Diversity & Inclusion
Events / Gaming / Women in tech

Baltimore Gamer panel explores fraught state of women in gaming

Exploring the representation of women in gaming on three fronts: the number of female developers, how women are presented and how women gamers are treated.

At the Women in Games and Media panel. (Photo by Stephen Babcock)

The number of women developing games is growing and the perspectives in the games themselves are diversifying. But with the big studios continuing to drive hiring and themes, and the harassment that incidents like GamerGate brought to the surface, a lot of work to create more diversity remains.
That was the takeaway from a panel discussion on Women in Games and Media hosted by Baltimore Gamer last week at the ETC Haven campus.
Like the larger conversation surrounding women in technology, workforce is a major issue surrounding women in games.

If you don't have women in there, you've lost out on 50 percent of the world's perspective.

On that front, women have made gains in the gaming industry in recent years, said panelist Kelli Dunlap, who has a doctorate in clinical research and focuses on the relationship between psychology and technology.
She pointed to a recent study by IGDA that showed women now make up 22 percent of the game developer workforce. A study released by the same organization in 2009 found women made up 11.5 percent of the workforce.
Along with better representing the actual demographics of society, more diversity in the workforce also plays out when it comes to content, said panelist Joyce Rice, cofounder and creative director at Symbolia Media.
“When you have lots of different people creating your content, you get all of these different perspectives,” said Rice. “I’m tired of playing the same game over and over again. … There’s so much more that we can do when we have people from different backgrounds.”
Panelist Cherisse Datu put it like this: “If you don’t have women in there, you’ve lost out on 50 percent of the world’s perspective.”
As Rice alluded to, the question of representation in the gaming industry also plays out in the product itself. After all, as one audience member brought up, the end goal of gaming companies is to sell some games.
The growing female audience for games traces to the workforce, but what gamers see in the end is the product. And from the time that video games became popular in the 1980s and ’90s, the content has been targeted toward a male audience.
“Mario rescued a princess from Donkey Kong and that set this huge trope of men rescuing women,” Dunlap said. “So there’s an idea that games are made by men, for men because women don’t want them.”
With that view so entrenched, the gendered view even creeps into the idea of “giving people what they want,” said Rice.
“The major gaming companies are not run my women,” Rice said. “We want to sell people what they want. But if you’re running a company, you’re going to start with what represents you.”
Dunlap credited indie and mobile gaming studios in general with hiring more female developers, and in turn creating games that are more appealing to women. That’s lead to women making up 50-60 percent of the mobile gaming audience.
Including more women’s stories and perspectives within the games is key to this, she said. In many cases, female leads are action heroes like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, or the proverbial princess waiting to be rescued.
“We want a variety,” Dunlap said. “Sometimes I want to play a damsel. Sometimes I want to play a badass. Sometimes I play a mad scientist. … You need to be able to feel that you can play whatever you want and it is available to you.”
In the gaming industry, treatment of women also plays out in a very real way. GamerGate, in which developers Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and critic Anita Sarkeesian were repeatedly harassed for their feminist perspectives, is a big example.
But gaming communities frequently deal with similar issues in everyday ways, with women getting harassed over their microphones in gaming communities.
While Rice said she avoids such communities where harassment is common, Dunlap, who is an avowed Halo player, emphasized creating communities that don’t tolerate such behavior.
“You set the standards, and then you have to uphold the standards,” Dunlap said.

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