lot harder to fight the things that feel normal to the majority,” says Jodie Azhar, lead technical artist at Creative Assembly. “Most agree it’s a good idea to have more women in the industry, but if it doesn’t directly affect them they often don’t notice issues that make it difficult for women to feel equal, let alone act on those issues to help move forward.”

From left to right: Jess Hider, Grace Carroll, Jasmine Kanuga

Sally Blake, associate producer at Ubisoft’s Reflections, agrees, saying the lack of diversity “is rarely malicious” but is easily overlooked by developers – thoughts that are echoed by the director of Maker Space at The University of Salford Dr. Maria Stukoff: 

“Cultural transformation is one of the hardest quests in games right now,” says Stukoff. “If I ever hear again, ‘no women applied’ or ‘no women came forward as a speaker’ I will explode. I mean pick up the effing phone. Ever heard of Ukie, TIGA, WIGJ or NGSA to name few? Work with your recruiters to do better. I stick two fingers up to apathy.”

Corsegames’ producer María Díez Huerta, however, has found that many women simply aren’t even aware that the industry’s open to them and that there’s “a false belief that [women] aren’t worthy, or a fear of disapproval from their family and friends.” She continues: “Unfortunately, I’ve felt that when it comes down to business or executive positions, there’s outright misogyny. It seems male aggressiveness is considered an asset and those who have it are more suitable for the roles. They want ‘sharks’, not women that can get pregnant someday or already have kids.”

From left to right: Hannah McMillan, Chantal Beaumont, Erin O'Brien

This doesn’t seem to be the case in all disciplines, however, as Creative Assembly’s environment artist Olivia Butler-Stroud has found the industry “values talent and hard work above all else. An artist with a strong portfolio will mean you’re more likely to find work, regardless of your age, gender or ethnicity.”

However, as University of Sussex student Alessia Nigretti argues, companies also need to make sure they don’t end up positively discriminating against men. “In the past people told me I passed an interview or a competition ‘just because I’m a woman’ and ‘I represent a minority.’ Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a good balance between equality and over-inclusion. The hardest part of searching for equality is not finding it but maintaining it and not allowing it to get to the point of overcoming the other sex.”

From left to right: Claire Sharkey, Alessia Nigretti, Alex Moyet

THE BLAME GAME

Of course, misogyny isn’t just an internal industry issue, as certain sections of the wider community are sadly just as toxic. However, while some of our finalists feel like the industry should take more responsibility for their fans, there’s no clear answer on how they should go about it. One thing they do agree on, though, is that ignoring the problem definitely won’t make it go away, with Freejam’s 3D artist Hannah McMillan arguing “it discourages both female gamers and women working in the industry itself” as it makes them feel “unsafe.”

“It’s difficult to expect the industry to be responsible for every idiot on the internet,” says Michelle Tilley, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s senior release manager. “However, I think there’s a social responsibility that should be expected and built by our industry, which could be some sort of framework that supports what our values are. It would be great if we could see a campaign, championed by our industry and media leaders, that is focused on speaking out about misogyny in the industry and help take action.”

Indeed, both Dingit.TV’s brands and community manager Claire Sharkey and Kinmoku’s Lucy Blundell, highlight the actions of BioWare’s Aaryn Flynn as being a positive example of what to do when co-workers come under attack, after an animator on Mass Effect: Andromeda was targeted by the gaming community. “Actions like this really help,” says Blundell. “Our industry should always be willing to speak out against sexism and misogyny, no matter how small.” 

From left to right: Adriana Pucciano, Veronique Lallier, Yasmine Altawell

Sharkey adds: “The gaming industry needs to support the people that help it exist. There’s never an excuse to not acknowledge and publicly stamp out actions or comments that serve no good.”

Kimberley Turner, finance director at Double 11, agrees: “If you are curating a space or community for fans and it is co-opted for hate and aggression, then it’s absolutely the industry’s responsibility to find out why and how this culture is allowed to flourish.” 

Creative Assembly’s lead animator Adriana Pucciano is of the same opinion, saying that harsher rules and consequences in forums “will begin the shift in mentality to make offenders realise that [outwardly misogynist] comments are not okay.”

To put it in plainer terms, Stukoff looks to football. “Imagine a football match full of hooligans without the football club getting involved in banning known troublemakers,” she says. “Football would be called ‘cage fighting’ or worse.”

From left to right: Kate Clavin, Jodie Azhar, Sally Blake, Sian Knight

To help improve the situation, The Imaginarium Studios’ lead animator Yasmine Altawell says having more women at events like E3 and Gamescom would be “a step in the right direction.” She adds: “We see a lot of producers and community managers, but what about all the other [disciplines]? If it were more widely known that women have more direct involvement in games, those that are more inclined to be sexist and abusive would have less ammunition to fire with.”

