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.