I Can Be Just As Capable. Let Me.

When I sit down at a computer, my left hand falls automatically into the inverted-V shape known well by all of you; middle three fingers arched across W, A, S and D. Pinky hovering over left-shift, my thumb resting lightly on the space bar. There's a poetic comfort in this for me. I do it without thinking. These letters are the ones I always come home to.

I'm protective about my natural gravitation to those four letters. They've opened up huge new worlds for me: I've been to Rapture, Azeroth, the cutting cliff-faces of Dear Esther. I spent three and a half years working towards a games degree. I write about games now. This year, I flew to Los Angeles for my first E3.

Those four letters on my keyboard define me: I am a gamer, they say. This is what I do, what I know and what I love.

So last week at E3, it wasn't disappointing press conferences, my ruthless appointment schedule, not having time to eat, or even the nightly drinking that broke me. It was my forced separation from those four buttons.

***

It happened during one of my first appointments of the show, a half hour I'd booked to check out the sequel to a well-known military shooter franchise. I'd checked into the publisher's booth as media and had been told to wait at a computer for the next available PR person to assist me.

So I sat down, fingers falling perfectly across the keyboard. Before me, yellow grass swayed in the wind, and leaning on the W, I began to move slowly through its blades, watching the brush give way to glimpses of crumbling buildings and battered vehicles. It was a meticulously detailed scene and I wanted to absorb all of it.

This was how the PR representative found me a few minutes later, though it seemed he mistook my marvel for a slow-witted lack of comprehension.

“Do you play PC games?” he asked, frowning.

One of the publications on my media badge was listed as PC PowerPlay. It shouldn't have been necessary for him to ask such a question, but I answered. “Yes.”

“Well, OK.” I sensed a disbelief in the guy's voice. “But do you play shooters?”

I remember the silence that filled this space beyond this question. I was horrified that anyone could even ask such a thing. Here I was, sitting with my fingers spread across WASD, admiring a game world — and somehow, for some obtuse reason, being assumed to be someone who didn't know anything about the world or how to interact with it.

“I think I better play it for you,” he said finally, prying my hands away and turning the keyboard towards himself.

And so there I was, hands twisted awkwardly and uselessly in my lap as a guy walked me through his game. In laboured detail, he explained to me simple mechanics that any shooter player would be well-acquainted with. He avoided the gameplay due to some apparent strange belief that I was not there to learn about shooting things in a shooter game, that perhaps my delicate girl senses might be offended by killing with guns and missiles. He pointed out rabbits in the grass with all the condescension of an adult trying to distract a noisy toddler, as if my interest in this simulation-grade shooter lay in some wildly misguided assumption that it would be full of adorable, fluffy animals.

I looked down the booth and saw gamers at the other computers playing their own games, their own hands controlling the avatars. No PR representatives were hovering at their shoulders, pre-empting that a lack of knowledge would lead to them playing the game “wrong”. I felt ridiculous and unwanted. I felt it ridiculous that I should feel unwanted.

I left that booth having learnt very little about the game, beyond that it apparently wasn't a game that should have interested me. I was evidently a nuisance to these people because... because what? I had made the appointment because of my own curiosity. I had rocked up of my own accord, eager to play what I believed to be a game interesting enough to write about. Instead my presence was underestimated, and I was brushed off as not wanting to truly be there. I couldn't figure out why — besides perhaps that I was a woman in a pink skirt.

It continued to happen through the next few days of E3. Upon checking into a booth, I would often be asked by the PR rep whether I wanted someone to play my “hands-on” demo for me. During booth tours, I would more often than not be guided towards the Facebook games. Following demonstrations, I was often offered fact sheets just in case I didn't “understand”. People would regularly take note of the publications listed on my badge and say, “But you don't really play, right?” I was assumed to be eye candy, the pretty face of a publication whose content was provided by people with actual talent. Every time I protested, the offender would say — as if it were a proven fact — “Well, girls aren't usually into this stuff, you know.”

And you might say that it's silly that I might still find this so hurtful. After so many years of getting underestimated for being a woman in online games, in a games degree, in games journalism, why would it seem that I'm still not used to this? Why am I not tired of it already? Why have I not yet learned to shut up and realise that things will never change? If I'm so offended, why am I not determined to just keep my head down and prove the unbelieving wrong by producing good work?

And honestly? It's because we're f**king beyond this already.

