Pop Quiz: How many female artists can you name? Female musicians? Female authors?
Okay, now here’s a tougher one: how many women can you name that make video games?
In an industry that regularly churns out vapid female characters whose sole purpose is to flash T and A for adolescent, drooling fanboys, women are often excluded from the credit roll as well as the starring role. In a medium that is still struggling to be accepted as having artistic value in the eyes of pop culture(as if pop culture would know anything about that!) where are the Frida Kahlo’s, the Stevie Nicks’s, the Mary Shelley’s of the video game world?
I’m not going to argue which came first, the stereotyped characters or the sexism in the workplace, because it doesn’t matter: they’re mutually reinforcing. A company that encourages sexual harassment towards women, or doesn’t reward both sexes equally in terms of promotions and wages, will drive women away– if they bother to hire them at all. And the numbers bear out this trend in the video game industry. Take a look at those numbers: 77-96% of jobs in the video game industry are taken by men, yet 45% of the people who play games are women.
Why would so many women enjoy playing games, but not making them? Well, here’s an example of the kind of crap behavior that women have to put up with:
Of course this attitude that women are supposed to be sexually available to men at all times has been around for a long time and appears in every form of business, so why am I pointing it out here? Because it’s been around for a long time and appears in every form of business. That’s why. For example, in the late 19th century an author by the name of Ellen Glasgow took her first manuscript to an agent in New York who, after taking her $50, told her she was too pretty to be a novelist and sexually assaulted her. The next man she took her manuscript to told her to stop writing and just have babies instead. She didn’t stop writing. In 1941 her novel In This Our Life won a Pulitzer-prize and was adapted for film the following year.
Even without discrimination it’s almost impossible to attain recognition as a game creator: people have been acculturated to think in terms of brand-names, about some contrived corporate image rather than the product itself or those who made it. When a video game is released the publisher’s name is scrawled in large type on the front of the box. So when you go into a store to buy it you know that Sonic the Hedgehog was produced by Sega, and Super Mario Bros. was produced by Nintendo. But publishers don’t make games. They finance them(no small feat with multi-million dollar budgets being the norm these days) and they ship them out to retailers. Who are the people who spent years of their life making these games? When will the marketing department figure out how to put their names on the boxes? Let me introduce you to just a few of these unsung heroes of their craft.
Sonic the Hedgehog was a character created by Naoto Oshima and brilliantly brought to life by programmer Yuji Naka and level-designer Hirokazu Yasuhara. You might know that Mario was the creation of Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the few game designers inducted into that ridiculously narrow cult of celebrity status, but did you know that Koji Kondo wrote the jazzy theme music for it? He also composed the original theme for the equally successful Legend of Zelda series. Unfortunately both series featured a weak female character who must be rescued by the strong male hero. Many things have changed over the decades: Sega is now developing games for Nintendo among others, and Nintendo’s former in-house development studio Rare(which created the Donkey Kong Country series) is owned by and developing exclusively for Microsoft. But the cliche of strong male characters having to rescue weaker female characters is as popular as ever.
Happily there are a growing number of women who’ve made a name for themselves over the years despite the toxic misogyny of the gaming world.
Anne Westfall was a programmer for civil engineering software before meeting her future husband Jon Freeman. Together with Paul Reiche they founded Free Fall Associates, a game development studio that produced an Atari game called Archon that proved so popular it was eventually ported to over a dozen systems. She also served on the board of directors for the Game Developer’s Conference, only the world’s biggest convention for people working in the industry(E3 is all about marketing whereas the GDC is much more relevant to people who actually create games). There’s an old interview with Anne and Jon if you’re curious.
Breath of Fire III has some of the best jazz tracks of any video game soundtrack and it was composed entirely by two women: Akari Kaida and Yoshino Aoki. When asked in an interview about the unusual style, Kaida-san answered, “I wanted to challenge myself with every song, even though my superiors were telling me to create music similar to the previous titles.” She’s also composed songs for Mega Man, Resident Evil, and Okami.
Jane Jensen created the Gabriel Knight video games and wrote a novel nominated for the Philip K. Dick award before recently starting her own game development studio.
Julie Uhrman founded Ouya, which makes the world’s first linux-based console by the same name. It’s built on the idea of breaking down the barriers between gamers and game developers. It does this by allowing anybody to make their own games and by making both the games and their development affordable.
In the US people spend more money on video games–including the hardware to play them– than they do on movies and music combined. That’s tens of billions of dollars a year. With that much money at stake, publishers tend to primarily back games that are clones of other already successful games. This pattern of focusing solely on sales and excluding everything of social value is consumerism at its best and humanity at its worst. It’s a vicious circle of trendiness that not only stifles originality of any sort, but also acts as an additional barrier to groups of people who have been historically excluded from even having a chance at success.
Gender equity is important not just because it’s unfair to pay women less than men for the same work but because it amounts to a form of censorship: if you’re excluding people from making art, you’re effectively silencing them by preventing their voices from ever being heard. And good art can not only entertain but also express the feelings and philosophy of the artist. Art offers a window into the souls of other people, and into ourselves when we choose to create. Denying women that freedom is like imprisoning them behind shuttered windows. Don’t do that. Don’t be like Bowser. It never ends well. And don’t be like Peach either. You don’t have to wait for some knight in shining plumbing to come rescue you. Princesses can slay dragons all on their own if we just give them a chance.
With any luck we’ll live to see a better world where both economic and personal growth thrive on freedom of expression. And that means, at the very least, not silencing someone simply because of which sex organs they may or may not have.