With reporting by Victoria McNally
Over the past year, any dedicated gamer or casual player with a social media account has likely witnessed the same conversation: the one surrounding women's roles inside the world of gaming.
With Zoe Quinn's Gamergate Memoir "Crash Override" coming to the big screen, and everyone from John Oliver to "South Park" taking on various topics that stemmed from the Gamergate issue, it would certainly seem from the outside that, for most people working in that industry, an honest look at how it treats its women would be necessary. After all, Hollywood -- which has dealt with many similar issues -- has experienced an explosion of diversity clap backs this year, from the ACLU investigating a lack of female directors, to #OscarsSoWhite, to Jennifer Lawrence's wage gap essay and more.
So, why is gaming falling behind? Specifically, why did the 2015 Game Awards -- a live show aired last year on MTV sister network Spike, and this year unaffiliated with Viacom networks, airing directly online -- only initially put one woman on its judging panel of 32 people? (Polygon swapped out their male critic with a female staffer, Megan Farokhmanesh, when they were informed of the gender disparity -- bringing the count to two. Snaps to Polygon.)
The answer, according to multiple female producers and developers that MTV News spoke to -- some off-the-record, as women who speak out in this issue can often be pigeonholed as "women in gaming" advocates in the industry and end up getting bullied online and in real life -- is simple: much like in Hollywood, gaming is an old boys' club.
[Note: MTV News reached out to Game Awards producer and host Geoff Keighley for comment on this story, though as of press time neither he nor his team had delivered any statement.]
"These guys are all friends with each other, so they all call their friends and they don’t think about it, and then suddenly the [judging] list and nominees just happen to be overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male," Giant Spacekat cofounder Brianna Wu told MTV News over the phone. "Yeah, they’ll give Roberta Williams a lifetime accomplishment award, but it's just window dressing, because they're erasing all the awesome work women are doing in the field all year long."
In fact, Wu told MTV News that speaking out on yet another example of female erasure from the industry is "not something I particularly want to be dealing with," but all of the women interviewed agreed that speaking out on this issue was necessary, especially during a time when the Entertainment Software Association reports that roughly 44 percent of gamers are women, and the Pew Research Center claims that 42 percent of adult American women own a gaming console -- against 37 percent of men.
"It’s a result of an oversight and unconscious bias, those kinds of things," Nicole Lazzaro, the CEO of XEODesign, explained. "We just need to really take the leadership position here, in games especially, for important things like The Game Awards."
Because The Game Awards are important. Sure, they're not prime-time, red carpet staples like the Oscars or the Grammys, but for the winners, "if you’ve got awards behind you, people are going to look at that," Lazzaro explained. "You’re going to be much more likely to be financed, much more likely to get more positive press... You’re more likely to get discovered."
This is especially important for independent producers -- including those making mobile games, according to Lazzaro -- who have a harder time getting recognized against major studios like Rockstar Games and Ubisoft. Since there's no equivalent of, say, a Sundance Film Festival in the gaming industry, winning a Game Award could lead to a major career boost for a developer who is nominated.
"The problem with our industry is we don’t really have an Emmy," Wu explained. "Like, Giant Bomb will put out their game of the year, IGN will put out their game of the year, but there's no voice coming together and saying, 'This is it.' The Game Awards is the closest thing we have... and the studios that win big, it gives them a ton of exposure."
So, yes -- winning these awards is financially important for the people making the games, even if they don't become a household name after it happens. But does having a (mostly) all-male judging panel necessarily mean that games made for and by women won't get nominated? According to the women we interviewed, the answer to that question is understandably complicated, but all of them acknowledged that there seems to be some variance in gaming choices by gender.
"If you look at games that are more about narrative than violence, very generally speaking, women are the ones in the industry that are drawn to those games," Wu asserted. "Overwhelmingly these dudebro games, like 'Fallout,' like 'Call of Duty' -- they are far over-represented. We talk all the time about getting women in technology, but as long as long as men are the only ones evaluating the merit of our work, we will never get recognition."
Indeed, studies by both DeltaDNA and Usability News both found that women overwhelmingly prefer games that involve puzzle-solving and some sort of social interaction to first-person shooters and RPGs (Role Playing Games), which are, overwhelmingly, being honored by the male judging panel at the Game Awards.
One source, who preferred to remain anonymous, pointed out that since men have games like "Halo" and "Call of Duty" marketed directly to them from the time they're little kids, it's natural for some women to feel alienated by that kind of content. Atmospheric puzzle games -- think "Myst" and "Dreamfall Chapters" -- aren't particularly gendered in their marketing, so women might feel more drawn to those particular kinds of games.
"'Dreamfall Chapters' is an unbelievable story-based game," Wu noted. "[But] compare in the press how much the men in our field reported on something like 'Dreamfall Chapters,' as opposed to 'Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare' last year, and you're going to see a huge, huge difference in what they considered important."
Indeed, the games chosen for the big awards this year are exactly the sort of "dudebro" shooter games that these women are referring to -- you have "Bloodborne," "Fallout 4," "Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain," "The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt," and a lonely, colorful outlier, "Super Mario Maker." Other categories feature "Assassin's Creed" "Syndicate," "Batman: Arkham Knight," "Halo 5: Guardians," "Call of Duty: Black Ops 3," and so on and so forth.
No one is saying that these popular and celebrated games shouldn't be recognized -- in fact, one developer made sure to note that more women play games marketed towards men than one might expect, despite preconceived notions of what a gamer really looks like -- but it is noticeable that the more atmospheric games like "Her Story," "Cibele," "Life is Strange," and "Sunset" are left out of the biggest categories, and mostly found under "Games For Change."
Overall, according to the sources MTV News talked to, it became clear that this Game Awards controversy is a giant "chicken or the egg" situation. Who is to blame, here -- is it Keighley and his Awards, for not putting women on the judging panel? Is is the judging panel itself, for simply choosing the games they like to play (and most likely, the games that were delivered to the press en masse by major companies for review)? Or, as Wu -- who has three female game journalists working on her Rocket podcast -- and Lazzaro noted, should some of the blame also be given to the press outlets, who aren't hiring enough women for the Game Awards to even choose from?
"Talk to women that actually work at IGN, GameSpot -- you know, these major companies," Wu added. "GameInformer, 17 out of 18 of their editors there are men, so that's one voice, one woman out of 18 people... So what they’ll tell us is, 'Oh, you can't find women who can write about games,' and it's just bullsh-t, it's just not true... The hiring practices happen for the exact same reasons this award show happens. You have people that tend to value other people that are mirrors of themselves."
It does seem pretty odd that, given the relatively equal gender ratio of people playing games, the Game Awards could only find one woman to act as juror or adviser. But according to the women we interviewed, this has been the norm in gaming since the days of Atari -- only now, there are enough of them who are willing to talk about it.
"These are exactly the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves for the next year or so," Lazzaro concluded. "Once we’ve got that, the situation does take care of itself. Other industries have diversified. The art scene and the museum world is very diverse... so I think we can certainly do that here.
"We just need to take the steps, and have a sensitive and maybe sometimes challenging conversation. We’re all coming from the same spot. We all love games. We all love to play. And games have to innovate."
Note: the image used in the header of this piece is from Spike TV's 10th Annual Video Game Awards.