The timing couldn’t have been more perfect this afternoon for an event at GDC that looked at how women can continue to have strong positive presences within gaming culture.
Frustration is rife at the moment with industry sexism, but a willingness to fight scenes like the controversial IGDA party, which featured a number of scantily clad female dancers, and call out dubious practices, has punctuated recent headlines on the topic.
And today – just hours after the IGDA was forced to apologise for offensive party girls and a day after a #1ReasonToBe panel shared stories about women’s profile in the industry – a Women In Games lunch event hosted by Microsoft shined a light on further ways to break down barriers stopping women getting jobs in games.
A short panel discussion chaired by broadcaster and actress Felicia Day asked Double Fine’s Anna Kipniss, former Thatgamecompany exec Robin Hunicke, 343 Industries (Halo) chief Kiki Wolfkill, academic Jane McGonigal and educator Colleen Macklin about the representation of women in the game industry.
Despite the fact the issue has come to a head lately, the panelists were all agreed about renewed energies in the game industry – that in many ways better position it versus other mediums, despite concerns about gender imbalance in the workforce.
"Our industry is in a creative renaissance that is a very rare moment in human history," said Double Fine’s Kipnis.
Wolfkill agreed: "We’re at a time in the industry where we are about to change, in meaningful ways, how entertainment is received."
Hunicke said she was excited about how that energy can be used not just in terms of industry output, but in terms of industry relations.
"Games are a medium of social connection," both in terms of players and amongst teams who make games.
"My aim is to push forward the kinds of games we make."
Day, who has starred in TV shows and films but is best known for online videos including MMO-inspired comedy The Guild, implied that the game industry’s proactiveness in addressing the ‘women in games’ issues put her industry of employment – Hollywood – to shame.
"The way the media there represents women is endemic – that scaffolding is hard to shake."
That’s not the same in video games, it seems. So Day asked the panel about ways they have tried to ‘move the needle’ on the perception about women in the game industry.
Hunicke explained she had taken a job teaching afterschool game design so that the learning designers would encounter a designer that wasn’t the stereotype of a male professor.
Macklin’s take was also focused on educating younger potential developers. "Start young, if you have an opportunity to teach at your local clubs, do it," she urged the room of 200 other female game industry execs.
"For diversity to really happen we have to start younger."
Macklin also offered advice to men in the room: "If you’re a guy and have been asked on a panel at a conference, then say ‘no’ if it’s all men on the panel."
Kipnis, meanwhile, explained how she had been put off by the typical treatment of women by internet commenters.
"If a video is on YouTube of you talking about your game the comments tend to be about your appearance – that’s stopped me doing anything public," she said.
But in organising the ‘Peter Molydeux’ inspired Molyjam, she said she found a subset of the game industry – indie developers – to be more welcoming to women and treated them without prejudice, and was filled with many other female designers. Her eyes were opened.
"The indie community is very welcoming," she said, and realised that one way to remove prejudices was to behave the way indie games do: "We need to pretend that there is no stereotype – pretend it isn’t an issue."
Wolfkill pointed to the other end of the spectrum, and the way traditional large-scale studios are staffed as another way to address gender imbalances.
In building 343 Industries so it could make Halo 4, she hired from a wide entertainment talent pool.
The key was "creating an environment for women to be comfortable in and enjoy". She said in interviews for the Halo 4 team she found that those from a film and TV background were vocal about in what ways previous employment was welcoming. Hiring them would then help perpetuate that same attitude amongst the studio.
McGonigal agreed that all kinds of positive discrimination can refocus the lens on a more diverse industry.
"I have gone to things like GDC and have only seen men cited as influence, or quoted, in talks by other people," she said.
"I sit there waiting, to hear the name of one woman who has been an inspiration," she said, adding that she had proactively edited documents and talks that listed game development talent to include a balanced mix of male of female faces.
An audience member asked the panel to name their inspirations, and they pointed to figures in American art, education, and games design such as Barbara Frederickson, Brenda Romero/Braithwaite, Roberta Williams, Donella Meadows and Bell Hooks.
But of course, in an event held during GDC, the end of the conversation led to the heart of all games: code.
Hunicke said that the industry, and the world in general, needs to teach the next generation that "everything is hackable".
"Computers can change the world but we are doing an awful job of communicating that to women," she said.
Macklin’s take was more direct: "Learn to program – it will make you so much stronger."