The annual Women in Games European Conference kicked off in London on September 11, facilitating a conversation the games development industry has been itching to have since 2014.
Sexual harassment, assault, and unhealthy work environments for women, nonbinary individuals, and other marginalized communities are all far too common in gamedev. In recent years, allegations of harassment and assault have come to light, leading to major restructuring decisions from games industry giants like news sources Polygon and IGN, and developer Bethesda.
The truth of the matter is that the gamedev industry has struggled to create a safe space for women and gender-nonconforming people. In 2014, developer Zoe Quinn was famously accused of sleeping with a games journalist in exchange for a positive review of their current project. (The allegations were disproved, but the damage was catastrophic–Quinn was “doxxed,” with their personal information spread to far corners of the Internet, and they received numerous threats, explicit messages, and other forms of harassment.)
Quinn’s experience led to #Gamergate, a (somewhat misguided) movement that divided video games fans on the issue of ethics in games journalism. Both sides attacked what they saw as unfair treatment in gamedev and games journalism, but neither appropriately addressed the larger issue: sexual harassment, abuse, and aggression in the games development industry.
When an industry is so male-dominated–and so traditionally represented by harassment toward female gamers, developers, and fans by their male counterparts–how can we create a safe space for women and gender-nonconforming individuals?
For many female games fans, myself included, #Gamergate seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore the deeper issues that Quinn’s experience brought up. Unfortunately, the environment of the games world tends to be overly misogynistic, a trend that has existed and continued since I first started playing online games around the age of ten.
According to Bryter’s 2019 Female Gamers report, one in three female gamers have experienced some form of abuse from their male counterparts.
“Not surprisingly, the majority of this is happening online,” reads the report. “Of the female gamers who had experienced abuse or discrimination, 31% had received verbal abuse from other male gamers while playing online multiplayer games, 33% had been sent inappropriate content or messages, and 14% had received threats of rape.”
I myself have distinctive memories of leaving servers of my favorite online games because I received so many explicit messages, threats, and abusive reactions from male players, many within moments of finding out my gender identity.
The kicker? I was twelve.
Moreso, the gamedev industry follows a similarly caustic work environment. Workplaces are dominated by the concept of “crunch,” a time where everyone in the gamedev process puts their head down, works excruciating hours, and reaches for unrealistic deadlines to push a game across an ever-changing finish line. In my time working in the games industry, I experienced scheduled crunch times, where team members plotted out their (unpaid) overtime in task management platforms, commiserated over video chat and Discord servers, and had full-scale exhaustion meltdowns that led to hospital trips.
And as I quickly found out, those “crunch” times are the norm in the gamedev industry, not the exception.
Sometimes, female developers get hit the hardest with crunch times. In an industry that is still 79% male-dominated, being a female or nonbinary developer makes you an easy target for internal restructuring (read: replacing with someone cheaper when budgets or morale run too low). Protesting against an unfair work environment looks an awful lot like complaining, and “bad morale” can lead to a loss of employment and lack of credit for your work.
Unfortunately, this toxic environment makes it nearly impossible for women and nonbinary individuals to come forward with experiences of harassment or abuse. In an industry where experience and connections talk — especially when you’re already at a hiring disadvantage based on your gender identity — it’s far too easy to decide to “tough it out” because you need a job, role, or development credit. Too much goes unsaid.
In 2018, Keza MacDonald, writing for The Guardian, summed up why the video games industry had not yet had its “#MeToo moment”:
It is not, funnily enough, because there is no workplace harassment in the video games industry. It’s because women don’t want to publicly relive painful things that have happened to them.
It’s because any woman who goes public with allegations of this variety opens herself up to further harassment, victim-blaming, and unpleasant professional ramifications.
