Feminism can often be an inflammatory issue, so I wasn’t surprised to see Mare Sheppard’s “Why I Hate Women in Games Initiatives” panel begin with a brief crash course on the topic — and I certainly wasn’t shocked to witness the amount of attendees at her panel far outnumber the few I’ve attended so far. In any other context, this sort of primer would come off as condescending, but at a week-long event devoted to the future of a male-dominated industry, it seemed necessary. Feminism is an easily misunderstood issue, with many of its detractors overlooking the simple message of equality in favor of tearing down straw man arguments about special treatment or robbing the rights of men. Mare (pictured above alongside fellow Metanet co-founder Raigan Burns) herself would agree that employing women based on gender alone won’t solve the problems of inequality in the industry; rather, she believes inequality in gaming is a symptom of gender inequality in our culture as a whole.
This stance, combined with Mare’s strong belief in the concept of meritocracy, raises an interesting question — one which has raged on since the earliest days of affirmative action: if you want a true meritocracy, how do you even the odds for people who have a significant handicap thanks to decades of institutionalized sexism and racism? After all, we can’t start with a clean slate and choose to ignore the many historical factors tied into continued inequality. It’s an issue with no easy answers — and definitely one that can’t be resolved in a 25-minute panel — but the N+ developer believes that an emphasis on diversity in general may help pull the industry out of its current sexist tailspin. In her companion piece on the subject for Gamasutra, Mare states:
“If we want to explore new business models, and atypical and divergent ideas, this static industry needs a jumpstart, and that can come in the form of more diversity. If you value novelty, originality or exploring the possibility space of gameplay, diversity helps and that’s why you should care.”
For Mare, this is not so much an issue of getting women interested in games as it is in appealing to uninterested demographics (which include women) whose lack of engagement with gaming stem from larger cultural factors. Whether we’re aware of them or not, stereotypes inform our thinking, telling us what certain kinds of people should and shouldn’t do; in her presentation, Mare used the specific example of LEGO’s “Friends” line: gender-segregated, pink-and-purple playsets that place an emphasis on stereotypically “girl-friendly” activities, like cooking and shopping.
This same sort of segregation is what irks Mare about Women in Games initiatives, even if said programs are designed to combat issues of sexism within the industry. For Mare, these programs exist in a separate-but-equal world that ends up increasing inequality by sending the message that women creating games should be seen as something remarkable or unusual. And since women in these programs tend to define themselves by their gender, they often find it difficult to break out of the feelings of innate inferiority brought on by the culture around them.
Ultimately, Mare believes that stressing gender neutrality as a whole would get rid of regressive and codified stereotypes of “man” and “woman,” which will then lead to strong role models in male-dominated fields that exhibit a hostility towards women. If you couldn’t tell by the positive tone of this write-up, I’m on board with Mare’s beliefs, and a little shocked (in a good way) that such a progressive stance on gender can be espoused during a convention with so few panels about women and gaming.
But changing the culture as a whole is a tall order, especially when it’s so easy (and profitable!) to rely on the regressive stereotypes we find so comforting. Mare’s presentation tackled issues far trickier than the densest of technical panels, and indicated that gender inequality in gaming will be an issue that will take generations to solve. But forcing people to face the issue of sexism — not just within the confines of gaming, mind you — will make for a much more educated and socially intelligent population, even if the vocal and vicious detractors may make the fight often feel hopeless.
[Image courtesy of Wikia.]
GDC 2012: How Can Games be Friendlier to Women?
1UP features editor Bob Mackey will spend this year’s Game Developers Conference investigating why games have a habit of turning off 50 percent of the world’s population. Is there hope for this industry, or we continue to wallow in regressive stereotypes until the end of time?