For some time I’ve had some ideas kicking around for a possible, large project focused on gender, production and consumption cultures in gaming (though I may have missed the hype wave). To get a start and try to clarify what that project might look like, and where it might need to head, I decided to blog a gaming focused mini-version of my Masters thesis, which was on gendered divisions of creative labour in Hollywood cinema.


Representing Production Cultures

There is a lot of research and commentary on gender in video games from academics, gamers, journalists and other critics. Some of these interventions have proven to be extraordinarily, and bewilderingly, controversial. That a critique of representatives of gender in games can attract so much hostility and anger demonstrates that it is an important issue, even (or especially) among those that claim that gender doesn’t matter. As an increasingly artistic, literary and political pursuit games now (rightfully) attract the kinds of criticism expected in cinema, literature, music and television. Games are now meaningfully framed as pedagogical tools (see: the gamification of education), political and ethical provocations (e.g This War of Mine), explorations of new kinds of digital aesthetics (e.g Limbo, Sunset), and new kinds of creative communities (e.g Minecraft). Similar research into (and critique of) the production and development of games is less visible. Perhaps understandably so – it leaves much of the exciting stuff (the games themselves) at the door. Nonetheless, a discussion of gender in gaming is incomplete without an understanding of where the games come from, how they are made and by who.

Ironically, the reactionary stance of the #Gamergate “movement” has demonstrated the importance of linking representations of gender and gender in production. For #Gamegate, when they are not grappling with the complexities of journalistic ethics, go after Anita Saarkesian’s critiques of representations of women alongside prominent women in game development (e.g Brianna Wu). The problem doesn’t seem to be simply the presence of women in gaming, but the presence of women who talk about gender. If this is the case, then there is an implicit recognition within #Gamergate that there are production cultures. This isn’t to suggest some insight on the side of #gamergate, but rather, that their connection should be a reminder of the importance of production, not in terms of just the place where representations are made, but a doman worthy of gendered critique, contention, understanding and activism.

So, what is the state of the industry in this regard? What are the production histories, the production cultures? Is the industry changing in time with the demographics of gamers, and of games itself? Where are women in the industry, and where are they not? What are they doing and why? How does “gender” move through production to representation to consumption and back again? In this sense, I not only mean gender as representations of gendered stereotypes, performances, tropes, and so on, but also gender as in moving of bodies and affect through production, of those who do the producing and of bodies represented and bodies consumed and of consumers.

In my Master’s thesis I did a large (perhaps one of the largest) but simple survey of 700 films across 30 years, noting the gender of key roles in above-the-live creative labour. In this downsized project I looked at 100 games in a similar fashion. The aim is not to be exhaustive but significant enough to identify trends and bring forward some questions (and answers?) that might be relevant to a larger project.

We already know the game development industry is male dominated, so why do this?

Evidence is persuasive and data is illuminating.  Generalised assumptions, no matter how true they may be, can hide specific points of interest that only become apparent through the activity of actually gathering and analysing data. Other than following intuition, there is no way to anticipate what the data might tell you, even if what it says does not contradict established understanding. What I’ve collected won’t give a full account of the industry, but it will likely start to bring some of these specific points of interest out. It gives some guidance on what further questions to ask, like, why are certain roles more or less gendered, how does the gaming industry compare to other creative industries, which assumptions have held up, which have fallen, and so on. A specifically quantitative account is perhaps more immediately useful in achieving this and perhaps more persuasive than say, an anthropological/ethnographic account which can be drowned out by claims of researcher ignorance, bias or lacking methodological rigor. This is a particularly pertinent point because much of the criticism researchers of gender and culture in gaming receive centers around a general hostility towards cultural criticism, and other critical approaches to interpreting texts, and in particular feminism.

A quantitative account of this kind doesn’t provide any idea of how the roles have changed over time as there is an insufficient sample to identify anything meaningful. More importantly an empirical sample, no matter how large, will not give us any idea of why this sample is as it is. That is to say, what are the attitudes and practices within the industry which lead to these empirical results. This is why other methodologies and disciplines are required to get a more complete and accurate picture.

It won’t answer questions like “Is the industry sexist?”, “Do women want to be in the industry?”, “Why is there a division?”.

So what did I look at?

I began with the top 100 games on Steam (by hours played) on a random day in early 2015. Steam provides these statistics in client, free of charge. I then chose five roles that represent the creative and technical leadership of the game, and coded the incumbents gender as either M, where there were only male position holders, F where there were only female position holders and MF, where there were at least one male or one female. I used the names provided in the games credits to determine gender. Where I was uncertain, I would search for that name in Google, and in all cases tracked down the person on social media or company websites to confirm. This method cannot account for situations where the name displayed in the credits does not reflect how the individual identifies.

The five roles I looked at were “Creative Director”, “Producer”, “Writer”, “Lead Artist”, “Lead Programmer”. Almost all of the games looked at had most of these roles, though in many cases, particularly with indie studios, the same role was fulfilled by the same person.

There were about 20 games from this set that I couldn’t find any meaningful or largely incomplete data for, so I have supplemented the list with popular games later in the year, including some from EAs Origin service. While a small sample it should still give an idea of where things are heading. As the list of games will be taken from Steam usage statistics which means that the sample will primarily focus on PC gaming. This has a disadvantage, even though many titles are released on multiple platforms, because the majority of the industry is centered on consoles. While it is unlikely the results will be dramatically skewed, it is a consideration to take account for in any further research I do in the area. The advantage of using Steam is that it also captures popular indie games, which have a stronger and more visible presence in PC gaming.

In Hollywood cinema gendered divisions change significantly as one moves out of centralised corporate production cultures (that is, the big studios). Analysing data from games from indie and large studio developers will help see if this result is duplicated in the games industry, which will be an important outcome if it is the case as it will point further research and applications of the research into specific and productive directions. So, for example, it could be the case that different work / life experiences in the corporatised studio environments are indirectly resulting in gendered divisions. This knowledge would then allow evidence-based action to be taken to target specific causes.

Sampling a set of games rather than a survey of workers offers a different and useful perspective. While a survey of workers within the industry takes in a broader set of participants, the survey of the most popular games gives a measure of the impact of that participation. It turns the question from “Who is making games?” – itself a useful question – to “Who is making the games people are playing?”.

[Part 2, The Results]

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