In recent days, the games industry and wider gaming scene as we all know and love it has become a very different place to be, whether physically as in the E3 Expo in LA, or digitally in multiplayer game spaces, or in any online arena. In the space of a few days, women in a variety of roles at the heart of games have been threatened with physical violence and rape in a tide of humiliation and vitriol that is as sudden as it is overt. When even the mainstream BBC is picking up articles about sexual harassment in the world of video gaming, then you know this is serious business. So what’s changed?
The fact is that women are being silenced, threatened with violence, rape and even death by a vast tide of commentators online. Rather than simply being underrepresented, as we are all very used to by now, we women in games are suddenly being denied a voice from within our own sub-culture, in almost every area:
Feminist Frequency blogger Anita Sarkeesian sought crowd-sourced funding for her Tropes VS. Women Kickstarter Project, a commentary and educational tool on how female characters are designed and used in games. She received literally thousands of threats of violence, rape and death. Her Wikipedia page was repeatedly defaced with pornography. Threats were made against her person. This happened before the project was even funded.
In game development, women haven’t been faring any better: Jennifer Hepler, games writer at Bioware, was recently the recipient of a great deal of explicit and threatening hatred for voicing the opinion that it might be good to allow players to skip the combat, if they are more interested in the narrative aspect of the game they were playing.
This year there was a considerable online backlash to articles highlighting the poor working conditions of the Booth Babes which continue to grace the stands at the annual E3 Expo in Los Angeles. By contrast, the articles in the games press which asked viewers to “rate” the women on their physical attributes, received only limited criticism, although it was encouraging that this came from within the industry’s more powerful presences, such as games industry.biz and from industry insiders on twitter. This gave many of us women in games a ray of hope.
But things were about to get worse – when the most recent symptom of the new wave of misogyny in games culture came from an interview with Crystal Dynamics’ Exec producer Ron Rosenberg on Kotaku.com. Rosenberg enthused how new Tomb Raider game features Lara Croft’s origin story, and explained that one of the most “enticing” things about the new Tomb Raider reboot was so see her as “more human”, which he described thus: “Lara Croft will suffer” he says, and tells how she is taken prisoner and is about to be raped by scavengers on an island until she is “literally a cornered animal”. This is shocking material: Someone needs to explain to Rosenberg the difference between humanizing and dehumanizing a character.
And not just any character. By disempowering the best known female game heroine of all time, in a story of humiliation and torture porn dressed up in a dark and edgy origin story, Crystal Dynamic are rubber stamping the use of rape and the threat of sexual violence in games, and by extension in the wider games culture. What’s important about Lara’s fate is that some very big players in the games industry have shown themselves complicit in this new wave of misogyny and the proliferation and perceived acceptability of rape culture as a core and natural part of games and their culture – no matter how much furious backpedalling has happened since. This is normalising rape, and is making Rape Culture normal.
All this combines to make an atmosphere in games that is toxic to women, and is especially toxic to its own. Women who know and love the medium just as much as the rest of the sub-culture does, have the right to an opinion and to voice that opinion. Professional game developer women have the right to talk about their work without fear of backlash in the form of verbal abuse and very real threats of extreme violence and rape. What was once considered the relatively inconsequential act of a few internet trolls has become a wave of very real hatred that has the potential to rip the games industry in two and alienate what is now considered to be 50% of the gaming public. After all, women enjoyed playing Lara Croft in Tombraider until now. But with Lara now reduced to vulnerable rape bait, who could blame the gaming woman for rejecting this new games culture?
I’ve been part of the UK games industry for 17 years; I spent 13 years as an artist in game development before breaking away to teach games courses here at Bradford University. In all that time I have never once felt that I didn’t have a voice or a right to be there. I earned my place in the gang just like everyone else did; by loving the medium, by helping to make it better, by creating and commenting and contributing, and by just being part of it for a very long time. Yes, as women in games we have all at one time complained that Lara Croft had unrealistic physical proportions, and yes, I have spent the last seven years campaigning to get more women into game development (the average is still around 6% of women in the UK game dev workforce), but this has always been welcomed as a valid argument. It was agreed that this would be at least one way to help make the entire games industry better.
But the future doesn’t bright for women in games. For a culture that abhors censorship and criticism of itself from outsiders, it isn’t half quick to criticise from inside. The atmosphere for women has gone from welcome minority to persona non grata within a scarily short space of time. I feel that all women connected to the industry are now at risk of being censored or self-censoring in fear of the deluge of outspoken misogyny in public discourse. I’m certain if this article is ever published (oops, here I am doing it now), I’ll be next for a verbal “raping”, with comments about my body or sexuality, complete with threats of real life rape and violence.
But I will not be deterred, and neither will many other women in games. Actress Aysha Tyler responded to her abuse after she hosted the E3 press conference with a smart and heartfelt list of her gaming history and accomplishments as a voice actor in games. Clever Pie, with Isabel Fay received national coverage of their Thank You Hater video, a very witty response to trolling and online abuse. Foz Meadows wrote an outstanding essay on her Shattersnipe blog, deconstructing the wider implications behind this Rape Culture which I strongly advise everyone to read. (Edit: There is now also an excellent rebuttal of some of the main refusenik views on the issue too.)
So it’s time to speak out while we still can. Before the current high percentage of women gamers world-wide is driven away, and games culture censors itself back into the dark ages. Because the industry needs growth and these are already challenging times. Games, you need us to survive.