The Lost Woman in Games

Last week, I’ve had five bowls of chai.

I hid on the top floor of the mall in downtown San Francisco, under the dome, which is apparently historic for something I’ve never figured out, except that I could get the best wifi and privacy while in the busiest part of the city.

At the cafe up top, they would always ask me, “sweet, or spicy?” I am often thrown by questions like these, which I’ve most often got after I moved to the bay area. “Spicy” has more definitions than “game” I’ve found. I have to do a couple of quick checklists, one, what race does this person think I am and, two, what kind of spice are we talking about. When I lived in the Mission, and frequented my local Chinese delivery, I had to type “not white people spicy, real spicy” into the textbox before I could actually taste any flavor in my food. So this “sweet, or spicy?” was a double attack, one I wasn’t prepared for, each of the five times I ordered it. They offered to do a little of both, which tasted like a normal chai.

I hid on the top floor of the mall because it was the Game Developers Conference, and I was kind of terrified. The Sunday before, a random person took a picture, with flash (the gall), of me on the way home, which spooked my paranoia about stalkers that would make the effort to travel out to the bay to harm me. If I wanted to see anyone, I had to be nearby the conference, so while I was by myself, I was slurping spicy sweet chais from bowls, tucked away where I hoped no one would find me.

It was smooth sailing for the most part, I didn’t have a breakdown until Thursday, to which I congratulate myself for holding out strong. I think it was probably because I wore the most demanding of shoes in the beginning of the week and was too tired to process the dark theater that is GDC. Thursday started with going to a Women in Games lunch held by Xbox, which I was graciously plus oned into since, I guess, I was never really a woman in games to Xbox. To be fair, my only interaction with one was kicking it down stairs.

And Xbox did it feel. Sometimes, in the bliss that is an artist’s life, I forget that corporations are a thing. That entities of pure bureaucracy and exploitation rule our world, and they have their own speak and gestures and ways about celebrating Women in Games. Salads that look like a forest that might have little critters living in them, and French-style chicken but without the weight of butter, as anything with fat in it is banned from any San Francisco event that wants to make a good impression.

I noticed a theme about who was present, or, who was spoken to during the presentations. Mostly, 40+ women were successful and in similar places as men counterparts and under 21 women and girls who now have money thrown at them to learn how to code and eventually join these matriarchs in the industry. Of course, not a mention of harassment, discrimination, or abuse was mentioned the entire event.

“Women in Games” as a term and in some circles I’m familiar with, pejorative, isn’t in the sole domain of any company or organization, rather it is a stereotype. It is the games industry’s Lean In women, those who go to the bat with the big boys and basically become one of them despite what it asks of them. It’s also the young women in school who are now the panacea for all of the medium’s woes, since now all these companies are pouring funds into initiatives to get women into STEM fields for penance, and to show that they are, indeed, on the right side of history for diversity.

Besides not being in the industry, not being school-aged nor wanting to code, while also not being established in my 40s, Women in Games events often feel like a sham to me, its own kind of performance to show that the industry is ‘doing something.’ But what about me? When does that money trickle down to independent artists who don’t wish to join in the highly exploited games workforce?

I am not completely astonished that people in the industry, trying to do damage control, don’t want to point out how the people who received the most abuse, who push the hardest, are not in the games industry proper. They are women media critics and independent developers, and our suffering is being used to make companies look good. Now they can make some offhand comment about how they don’t condone harassment, donate to one of the many programs for teaching girls to code, and be absolved.

Except, people like me never see that support. We aren’t girls who need to learn to code. We aren’t women who want to be churned through the gears of an entertainment industry. I feel like, with my age, skin color, identity, I am in some sort of lost generation of women in games. The ones that our forebears, the generations above us, has already given up on. I say this with friends in that generation, who do try to mentor me when they have the chance, but because I’m an artist in my position, not part of their structures, I won’t ever really get that sort of time and access to resources.

I went back to the dome, and to the bowls of chai, when the #1ReasonToBe was on, finding myself emotional. Despite being on the panel in its debut, I didn’t feel like I had a reason to be in the games industry in any form. Yet, I felt regret. Hearing how women were fighting to stay in, that the biggest “fuck you” to haters was working harder. They were starting projects and initiatives, and people drank up their fervor and hope. I felt like a coward, like I made the wrong decision. Should I be involved in everything, pushing back, fighting even harder than before? Can I really feel left out of something I’m not a part of anymore? Is it right to feel all this wanting, some envy, of placement and community when I’ve decided to step back? I would look up to the center of the dome, fighting back tears, hoping gravity would just take them back down from whence they came.

Then it was off to the Game Loading movie premier. I was filmed by crew for it at last year’s GDC, though it seemed pretty clear I wouldn’t be playing a major role in it. I was of two minds, since the documentary was looking to explore indie games, and I myself don’t really identify with that culture. Maybe, since, again, I’ve worked so hard to carve my own path, I shouldn’t really expect to be ever be featured or centered in such productions, though I admit being seen as a bit of an afterthought kept my ego in check (I ended up only saying two words in the finished film, “RPG Maker, Twine,” which about sums up my relevance to indie game culture).

What was disappointing, alienating, to me, was on my way out, the directors commented to me that I was the first person to say anything critical of indie games and the community of developers around it. While I’m not really surprised, it showed to me how I myself also wasn’t being served by this narrative. So Game Loading comes off more as propaganda to me, very squarely positioning the current indies to be the indies of the 20th century, poised to replicate the same systems and the follow the same cycle. A cycle that doesn’t really have a place for me. I feel like there is a grab, consciously or not, for image control over games, and it looks like people are more willing to forget us here on the ground floor. Again, Indie Games is more of a stereotype at this point, in some instances, it’s own pejorative, than a specific sect of people. Most of the people I like who saw the documentary loved it, and are excited for it to permeate larger culture.

I fear for others. I fear for those who will be suckered in because the industry, both large and independent, want to seem diverse. Yet there isn’t any staying power in these maneuvers, they just want enough women on the brochure to make everything seem it’s better than it actually is. Minoritized people are asked to martyr themselves, from entering a field that is broken and exploitative to fielding harassment from hundreds of nerds, all because the industry is ‘worth it.’ I feel like that was me some years ago, so eager to be included, only to see the horror show past the gilded doors. And I think of those who’ve come and went, and no one remembers their names anymore.

 

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  1. Pingback: The Lost Levels « First Person Scholar

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