The Level Up student gaming showcase in Toronto. (Photo: Joshua Ostroff/HuffPost Canada)
INTRO CUT-SCENE: Level Playing Field
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"The vast majority of people just don't even realize they're making games for men because they are men."
Daphne Ippolito, a computer science major at the University of Toronto, is speaking her mind at Level Up, a student game development showcase this past spring where she worked with a handful of classmates on an adorable, non-violent and co-operative astronaut game called "Pitfall Planet."
I've asked her about sexism in gaming, and how to fix it.
"They're just making games they'd like to play," she points out, not coincidentally at a mostly male gaming event. "If there were more diverse people with a lot of different viewpoints going into the finished product there wouldn't be such a unified idea of what games should be."
"I don't think it would be difficult for games to incorporate more female playable characters and not just sex toys for the men," she adds. "There's just no one there telling them to do that."
Actually, there have been people finally telling them to do that. And it has led to an ugly gaming offshoot of the culture wars known as GamerGate.
TUTORIAL: Hell's Gate
Video games have always been accused of promoting violent and anti-social behaviour. In fact, in Toronto you still need a special permit to have more than two game machines in a bar or cafe because of an old-timey law that associated pinball with juvenile delinquency.
But over the past year and a half, what has actually inspired threats of violence and anti-social behaviour has been criticism of video games, thanks to GamerGate. The amorphous and oft-misogynistic online movement opposes demands by so-called SJWs — social justice warriors — for increased diversity in the mostly white, male medium.
It is essentially a gamer offshoot of the Tea Party in the U.S., and even shares far-right website Breitbart.com as a motivating media source. Though around in semi-organized form since August 2014 — and, they will try and tell you, "actually it's about ethics in games journalism" — GamerGate hit the mainstream in October 2014.
This was when feminist game critic Anita Sarkeessian was forced to cancel a speech at a Utah university following an anonymous threat of a "Montreal-style massacre." She had been a target for online abuse since launching her "Tropes vs Women In Videogames" YouTube series in 2012.
Fast-forward to this October, and more violent threats caused the cancellation of two GamerGate-related panels at the massive SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. This time, however, the backlash was so great — including irate congresswoman Katherine Clark who wrote that "SXSW has assisted those who wish to silence women by threatening violence" — that the organizers backtracked, announcing a day-long, anti-harassment summit.
"We made a mistake," admitted director Hugh Forrest. "By cancelling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry.
That was a positive step, but GamerGate is merely a symptom of a larger diversity problem plaguing the industry. And as any gamer knows, the solution to a puzzle is always harder to crack than it looks.
LEVEL ONE: The Legend of Chelsea
"I understand that there is some resistance toward women being involved in game development and being involved in gaming culture but I think it's kind of an older way of thinking. It's completely normal. It's completely normal for me to play video games. The culture will evolve," says Chelsea O’Hara, an aspiring developer who recently completed a short mentorship program at the Ubisoft Toronto studio run through the organization Women in Film and Television.
"It’s just gonna be written on the Wikipedia page that this happened and it sucked, and we moved on from it. We grew better out of it."
O'Hara, 23, has been a gamer for about half her life, ever since she finally convinced her parents that gaming wasn't violent. She got them to buy her a Nintendo GameCube with a copy of "The Legend of Zelda: Collector's Edition," a compilation of the iconic role-playing game series dating back to the late '80s.
Zelda, by the way, is not the series' star — that would be the male adventurer, Link — but its ever-kidnapped princess. This would not have seemed unusual for O'Hara, of course, because almost all video game avatars — the ones doing the saving, not the ones being saved — back then were male.
In fact, a survey of 669 last-gen games on PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii found that less than 300 had a female option and only 24 games with had female-only lead. That's four per cent. These female-fronted games did sell less, but the research also found they received about 40 per cent of the marketing budget.
But things are finally starting to change, which may explain the ferocity of the GamerGate backlash.
This holiday season not only features role-playing games like "Fallout 4" and shooters like "Call of Duty: Black Ops III" where the player can pick their gender of choice, but also "Rise of The Tomb Raider" with its iconic, and now proportionally chested, heroine Lara Croft, and Ubisoft's own "Assassin's Creed: Syndicate" which has both male and female playable leads.
In fact, this year's industry conference E3 boasted 23 games with "badass playable female characters ranging from Canadian-made sci-fi RPG Mass Effect: Andromeda" to "Walking Dead" spinoff focused on Michonne to new entries in the "Mirror's Edge," "Dishonoured" and "Fable" franchises.
But back when O'Hara got into gaming, not only were female playable characters rare, but people seemed to think that female players were, too. That was certainly the case when she upgraded to a PlayStation 3 a few years later.