ROOT OF THE MATTER

For many, however, the issue is more deeply ingrained in society as a whole, with Grads in Games graduate talent specialist Rachel Cabot saying that while the industry “can limit misogyny in games,” the real problem lies in our “broader culture.”

That’s partly because there’s a pervading stigma that games are still very much a “boy’s club” according to Véronique Lallier, GM of Europe at Hi-Rez Studios, and it’s only when that social messaging is undone, in the words of Turner, that any progress can be made. 

“It all starts at home, by breaking the taboo that games are for men only and that they aren’t a serious career choice,” says Díez Huerta. 

From left to right: Roz Tuplin, Rebecca-Louise Leybourne, Rosa Carbo-Mascarell

Lallier adds: "The accessibility to younger audience is dictated by their guardians and parents. They are the ones who decide to turn on the TV, or not. Parents tend to buy toy cars for their sons and dolls for their daughters, which is a very annoying and harmful stereotype. [...] Nowadays, I think this increased accessibility means that girls and women play an important part in the gaming world. Mobile market has been the perfect medium to bring more people into gaming, making it even more mainstream than it was."

Indeed, the women who did have access to gaming consoles as a child tell us it had a huge influence on their current career paths. Nigretti, for instance, says playing Tomb Raider with her mother was “definitely the making of a power team,” while Epic Games’ European community manager for Unreal Engine Jess Hider recalls several hours playing The Legend of Zelda and Banjo-Kazooie with her father. “If it wasn’t for the hours I spent playing games with my dad, I wouldn’t be in the industry now,” says Hider.

Getting girls into games early is only half the battle, though, as Press Space’s CEO Natalie Griffith states “the real problem is that we struggle to keep [girls] engaged as they grow up. Unless we encourage a more diverse range of content, and, more importantly, put the marketing support behind amplifying the great stuff that’s already being created, then they will continue to drift away as they head into their teens.”

From left to right: Rachel Cabot, Natalie Griffith, Olivia Butler-Stroud

ESL and Multiplay’s Jasmine Kanuga, agrees, saying that “exposure of more games on television and online” would help raise awareness, and that including games in media and IT courses at schools would “provide greater insight into the world of gaming and its capabilities.”

As a result, reaching out to teachers with constructive careers advice is equally important, Triangular Pixels’ creative director Katie Goode tells us: “My team and I recently did a careers day at the local secondary school in Bude, Cornwall. So many of the teachers – as well as the pupils – were completely blown away about the possibility of becoming a game developer and had no idea how to guide students down that path.”

Progress is already being made in this area, such as Gram Games’ 22% Project, which offers workshops around design, development, culture and business, says the studio’s culture developer Erin O’Brien: “Many of these skills aren’t ones that are automatically offered in a generic educational environment, which is why Gram wanted to provide a space for these to be learnt, so in the long run women can be competitive in the industry.”

Lizi Attwood, Furious Bee’s technical director, says she also likes to attend as many school career days as she can as “the most important thing I can do is to be visible.”

From left to right: Michelle Tilley, Dr Maria Stukoff, Megan Garrett

Indeed, visibility remains a constant problem, both at events and in the media, says Tilley: “When I was young, most of my gaming industry heroes were male and this was largely due to who was being interviewed, who was featured in the games magazines I was reading. There just wasn’t a heavy focus on women.”

Stukoff concurs: “Headlines such as ‘Horizon’s female lead character made Sony worried’ really doesn’t convey confidence in championing female stories or characters. We need to see more female mentors, and more real-world representation of opportunities that inspire engagement with younger audiences.”

WORKING TOGETHER

For many of our finalists, however, simply putting more women in senior roles isn’t necessarily the answer to creating more engaging games. As much as they can “expand the collective knowledge,” says Altawell, Games London’s business development administrator Roz Tuplin argues that women also “have a ton of habits to unlearn in terms of the narratives we create and images we draw on. It’s more about people of any gender being emboldened to create different stories and images that will adjust the way the next generation creates.”

Indeed, for Chantal Beaumont, head of graphic design at Sumo Digital, “sense and sensitivity is what’s important, not gender specifically,” with Turner adding that “when roles are filled by diverse voices, the end result is a lot more honest and appealing.”

From left to right: Maria Diez Huerta, Lucy Blundell, Lulu Zhang

Ahzar adds: “Putting women onto a team isn’t going to automatically mean you have good female characters. What we want as players is the option to play games where we can relate to the character and encounter experiences that resonate with us, rather than put up with straight, white, male characters [as] heroes.”

