This is in response to Leigh Alexander’s thoughtful and comprehensive write-up of Mare Sheppard’s GDC talk about “The problem with ‘Women in Games’ initiatives.” I will admit freely that I’ve not seen the talk in its entirety; I look forward to doing so once it goes up online. This is simply my reaction to the Gamasutra article about the talk, and the Gamasutra blog post Sheppard made for background about the topic. Perhaps those links are inappropriate or not representational of Sheppard’s actual views or what she actually said! If this is the case, I will freely apologize when set straight. But the things I’ve read strike me as incredibly problematic, and indicative of the kinds of arguments and statements that have been used to other and exclude minorities for decades. As such, it feels as though the bits of interesting and potentially useful thoughts in Sheppard’s talk have been drowned and outweighed by problematic rhetoric.
[N.B. This section previously said: While it may be difficult for me to believe that it was a bunch of angry feminists who discounted the advice of male allies and would rather talk and exchange business cards than get down to work, I was not there and have no evidence to the contrary.
I have, since publishing this article, been approached by a few of the DEI participants who feel as though Sheppard has drastically and tragically misconstrued an experience they found uplifting and unifying.]
Stereotypes and Barriers
The Gamasutra article begins with an innocuous premise— that stereotypes are harmful, and that pervasive gender-based stereotypes have much to do with the lack of representation of women in the games industry. Sure; I’ll go with that. But then, Sheppard takes it to a weird place:
Stereotyping “underscores the feeling echoed throughout our culture that women are abnormal, unusual and different,” she says. “This feeling that they don’t fit or don’t belong keeps many women from entering game development and similar fields.”
Stereotypes affect how women perceive other women as well; women frequently complain that they abandon game events because “there are no women” there, and even when Sheppard points out that there were women in attendance, she gets a response like “well, that was somebody’s girlfriend.” Even women can be reductive of and dismissive of one another.
At this point, Sheppard seems to be arguing that A) gender-based stereotypes are bad for women, and B) these gender-based stereotypes are predominantly the fault of women. Though she does not explicitly say the fault is predominantly that of female devs, there is absolutely zero mention or discussion of these hurtful stereotypes and their expressions by, or impact on, men.
Instead, she makes an argument that women-only spaces are the cause for the ill-feelings of male devs, and implies that these initiatives are a type of soft misandry— while assuming that women involved in the incubator were less deserving or would work less hard than men for the same exposure:
And given that the idea of a women-focused games incubator generally draws so much media attention and celebration, Sheppard feared that the participants would be resented by other independent developers, who have had to work extremely hard to receive press attention and the same degree of celebration.
“These women in games initiatives push us closer to a gender-stratified industry, where we have game developers and ‘female game developers’… these designations separate us, emphasize our differences and marginalize one gender while privileging the other,” Sheppard says.
In the program she was disappointed to see many expressed a “discriminatory attitude towards men and a de-valuing of their potential contributions.”
The attempt to “Transcend” gender diminishes everyone
Personal anecdote time. I’m actually sympathetic to these arguments, because they are very similar to my viewpoint years ago— I was incredibly uncomfortable in spaces where I felt the contributions of women were privileged over men, and felt strongly that what I thought of as “reverse sexism” was just as harmful as misogyny. What changed? It’s not that I suddenly experienced a ton of new sexist behavior directed at me. It’s not that I suddenly felt the need for female-only spaces where I could truly celebrate my lack of a Y chromosome.
I listened to women who’ve had it worse than me, and I did my homework on social justice. And, it turns out, a lot of the attitudes and arguments presented in Sheppard’s talk (as presented in the article) are incredibly common sentiments that have been used to silence or discount minorities for years.
People who have experienced injustice often have a tendency to identify themselves strongly by their anger, by a reaction to their injury, and by absolute rejection of a perceived perpetrator – even if many of those perceptions have to do with their own stereotyping and endemic biases.
“It’s vital to grow beyond simply rejecting men and instead to reject the constructs of gender entirely,” says Sheppard. She believes that in some cases, aims to target discrimination and inequality by favoring marginalized people can actually further it. In such cases, individuals are still allowing stereotypes to form the basis of their understanding of people, possibly to lasting negative consequences.
