Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Devised Differences: A brief exploration of gender inequality in games

In the past few weeks, the gaming world has seen its fair share of stories related to sexuality and gender inequality. From the controversy surrounding the reveal of the new 'erotic' female characters in the next Metal Gear game (sporting armor that wouldn't be sufficient for the beach let alone the battlefield) to the outrage towards Gamespot's Carolyn Petit for docking Grand Theft Auto 5 a point in her review because of it's misogynistic treatment of women, the topic has been fairly active. With this in mind, today I thought I would weigh in with my views on gender inequality in relation to gaming.

I think it is important to recognize that gender inequality in gaming is not the end of the story. While my points will likely seem trivial to some given the broader scope that the issue of gender inequality encompasses, I firmly believe that games function as a lens here and a discussion surrounding them can help to focus light on the broader points. In other words, an exploration of gender inequality in games can lead to a better understanding of gender inequality as a whole. The sad truth is that modern society's stated convictions of gender equality simply aren't backed by reality; women earn less, hold less prestigious positions, and are under-represented in certain sectors of the workforce. Further, traditional gender roles (and societal pressure to conform to them) skew perceptions and unfairly cloud the reality of what men and women are capable of. Ultimately, gender inequality has nothing to do with talent; women and men are equally capable of meeting the most difficult challenges of today's world. While I am under no illusions that my blog will somehow represent the master key and solve a profoundly pertinent social issue, I do hope that it can at least spark some dialogue. After all, more people discussing means more awareness which can ultimately lead to change.

The games industry is among the worst culprits for equal employment. Depending on the source, developers are comprised of at least 80% men and management reflects similar numbers. I think the management figures can be explained as these roles are often filled from the ranks of the development team. A prototypical career progression is a programmer who becomes a team lead who then becomes a project lead so the overwhelming majority of men at the lower ranks can, in part, explain the demographics higher up the chain. The odd part of this, however, is that programming/development is considered to be a field that requires higher education which is one of the few positive areas where women outnumber men. If anything, the lower ranks should represent a majority of women. Unfortunately, the disparity in the ratio of women to men in computer science is self-perpetuating. It is perfectly understandable that a woman may opt not to enter into programming for fear of alienation; being the only woman in a class full of men must be, on some level, uncomfortable. As such, fewer women enroll and the next generation faces the exact same dilemma. I am not sure of the best solution here, but obviously a higher enrollment rate of women into computer science would have a knock on effect down the entire industry.

I think the demographics of the workers in the game industry has a direct impact on the products that they produce. While women make up about 40% of gamers, the number of female game designers is significantly lower. This isn't to say that male designers are incapable of producing a quality gender-neutral or female-targeted game, but I think it is fair to say that they are more likely to develop something that appeals more to men. Obviously, this ties into the nebulous topic of gender roles but I will leave it here as intuitive that men better understand men and vice versa (I really don't want to belabor this point and admit that my own justification for this intuition is cloudy and possibly quite wrong). Of greater concern, however, is that with a clear majority of gamers being male, there is economic pressure to produce games that will appeal to a male demographic. The larger male market of gamers will invariably bias management to green-light games which are more likely to cater to this market if for no other reason then it might mean the game may make more money. To clarify, I mean that games are mostly (there are always exceptions!) being designed to, at best, be gender-neutral or appeal to a male audience. Again, this is a self-perpetuating problem: the more games that are made with men as the target audience means that more men will play the games and the ratio of men to women will be further skewed thus creating even more incentive to only produce games for men.

So what does it mean for games to be primarily geared towards men? In many cases, this means a hyper-sexualization of the depiction of women. While I think this is a disturbing trend that is permeating popular culture as a whole, games are a medium which is able to easily sidestep the confines of reality. Female characters are almost invariably depicted with physical features that would make a Barbie doll blush and are frequently adorned in clothing which amplifies this exaggeration. While I feel that depictions of men are also exaggerated, it seems to be to a much lesser degree. Exasperating this is that men and women are almost always slotted into their stereotypical hero and damsel roles. Female characters are rarely portrayed as independent and, when they are, it is usually to such an opposite extreme that it borders on farce. Games have significantly evolved the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story but their depiction of women is still in the stone age. The problem with this is that depictions of women, no matter how off base, are inextricably linked to real world judgments. While not delving into the full psychological reasoning behind this, the short story is that if you keep being told that you should behave or appear a certain way, eventually you will start to do so even it it feels unnatural. I am not saying that all sexualization should be removed from games, indeed, when maturely handled, it can provide an avenue to covering important topics, but I would like to see a bit more thought and reason going behind female characters. If there isn't a good reason that makes sense why a character should be running around a game in a bikini the entire time, then don't depict the character this way.

The unfortunate actuality to the points I have raised above is that the problems are abundantly clear but the solutions are not. It would be nice to say "well just stop doing it" but I think this is a naive approach. For some, gender inequality continues due to sheer ignorance either of the issue itself or of some broken logic that deems the superiority of a gender over the other. In either case, education would seem to be the best path to rectifying the issue. Unfortunately this can be a slow process and is unlikely to reach everyone. For others, I think that their is a willful avoidance of the issue; producing games that are geared towards men in the pursuit of sales is, at least somewhat, socially negligent. In these cases, I think the best action that can be taken is to simply stop purchasing these games. Of course, this would require a mass paradigm shift in consumer habits to genuinely make an impact. No matter how you slice it, gender inequality is a real issue that needs attention.