Pucciano agrees, saying “we need more diversity in upper management as well as women who are able to sign off on fundamental decisions on game direction.” 

For Kim Newsome, founder and editor-in-chief at eSports Source, however, there are some skills that only women can bring to the table: “Just hire women. I can’t say that enough. Hire women and you don’t have to ask questions about what women want. We will tell you.”

Likewise, Megan Garrett, Sega Europe’s digital distribution assistant, says having more female producers would provide “further suggestions of what women would like to see in games rather than just assumptions of what they like and could open doors to positive female character creation.” 

LEADING LADIES

A trickier issue to unpick is whether companies should actively do more to make titles more appealing to women. While many said games shouldn’t go down this route, with freelance character designer and animator Kate Clavin saying real equality shouldn’t be “false or fabricated,” having more female characters in lead roles would certainly be “a huge plus” according to Nigretti when it comes to encouraging women to buy more titles.

From left to right: Kimberley Turner, Katie Goode, Kim Newsome

For Newsome, Overwatch is already doing an excellent job in this respect. “People want to play as characters they can relate to,” she says. “I definitely see more of myself in a 30-something scientist-adventurer like Overwatch’s Mei, thus leading me to want to at least try the game. Showing women as heroes is important as it can help shape future world views and interactions.”

Likewise, Grace Carroll, Creative Assembly’s social media manager, remembers she was “beyond excited” when Pokémon Gold and Silver let her play as a girl, and that “seeing a space for [women] within the game world” was hugely beneficial. Similarly, Clavin says games with strong female leads like Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn has definitely led her to “see a difference in women’s pride over the game industry.”

Indeed, Kitty Crawford, Blackstaff Games’ producer, says keeping women in mind when designing games is crucial. “There’s no successful project that’s ever been created without having [a particular] audience in mind in some way. Game devs need to ask themselves whether it’s just for men, or if women could enjoy it too.” Blundell agrees: “Beginning to see female/feminine as an opportunity to create something diverse is a good start.”

From left to right: Lizi Attwood, Kitty Crawford, Lisa Burgers

However, Lulu Zhang, lead concept artist at Creative Assembly, warns that while “good employees in the right positions can improve the overall quality of games, they cannot [win] more female consumers if the original core of a game doesn’t contain anything attractive to women” – something that’s easier to add later on compared to hiring a senior female employee who can shape a game’s direction, she reckons. Beaumont argues, however, that “girls like a romping adventure as much as boys do,” so making games specifically for women “seems to revert to a ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ mentality [that’s] counter productive.” 

Creative Industries Federation’s digital content officer Rosa Carbó-Mascarell feels the same but adds “there’s something very visceral about going through the hero’s journey in the skin of someone like you. I’m still waiting to experience this.” A lack of general awareness is also a key problem, says Rebecca-Louise Leybourne, facial animator at The Imaginarium Studios: “Girls and young women just don’t think [games] are being made for them. We’re seeing some amazing female leads in huge successful triple-A games but I still feel even they’re designed to appeal more to a male audience."

Likewise, Sian Knight, a games design student at the University of Central Lancashire, says she enjoys “games that are ‘for men’ such as Call of Duty or Halo” but recognises more could be done to raise awareness of these male-orientated games among women: “[Advertisers] need to recognize that their target audience isn’t all men and that a lot of women play their games, too.”

From left to right: Kate Clavin, Jodie Azhar

Creative Assembly’s level designer Lisa Burgers adds: “Women may prefer to play as a female main character, but so might a lot of men. It’s all about giving options. If women-centric magazines featured games, it would help raise the profile of the medium.” 

GAME PLAN

There’s clearly still much to be done, then, but generally our finalists are optimistic about the current direction of the industry, even with the looming shadow of Brexit on the horizon. Indeed, if any of our shortlist got into No.10, there’s no shortage of plans they’d put into place.

Cabot would “regulate or dismantle market collusion over binary-gendered toys within the toys industry” to break down social norms, while Clavin would “get programming and design into schools.” Hider, meanwhile, would “encourage the mainstream media to show the depth and diversity of games” produced by the industry, and Turner would ensure the video games tax relief is still in place post-Brexit. 

Alex Moyet, founder and director at Amcade, however, would put a stop to Brexit altogether – as would many of our other finalists. “The UK games industry would be nothing without the contributions of amazing international talent from EU countries,” Moyet argues, and Carroll agrees, concluding: “It’s great how diverse companies in the UK are, and I’d hate to see us lose that. Top talent is a premium in the industry, and one that we definitely want to hang on to.”

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