A real highlight of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in the last couple of years has been the Advocacy Track. This is made up of a series of talks, round tables and presentations regarding issues within gaming about diversity, tolerance and inclusivity. And in a GDC where not a single woman was giving a full length talk at the Independent Games Summit, there are clearly still some massive issues. Rather brilliantly, the sessions within this track are being made free to all, rather than just those who attended the conference. Highlights are below.
Let's not live in pretend-land. Some people don't like this stuff existing, and they don't like its appearing on RPS. For those who are on the fence, I really encourage you to watch at least the first two videos below, to hear people explaining why this stuff really matters. To those unwilling, let me be really clear: If you have a problem with the discussion of matters regarding gaming culture that don't fit within a grotesque interpretation of the "norm", then really, feel free to find another site. Join a thread on Reddit discussing some imagined point in our past when we didn't write about this stuff (we always did) and still wrote about games (we obviously do, the overwhelmingly vast majority of the time). Or recognise that having an issue with this content making up less than one percent of what we publish is perhaps the main reason such content is so massively necessary. If this fleck of dust within the cornucopia of reviews, previews, interviews, trailers and news is such an irritant, perhaps the allergy needs addressing?
Right, let's get on with the good stuff.
The highlight of this track both in 2013 and 2014 was #1ReasonToBe. The session, inspired by Rhianna Pratchett's tweeted response to the #1ReasonWhy hashtag, is about the reasons the women (and other) speaking are in the games industry, despite its significant problems. It's a time for both the upbeat and the furious, as these industry professionals give their personal reflections. And 2014's was a wonderful, terrible, moving hour. Opening the session was the inspirational Brenda Romero - one of my biggest heroes and a person who constantly inspires me to be better - introducing a panel of Leigh Alexander, Laralyn McWilliams, Lauren Scott, Ana Kipnis, Colleen Macklin, and Deirdra "Squinky" Kiai.
It feels wrong to pick a highlight from such a varied hour, but Lauren Scott's talk was astonishing. A student at UC Santa Cruz studying Computer Science and Business Management Economics, she spoke so hugely movingly about being a young, black woman in gaming. And most especially about a defining moment in her life, when her father made a Java game called Lauren's Alien Game.
"This is a game in which I am a character. At five years old, I saw myself in a game. At five years old, I knew a young black girl could be a character in a game. It completely silenced any voice in my head that I would ever have that would say I couldn't be in tech or in games."
There were few dry eyes by the end of that one.
Perhaps the most talked about session of the entire conference, Manveer Heir's talk can now be seen by all. Beginning by explaining that the talk's title is wrong, the Mass Effect developer says it should have been:
"Misogyny, Sexism, Racism, Ethnocentrism, Nationalism, Ageism, Ableism, Homophobia, Transphobia, Queerphobia And Other Types Of Social Injustice: Where Do Video Games Stand?
The talk focuses on the content of games, and what they say about us as a society and industry. Rather than gamer culture. And it's an incredible primer on the sociological nature of identity, the reasons why we naturally form stereotypes that can be harmful, and how representation of minorities in games have a real-life effect on players. Scrupulously backed up with scientific research, Heir's talk should be on the curriculum of every game design course in the world. And shown in every publisher's boardroom.
It really is an incredible talk, that covers such a vast array of subjects, delivered with an aim to make clear the reality of the issues, and then be constructive about how they can be changed. It's so important that this talk be seen by as many people as possible.
A fair criticism of much of the debates surrounding misogyny within the games industry is that it so often relies heavily on anecdotal evidence. Brandon Sheffield and Jennifer Allaway decided to do something about that. Their talk is a presentation of an academic paper, in which the treatment of women in the games industry was studied. The results are pretty grim. 35% of women in the industry say they've been discriminated against, compared to 5% of men. Only a quarter of women thought women's voices were equally respected at meetings, compared to 43% of men. Most shockingly, of the hundreds surveyed, 60% of women admitted to experiencing sexism within the industry, and 77% of women knew a woman who has. 55% of men also reported knowing a woman who has experienced sexism in their gaming job. This isn't made up - this isn't exaggerated based on a few rogue anecdotes. This is a serious issue endemic within the games industry. (And yes, in other industries too, but wow - if that's thought to be an argument to dismiss these findings, then there's so much more work to be done.) There's much more detail and many more statistics in the talk.
Nika Harper's short talk is a great place to start for anyone who's struggling with online harassment. As someone who experiences a fair bit of this, I found this an enormously helpful talk. The key point that came out of it for me being the notion that the comments that hurt or harm the most are the ones that coincidentally mirror our own specific insecurities. While they're the result of enough shit being thrown at a wall, rather than any specific insight into you or your fears, they cut to the bone. Just having this observation stated made a big difference for me, helping me take a step back and better rationalise. Hopefully, if this is something that affects you, there will be something in the talk for you too.
Adam Orth certainly has experience of internet negativity and toxicity. Despite having worked on many games, he's known for a tweet. A tweet in which he wrote, "Sorry, I don't get the drama around having an 'always on' console. Every device now is 'always on'. That's the world we live in. #dealwithit" Acknowledging that he "exercised incredibly poor judgement" regarding the subject, he then goes on to talk brutally honestly about just how horrible things became for him. He lost everything. And no matter how wrong-headed his tweet may have been, the scale of the horrific abuse he received was so astronomically out of proportion as to defy belief. As he says, "The internet is fucking terrifying."
Elizabeth Sampat explores a number of myths about women and the games industry. An industry in which only 10% of employees are women. She breaks down the nonsense that's usually trotted out, step by step, beginning with the notion that women don't want to work in games, then that there's a lack of women to hire, that companies can't find women who are a "culture fit", that women can't be part of the problem, and that it's not the industry's fault, it's women's fault. If you encounter any of these claims, then check out Sampat's excellent responses.
Michelle Clough makes an interesting distinction between sexualisation and objectification. She argues that gaming could be a more inclusive space if there were more sexual male characters, while maintaining that the same messages regarding the objectification of women apply to male characters too.
This is a panel featuring Samantha Allen, Mattie Brice, Todd Harper, Zoe Quinn and Christine Love, on ways to bring queer culture into games, in perhaps less overt ways.
There are many other talks available to watch on the GDC Vault, without a login. Steve Gaynor talks about why Gone Home is a game, there's the 10th anniversary Rant Apocalypse, Ken Levine talking about Narrative Legos, and game postmortems of Robotron 2084 and Zork. As well as many others. Scroll through and choose the ones without stars.
The overwhelming message from this year's Advocacy Track is that these changes are going to happen, no matter how loud and angry a minority will be. The next generation of gamers are growing up with expectations of inclusivity, of representation of the minorities and majorities that gaming ignores, and with gay and queer relationships being a norm. There will still be games about angry white men shooting giant guns, but there will be others too, more variety, more representation of humanity - of the people who are actually playing the games. We're so far away from it still, but it's coming.