"At 16, I got my first job as a lifeguard and I saved up all summer to buy a PS3. They were really expensive. I got the 80GB 'Metal Gear Solid IV' limited edition with four USB ports, memory card and backwards compatibility. It was the top-of-the-line you could possibly get at the time," she recalls with nostalgic fondness.
But when she went to buy it, and dared to know enough to decline the extended warranty, guess what happened with the salesman?
"He started making these snide comments like, 'Oh, is this a gift?' He made it suddenly uncomfortable just because I was buying the system for myself."
But encouragement from her peers with whom she spent nights and weekends playing "Metal Gear," "Rock Band," "Resident Evil" and "Mario Kart," helped her transcend such sexism and O'Hara kept the idea in the back of her mind that maybe one day she could make games, not just play them.
“Video games aren't marketed towards women, so how is a girl going to grow up thinking I should go make video games?”
"Growing up, the majority of my gamer friends were guys. Video games aren't marketed towards women, so how is a girl going to grow up thinking I should go make video games? They don't appeal to her at all, right? There are many different angles to the problem of why women are more involved in gaming culture."
"Like anything, it's just going to take time, it's going to take breaking down those barriers and showing women that they can be happy, they can be involved, they can make art, and they can work side-by-side and at the same level as any male in the industry."
Luckily, O'Hara had an inspiration named Jade Raymond, a rare female gaming executive who was the former managing director of Ubisoft Toronto before leaving a few years ago to found Electronic Arts' Motive Studios in Montreal.
"My mom showed me an article about her when she was working on 'Assassin's Creed,' and I was like, 'Well, who is this?' I started looking into her and following her career. When I graduated high school she was opening the studio in Toronto so I had in the back my mind that maybe that would be a cool place to work at someday."
LEVEL TWO: Changing The Code
In June of 2014, Ubisoft Montreal caused an uproar when creative director Alex Amancio told the gaming site Polygon that they had cut female playable characters from the four-player co-op mode of French Revolution-set "Assassin's Creed: Unity" because of "the reality of production."
"It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets," he said. "Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work."
Women make up 45 per cent of gamers across all platforms, including 40 per cent of console gamers and 50 per cent of computer gamers, so people got understandably upset at the notion that it was too expensive to include women in the actual game.
(As an example as to why this matters, I let my six-year-old son play the parkour exploration parts of the new “Assassin's Creed” — don’t worry, no killing — and his response after playing as Evie Frye was, “Wow, that girl is so brave!”)
Even as this controversy was unspooling online, elsewhere in the Ubisoft Montreal office, perfectly named developer Brie Code was organizing her co-workers to design a diversity initiative.
"It was happening beforehand but that was definitely a factor that pushed us to continue the conversation," Code said. "Ever since we started 'Child of Light' two years ago I've been really interested in this topic."
Code's award-winning downloadable faerie game "Child of Light" not only featured a female protagonist, but also a developer team that was 25 per cent female, which in this industry is huge.
"I've been in the industry for 12 years, and university before that, and I've often been the only woman in the room. At times it can be very lonely so I have to make sure I have a lot of female friends outside of work," she says. "So now I have had a taste of what is like to have a more balanced team and I won't go back."
This may be less an issue with studio hiring practices, and more a problem with the candidate pool in the first place. Code uses Quebec as an example of this dearth, noting that only 13 per cent of computer science grads are women. Code actually left Ubisoft over the summer and is currently on sabbatical, though she is still speaking out on this issue.
"The change I've seen in the community over the last year is that more and more women are sharing their stories and creating connections and building supportive networks. A year ago I could only speak in hushed whispers about some of the more egregious incidents of sexism in my career for fear of loss of allies and influence, and now I can use them as examples in talks at schools and conferences to hundreds of people and build connections across the industry.
"There is a greater awareness of the underlying causes of the lack of diversity in the tech and games industries and with that they can start to be addressed. It won't be an easy road and it is not fixed yet."
GamerGate is merely a symptom of a larger diversity problem plaguing the industry. And as any gamer knows, the solution to a puzzle is always harder to crack than it looks.
Code's diversity initiative continues to develop its three-pronged process in her absence. In the short term, the goal is to increase awareness and gather knowledge of the factors contributing to this gender imbalance.
The medium-term goal is improve working conditions for women already employed, and then long-term, they want to figure out how attract more young women to study computer science in the first place.
But this is not about altruism, as Code discovered while helping design the initiative. It is actually in the industry's best interests, too.
"I came across research that proved that diverse teams can perform better than expert teams. There is such a thing as group intelligence, and well-balanced teams are stronger. They are particularly stronger when it comes to innovation and solving complex problems," she says.
