I had planned to archive this blog this weekend. Having not blogged in over a year, recently deciding to return to the UK, and feeling like there wasn’t much more I wanted to say, it was time to shutter things up and board the doors.
This post is quite long so I’ve split it into two parts.
The first contains my thoughts on gender & diversity, brought to the fore by a recent interview with the Game Developer’s Association of Australia’s CEO and the description – now updated so this link is to an external article containing before and after images – of a panel at the upcoming PAX Australia.
The second contains my thoughts on games & education, responding primarily to comments in the initial interview.
My career in game development stretches back over 13 years now, working in studios big & small, as an employee and freelancer, as a writer, designer, programmer, and educator. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the opportunities that have come my way – especially in being able to work on Freeplay as first co-director and then director.
In July of 2011, I was incredibly stressed about putting together that year’s festival. One month away, it had already been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For a whole host of production reasons, during that final month the event became even harder. There were nights where I lay in bed, sleepless and close to tears about whether it might come off. But it did, and it seemed to be go well.
Not without controversy though.
I won’t rehash the events of the Words We Use panel. A lot has already been written about it, and if you’re interested you can go back and read about it all. I tried to collate them all in a post over on the Freeplay blog.
It hit me hard. As a good friend of mine said both at the time and later when we discussed it again, I seemed to take it very personally. What happened wasn’t about me, nor was it about the festival – it was about a community wanting to talk about diversity and inclusion and Freeplay became a catalyst for that. It had always been our intention that Freeplay be able to support stories that no other event could, and I’m proud of the fact – even though it was painful for me, the panelists, and other audience members – that it could.
But my own response to it wasn’t just about the festival. It was about what the events of the festival revealed about me.
Back in that July of 2011, I had never even heard about privilege, or systemic prejudice, or unconscious biases. I knew about sexism, and I knew that I tried not to be sexist, but the idea that there might be more to it than that, especially within the context of being in a leadership position within a festival never even crossed my mind.
But, fundamentally, that is the nature of privilege.
I took what happened at Freeplay personally because it forced me to confront my own privilege and biases. It forced me to acknowledge that I had made choices in accordance with those unquestioned beliefs which had influenced the shape of that 2011 festival and all the ones preceding it. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t realised this earlier, and I felt a sense of anger at having to confront it, but I also knew that however I was feeling about it, it was nothing to how the women around me felt every single day when dealing with the end results.
The realisation was painful. And I say that merely as a statement of fact. It is painful when you think you are a good person or not sexist or that you treat everyone equally and you realize that the society you’re a part of, grew up in, are enmeshed with, has passed certain values on to you which you aren’t even aware of, but which represent institutionalised discrimination.
Which, again, is the nature of privilege.
In putting together the 2012 festival, I commented to a friend of mine that it was hard to find women to take part the event. She looked at me and said simply – that’s the job.
And it is. Not only as director of Freeplay, but as a member of a community, and as someone who – quite inadvertently – found themselves in a leadership position. It’s the job of people with privilege to make their spaces more open to others; it’s the job of people with power to use that power to be inclusive; and it’s the job of those who want things to be better to embody and act in tangible ways that make them better.
In 2012, we actively pursued having 50% women across the festival. In the end, we didn’t quite hit that mark. Of our 91 festival speakers, performers, and players, 36 were women. Just under 40%. A significant change to previous years, and one that I tried incredibly hard to improve on, but also one that we consciously had to pursue as a festival, that was absolutely necessary and was part of the only framework we had any influence over.
It wasn’t a question of a meritocracy, of finding the best person for the panel, it was about understanding that the experience of the festival itself would be best served through creating diversity. Did I favour women over men? I absolutely did. Did some hugely talented men not get to speak? I think they probably did. Would I do it differently? Nope.
Running Freeplay taught me, probably more than anything, that it’s the job of those people who are conscious of (as much as it’s possible for them to be) the structures & systems which enforce and enable privilege & bias & institutionalised sexism to work actively to change it, to make the spaces they have influence over safer – and often to point it out so that perhaps something can change. To speak, if you will, some truth to power.
I haven’t always done this. I am in many ways quite tentative about being political, and I don’t enjoy conflict, but seeing the events of the past few days unfold and feeling a strong sense of attachment to Australian game development and people within it, I have decided to add my voice.
In the GDAA interview which kicked this off, in the twitter conversation that followed, in the PAX Australia panels that followed that, and in the international discussion that followed that, what frustrates me most is that – intentionally or not – they embody a sense of privilege and perpetuate – again, intentionally or not – power structures that are biased against women, and coming from people and institutions with significant power, are coded with language which reinforces those self-same privileges.
