PAX East 2010: Girls in Gaming Panel

The PAX East Logo.

The PAX East Logo.

Last weekend, March 25-27, was the first annual PAX East convention. The Penny Arcade Expo has been running for several years in Seattle, but this is the first time it has come to the East Coast, and the first time I was able to attend. I’m going to write a few posts about the various panels I went to and the overall experience, and the first thing I would like to address is the “Girls in Gaming” panel that took place on Friday night.

The panel consisted of: Brittany Vincent (Editor-in-Chief, Spawn Kill), Julie Furman (Founder, SFX360), Alexis Hebert (Community Relations Manager, Terminal Reality), Padma Fuller (Product Marketing Manager, Sanrio Digital), and Kate Paiz (Senior Producer, Turbine), with Jeff Kalles of Penny Arcade moderating. The format was entirely Q&A, with no discussion and only short introductions before opening up the floor to questions. So it did not begin very well, though this was entirely the fault of the organizers.

There are a bunch of good summaries out there already, such as this one at The Phoenix’s Laser Orgy blog, and Denis’s article at GayGamer.net, so I will keep it short. Several of the questions were about objectification in games and game advertising, and how that affects the perception of female gamers by the gaming community. Some form of this question always comes up during any discussion of women in games, so that’s not surprising. What was surprising was the answers, which were that things are getting better, that you just have to work hard and have faith in your abilities, that overall the industry is very welcoming to women. Frustratingly, one panelist repeatedly brought up Gears of War as an example of the type of “unrealistic fantasy” gaming offers players that is the same as the objectification of female characters; what she apparently didn’t realize was that Marcus Fenix is an unrealistic aspiration fantasy for men, but objectified characters such as Bayonetta are also fantasies for men, specifically straight men. It is fundamentally different because of the history of objectification of women. Seriously, this is Feminism 101 stuff. The question kept coming up because the panelists didn’t answer the question in anything but a superficial way.

One highlight was when a woman asked about what we can do to get other women off of Facebook games and into playing “real” games: Brittany responded by saying that people who play Facebook games are already gamers, and social games are real games. She went on to say that it is a matter of taste, and no matter what we do, many (maybe even most?) people just aren’t going to be into core games. The elitism toward social games is a pet peeve of mine, and I think it was a great message to send to a room full of hardcore gamers. Brittany also answered a question about being a female game journalist, and how women often have a harder time than men proving they should be taken seriously as writers.

The most frustrating thing, for me, was the repeated insistence from some (but not all) of the panelists that the game industry isn’t sexist. The game industry is perfectly open and welcoming to women. Really? Because every woman I know who is in games has a horror story or ten. These answers were particularly jarring when they were said in the same breath as admissions that gamers on Xbox Live do, sometimes, throw out gendered slurs, and at one of the panelists’ companies, only two out of their seventy programmers are women. Someone asked about the GameCrush.com site, and one of the panelists answered with the predictable “sex sells,” and spoke about how it is bothersome, but it was bound to happen.

And that is the thing that bothered me the most about this panel: the sense of helplessness in many of the answers. The questioners brought up big issues, things that affect our entire society, not just in gaming. The answers mostly involved keeping your head down, working extremely hard (twice as hard as any man in the same position?), and not letting things bother you. Putting up with sexism and not rocking the boat may be the best thing to do as an individual to get ahead, but frankly it does fuck all for other women in the industry. And that’s what I would have liked to see: a sense of solidarity, ideas for supporting other women both as gamers and in the industry, what both women and men can do to help change the greater gaming community for the better. As the huge attendance at the panel proved, no woman is or should be on her own in the gaming community. We are in this together, and we need to act like it and support each other, instead of looking out for number one. And supporting each other doesn’t mean putting up with bullshit from sexist assholes, it means challenging sexism and standing up for one’s self and others in the face of stereotypes and discrimination.

It’s not the easiest thing to do. Actually, it’s an incredibly hard thing to do. But if we all do it, if female gamers and our allies all work together to make it clear sexism is unacceptable? We can make real change.

In the following days, the panel has faced quite the backlash, as seen both in the Penny Arcade forums and on the girl_gamers LiveJournal community. I suppose this is a sign of progress, of how far we have raised the bar when it comes to the discussion of women in gaming and the industry. I just wish we had been able to continue the discussion in a positive way, rather than bashing this panel.

About Alex

Alex posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and Parks and Recreation on Twitter.
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19 Responses to PAX East 2010: Girls in Gaming Panel

  1. Jenna Hoffstein says:

    Hello!
    My name is Jenna, I’m a game designer and a somewhat regular reader of this blog. I decided to leave a comment for the first time because I happen to be that woman who asked the question about the Facebook games!