"They get stuck less often. They have greater creativity. They have clearer communication with no assumptions of shared knowledge. They don't suffer from unconscious assimilation pressure that can stop experts from sharing their weird ideas. They solve complex problems better.
"During the hiring process, we should be thinking about building the best teams, not hiring the best candidates. There is no such thing as the best candidate. And this is very relevant to (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau's new cabinet and something I haven't seen mentioned much in the discussion yet."
LEVEL THREE: Dames, Games And Incubators
Code isn't alone in her efforts to get more women into the industry. Grassroots incubator organizations, usually appealing to more indie-minded aspiring programmers, have popped up all over, including Pixelles in Montreal, Ladies Learning Code, which has chapters across the country, and the Toronto-based non-profit Dames Making Games.
"With initiatives like DMG, it's all about fostering a community that encourages you. It gives you resources to cope with issues like [sexism] by giving you the tools to make you feel confident about game design," explains organizer Soha Kareem.
Dames Making Games, which is also aimed at getting more "non-binary, gender non-conforming, trans and queer folks" into gaming, was founded back in 2012. They have monthly socials, bring in speakers and provide advice and support to anyone interested in making their own game, regardless of experience.
"It's about taking that intimidation away," Kareem says. "Making you value your own work is more important than dealing with trolls on the Internet, or some guy in his basement talk about how much he doesn't like your agenda.
"The thing about GamerGate is that it's not new. It just has a hashtag but since I remember going on the Internet it's been like that — publishing an article about sexism and being called all the names on Twitter. Back in 2007, a woman [Kathy Sierra] was forced out of her home and off the Internet entirely and she was a really important game programmer.”
Sierra, who eventually re-emerged in 2013 with the launch of her blog Serious Pony, wrote this reminiscence last year:
"It begins with simple threats. You know, rape, dismemberment, the usual. It's a good place to start, those threats, because you might simply vanish once those threats include your family. Mission accomplished. But today, many women online — you women who are far braver than I am — you stick around. And now, since you stuck around through the first wave of threats, you are now a much BIGGER problem."
Kareem stresses that DMG is not a response to such sexism, but that training and empowering women coders is much-needed to offset a culture unfortunately fuelled by a frat-boy mentality that pushes away the opposite sex.
"I recently went to visit a friend of mine and there was just 10 guys working on a game and they were talking about the coding and one guy explained his code by talking about how it gave him a boner: 'Oh yeah, I got totally hard.' Who even talks like that?!?"
LEVEL FOUR BOSS BATTLE: High Inquisitor SJW
Natalie Zina Walschots is a dame who makes games. The one she's most proud of is "You've Been Fridged," which she made with a couple other DMG members during a 48-hour game jam called Snacktember. Inspired by comic book legend Gail Simone's Women in Refrigerators blog, she boasts that "it actually turned into a kind of playable thing within 48 hours, so that was a pretty cool and remarkable experience."
Walschots is also a journalist and much-loathed target of GamerGate, one of whom dubbed her "High Inquisitor SJW in the Court of Star Chamber." It was an insult she quickly appropriated into her Twitter bio. She recently wrote about how one of the most prominent female Gaters — one used to argue the movement is not sexist — was actually a fictional construct of a male gamer.
Surprisingly, Walschots has a lot of empathy despite her own harassment. It actually ramped up last summer after she redubbed them #Deatheaters to facilitate a gaming conference conversation online free from the interference that a Gamergate hashtag attracts (and perhaps also to satisfy her inner Harry Potter nerd).
"Nobody believes they're a villain. They think that they're doing the right thing,” she says. "A lot of GamerGate comes from a sense of feeling profoundly disenfranchised. The average Gater is a pretty sad and lonely human being who sees themselves as marginalized. They perceive something they love being maligned.
"It also gives people who feel very isolated a sense of community in a way that they may not have had before by getting them to come together over this rallying cry: 'They are trying to take away this art form that we love. What can we do to stop that?'"
"The average Gater is a pretty sad and lonely human being who sees themselves as marginalized. They perceive something they love being maligned.”
She wants to assure them that nobody has any interest in making fewer games starring "Brown Hair McNormalpants" but simply more diverse games as well. But she doesn't give everyone a pass.
"A few terrible people," she says, are manipulating the rest into "actively working to make games more hostile and less diverse — less welcoming to women, to people of colour, to the LGBTQ community, to people who want to make games better and weirder and more diverse and more wonderful."
Clearly the solution is to just ignore them, as Chelsea O'Hara suggests, and instead follow the example of Brie Code and DMG to keep working on increasing women behind the scenes who then put them on screen.
Ultimately, the way to win is to not only play the game, but to make it, too.
"It is absolutely a skill set that most people can learn," Walschots says. "Give people access to tools through which they can tell their own stories because they’ve been waiting too long for somebody else to tell that story for them."