“There really is a dumb amount of white dudes who are controlling a lot of the creative direction of video games,” says independent community developer and narrative writer Ariadne MacGillivray.
According to a 2019 survey, the top five best-selling video games featured only male writers. Any female character present in any one of those games was a man’s mental representation of woman.
“It’s white, male and cruel,” says video game senior writer and narrative designer Olivia Alexander. “It was something I could kind of see behind glass, happening to other people; and I wasn’t really sure how it would manifest with me.”
“I remember in Assassin’s Creed, you could recruit non-playable characters. […] Sometimes they were women. They didn’t have speaking lines. they didn’t have stories. But they had names, and wireframes,” says Alexander.
That’s a very hollow presentation of a very large group of people. The video game industry is tolerant of a small homogeneous group of people making most of the creative decisions involved in game production and deciding who video games will represent.
“I found out later that the fight that women on that production had to do just to get some non-speaking female bodies in the room was apparently huge,” says Alexander.
Even women game creators with established credentials have to fight against the rigid demands of those in charge.
“If I were a white man with some power, they would just listen to me,” says Kimberly Belair, an independent scriptwriter, cultural consultant and narrative designer. “But instead, they make me talk about it for 45 minutes in that meeting, or for several days, or write a bunch of documents proving what I know to be true.”
According to Alexander, problems occur when women are a small part of a creative team, or are excluded from it.
“The importance of seeing a character’s tits is more important than protecting their lungs, or their heart, or anything like that… You literally could have taken any woman on the team, and put them in a room and showed them concept art, and said ‘What do you think?’,” she says.
Belair compares insensitivity to a standard programming glitch: If you have a bug in the game you’re making, nobody asks you why it really needs to be fixed. Nobody asks you why you care so much about fixing the bug.
“No one wants to be someone who is known to be combative. No one wants to be someone who is known for starting trouble, or for being negative. You can have that fear that you’re ruining someone else’s fun,” says Belair.
Discrimination in the gaming industry often isn’t obvious, but for many women trying to establish themselves, the barriers are very real.
“For a long time I was very much trying to find a place for myself in the industry. I was never 100 percent sure if what I was experiencing was real,” says Belair.
But the demographics are changing. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 48 per cent of American video game players are female.
Video games don’t receive the acclaim and respect that films and television shows do, but Alexander believes that they are the most interactive and engaging media right now.
Women in gaming have stepped up to help others trying to enter the industry.
Both Pixelles MTL and Women in Games France are non-profit organizations pledging to help marginalized video game creators. These organizations provide workshops, educational seminars and sponsorships to women looking to develop their skills and work in the industry.
Communities like this do not have the funding that top-level games have, but they don’t strive to.
“There’s a whole big world of video games out there and as soon as you kind of leave the AAA nest, you’ll find a bunch of diverse games made by diverse teams that are joyful, or sad, or y’know, first person shooters; if that’s your bag, that’s your bag. And if you want to enter into the industry, be someone’s ally,” says MacGillivray.
Though the highest grossing games still suggest that video games are comfortably stagnant, MacGillivray suggests changing the industry with your dollar.
“I think just, with your money, support good shit.”