    I felt that my question was misunderstood both at the panel and here so I would like to address it briefly. First, I apologize if it came off as elitist, I must have badly mucked up my words standing up there. Let me try and articulate my question a bit better. Facebook games have, practically overnight, turned millions of women into gamers. This is nothing short of remarkable. It is also an avenue of analysis that I was sad was unexplored at the panel. We now have a gigantic set of games that we know for a fact women enjoy playing (and by extrapolation, can guess at the types of features). These preferences of course are not going to hold true for every woman, and perhaps this was not addressed at the panel because most of the women in that room, by virtue of simply being there, are more hard-core gamers than the average woman. We finally have millions of women playing games but I don’t feel like we’ve gotten a touchdown just yet. Instead of modifying our current triple-A titles to be more appealing to women, we’ve created an entirely new type of game. So what do we do now, sit back and say “Well they’re playing games, no more work to be done here?” I just don’t think this is good enough. We need to see if Facebook games have any lessons to offer us so that we can make the medium of games as a whole more attractive to women gamers. And what better timing? All of these women on FB games may be just that much more willing to give other types of games a go – not that they need to. I don’t like first person shooter games and I probably never will. People just have their tastes, and I suspect the majority of people playing Facebook games may not simply be interested in other types of games. That is just as ok as the fact that my little brother will probably never play anything but first-person shooters! My point is simply that we can’t rest back on our haunches now. Now is the time to look at games as a whole and ask what changes we need to make to our medium to be more welcoming to females. Was that not partly point of the panel? Are the majority of games not still aimed squarely at males with total disregard for anything that females might like to see in a game?

    I apologize again if my question was so badly mangled at PAX that I managed to come off as elitist, as that was clearly not my point. I just want to look at the bigger picture here, there is still work to be done :)

    Thank you,
    Jenna Hoffstein

    • Alex says:

      Hi Jenna, thanks for commenting and clarifying your question (you’re braver than me for even going up and asking a question ;)). You make a lot of good points. Core games could learn a lot from Facebook games and other social games, but I think people are resistant to that idea because of the same elitism that I mistakenly attributed to you–my apologies.

  2. Lake Desire says:

    These adult professionals were called “girls” on the panel title?

  3. It is all a disaster. I need the encouragement from other women to get the strength to continue. Don’t leave me pretending it’s all right.

  4. Deirdra says:

    Alex, I would have loved to see you at the panel of the same name that I was on at PAX West last year. I can’t remember for sure, but I do recall beating that pesky “but men are objectified, too!” argument into the ground with some well-placed comments about package size.

    The not rocking the boat thing is a difficult situation indeed, mainly because when you’re actually working in the industry, the things you say in a public space while representing the company you work for can get you into some deep shit if you say anything that hurts its image, to the point that it could cost you your job and damage your future career prospects — it’s a small game industry after all. Yes, we do need people to rock the boat and stand up for themselves and other women, and this is a goal I personally espouse (for good or for ill)… yet, at the same time, I find it hard to blame individual women for keeping their heads down, especially given that they have a lot to lose for not doing so. It’s an extremely frustrating thing to deal with all around.

    • Brinstar says:

      I think the speaking out in public aspect, when you’re part of the industry, is a small reason why that panel ended up being as positive as it was… Though there did seem to be some cluelessness going around.

      A lot of women in the industry don’t have as jobs as public as mine. Even moreso in my case, I definitely avoid blogging about things that I may have blogged about when I wasn’t working in the industry.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks, Deirdra. It is definitely a lot easier for me to speak out since I’m not in the industry. Personally, I think that, for this sort of panel, the best approach would be to talk about how to fight sexism, etc., while also emphasizing that it’s okay not to do it all the time or at all, and that people shouldn’t feel guilty if their situation doesn’t allow for that. (The GayGamer panel, which I will also be writing about, did this extremely well!) But this panel’s focus was rather counterproductive, even upsetting because the tone was that of the inevitability of sexism. They made it all sound hopeless and unchangeable! And I think a panel like this should be morale-building. We have plenty of time to be depressed outside the panel, heh.

  5. oliemoon says:

    I dearly wish that they would just call these panels what it is: “Sexism in Gaming,” rather then trying to make nice with euphemisms like “Girls in Gaming.” Beyond the fact that it is, yes very patronizing that women are being referred to as girls, it always leads to people proclaiming, “Why do girls get their own panel? Why can’t they just be gamers?” Notwithstanding the fact that the people who must ask these questions are clueless and kinda douchey, I think identifying the fact that the panel is really about sexism in the actual name of the panel would do a better job making it clear about why we have to keep having panels like this.