It’s because the consequences of bad reporting on this subject…are huge. Even when sources are anonymised, there are so few women in the games industry that it would hardly be impossible for trolls to discover their identities and wreak retaliatory havoc. There is enormous risk and sacrifice involved in coming forward – on top of whatever emotional damage the original abuse itself might have wrought.Keza MacDonald, The Guardian: The video games industry isn’t yet ready for its #MeToo moment
Earlier this year, game developer Nathalie Lawhead broke convention by posting a lengthy blog post to their website, aptly titled “calling out my rapist.” In this blog, Lawhead tells the story of their assault by, harassment from, and escalating workplace mistreatment related to games composer Jeremy Soule. It’s a grueling read, containing screenshots of emails summing up Lawhead’s experiences in an unsafe workplace.
Shortly after, Zoe Quinn spoke up again, revealing more details about their unpleasant experiences within the industry. (Specifically, Quinn described abuse and harassment from Alec Holowka, co-creator of Night in the Woods.)
Ultimately, a few points can be taken from Lawhead’s and Quinn’s stories:
- The toxic workplace culture of the games development industry fosters unsafe environments for women and gender-nonconforming people.
- This unsafe environment gives abusers ample opportunity to take advantage of others, and escape responsibility for it. (This is particularly because the victims are inadvertently or directly pressured not to speak up.)
- Until Lawhead and Quinn brought their stories to light, the conversation surrounding these issues was depressingly minimal.
What followed was an outpouring of stories from other developers, calling attention to manipulation, emotional and physical abuse, and sexual harassment from employers and colleagues.
The timing of the 2019 Women in Games European Conference made for a perfect opportunity to continue the conversation we should have started long before 2014. Attendees, panelists, and speakers at the conference discussed workplace abuse, gaming culture’s trend toward toxicity, and potential ways to make positive change.
“I do think this industry has a problem with abuse, both sexual abuse and abusive working conditions,” said Jess Hyland of Wonderstruck Games. “I think it all stems from unhealthy and unaccountable power structures that give abusers so many chances to duck out of responsibility. Victims deserve better.”
The discussions at the conference resulted in a few key learnings:
- Games culture needs to change. The toxicity of in games studios, furthered by demeaning or disrespectful jokes, treatment, and comments toward women and nonbinary individuals in the gaming sphere, will only change if studios strengthen their commitment to diversity and respect.
- Education surrounding harassment, representation, and self-advocacy must start earlier–in school settings as well as in workplaces.
- More women need places within the industry, at all levels of management (not just in the entry-level, “crunch”-dominated roles).
- As the games industry continues to grow, culture change needs to happen at the studio level, in order to facilitate change within gaming communities themselves.
Ultimately, the treatment of women and gender-nonconforming individuals within the games industry reflects much of what we fight for in feminist philanthropy.
Gamedev represents a microcosm of a much larger systematic problem. The progress we’ve made through online conversations like #MeToo and #1reasonwhy are encouraging, but much more needs to happen if we’re ever going to truly change the culture.
Support from feminist philanthropy can make a major difference by promoting education, funding diverse studios and games, and closing the gap between female or nonbinary individuals and careers in the industry.
Funders for this year’s event included games studios like 2K, Outplay Entertainment, Ubisoft, Rockstar Games, Creative Assembly, Sumo Digital, Team17, Fusebox Games, and Hangar 13 Games. Additional support came from the Norwich University of the Arts, London College of Communication, and CatchBox.
It’s inspiring that so many games studios came together to facilitate this conversation, as part of the much larger event. Continued support for female-led, female-focused events like the Women in Games European Conference hints toward a hopeful future where positive change becomes the new baseline.
“Studio leaders model the behavior that becomes the norm,” said Marianne Monaghan, Hanger 13’s lead cross site producer. “If all the leaders are men, if they joke about women in demeaning ways or treat women in a disrespectful way, no amount of HR training will undo that damage. I’m very fortunate to work in a studio with leaders committed to diversity and respect.”
To learn more about feminist philanthropy’s impact on the video games industry, read about organizations’ efforts to address sexism in the games industry, or the impact female donors can have on higher education opportunities.
Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions.