The Scourge of Hyperabstraction and Politicization of the Video Game Industry

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There have been rumblings for years, but this last year has seen a blitzkrieg of media coverage focusing primarily on a few particular accusations:

  • Video games have a causative, not just a correlative effect on real world violence.
  • Studios are brutal places requiring their employees to forgo any semblance of a normal life.
    • Corollary: Working in the industry will turn you into a basement dwelling misogynistic troll. Assuming you weren’t one to begin with.
  • Video games are inextricably misogynistic.
  • Video game studios are inextricably misogynistic.

Before I go further, let me be absolutely clear about my position:

  • Yes, there are studios that are indeed ruthless and unprincipled in their predatory abuse of their employees.
  • Yes, there are studios with ingrained subcultures of misogyny.
  • Yes, marketing departments do indeed tend to focus on the historically proven markets for video games, which are, in fact, young and male.

This being said, the media frenzy has lately gone off the deep end, and is now doing more harm than good in its witch hunt against the industry. Moreover, as with all witch hunts, this one has so unnerved those targeted by this witch hunt that it has become easier to stay quiet and not say anything than point out the sloppiness of the media assault.

Personal History
I have been at studios that did conduct themselves in each of the the ways accused.

During my tenure in QA, for a time I worked twenty hour days, six days a week to the point that I wound up with viral pneumonia in the Emergency Room. Did I “have” to work the “optional” overtime? No, but it was well known that those who did not “volunteer” would not have their contract renewed, so if you had any sense at all, you grit your teeth and did what you had to to make sure you could afford rent at the end of the month.

Similarly, was there a “Boy’s Club” atmosphere? Certainly, at least to some extent. As a guy, I am quite sure far more happened than I ever personally witnessed, but even there it was certainly not a case of absolutely every guy being a misogynistic asshole or tolerating misogynistic behavior, which is, in fact, the too-frequent inference.

I have also been at more studios that do not conduct themselves in the ways accused.

Both Cryptic Studios, my last place of employment, and Gazillion Studios, my current place of employment, have staffs that probably average somewhere in the mid-30s, meaning there are some 20-somethings, but there are also a notable number of 40-somethings. Both of these studios do sometimes have crunch periods, but they are, by comparison, mild – maybe a day on the weekend and a couple of extra hours in the evening for the month or two before a critical deadline. Rough, yes, but nothing all that different from any number of other industries. This represents a vast improvement from other former practices in the industry, and should be acknowledged as such. Both make a focused, if sometimes imperfect, effort to offer a reasonable work-life balance.

Misogyny and the Dearth of Women Developers
Are there misogynistic individuals in even the best studios? By both personal experience and by conversation with female friends in the industry, there absolutely are. Where said individuals happen to also be in positions of power, this will of course cause considerably worse situations. However, it is a gross hyperabstraction to extend this to a claim that an entire studio is, as a whole, necessarily fundamentally misogynistic, which is the common inference.

One of the claims that particularly irritates me is that game studios are somehow the sole cause of fault for there not being more female developers. This claim generally appears to rest on three related claims:

  1. First, that developers don’t want to hire women.
  2. Second, that development studios are so misogynistic that no woman would ever want to work there.
  3. Third, that the games studios make aren’t the kinds of games women would want to play, ergo not the kinds of games women would want to develop.

Let’s get the third claim out of the way first. Yes, of course marketing departments are going to focus on demographics that are proven rather than hypothetical. The graveyard of studios who chased after imaginary markets is vast, and marketing departments know that. Are the rewards great for those who succeed in embracing new markets? Absolutely. The problem is, the chance of actually pulling that kind of coup off is very tiny. In other words, bad business. Moreover, the basis of this claim is really even only valid for certain types of games – first person shooters, for example, are indeed vastly represented by men. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, simulators such as SimCity, and the myriad badly-termed “casual” social games do not share that vast over-representation.

(I should also note that there are, in fact, women who do play these games, but they are still a significant minority. This is not meant to indicate in any way that women don’t enjoy such games – simply that as it is now, they are in fact not the dominant demographic.)

The second claim – that all studios are fundamentally, pervasively and structurally misogynistic is simply crap. There are studios that fit this claim. There also are individuals, even individuals with power, in otherwise benign studios who are misogynistic. Neither of these realities is reasonable cause to tar and feather an entire industry.

The first claim I can speak to from personal experience, at least on the MMORPG side of things. Over the ten or so years I have been in the industry, I have been a hiring manager for probably close to half of that. I have gone through – literally – hundreds of resumes, sometimes for a single position. The cold hard fact is that the number of women who apply even for design jobs – let alone programming jobs – is depressingly small. As in, I can literally count the number of women who have even applied to a job I was filling on the fingers of one hand.

(Notably, of the positions over the years in question, as I recall three offers went out to women; two of these were accepted. This, out of probably a dozen separate positions over all the years I have been a manager.)

Possible Solutions
Now, this does beg a legitimate question: Why do so few women want to get into game development?

Some of it, to be sure, is a legacy of the early years of video games. Moreover, since the industry thrives on the relative certainty of sequels, new, untested ideas are rare, and so relics tend to persist far beyond the historical time when they made sense.

Some, as well, is a perception of hostility or outright misogynistic behavior. Some women undoubtedly do not want to go into an environment they suspect would be hostile to them, whether or not such is actually the case.

Personally, I suspect this is more than anything else an unfortunate function of basic sociodynamics. That is, to you or I, standing where we are in time, we see our own experience over, say, five years or even ten years and easily become frustrated at what we see as a lack of change or evolution, whether we are talking about a society or, as in this case, an industry. Moreover, we confuse this perception as a failure, as if things “should” change faster.

The reality, of course, is that societies evolve and change excruciatingly slowly from the perspective of individuals, mostly due to the generational timescale and the “people like to hire people who are like themselves” effect, which while applicable to gender and race is just as applicable to personality, education background, geographical region, and myriad other factors.

Is this frustrating? You bet. Is this one of the root causes of injustice and nepotistic practices? Without a doubt. Fixing it, however, is not something that can be done by waving a magic wand, either in the form of regulation or wishful thinking. It can be done, but by fair and persistent cultural pressure over the course of decades.

There are things wrong in the industry. As it is, even in just the ten years I have been in it there have been significant strides. Are we, as an industry, at the place where we should be in these areas? No, but that’s okay, so long as we don’t get discouraged and continue to do what we can to improve the status quo as individuals and as studios.

What is not helpful, however, is the currently popular machinegun approach to condemning every studio and every developer as an equal participant of unfairness, misogyny or other injustice.

If we, as a society, want to see this – or any other – industry improve, we are best served by, yes, condemning those studios and those individuals who act badly, but also by holding up those studios and individuals who make an effort to behave fairly.

Moreover, the current presumption of guilt in the absence of proof to the contrary is not only itself unjust, but it is strategically foolish; it makes enemies of those who might otherwise be allies in this effort. Lack of action is not necessarily complicity; lack of action is, to be sure, not to be lauded, but neither should it be condemned the way we condemn the actual individuals who behave badly.

4 thoughts on “The Scourge of Hyperabstraction and Politicization of the Video Game Industry

  1. I dunno. If anything, I think the witch hunts have been going in the other direction, I mean, yes, there have been a handful of unjustified accusations of misogyny. But there have been at least a hundred times as many people tossing out, “I personally don’t find this offensive, therefore no one else is allowed to find it offensive either! In fact, people who find it offensive are destroying my Right To Free Speech just by existing!”

    • Inevitably, people will remember the examples that support their own argument and forget the examples that contradict their argument.

      One of the points of this article is that there is not single, monolithic, approved standard of culturally appropriate speech. Instead, there are a multitude of individual opinions that in aggregate can – sometimes – start to look like a cultural consensus.

      I have zero problem with someone saying, “This specific example here is something I find culturally offensive.” I may agree or disagree, but that is a reasonable debate.

      What I do have a major problem with is what is happening a lot more often, which is the generic tarring of the entire industry as being monolithically guilty of misogyny, incitement to violence, or other charges. If you want to accuse me or my studio of something – say it directly with specific charges, not charges by inference.

  2. As an Electrical Engineer, I’ve seen the change in the demographics go really slowly. In 1980 when I was taking a Digital Design class in College, there were 3 women in the class of 120. In 1995 when I was at a major Fortune 500 company, we had 2 women as engineers in a group that was about 60 people. Now in 2013 I work in a place where we have 3 women out of 21 Engineers. It is improving, but slowly. I suspect the Software Engineers in the Gaming industry probably see a similar curve.

    • Yeah, I admit, I’ve been surprised at how slowly this has changed. It has gotten better, but more slowly than I expected.

      I really do think there deserves to be continuing research and work into nailing down the various reasons why, and figuring out strategies to close the gap in an organic fashion. Even if we change things today, though, people need to understand that the effects of what we do now may not be visible in actual companies for decades; I suspect this is something that starts in elementary school kids, not something that happens primarily in college.

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