Feminists in Games Workshop 2013

From left to right: Rachelle Abelar (of Geek Girl Con), Samantha, Quinnae, Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) and Mitu Khandaker (DearAda and TheTiniestShark).

From left to right: Rachelle Abellar (of Geek Girl Con), Samantha, Quinnae, Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) and Mitu Khandaker (DearAda.com and The Tiniest Shark).

This past weekend (May 31st to June 1st, 2013), Quinnae and I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the 2nd Annual Feminists in Games Workshop in Vancouver, British Columbia at The Centre for Digital Media. This interdisciplinary workshop brings together a wide array of academics, developers, industry professionals and activists who work on feminist issues in games and technology.

This year, we tripled the attendance of the 1st Annual FiG Workshop. The weekend was also a historic occasion in The Border House history as well because it marked the first time Quinnae and I could meet in person. I could dedicate this entire post to describing how much fun it was to hang out with Quinnae in Vancouver but instead I’ll share a brief run-down of the workshop proceedings!

If I had to select one theme of FiG 2013, it would be this: as feminists in games, we are excited about the exponential growth of our movement over the last year but we are also realizing the need to develop new strategies to deal with increasing amounts of resistance and harassment. As feminist scholars, activists, developers and professionals continue to challenge the medium and the culture surrounding it, others seem to be clinging more firmly than ever to conservative traditions of exclusivity.


T.L. Taylor (MIT)

T.L. Taylor (MIT)

The three keynotes were by T.L. Taylor (MIT), Brenda Laurel (UC-Santa Cruz) with Kirsten Forbes (Silicon Sisters) and Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency). T.L. Taylor compared the operations of hegemonic masculinity in physical sports and in the e-sports community. Although geek masculinity may seem to be at a distance from hegemonic norms of masculinity in some respects, T.L. Taylor argued that geek masculinity entails a repetition of the same exclusionary gestures that constitute it as an alternative masculinity in the first place.

Brenda Laurel (UC-Santa Cruz)

Brenda Laurel (UC-Santa Cruz)

Brenda Laurel and Kirsten Forbes discussed their work making games for women and girls. Brenda Laurel has been making games for girls since the 1990s (which you can read more about in this archived feature in Wired) and Kirsten Forbes just co-founded Silicon Sisters in 2010. Together, these two designers discussed their differing approaches to serving a female audience and reflected on how the landscape for “girl games” has changed over the last twenty years.

Anita Sarkeesian, media critic and creator of Feminist Frequency.

Anita Sarkeesian, media critic and creator of Feminist Frequency.

Anita Sarkeesian (who just released her second video in the Damsels in Distress series) spoke about the harassment she has received since the start of her Kickstarter campaign to fund Feminist Frequency. Anita reported that her harassers shared evidence of their deeds in comments threads and forums as if they were badges of honor. She also argued that we need to stop conceptualizing harassment as mere “trolling” and instead use more specific language to describe the harassment (e.g. “sexist,” “racist,” “homophobic,” etc.). Anita also pointed out that most websites have “few mechanisms for accountability” and, as such, crying “It’s just the internet” can no longer function as a valid excuse for allowing web vitriol to appear in forums and comments threads.

More On Harassment

Several of the individual presentations at FiG also addressed the harassment of women in both virtual and physical game-related spaces. Using legal definitions of sexual harassment, Nina Huntemann argued that the #1ReasonWhy tweets reveal a sweeping culture of harassment in game spaces while Kelly Bergstrom honed in on anti-feminist rhetoric that circulates on Reddit through image macros.

Mitu Khandaker and Emily Flynn-Jones spoke about their work on DearAda.com, an online letter-writing series they curate that allows women in games to safely share their experiences. Grace gave a presentation on her experience running Fat, Ugly or Sluttya website that catalogs sexist messages on XBoxLive and PSN. And Celia Pearce capped this theme of the conference off by reviewing sexist incidents in games over the past year and offering some strategies for change.

On Positive Steps

Despite the persistence of exclusionary norms in gaming culture, more women and feminist-identified folks are making games than ever before. As a case in point, Hannah Epstein, Alex Leitch and Emma Westecott presented their work on the game PsXXYborg, a psychedelic, multi-screen avatar-less gaming experience.

Hannah, Alex and Emma show off their game psXXYborg to a full house.

Hannah, Alex and Emma show off their game psXXYborg to a full house.

Cecily Carver, Helen Kennedy and Alison Harvey also reported on their successes running women-focused game jams in feminist gaming spaces across the world. Cecily is co-director of Dames Making Games in Toronto, Helen ran the XX Game Jam in Bristol and Alison Harvey took the ethos of Dames Making Games to the Pixelles in Montreal.