When a man in a leadership position comments that they are concerned about making the question of the low number of women in game development purely a gender issue, that it is an issue far broader than our own industry, that public acknowledgement that there are low numbers of women contribute to the issue, or that the industry has to stabilise before taking action, whether or not you believe these to be strong arguments, they – once again, intentionally or not – mirror silencing, distracting, and distancing tactics used every single day against women in both their personal and professional lives.
When a high profile event like PAX Australia contains panels in which a description questions when calling out sexism, misogyny and racism will end (it has now been changed) and when not one, but two session titles directly reference women’s bodies, it perpetuates the casual sexism women that deal with every day, reinforces the stereotypes of games culture, and more directly it makes that event just a little less open, a little less inviting, a little less safe, and becomes just another in a long line of things which push women away from games.
When the ensuing conversation on both of these things tries to put boundaries around someone’s very real and justified anger or frustration, or when people are urged to do something rather than talk about it, or when they are told they are being too negative about the situation, or when they are asked why can’t we all just get along? It creates a space that is just that little bit less open to criticism and debate – both things which are absolutely essential to improving things for everyone.
I agree we should have more jobs. I agree that the industry should work to be in a place where gender, sexuality, and race isn’t an issue. I agree that more can be done. I agree that we should do things to build new spaces which are diverse, and to make the ones we have more diverse. I don’t take issue with any of that, or with the industry’s desire to grow, or with having great big events in Melbourne or Australia. I believe they can all contribute to the country being a really exciting place to make and play games.
But I do believe there are better ways of achieving those things, and I believe there are better ways of saying how and when and why we are going to do it. To get there though, we need to acknowledge the very real issues we face, the existing and new power structures, our own position and privilege within those structures, how we might be – intentionally or not – reinforcing them, and how we can leave things just a little better than we found them.
For the past 5 years or so, I’ve worked with games & education at a range of levels. I taught game development & programming at the AIE; I designed and delivered the Game Development strand of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s 2011 Game Based Learning Trial; I developed the structure for the 2012 ACMI HotHouse program; I currently teach through the games program at RMIT; I’ve spoken at numerous schools about games development and writing; and I’m currently visiting an after school program for 11-12 year olds to mentor them through their games.
In short, I’ve seen first hand how students at all levels engage with game development & games culture, and I think with how foregrounded education has become in the recent events, it’s worth pointing out my observations because there are fundamental differences at each level – many of which have nothing to do with industry or careers.
As a precursor before those details and a callback to the previous section, I will say that my own experience in both small and large groups of students, is that education is committed very actively to gender diversity and across all of the programs I have been involved with, the participation of female teachers and students has been incredibly high.
At a primary level, students are using games to make sense of their lives & their relationship to things they like, just as they’re using books and films and all their other cultural influences. The games they make are reflections of those cultural influences, and they’re only partially aware of the idea that people do it for a living, or that there might be large groups of people engaged in it as an activity.
They’re also trying things out. They might like games, and there might be opportunities to make them, but they’re experimenting with those ideas – and many of them will naturally find other interests, or other skills, or any other number of a thousand influences on them that changes their direction in life.
They also realise – if they have the chance to do so – that making things is hard.
At best, what you can do is encourage them to continue making things while not discouraging them to do the same.
At a secondary level, I see students use games far more as social capital. They’re about collective experiences & their friends, or about control over individual experience. There is a greater understanding that people do this for a living, but in many cases this hasn’t solidified into direction. Frequently, the students I speak to are interested in games, but not necessarily in making them, but when they are, they speak about the games they like, their cultural touchstones.
At a tertiary level, students have committed to making game development a part of their lives, either as a career or as personal pursuit. They already know – largely – that making things is hard, but they are working to develop their craft. Games are both practice & culture for these students, influence and art.
And for contemporary games students, they understand the opportunities available to them, the systems that support them, and the shape of the local scene & the rest of the world.
Games for many of these students is not a career. The industry itself holds little appeal for them. But that does not mean that games or the people and studios who make them don’t. Instead what it means is that the terms of the conversation between makers & education needs to be about more than careers. It needs to be about culture and social capital. It needs to be about the chance to try things out and experiment with ideas of who a student might be and who they might become.
It also needs to accept that for many students, games simply aren’t attractive, both in their fundamental attributes, as well as in the culture that surrounds them.
We can’t work to change the former. But the latter is entirely within our hands.