The University of Waterloo’s Games Institute and Women’s Centre joined together for a panel discussion on Nov. 10 to highlight issues of harassment experienced by women and minorities within gaming circles, as well as a lack of diversity in video games.
The four-person panel was one of several events put on by the Women’s Centre as part of Love Your Body Week — a week-long awareness campaign that aims to promote self-love and a positive body image, with special emphasis on the impact social media and other digital spaces have on body image.
Panel members included Emma Vossen, a PhD graduate from UW who currently works both with the Game’s Institute and as an instructor for game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University. Vossen opened the discussion with a presentation on the historical context for misogyny in gaming — from the discrimination faced by female creators of Dungeons and Dragons in the 80s to the massive marketing push of video games towards male consumers throughout the 90s, and finally the merging of alt-right circles with the Gamergate movement in the 2010s.
Vossen highlighted an article she published in early 2020 titled “There and Back Again: Tolkien, Gamers, and the Remediation of Exclusion through Fantasy Media,” which discusses the evolution of fantasy literature into fantasy tabletop games, and eventually into fantasy video games. The article examines how harmful tropes within the genre are passed down and have persisted for decades.
“Essentially, a lot of things that are being made today are not any more progressive than fantasy works that were being put out 100 years ago, because if you try to make something more progressive, there’s this backlash that it’s not historically accurate, or it’s not really fantasy,” Vossen said. “But people only use the concept of historical accuracy to uphold white supremacy, to uphold sexism, to uphold homophobia. They never use it to uphold anything else, so it’s really just an excuse.”
Several panelists highlighted a significant disconnect between the modern realities of the video game market as opposed to how it has been advertised historically.
“The idea that sex sells is still such a thing. I scroll past ads for games that feature these incredibly buxom sexualized women, and then you see a shot of gameplay and it’s a top-down tower defense with no recognizable human characters whatsoever,” said Lindsay Meaning, a PhD candidate for the English department at UW, whose research has focused on representations of settler colonialism, imperialism and the sex industry in video games. “ I find a lot of women consumers who are turned off by that sort of thing, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she continued.
Brianna Wiens, a lecturer in communication arts at UW and co-organizer of the qcollaborative, an intersectional feminist research lab at UW, brought up a recent in-class example she used to highlight the shifting nature of gendered advertising today — an Amazon commercial starring Michael B. Jordan that aired during this year’s Super Bowl. “Look how quickly this shifted from being ‘Alexa, a disembodied female voice’ to ‘Ooh, let’s bring sexy Michael B. Jordan into this,’ and I just wonder how long it’ll take for this to show up in games as well,” Wiens said.
The topic of forced diversity and its perceived negative connotation within gaming circles sparked a lot of discussion amongst the panelists. Wiens took issue with the term “forced diversity” itself and the implications it has. “We have to consider what’s meant by ‘forced diversity,’ because it implies that there is some sort of ‘good diversity’ that isn’t what we currently have, that we couldn’t possibly reach, even if that’s not the intention,” she said.
Vossen expressed frustration with people’s insistence that games are an apolitical zone, despite the fact that the term ‘forced diversity’ is often used as a dog whistle. “It’s just like…Black women do exist, so you’re insisting that the existence of a Black woman is political, but the existence of a white man is not. But the existence of a white man in a game is political, it’s just that the politics are white supremacy, and people don’t want to acknowledge the existence of white supremacy, because white supremacy is what’s normal in our society.”
She used Overwatch as an example of a game where ‘forced diversity’ is a valid criticism, highlighting how despite the game boasting an incredibly diverse cast of characters, this diversity really only exists within the narrative and has zero effect on gameplay, meaning it is easy for people to ignore if they so choose.
“One of the barriers we need to move past is a lot of times in games this content is selective, like you have to go seeking it out,” she explained. “Until that content is mandatory, people are going to see anything else as forced diversity, because they’ve been allowed to opt-out of playing the female Shepard in Mass Effect, they’ve been able to opt-out of the Queer storyline in Life Is Strange, they’ve been able to opt-out of interacting with people of color characters in a fantasy setting.”
Near the end of the panel, an audience question brought up the topic of pipeline approaches to increasing diversity within STEM circles — that is, minimizing retention issues experienced by minorities in the field — and whether these could also be a viable strategy for gaming circles. A couple of the panelists took issue with this approach.
“Before we think about plugging the holes in a pipeline, we have to think about what kind of culture we are creating that’s going to actually support and encourage women, racialized people, Queer people, anyone who’s been marginalized,” Wiens said. “I think that’s something that is currently lacking in a lot of spaces. There’s a lot of talk about ‘how do we get more people here?’ and not a lot of talk of ‘how do we support them when they are here to be able to thrive?’”