A panel of scholars and activists led by Erica Meiners (and featuring Shana Agid, Sozan Savehilaghi and Harsha Walia) stressed the continuing necessity of radical politics for those of us working in games and technology.

On Gaming Culture

Several presentations offered in-depth analyses of particular facets of gaming culture. Victoria Hungerford and Kari Storla presented on a panel about the “gamer girl” identity. Victoria and Kari pushed beyond a description of the kind of harassment that gamer girls receive to offer a complex analysis of the “gamer girl” as a flexible and strategic political identity that changes contextually. Some gay men and genderqueer folks, for example, have adopted the “gamer girl” identity as a way to locate themselves within gaming culture at large.

Sara Downing explored representations of Chinese and Japanese female characters in games, noting that their gender identity and sexuality are often seen as more definitive features than their race. And Catherine Goodfellow gave a primarily North American and British audience a glimpse into Russian gaming culture. She also treated us to a picture of a shirtless Vladmir Putin.

The lovely city of Vancouver played host to FiG 2013.

The lovely city of Vancouver played host to FiG 2013.

Jessica Soler-Benonie and Frédérique Krupa brought in-depth ethnographic research to FiG. Jessica presented on her work interviewing female MMO players while Frédérique presented results of an extensive personality study of of women working in the tech industry using a Myers-Briggs test.

(I couldn’t go in-depth on each presentation at FiG but Lillian Cohen-Moore has created a Storify of the entire conference in two parts [here and here] that can fill in the details I’ve had to omit!)

The Border House at FiG 2013

In my own presentation at FiG, “Teaching with Games in a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Classroom,” I re-capped the teaching activities I have been blogging about on The Border House (here and here) and shared what I have learned from them. I also speculated that video games’ focus on object collision limits both their expressive potential and their relevance to feminist pedagogical projects. I have written a bit about this idea before in the first issue of Zoya Street’s fantastic Memory Insufficient, but I expanded those thoughts for the audience at FiG. (There is a Storify of my presentation available here.)

I demonstrate Merritt Kopas'  Lim for the audience at FiG.

I demonstrate Merritt Kopas’ Lim for the audience at FiG.

The loquacious Quinnae (better known around academic parts as Katherine Cross) gave a talk entitled “Bending the Rainbow: How the Feminist Prism Reveals Gaming Solutions.” In this stirring speech, Quinnae argued that there is a Möbius strip effect in the rhetoric of “reality” when we talk about online harassment: the Internet is real enough to hurt us but, when we call out the causes of our pain, we are told that the Internet is “not real enough” for our wounds to be taken seriously. She also refuted the notion that anonymity was behind bad behavior on the internet, stressing that anonymity also protects marginalized groups online. Throughout, Quinnae argued that a feminist analysis of social structures would be uniquely equipped to address structural problems in online gaming spaces.

Concluding Thoughts

The workshop as a whole was exhilarating; Quinnae and I were both energized by spending two days in a room packed to the brim with feminists who were invested in changing the medium. And I sincerely hope Quinnae will agree to be my roommate again!

Samantha and Quinnae were so happy to be at FiG2013.

Samantha and Quinnae were so happy to be at FiG2013.

As I waited in line to use the washroom, I overheard someone say, “This is the first conference I’ve ever attended where there has been a line for the women’s washroom.” This joking moment, to me, captured the spirit of the conference. For most of the year, many of us work in male-dominated institutions and environments. Feminists in Games gives us an opportunity to come together and experience a space in which our perspective matters. I can’t wait for next year!

About Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and technology. She is currently a staff writer for The Daily Beast and holds a Ph.D. in Women's, Gender, And Sexuality Studies from Emory University. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.
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6 Responses to Feminists in Games Workshop 2013

  1. Kimiko says:

    Wow, look at all the cool people that got together there! ^_^

  2. Gavin says:

    @Kimiko Agreed. Keep up the great work!

  3. Alex says:

    Thanks so much for writing this up, Samantha. I so wish I could have been there, it sounds like the conference was really great!

  4. Brinstar says:

    Fantastic write-up! Sounds like a really awesome conference and I hope there will be one next year so I can start planning ahead!

  5. Caelyn says:

    I read that as “Feminists in: Games Workshop” and not “Feminists in Games: Workshop.” I immediately pictured you running around in power armour with bolt guns. I also realise I have no idea what the correct punctuation to show the difference in pronunciation is.

  6. Pingback: Feminists in Games 2013 | Gamers IRL

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