The minute you mention being a woman in tech or games to a total stranger, their eyes typically shine with awe, tinged with a little pity.
There are some assumptions people tend to make, with varying degrees of accuracy: First, that you must work for a big studio and receive a handsome salary (not necessarily); next is that you’re blessed to “have such a cool job where you just play games all day.” (No.)
Another is that you’ve had to fight through a web of sexism in an indisputably male-dominated, and often outrightly misogynistic, industry. That one hits closer to the mark.
Now that Activision Blizzard, maker of blockbuster games Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, is facing a California labor department lawsuit claiming that it facilitated rampant discrimination against and abuse of women, everyone is getting a peek into the game industry’s inner sanctum. The view is making it painfully obvious to the public what has been clear to us in the industry for some time — that all is not well in the land of digital toys.
'Constant sexual harassment' at Activision
As an independent game developer, I’ve been lucky not to be subject to the worst of sexism in gaming. But I’ve witnessed, experienced and heard enough to be well aware of how common and demoralizing it is, and how it curtails women’s ability to succeed.
When I was preparing for one of the premier industry events, the Game Developers Conference, in 2019, I had a rude encounter with the virulent misogyny AAA studios are unfortunately known for. I was having some trouble figuring out how to display our game on a tablet, requiring some configuring with Android that was a little beyond my expertise. Looking for some advice on working through the glitches, I posted about my issue on Twitter — then things got ugly.
Male developers replied with snide, hostile non-answers, like “Easy. Don’t develop in Android.” One sent me a direct message, just saying “good luck,” with a kiss emoji, before I shut my laptop in disgust. But the interactions made me wonder how many fewer hurdles women would face in the gaming world if men didn’t feel the need to purposefully antagonize women.
And the antagonism can get much, much worse, as the Activision case shows.
State officials alleged in a wide-ranging complaint filed in July that the Santa Monica, California-based company allowed its offices to take on the atmosphere of a frat house, with “constant sexual harassment.” Male employees often bragged openly about sexual encounters, encouraged each other to hire sex workers, and joked about rape, according to the complaint. Female employees claimed that they were subjected to groping, other unwanted touching and comments about their bodies.
More shocking parts of the filing alleged how a former senior creative director at the company was so known to prey on women at an annual convention that his hotel suite was nicknamed the “Cosby suite,” presumably after comedian Bill Cosby, who was convicted of sexual assault in 2018. One female employee was so deeply scarred by sexual harassment that she eventually committed suicide, according to the complaint.
Activision initially denied that the problems were ongoing, saying “we’ve made significant changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams.”
The legal problems for the company are snowballing, however. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had subpoenaed Activision, along with its CEO Bobby Kotick and other executives, as part of a probe into whether the harassment claims amounted to material information and should have been disclosed to investors.
While I did have a brush with Activision once, when I was seeking a licensing deal from them as an external developer, I didn’t encounter any of the culture issues described in the California labor department’s complaint. (It did feel like an inordinately drawn-out process, like they didn’t care about wasting my time.)
Marginalized groups in gaming
In general, it’s not surprising that gaming can be such a minefield for women. The numbers alone paint the picture. In 2015, 75% of video game developers worldwide were male, while just 22% were women and 3% were gender fluid or nonbinary, according to Statista. Those numbers did shift in 2021, with percentage of women in the field growing to 30% and nonbinary workers increasing to 8%.
The independent games scene had always seemed more accepting of marginalized people. In the shareware days long before “indie developer” was in use, I remember stumbling across games made by women like the Grey Tower and Muddy Water series, and Black developers’ work like Realmz and Reality. Seeing marginalized developers’ work showcased and celebrated now that the barriers to entry for game making have been eradicated has been inspiring and uplifting. It truly felt like a safe space as communities of marginalised genders, queer developers, and BIPOC developers began to form on Twitter, Twitch, Discord, and meetup groups at large gaming events.
But before headlines blared about Activision, there was a shockwave of #MeToo in the independent games circuit. Abusers long discussed in whisper networks were finally outed on social media, Pastebin, and Medium. The games that had once been sanctuary to me and millions of other marginalized people now felt like a violation. What I experienced in 2019, and the occasional offhand comments I had directed at me at conferences, were incredibly minute in comparison.
A profession created by women
It didn’t have to be this way in gaming. Decades ago when computers took up entire rooms and had weaker processors than the average smartphone, the industry was dominated by women.
Being a “career programmer” was a pink collar job until the late 1960s, when a “computer girl” could bring home at least $20,000 a year in 1967 money, or over $163,000 when adjusted for 2021 inflation. This amount far exceeds what most game jobs pay, especially in light of reported gender pay disparities at major game studios like Activision (even though video games are a bigger industry than movies and North American sports combined).
Personal computers and home video game systems in the 1980s were marketed more toward boys than girls, however. Boys became more proficient at programming and got a head start in learning computer science as the industry further developed.
Girl-focused games arose in the 1990s attempting to close the gap, but the damage had been done: women were systematically pushed away from tech and a new boys club had formed — one that would become hostile to women and marginalized groups for decades to come.
In spite of this, women made strides in the 1980s and 1990s. Roberta Williams of Sierra On-Line was the chief innovator of narrative-driven gaming as we know it. While her husband and Sierra co-founder Ken Williams was a programmer and Roberta held designer duty, they couldn’t have made the first story-driven games that included images without each other. Adventure and Colossal Cave deserve their due, but few games elicit heartfelt reactions across generations the way that King’s Quest does.
But women and computer science students of the 1980s often changed majors after encountering misogynistic aggression from professors and classmates alike. Today, many still face the same problems. While portions of the industry are becoming more inclusive, a determined hegemonic culture is still clinging firmly to the old order.
Diversity and inclusion departments are only lip service if companies don’t change from the top down. When known abusers are allowed to retain prestigious posts so long as they keep making the company money, it sets a toxic example.
Being an independent developer and entrepreneur has innumerable mental, emotional, and financial benefits that I personally don’t think could be replicated in being any studio’s employee. While that independence allowed me to avoid day-to-day microaggressions, unwanted sexual advances, “negging,” and routine dismissals of my technical knowledge so common for women in the industry, I still couldn’t completely avoid the sexist rot in the system.
It is heartening to see support for Activision employees who walked out, or left the company over the sexism allegations. A new generation of game developers in both the AAA and indie sphere are less tolerant of hate and harassment. But it will never stop being galling that a very profession created by women, then an industry they were instrumental in evolving, led to them being systemically pushed out of it. No more.