Canada Hosts Spirited Panel on Gender in Videogames

On Friday, November 16, the SFU Women’s Centre was proud to host a panel event on the intersection of gender in gaming.

Called “Gender Games: How Does Gender Representation in Games Affect the Finished Product?” the panel offered four unique perspectives on the impact of present gender dynamics within the industry on the current crop of games and consoles.

The perspectives ranged from the personal to the political. Matt Toner, recent winner of the NDP nomination for Vancouver-False Creek on his pro-videogame industry platform, opened the panel with an honest recollection of a time where he oversaw the overt sexualization of a female character in one of Zeros 2 Heroes’ titles before realizing what he was doing—and why.

Women were represented on the panel by Dr. Kimberly Voll of the Centre for Digital Media and Bryna Dabby of Women in Games Vancouver. Rounding out SFU’s panel was a local academic, Nico Dececco of Medium Difficulty, a digital journal of games criticism best known for its debut piece and its popularity on Reddit.

The crowd was enthusiastic and passionate; the long lines of people wanting their time at the mike made the event run half an hour overtime. True to the nature of the industry, the majority of the queries came from straight white male attendees, but when minorities came to the mic, the conversation deepened considerably.

Their experiences have made experts out of them in the gaming industry. Dr. Voll was an impassioned speaker, with decades of experience behind her, and she stridently argued against what she refers to as “pinkification.”

“So what is the problem? It’s not just that we need more women. It’s that we’re an impoverished discipline. Any discipline that doesn’t reach out to the greater community will be impoverished,” she explained. “Women are a part of that greater community. We’ve got this idea of pinkification. That’s my term for all of the things the industry does to make games ‘girl-friendly.’ Pink is a euphemism. I think it’s a problem. I applaud the effort, and appreciate it, but the reason it concerns me, when you pinkify them, you inject the idea that if women are supposed to belong to the community, they have to belong to this subcategory … we need the entire rainbow.”

The ability of young girl gamers to use these beginner titles as a gateway to other, more hardcore games was not discussed.  Nor was the notion that feminine games are already at a disadvantage with the marketplace because of the institutionalized sexism in the community. The ghettoization of female gamers is a problem—but not so large a problem as getting women to feel comfortable entering the gaming world in the first place.  

The existence of the sexism was, thankfully, not denied; Mr. Dececco gave the audience a full review of the Anita Sarkeesian Kickstarter debacle.  As the evening progressed, the conversation between audience and panel grew more intense. Some audience members, such as local comics scholar and professor Dr. Orion Kidder, questioned the need for demographic separation by race and gender, quoting that race and gender were only societal constructs.  Others wondered why there’s a need for “strong female characters,” and one man even wondered why there weren’t similar events for straight white men in the industry.

The event was imperfect, as things tend to be; for example, the lack of a gender theorist on the panel was distinctly felt. Without someone to remind the panelists that gender is a spectrum, not a binary, to be able to cite Judith Butler back at those who would misrepresent her theories, to remember that the experiences of trans and queer gamers deserve to be discussed, the conversation often went awry. To Matt Toner’s credit, he admitted the flaws in his binary analysis once an audience member pointed it out.

Ultimately, though, the audience proved the need for the event. And both the strengths and weaknesses of the event proved the need for more like it.