In Real Life

Speaking Up: Why Female Game Writers Shouldn't Be Ignored


The Melbourne Freeplay 2011 games festival did what it does every year: encouraged gamers, developers and writers to think deeper about the medium they love and the issues that surround it. So when a panel titled “The Words We Use”–originally intended to be a forum to discuss games criticism and writing–was derailed to the subject of gender in games writing, it drew attention to an important and contentious issue.

Here, two female game journalists weigh in on some of the ideas raised in an email correspondence about the role of female writers and critics in the games industry.

Laura Parker is the Associate Editor of GameSpot Australia, a finalist in the Walkley Foundation’s Young Australian Journalist of the Year Awards in 2009 and the winner of the IT Journo Game Journalist of the year in 2010.

Tracey Lien is the Acting Editor of Kotaku AU, a winner of the Walkley Foundation’s Super Media Student Award and a finalist in IT Journo’s Best New Journalist category in 2010.

From: Tracey Lien
To: Laura Parker
Subject: Bitches Ain’t S**t

I was at Freeplay this year. I sat in the audience during the “Words We Use” panel, in silence, as the chair of the panel said that he felt that there was a divide in gender in video games, and that he didn’t “tend to get a lot of critical, serious comment or articles from females in games”. I sat there as a member of the audience suggested that we move off the topic of female games writers because “the problem would solve itself naturally as the industry matures”. I sat there and I said nothing.

I said nothing for the same reason I have said nothing since I started writing about video games (unless we count the odd angry tweet). And that reason is fear.

At Freeplay I was afraid that had I said something I’d have been dismissed or ignored. I was afraid of being on the receiving end of sexist comments. I was afraid of hearing someone say (or tweet) that I should just suck it down and deal with it, that I’m making a big deal of something that means nothing to them, that no one cares, that my kicking up a fuss was just a sign of my weakness. As a woman, I felt that my gender somehow made me less qualified to speak about gender issues that directly affected me; that people, especially those who needed their views challenged, would be less willing to listen to a woman (yes, I see the irony). As a writer, I had long held the belief that if I worked hard and tried to not think about the gender imbalance in the games writing industry, I would eventually earn my credibility and be able to have an opinion and speak out, sans fear, about an issue so close to my heart. And there I was at Freeplay, quiet, still feeling crippled by my own gender.

When you contacted me about writing this, I hesitated for a moment, but ultimately decided that now is a good a time as any to stop being silent, and maybe even stop being afraid.

You’ve now listened to the recording of the panel and read the Freeplay tweets; I’m curious to know: what made you get in touch with me about this?

Tracey

From: Laura Parker
To: Tracey Lien
Subject: Re: Bitches Ain’t S**t

When I first heard about what happened at Freeplay I was amused. Female game writers are the minority. That much is true. So we’re used to this sort of thing by now, aren’t we?

I’ve always maintained that the majority of people in the industry have no issue with women, be it female writers or developers or gamers; as with any other part of society, minorities will struggle. I can see how getting drawn into yet another debate about sexism in the games industry is not a worthwhile venture. It’s all been said before. Much like the “are games art?” question, most people are tired of talking about gender imbalance in the games industry..

My personal take on this is that gender will stop being an issue when we stop acknowledging that there is a divide.

But then I asked myself: “How would I have reacted if I had been present at the ‘Words We Use’ panel?” Would I have rolled my eyes and shrugged it off? Or would I have grabbed the microphone and shouted: “Excuse me? I’m right here!”

I know what you mean about being afraid to speak. The majority of gamers are not forgiving. We haven’t yet learned how to deal with the growth and change of our industry; we haven’t learned to accept difference of opinion or shifts in ideology. Minorities are not given the freedom to speak without the threat of suppression. You can blame a large part of that on the medium’s naiveté. But how long do we go on excusing this?

You mentioned that someone in the audience said that things will change with time. This is true: in time the industry will grow, diversify, and learn to accept change. But this cannot happen without us driving this change. It cannot happen if people like you and me remain silent when things like this happen.

So I’ve chosen to speak up. The fact that not a single person on a panel discussion about games and the games industry could name a female games writer is not acceptable. This isn’t about asking for special treatment because we’re female; it’s about making sure the issue is addressed and corrected.

From: Tracey Lien
To: Laura Parker
Subject: Re: Bitches Ain’t S**t

Hey Laura,

We’re not asking for special treatment, we’re asking for equal treatment. When a male writer is criticised for his work, how often do people use gender-specific terms to put him down? How often do they talk about his physical appearance or blame his masculinity for his bad writing or the ideas that he expresses? We’re asking to be given a fair go. Being a woman is not a handicap.

Ignoring female game writers–as some people clearly do–means ignoring what the other half of the population has to say. We break news, write thought-provoking pieces of criticism and reviews that contribute something to the field of games writing, investigate stories that no one else is looking into, and have ideas worth sharing–just like our male counterparts.