So to be undervalued by the people promoting the games that I wanted to cover — games that I personally chose to cover — was a hurtful underestimation of my capabilities, both as a journalist and as a gamer. I wanted to accurately write about the games that I saw; instead, it was too often assumed from the outset that I would not be able to do this as a woman, and PR representatives took it to task to feed me condescension-laced spoonfuls of their games, lest my apparent black hole of knowledge sucked their product into the empty deadness of inaccurate, female-penned games journalism. And such behaviour on their part only confirms what they assume based on my long hair and my mascara — of course my hands-on recount is not going to be accurate, not when my own hands are batted away from the thing so that someone more “capable” could take point.

It's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy that being prevented from playing a game myself leads to only shallow coverage of it, and to have it bylined with a woman's name only reinforces the idea that a woman might be no good at covering games anyway. Why this, when we've made such progress? It's not just an insult to me — it's an insult to my editors, to the publications I write for, to games journalism, and to gaming.

It's unbelievable that this is still happening. If this is how PR people feel about women's capabilities, no wonder the promotional side of games is so sexist. No wonder marketing people still think it's, on some level, OK to have a trailer feature a man ripping into a band of sexy nuns. No wonder we're seeing it filter down into the developers, who implement in-game achievements for looking up the skirts of 19-year-old women dressed like schoolgirls. No wonder we're watching it filter down into the gamers, who tell the ladies amongst us that they can't possibly know anything about the online games that they play. After all, what proof is there of that when women are not allowed to speak on an authoritative level?

When we've come so far, to have a woman be underestimated at such an internal, integral point of the games industry tragically diminishes what the medium can achieve, and undoes so much of what we've worked to overcome.

***

When I sit down at a computer, fingers automatically fanning out over WASD, I shouldn't have to be made to feel as though it's not my place. As if I'm a fraud, or wasting the time of the people who develop, promote, or publish games. I can be just as capable as any other writer or gamer. Let me.


Comments

    Not gunna lie, I found myself tracing the hand position on my keyboard as you described it.
    Kind of made the rest of the article feel extremely personal.

    Very effectively done... I am intimidated by your witchcraft and trickery.

    Everyone, not just women, has to deal with being underestimated from time to time.

    In my industry, I get it because I'm 30 years younger than the average. You just have to tell them to piss off, as politely as possible. Learn to make a spectacle of people being assholes. There's no reason you can't have fun and teach someone a lesson, while still getting your way.

      You cannot compare ageism with sexism. It is and never will be the same. To imply that it is? It's undermining to women.

      I say let them underestimate you, especially when you're in a competitive company and then do well and f**k them over.

    Personally, there is a point where you let this happen. I am not saying that the PR guy is right, but if he ask "I better play it for you" you need to answer back, you are gamer and periodist... if the idiot things that you can't play the game right, well show him otherwise. If you can do something and let it happen, well then its not only their fault for being ineducated morons... but yours because you can say "no, I will do it myself, thank you."

    The nerve! I'm sometimes ashamed to be a male. Because it's people like that douche who give us a bad name! People could at least have some common courtesy these days... I don't go around telling women what they should do and how they should do things! If anybody tried manipulating people in such a way, I wouldn't stand for it!

    A lot of people are commenting saying that she should have just stood up to these guys. But here's the thing - she was there as a professional. She was representing her employers. And in our society, when a woman acts aggressively in the workplace, she is often labeled as a bitch, harpy, shrew etc. On the other hand, men are often labeled as strong or called leaders when they speak up for themselves. I'm not saying every workplace is like this, but it is a double-edged sword and most women are aware of it and carry ourselves accordingly.

      Yeah but that just shows that they're arrogant dimwits that deserve no respect. If no one speaks up, nothing is going to happen. Ignoring the problem is not the solution. We need to let people know that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable in society. I always encourage my girlfriend to speak up against unfairness and now she does and people have shown her more respect ever since. She's more confident since then as well.

      Yes, this. She was there as a journalist. Many journalists will tell you "don't become the story." That's not their job. She ended up writing about it here, but it names no names, and she didn't give a story to anyone else at that booth.

    Name them. Shame them. Nothing will change if they can keep ducking responsibility.

    Ah yes and the games industry isn't misogynistic at all. *eyeroll*

    Personally I use rdfg because it gives more options for keybindings near it.

    It's not victim blaming to say she should've stood up for herself, it's putting the blame on the person who was at fault in this instance: the PR guy. Not his company, not the industry, just that one guy.

    If you the only place you complain is in an online publication where people already agree with you, you will change nothing. Simple as that.