  6. Beth says:

    I was at that panel and I actually found it frustrating because the moderator didn’t let the speakers talk for long enough. He would rush the panelists along through questions so more questions could get in, but this left for less discussion. I’d rather have quality over quantity of questions answered.

    Overall, I was very dissapointed with the panel because I expected more of a discussion and I feel questions weren’t explored enough (due to the moderator rushing them along). It had potential, but it’s the moderator’s fault (not the panelists) why it failed.

  7. Beth says:

    Oh, and I saw you ask your question and when you said you were from Borderhouse I was internally like, w00t!

  8. Bakka says:

    I find the suggestion that the best response to things like GameCrush.com and other sexism in the industry is to just ignore it to be extremely disappointing. I think you make a good point, Alex, when you write:

    “The answers mostly involved keeping your head down, working extremely hard (twice as hard as any man in the same position?), and not letting things bother you. Putting up with sexism and not rocking the boat may be the best thing to do as an individual to get ahead, but frankly it does fuck all for other women in the industry.”

    Not only does it do fuck all, but recent research in psychology suggests that ignoring it might actually make the experience worse (at least in the case of racism, and I see no reason to think sexism is different).

  9. Ikkin says:

    In regards to “unrealistic fantasy” characters, I think the lack of understanding on the part of those who find that portrayal of women okay goes even deeper than that.

    It seems to me that they think of it as a self-esteem issue. To them, we’re worried that unrealistic expectations make little girls feel bad (or, in the case of the trolls, we need to get rid of those characters because of our own lack of self-esteem).

    But, honestly, it seems unlikely that fanservice characters have nearly that much power over girls’ minds. Their appearance and mannerisms are so alienating (due to blatant sexualization) that there’s little risk of them being internalized into us as the standard to match – but it’s the alienation itself that’s the problem.

    The male equivalent to this certainly isn’t Marcus Fenix. I have to wonder how characters who are designed or positioned to visually appeal to a female audience (like Metal Gear Solid’s Raiden and most of Kingdom Hearts’ male cast) play into this, though, since they seem somewhat closer (even if they’re not nearly blatant enough to be a true equivalent).

    • Bakka says:

      Ikkin, I agree that self-esteem is not really a concern of social justice, but I think this can sometimes go further to affecting self-respect. Self-esteem is about how one feels about oneself, whereas self-respect involves the kind of treatment one believes one can expect and demand from others and self-respect affects agency. It is about whether one can assume or demand that others treat one respectfully.

      I think the respect stuff is rather important for social justice. Here I am thinking of the way that if one is shown enough disrespect, this can lead to self-censorship and silencing. For example, with the Assassin’s Creed issue around Jade Raymond and the way she was treated on its first release. I noticed that she was not visible for the promotion of Assassin’s Creed II. I even had to go hunting around to find out whether she was still involved (maybe I am wrong here, and I was just not looking in the right places, but all the PS3 promotion videos featured guys who worked on ACII, not Raymond). I would not want to suggest that she lacks self-respect, but I would suggest that the disrespect she was shown on the first release might account for her lack of visibility on the second. Her treatment on the first release demonstrated that she could not expect to be shown respect.

      I think that is related to the fantasy characters because the characters set up a context where femininity is read in a particular way, which legitimizes that kind of treatment.

      • Ikkin says:

        Respect was something I thought about mentioning, but somehow managed to leave out of my post, actually. The blatant lack of respect for women on the part of the character designers displayed by overly-sexualized female characters, I think, is the reason why those kind of characters are such a turn-off.

        But I’m not entirely convinced that it’s self-respect that’s the issue – I’d guess that the problem with the treatment of women in gaming is more about how we think we will be treated, not how we think we deserve to be treated.

        Which isn’t to say that a lot of the negative effects aren’t still there. If I believe that my actions won’t be worth it due to the unfair treatment I will receive, I might choose not to do them even if I think I’m entitled to (which could be what happened with Jade Raymond).

        It’s just that there’s several parts to the respect thing:
        - First, when faced with an obvious lack of respect, a lot of us are going to say “well, I know when I’m not wanted” and give up on something we would otherwise enjoy
        - Second, guys sometimes carry over their lack of respect for women in games to women gamers or women in the gaming industry, which makes the environment even more hostile for us
        - And third, women gamers might feel they need to accept the lack of respect in order to fit in, or even lose sight of the fact that they deserve better (which actually is a self-respect issue)

        Focusing on self-respect seems, in a sense, like it might be reducing the scope of the problem.

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