What I’m trying to say is that we’re not different from male writers; some women write absolute drivel in the same way that some men write absolute drivel. But you also have some really, really good female writers in the same way you have really, really good male writers, and if you choose to ignore female writers then you’re ignoring the voices of the people who make up the other half of the population. Diversity in opinions is important and the more types of people we have writing about games the more ideas we’ll be exposed to, and I can only see this as a good thing.

You’ve worked your way up to be associate editor of GameSpot Australia, which is a pretty big deal. I can imagine that some people might argue that being a woman hasn’t stopped you from getting so far… so how would you respond to those who might say that you have nothing to complain about?

From: Laura Parker
To: Tracey Lien
Subject: Re: Bitches Ain’t S**t

Hey Tracey,

Well that’s the thing: we’re not complaining. This is simply about exercising our right to speak on an issue that directly concerns us.

When I first began writing about games I couldn’t shake the thought that I had to prove myself. Coming into a male-dominated game journalism industry, particularly one as small and insular as Australia’s, I felt the onus was on me to show them that even though I was a girl, I could write about games just as well as they could. After three years I feel like I have successfully proven myself, but the fear that people read my work differently because I’m a woman is still there, and it will probably remain there until this is no longer an issue.

Let’s talk video journalism for a second, since we both have experience in that area. How worried were you, when you first started, about how people would react to seeing a girl talk about video games on television?

My work also includes a lot of on-camera video presenting. At least in writing I know I have proven myself enough to no longer be judged by my gender but by the quality of my work; in video, I am never judged on the quality of my work. I am constantly judged on how I look. “Laura, you know you would look a lot better if you cut your hair”; or “You should wear more lipstick”; or “Can you wear a shorter dress next time?” It’s been three years and the comments have not changed. Comments that actually critique what I am talking about in the video, either in a positive or negative way, are few and far between. So what’s the incentive for me to keep going? Why should I care about the stuff I’m talking about, researching and presenting, if all anyone else cares about is how short my dress is or how much lipstick I’m wearing?

If gender continues to be a problem in disciplines like theatre and literary criticism, which have been around for a lot longer than games criticism, shouldn’t we find ways to ensure that our industry learns from past mistakes? Should we continue talking about this to make sure people understand that it is a problem?

From: Tracey Lien
To: Laura Parker
Subject: Re: Bitches Ain’t S**t

Hi Laura,

Oh man, video journalism… If I thought I was up against a tough crowd in my print and online work, I certainly was not prepared for the dismissive comments that followed each of my video stories. The short answer to your question is that I was quite worried about how I would be received when I started working in television was incredibly conscious of my gender. The more detailed answer is that the worry never really went away and it became increasingly frustrating having people ignore my work and critique my physical appearance instead of the stories themselves. I often found it unfair that the male presenters on the show were rarely criticised for their appearance – if someone took issue with an opinion they had expressed or disagreed with them, the comments and discussion would be reflective of that. This wasn’t often the case when it came to female presenters.

The attitude that if we don’t talk about it it will just go away, or that gender is only a problem because we make it a problem, is such an ignorant way of looking at things. I understand that this is a widespread problem and gender issues aren’t exclusive to the games writing industry, but just because something is widespread doesn’t mean it’s okay, and just because other industries are experiencing the same issues doesn’t mean we can’t lead the charge to bring about change. I agree that we have to talk about it, and that it’s definitely a problem – when people like you and I are still afraid of being judged on being female instead of the merit of our work, how can it possibly not be a problem?

I don’t know what the solution to this is, but an open dialogue, one where we don’t feel afraid to speak up, seems to be a good start.

From: Laura Parker
To: Tracey Lien
Subject: Re: Bitches Ain’t S**t

Hi Tracey,

I think a lot of female game writers are just tired of the same old arguments, and more importantly, the same old reaction. It seems there’s little point in speaking out or maintaining this open dialogue if no one is listening.

Personally, I have never liked discussing this issue. This is the first time I have really done so publicly.

As we’ve both said during the course of this conversation, we don’t believe females in this industry deserve special treatment because of their gender; this is not what we are asking, nor what we are advocating.The whole reason we’re having this discussion is because someone chose to ask the question: “Well, what about female writers?” Someone chose to separate male writers from female writers. Someone chose to make this an issue.

There are times when the differences between a man and a woman are relevant. But this was not one of those times.

I asked Alison Croggon, a revered Australian theatre critic, fantasy author and poet who sat on the “Words We Use” Freeplay panel discussion, to give me her thoughts on how the discussion surrounding gender in the games industry compares to similar discussions in the literary and theatre world.

“There’s obviously a whole lot of issues simmering beneath the surface and the panel worked as a
catalyst for these things to explode.”

“I’ve been reading the follow-ups on the web with deep interest. It seems to me that there’s a bunch of intelligent discussion out there, working against some entrenched attitudes that are equally present. We can’t pretend literature or theatre are any better, given the figures, but it’s rare to come across the raw sexism that you see in some comments. Addressing endemic prejudice is a deeply complex matter, which can only happen if there is the will and intelligence to address it. The first step, as always, is acknowledging that there is a problem.”

What are your thoughts? Is sexism an issue in the video games industry? And what can we do to help navigate those issues? Let us know in the comments below.

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