Nordic Game Conference in Malmö has grown to be the most significant game industry professionals gathering in Europe during its 15 years. In 2018 over 2000 game industry professionals and students enjoyed presentations by over 178 speakers at Nordic Game 2018 (NG18). This year’s NG18 had an Impact track, which caught the eye of GameChangers –project as the sessions promised to make us think more deeply about the impact of the games and how we create them has on the world. The track was put together by Kate Edwards and Tsahi Liberman, who are both active advocates for diversity and inclusiveness in the games industry. The Impact track had eight sessions including a workshop and a seminar during the three conference days. The Impact track was a welcome addition to the conference program and its influence potential was huge. In this article, we will share some ideas and insights the Impact track sessions but also commenting on a few other talks about diversity.
Game industry and stereotypes
The game industry has a reputation for being bro-club; the reputation is unfortunately not entirely unfound. According to International Game Developers Association (IGDA) video game industry is still predominated by young, heterosexual, white males (Gosse, Legault, O’Meara & Weststar 2016, 6-10, 38). IGDAs international survey data indicates that 74% of game developers are men, 21% are women and 5% identified themselves as transgender or other (Weststar, O’Meara & Legault 2017, 11).
Carolyn Petit and Anita Sarkeesian are spokespersons of inclusive and representative media landscape and they both work with Feminist Frequency, a not-for-profit educational organization. They held a workshop to give game designers concrete tools for creating compelling and diverse characters in their games. Workshop started with analyzing characters from well-known games. As stated earlier, most of game designers are young, white and men, this is also true when we take a closer look on most famous video game characters for example Nathan Drake from Uncharted and Link from the Zelda series.
During the workshop, the participants were encouraged to think about diversity from different angles, not just gender and race, but also about sexual orientation, cultural background, able-bodied vs. disability and age. Carolyn and Anita also challenged the participants to think about how these different qualities are portrayed, for example: is the Asian person a math genius in the game, do the women have agency or are they just tropes, are all heroes young and male. Does the portrayal or the characters enforce stereotypes or try to change them?
Luckily, the industry has woken up to the issue and there are several initiatives to help diversify the industry and there are more and more playable female characters for example Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, Ellie from Last of Us II and Jesse from Control.
The Path to Impact
Kate Edwards gave a very empowering talk about making a change in the games industry. Game industry, particular in the US, is at the moment unappreciated. For example, 40% of the US citizens believe that games are linked to violent crime in US and 60% believe that games are mostly played by men. Misconceptions about the people working within the industry include statements such as ”they are people who can’t get a real job” and ”they are only motivated by money”. These types of stigmas are hard to break and are one factor that prevents game industry to grow to be more inclusive.
In the light of recent studies, game industry itself is also filled with cultural norms, biases and distorted gender beliefs towards women in video game industry. Due to these, women are marginalized even more by being categorized only to certain roles, instead of seeing the full potential or expertise behind their gender (Harvey & Shepherd 2017, 494; Styhre et al.2016, 1-2.)
Kate Edwards addressed similar issues in her sessions, but also reminded us that they can be easily overcome. She encouraged us all to become Creator-Advocates, and speak for diversity. We cannot change the world alone, but we can make a small change for the better.
Carolyn Petit and Anita Sarkeesian talking about positive character examples at Nordic Game 2018.
Luckily strong speeches advocating the need and the power of diversity we’re also given outside the Impact track. Robin Hunicke’s Experimental Game Design – the next five years was one of the most influential speeches during the conference and the only one of the track that was held in main stage. Another powerful talk on the main stage was Angie Smets’s talk Horizon Zero Dawn – a studio’s perspective, which also served as a good reminder that successful games can also have female protagonists. Both sessions are available on Nordic Game’s YouTube channel.
Diversity and women in and behind the games were not absent from the social events at the conference. The gala dinner was followed by the joyful Marioke [karaoke songs rewritten about video games and game development] where the disco hit It’s raining men turned into an ironic take on men explaining first person shooter games to female players. Explaining men, Hallelujah! Explaining men!
Games are powerful and unique medium; they are both products of culture as well as create culture (Deuze et al. 2007, 345). This is one of the main reasons why tracks like these are important. Idea behind the NG18 Impact track was to encourage games industry professionals to think deeply about the impact their games have on our world, and how the way games are made contribute to this. We believe this was achieved, but in a much smaller scale than what could have been possible. Only one of the tracks speeches was presented on the main stage and in some cases the amount of interested participants exceeded the capacity of the chosen seminar rooms. Also, most of the participants seemed already interested on these subjects or represent the minorities in question. Unfortunately, the lack of stereotypical game designers was evident, these are the groups that would benefit the most from the eye opening talks and workshops such as presented within this track.
It is crucial to show that women, and other minorities, can be and are an important part of the games industry, that it is not just a ”bro-club”. Diversity and inclusiveness create better teams, give people new ideas and widen horizons. This is something we’re also aiming to do in the GameChangers – Women in the Game Industry project. Start making a change!
Deuze, M., Martin, C. & Allen, C. 2007. The Professional Identity of Gameworkers. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. [Electronic journal]. Vol. 13(4), 335-353. [Cited 10 Jun 2018]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856507081947
Gosse, C., Legault, M-J., O’Meara, V. & Weststar, J. 2016. Diversity in the Game Industry Report. [Online document]. Toronto: IGDA : Developer Satisfaction Survey Resources. [Cited 10 Jun 2018]. Available at: https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.igda.org/resource/collection/CB31CE86-F8EE-4AE3-B46A-148490336605/IGDA_DSS14-15_DiversityReport_Aug2016_Final.pdf
Harvey, A. & Shepherd, T. 2017. When passion isn’t enough: gender, affect and credibility in digital games design. International Journal of Cultural Studies. [Electronic journal]. Vol 20 (5), 492 – 508. [Cited 10 Jun 2018]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877916636140
Styhre, A., Remneland-Wikhamn, B., Szczepanska, A-M. & Ljungberg, J. 2016. Masculine domination and gender subtexts: The role of female professionals in the renewal of the Swedish video game industry. Culture and Organization. [Electronic journal]. Vol 24(3), 244-261. [Cited 10 Jun 2018]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14759551.2015.1131689
Weststar, J., O’Meara, V. & Legault, M-J. 2017. Developer Satisfaction Survey 2017. [Online document]. Toronto: IGDA. [Cited 10 Jun 2018]. Available at: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/2017_DSS_/!IGDA_DSS_2017_SummaryReport.pdf
About the authors
Ria Gynther works as a project coordinator on the GameChangers –project at Lahti University of Applied Sciences and is a student in the Internet and Game studies master’s program at University of Tampere.
Essi Prykäri works part-time as a project advisor on the GameChangers –project at Lahti University of Applied Sciences. She is a keen gamer and a feminist.
Pictures: Essi Prykäri
Originally published 27.6.2018 in LAMK Pro.