St. Cloud State University debunks many of these fairly well— blaming the minority’s anger or willingness to talk about inequality for their marginalization and the myth of the equal playing field are particularly present here. But I’m going to talk about the one thing that bothers me the most: the idea that gender is “irrelevant” and should be “transcended.”
I would not call my gender the defining trait of who I am, but I find Sheppard’s unease with women for whom “gender was a very important part of their personalities, lives and identities” kind of baffling. Even if you as a person do not personally strongly identify with your gender, the point is that the rest of the world strongly identifies you with your gender. Your gender is obvious without speaking to you (or, if not, you open yourself up to further discrimination and ridicule). Our entire society is based around a male-female split: in advertising, in where you go to the restroom and what part of a gym you use, in clothing and on your driver’s license and what indignities you suffer once a year at the hands of your gender-specialized doctor. (And for that matter, whether your insurance will cover your sexual health— but that’s a different debate.)
It does not matter whether or not you define yourself as a woman, because the world has done it for you. And as long as the games industry does not exist in a vacuum— as long as people go home to the larger and unfortunately unequal society we live in— we cannot transcend gender in the game industry.
I don’t naturally gravitate to women-only spaces, but I appreciate their existence and what they do for the women who are most comfortable there. Sheppard says for herself (when not lamenting that “learning was secondary to the formation of bonds and relationships” in the women-in-games incubator she ran) that “12 women made their first game in a supportive environment.” By every definition, that is a success. I’m a pretty strong swimmer, but I wouldn’t deride life preservers as privileging people who can’t swim over those who worked hard to learn how to swim against the tide.
More than all of this, though, I don’t want people to forget that I’m a woman. I don’t want to have to transcend gender. The idea that getting rid of something about myself I accept and on occasion even like is the ideal diminishes the totality of who I am. (Not to mention the problems inherent in a culture with a majority, where “transcending X” usually translates to “Be more like the majority.”) I think there’s a lost opportunity when diversity is promoted by downplaying the things that make us diverse. The pressure to “fit in” to the majority’s culture and their line of thinking can prevent women from discovering what makes them unique and valuable— and giving them safe spaces to think differently and discover what they bring to the table can ultimately foster a wider variety of viewpoints than if they jumped into the ocean with both feet.
An Addendum: Corporate Culture
Sheppard’s blog post talks about the ways in which corporate culture can be exclusionary, and it’s perhaps the biggest case of her getting it right and wrong all at once.
If you are hiring, pursue a gender-neutral environment that strikes a balance between action figures, game merchandise & comics, and plants, graphic art & minimalist clean lines. Show people a space that treats them as equal, allows them to bring their own personality, rather than asking them to fit into a less broadly defined and potentially limiting architecture (Cheryan et al., 2009).
The idea that the “nerd” stereotype is the main and most predominant barrier to females entering game development (which she does not say, but again, is the only example she gives) is personally offensive to me as a female nerd and also kind of baffling. Never before have geeky pursuits been so celebrated in the mainstream culture, and never have so many women happily admitted to “geeking out.” Additionally— and especially in the game dev world— those particular examples can be great indicators of a shared cultural literacy that can really benefit game development. (As can football memorabilia if you’re making a Madden game, or magazine covers if you’re making a fashion game.)
For the record: Loot Drop is an incredibly diverse work environment, with as many female game designers as male, and a host of other women in the office, too— as well as a wide variety of ethnicities, or as Brenda would say, “We look like the fuckin’ United Nations.” This is while selecting to rigidly maintain a corporate culture which includes a basic cultural literacy of, and fierce passion for games of all stripes. We’ve had long company-wide discussions of makeup and cute shoes, and we will ardently argue about the merits of Chrono Trigger or Star Trek versus Star Wars.
Sheppard says “Socialization has biased us all in some way, and while it’s easy for us to see each other’s biases, we’re reluctant to see them in ourselves,” and I feel like this is perhaps the most pervasive truth of the entire article.