    Well this explains a lot. For example, why publishers have to spend so much money figuring out "how to reach women." It's because, even if they get someone interested (whether female or male), they ignore any information that does not meet their a priori assumption about "the market." How sad. With research like that, who needs ignorance? With marketing like that, who needs to throw a bird at the customer?

    Thinking back on how many women I've heard say how stupid games in general are earlier in life (while watching Jersey Shore), this story makes me smile.

    While the experience noted was undoubtedly unpleasant...i don't think it's that atypical for any 1st time e3 reporter. Great reporters build their stories both out of their own experience and perceptions, but also out of a network of contacts that take time and energy to build.

    Yes, the misogyny here is one disadvantage, but it's not insurmountable. Being direct w/ the PR guy in the example about who you are, what your experience is, and what you were trying to do is one way. If he still is a dick, go over his head and make contacts w/ the actual developers.

    Ideally, being an E3 reporter shouldn't be as hard as say, doing an investigative report on illegal committee to re-elect the president activities - the subject wants to give you all the info, in this case. But it shouldn't be a walk in the park. Cub reporters have to wear out some shoe leather making contacts w/ the right cops and people in the neighborhood. So be it for E3 reporters.

    This sickens me. Who was this PR guy anyway.

    I'm surprised that you didn't but in with the words "Stop patronising me! I know what a shoot em up is. I play them all the bloody time."

    Keep up the good work. Don't let patronising people belittle you.

    1. You're an adult and a professional journalist. You'll have to face idiot flacks for years. Get used to it. This is just one flavor of bullshit incompetence. Your job is to get what you need to tell the story. If you need to tell some bigot to get their paws off your keyboard, you tell them. If they are wasting your time, tell them to fuck off and you'll ping them when you're ready for questions. If they are the wrong person, task them with getting you the right person. Think diva-demanding-customer-service attitude and you won't be far off.

    So, do your job; don't let pissant PR people keep you from the story.

    As for making the world a better place?

    Your post made a dent, at least in game PR. Three more things you might try if you're inclined and have the time:
    1. Critique. Personally report the gender bias to the CEOs of offending companies. They'll want to know so they can train staff, do better and avoid lawsuits.
    2. Organize. If enough people kvetch, things change. CES used to have more booth babes than staff until a small, vocal contingent of men and women made a stink. In two years the whole show became the more professional event it is now.
    3. Speak. This has the makings of a great SXSW talk or panel and application time is coming up.

    Love your writing, btw. You spin a good yarn.

    Ms. Wilson,

    Thank you for you article. Thank you for being willing to write about sexism despite all the vitriol you are getting here and from Hacker News. Don't let the jerks saying things like "you should have stood up for yourself!" or "they weren't being sexist, they were just responding to statistical truths!" get to you. Keep forcing people to challenge their assumptions about geek women. Keep making people uncomfortable. It sucks that change has to be so incremental, but the more articles like this someone reads, the more likely they are to think twice before assuming someone in a skirt can't be a gamer, programmer, scientist, etc. Keep writing, and keep gaming.

    -k

      Williams. I apologize. I meant to scroll back up and double check the last name. Thank you Ms. Williams.

    Just to chime in, I think sexism in gaming culture is a little awkward to debate, sort of like sexism in the automotive industry etc. The target market is primarily male. The market itself is primarily male. The trends are that women play much more casually than men, and gravitate towards consoles such as the Wii and far less FPS.

    While there is definitely some sexism in gaming culture, from my experience this tends to come from the younger gamers, adolescent boys under 20 and the games marketed to them. This is only my experience of course and although I like to think that most men over 20 or 25 aren't inherently sexist there's always a few idiots.

    To everyone saying Katie should have said something - its quite easy to say that as a male gamer in a male industry where you aren't spoken down to. I'm a female gamer and have been for 10 years - and a good one at that, ranking among the top in Aus in a few FPS games. Still, when I walk in somewhere looking for a game I usually get directed to Wii games, or 'pretty' games. When I ask for Diablo, or CoD, or BF, or Assassins Creed the look on their face says it all. I've even asked for MSpoint cards and been handed Zynga game cards. No thank you.

    I'm a woman in my 20's and I love shooting shit, driving shit, climbing shit and solving shit. And I like looking pretty. Just because someone reacting in perhaps the wrong way, doesn't make sexist; it makes them look a bit like a deer in the headlights.

    Take sexism out of some of these discussions and replace it with ignorance. There is a craptonne of ignorance in the gaming commnuity. Its not neccessarily sexism - a 60 year old guy walking in and asking for the same things as me would probably be met with the same reaction as I have been. Not always sexism - but almost always ignorance.

