Some say it is long overdue, some doubted victims would be ready to speak out, but now #MeToo has very much arrived in the video games industry. Last month, game developer Nathalie Lawhead posted to their website, accusing video game soundtrack composer Jeremy Soule of raping them while the two worked together at an unnamed Vancouver-based development studio. Soule has denied the accusation. Within days, another developer, Zoë Quinn, alleged on Twitter to have suffered abuse and harassment from Alec Holowka, co-creator of award-winning game, Night in the Woods. Holowka was found dead days after the allegations were made.
These instances were followed by further accounts of sexual harassment from other developers within the games industry, some detailing extended periods of emotional manipulation and abuse by senior colleagues. The Time’s Up campaign group that fights sexual harassment called the actions described within the posts as “disturbing” and suggested these revelations ought to be a moment of reckoning for the industry.
Last week, during the Women in Games European Conference, hosted at the University of the Arts London, Marie-Claire Isaaman, CEO of Women in Games, made the point of addressing the recent allegations in her keynote speech. “In the last few weeks, sadly, we have experienced a games #MeToo moment,” she told the 350 attendees. “After GamerGate in 2014 and a lack of resolution from that intensive moment, I sensed another wave would come.”
Senior women in the games industry took the opportunity afforded by the two-day conference to discuss workplace abuse and the wider issue of toxicity in gaming culture and to share positive examples of how to move forward.
What emerged was recognition of the problem and a determination not to allow gaming’s #MeToo moment to be just that: a moment. “I believe everyone who has come forward so far and I am generally inclined to believe anyone who has the courage to come forward and speak their truth about being harassed or abused by those exploiting a power balance over them,” said Jess Hyland of Wonderstruck Games. “I do think this industry has a problem with abuse, both sexual abuse and abusive working conditions, and I think it all stems from unhealthy and unaccountable power structures that give abusers so many chances to duck out of responsibility. Victims deserve better.”
What many delegates conceded was that allegations of abuse within games industry workplaces reflect a wider culture of sexist and misogynistic harassment in the video game playing community. Women in Games is currently working with research firm, Bryter, to expose the extent and severity of toxicity and gendered abuse within gaming. According to Bryter’s Female Gamers report 2019: “Last year, we revealed that one in three female gamers has experienced abuse from their male counterparts, and unfortunately, this statistic has not improved one year on. Not surprisingly, the majority of this is happening online. Of the female gamers who had experienced abuse or discrimination, 31% had received verbal abuse from other male gamers while playing online multiplayer games, 33% had been sent inappropriate content or messages, and 14% had received threats of rape.”
The constant message throughout the Women in Games panels was that education is key, not just in the workplace, but much earlier, in a school setting. “We work with schools and educational institutions all the way from playground to them coming into the industry,” said Emma Smith, head of talent at UK developer, Creative Assembly, which has set up its Legacy Project to tackle representation. “We talk to girls people and from BAME backgrounds, basically anyone who feels like they are not represented in games to encourage them to have that self-confidence in who they are and what they can bring to the table and make that unshakable no matter what.”
This insistence of support from an early age fostered by big studios is slowly starting to reap real world benefits as seen in the diverse demographic of last year’s LCC BA Games Design cohort where a third of recent graduates were women, many going on to studio positions. Larra Anderson, dean of screen at the London College of Communication and host of the conference, also spoke of her commitment to diversifying the creative industries. Pauline Martyn, a 2019 graduate, is now a junior narrative designer at Ubisoft Reflections.
One theme throughout the conference was that the culture of game studios, which are still largely dominated by men, must change. “Studio leaders model the behaviour that becomes the norm,” said Marianne Monaghan, lead cross site producer for Hanger 13. “If all the leaders are men, if they joke about women in demeaning ways or treat women in a disrespectful way, no amount of HR training will undo that damage. I’m very fortunate to work in a studio with leaders committed to diversity and respect.
“I hope, I believe, we’re moving in that direction as an industry but there are still big differences among different studios. I advise women to ‘interview the interviewers’ and observe studio culture when you visit offices. I don’t work in studios that have an aroma of fear or an excess of alpha males. Not everyone is in a position to be picky, but choose assignments as carefully as you can.”
Retention of gaming studio positions by female employees is key, so educators are not just funnelling women into the metaphorical meat grinder of the games industry. Having support and empathy from the highest levels within a studio is essential for survival. “At Bossa Studios, the best thing that happened to us is that I am a co-founder and I am a woman and I’m an immigrant and I’m also a computer scientist,” said Roberta Lucca, who is also branding chief at the London developer. “I tick so many boxes that helps us at the very top level, pushing the right diversity and inclusion topics and I am very passionate about that. I act on things that I see on the day to day … if something doesn’t feel right I would just say something and this goes back to how we develop games. We made a statement with Worlds Adrift in 2017, as our first character was a woman.”
Once in the studio, the way that games are created is vital in fostering more diverse gaming communities. “The industry encompasses far more genres and platforms than when I joined 20 years ago,” said Anna Marsh, a producer at Dambuster Studios. “We have mobile, free to play, indie, PC, there are so many more sorts of games which is leading to a much higher diversity of players. This has definitely led to me seeing much more diversity of people within the industry.”
During the conference there was still a palpable reticence by less experienced developers to comment on the record explicitly about gaming’s #MeToo accusations. Anisa Sanusi, a UI/UX designer recently voted one of the top 100 women in games by industry publication Games Industry Biz, suggested that being able to anonymously report on incidences of abuse or harassment in a studio can be a key tool for supporting women. “Anonymity is important,” she said. “Often you want to mention the issue but you don’t want to out yourself because personal safety is a big issue. There is a need to have channels in place for women to voice concerns or complaints where they know they are safe. There’s a lot of software out there for employers allowing them to get anonymous feedback from employees. Allies are as important as fighters in this huge battle of equality.”
Government policy makers are now actively engaging with the games industry. The ongoing Consultation on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace evidences a positive executive approach which looks to strengthen law in this area. The DCMS report published last week on addictive and immersive technologies was explicit in its criticism and indictment of some companies in its final recommendation. “What we have heard about the games industry’s attempts to tackle the gender imbalance in the workforce echoes its approach to understanding and tackling the potential harms of its games on players: while some take their responsibilities seriously, others could be doing much more.”
Early in the conference, a talk by two of the creators behind Bafta-winning mobile game My Child Lebensborn, struck a chord with many of the delegates. “I would dearly wish for the gamedev industry as a whole to create a common set of guidelines to be used by all – setting out how we can all build an industry based on creativity and respect, giving equal opportunities,” said producer, Elin Festøy. “That would help women to feel more secure in the industry. It would clearly state that this is not a women’s problem, but a problem for all. This isn’t a topic just for single game studios, although they also really need to take #MeToo to heart, but about creating a respectful culture for the whole industry.”