      "Still, when I walk in somewhere looking for a game I usually get directed to Wii games, or ‘pretty’ games. When I ask for Diablo, or CoD, or BF, or Assassins Creed the look on their face says it all. I’ve even asked for MSpoint cards and been handed Zynga game cards. No thank you."

      Holy crap, I've experienced exactly the same fucking thing. It's weird, because all the girls I know play the kinds of games you mentioned. I haven't met anyone who plays Sims or Wii. Maybe just the people I hang out with. Either way I think more girls are starting to play the traditionally "male" games, the industry is just in a weird transitional phase where the old blood is clashing with the new.

    i'm drawn to hijk in the same way, which has made my clan tags in games pushed to be exactly that, i could identify with hijacked but not with wasd would be wased????

    I suggest that you write this as the intro to any games you have to review and then state that the game is terrible from your experience. In fact, go out of your way to put this into every game review that treated you like this. People need to know. If you can't do that because of your editor/publisher, I'd just give horrible reviews to all these games. Let the market weed them out. They're probably terrible anyway. Seriously, if someone needs to be taught a lesson are game developers cranking out the same old garbage over and over again. Best of luck!

    To be honest if that happened to me I'd probably just tell them to go fuck themselves.

      Try getting future work with that attitude

    I too find myself wishing you had reacted more forcefully to these idiots. Please understand that this is NOT a criticism of how you handled the situation. It's merely encouragement to react more forcefully in the future, should you be inclined to do so.

    Love this article. Well written and a spot on description of the experience of many women in gaming.

    Another fun E3 Story: I work in the game industry as an artist on PC games. My first E3 I was approached by multiple men while I'd be playing a game, and would be asked if they could take a photo with me, because they assumed I was a booth babe. (I wasn't even dressed in bootyshorts)

    I've developped a pretty defensive attitude over the years spent in the gaming culture/industry. I came in shier and nonconfrontational, but now I'm just plain abrasive. I would have wrenched the keyboard back from that guy and probably snapped at him. I don't feel that's a more "correct" approach than yours, but is one that's just borne of years of frustration and repressed anger at being treated differently.

    I thank you and all other writers who continue to write articles like this that shed light on the problem of gender unequality in the gaming world. It takes courage to do so, be cause there is so much resistance from men who from their positions of privilege do not see the issue, and would like to sweep it under the rug.

    Very silly i think this has gone far enough and need to step back and relax all over reacting over something so minor life is too short about stressing and whinging over things like this

      You can call this silly because it doesn't affect you - you're presumably a man. Women don't have the luxury. We have to deal with this crap all the time. So if we don't say something about it? Life is short - and will continued to be filled with crap like this where we're treated less than..

    My reaction to the article: Not surprised and have experienced the exact same thing too many times to count. Thank you for writing about your experience.

    My reaction to the comments? Is NOTHING good enough for male gamers? By writing about her experience, Katie has hopefully made some of you more aware at how pervasive this is - but that isn't enough? She has to start petitions and call for boycotts? Why? So that the women who agree with her (and I'd guess it's almost every woman who is a gamer) can sign it and agree with it - and then what happens? Nothing, because these gaming companies still cater to men, they still treat women as a secondary consumer, they don't design games with us in mind, and there's still the misogyny that permeates almost every level of gaming. If we started a campaign against these game companies, that's not going to solve the problem that virtually every woman experiences when playing any game with an online component - sexist comments, threats, violence, etc. Why is it that whenever a woman calls out the industry, it's always thrown back on her? 'Then don't play those games if you don't want rape threats thrown at you.' 'Then why don't YOU do something about it?' 'Then find games that are more suited for women'. There is no magic bullet. These changes need to happen from the highest levels. We can complain and boycott all we like, but until systemwide changes happen and the actual culture of gaming shifts, it's not solving anything.

      Exactly what kind of game would result from designing games with the female in mind?
      Give me some bullet points on things that would be in a game designed for a "female"...

    "And you might say that it’s silly that I might still find this so hurtful."

    Actually, I'd say it's very generous of you to have left those people with neither broken fingers nor a concussion and broken keyboard.

    I can understand this assumption in day to day life; to be blunt, I know few female gamers my age. But, c'mon, at E3? I was actually shocked at pretty much everything written here.

    She could've just explained to the PR guy that she could play the game herself. I guess just sitting there and taking it seemed more logical to her.

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