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Gender, the PS4 conference and missing the point


A crisis is sweeping the game world! No, it's not booth babes or gross trailers or the looming spectre of fake geek girls this time, it's woman and Sony's PS4 conference, and the fact that there were none in it.

The reaction to this controversy was not surprising, but still deeply disappointing. As I made the mistake of stepping into the whirling Id vortex that is the comment section on any gaming site you care to name I encountered the same sentiment over and over again: what's your point? Why is this a problem? You're just making a mountain out of a molehill. Usually this was be followed by one of several rationalizations, all of which demonstrate a profound inability to understand the issue at hand. Let's take a look.

But all the important developers are men!

I'm going to describe a little scenario. Pay attention.

You're walking to work one day. For the purposes of this exercise we're just going to assume it's the 1950s and you're wearing a hat. You arrive at the office and notice that- oh no!- your fancy business hat is on fire. You can smell burning hair. It's getting awfully hot! You turn to your co-worker and politely indicate that you're having some trouble.

He looks at the blaze for a moment then shrugs his shoulders. "Afraid I can't do anything, buddy!" he says. "Your head's on fire. No way I can take the hat off when it's like that."

Did you notice how slightly rephrasing the problem doesn't actually do anything to solve it?

Yes, most influential and high ranking game developers and executives are men. That's not an excuse. That's the entire problem. Simply pointing that out does absolutely nothing to change anything.

Is Sony single-handedly responsible for the gender imbalance in the games industry? No. If an all-male conference part of some sort of misgynist conspiracy? No. Should they have roped in some token female presenters just to give the illusion of equality? The only people who seem to be suggesting that are those trying to derail the argument, but no.

Does any of that change the magnitude of the issue? No.

There are two related points here, one being that Sony couldn't or wouldn't put any women on stage and the second being the imbalance of men and women in important gaming positions. The latter is the underlying problem causing the former; it is not an excuse for the former. It is not a reason for us to stop talking about it.

Now the actual premise of this argument may not even be true, as Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany claims in these twitter posts reported by Kotaku's Patricia Hernandez (who was of course immediately bombarded with irrelevant comments about how all of her articles suck and she should be fired). Santiago didn't present data and I'm not currently able to find reliable demographics for women in high positions in the gaming industry, but just keep in mind that this line of reasoning may be flawed from the outset.

Women probably just didn't want to present at the conference!

Noticing that the above strategy wasn't working, some comment crusaders then invented an elaborate fanfiction scenario in which Sony went to various qualified women and asked them to present at the conference...... and they all said no. Sure, they could stand in front of the entire world and help usher in the next phase of their company's evolution, but they all decided not to because.... well, just because.

Let's use Occam's Razor here. We have a woman-free conference. Which explanation for this requires fewer unnecessary assumptions- that Sony didn't ask any women to present, or that they did ask and all of them refused? I'm going to go with the first option as the more parsimonious explanation. Several people have reached out to Sony for comment, so if they did ask women then they'll have ample opportunity to say so.

It's just one conference- what's the big deal?

Ah the vacuum gambit, wherein any one event is stripped of all cultural and historical context and examined purely on its own. Yeah, sorry, that's not how these things work. The lack of women at Sony's conference is just one more expression of the near-invisibility of women in games and the gaming industry as anything other than objects of male attention. Look at the percentage of female game protagonists, look at how they're usually presented in games. Look at the cover of Bioshock Infinite relegating Elizabeth to the back despite the fact that the game's story revolves around her. Look at the ratio of female speakers at gaming events to booth babes.

It's not "just one conference". Ditch your tunnel vision and start looking at the bigger picture.

Why is this a problem?

In trying to address this I'm coming dangerously close to attempting to explain women's feelings on their behalf, something I'm not remotely entitled to do. All I'll say on that front is that women have explained, repeatedly, why the gender imbalance at the conference is a problem. Listen to them.

The bottom line is this: you don't have to be bothered by this. You don't have to think it's a big deal. It's okay. No, really. The feminist police are not going to rappel through your window and take your consoles away. Sony isn't going to cancel the PS4 because someone criticized their conference. You can just ignore the blog posts and the website articles and be on your merry way.

What you can't do is try to tell people that their feelings of outrage and disappointment are illegitimate without a damn good reason and as I've spent this blog post explaining, those are pretty thin on the ground. And for the love of God don't be a shithead and try to chase people off the internet just for expressing an opinion you don't agree with. I don't have to bring this up again, do I?

I don't know how to fix this problem. But I do know that it isn't going to fix itself if we all just shut our mouths and stop talking about it.
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About PenguinFactoryone of us since 3:15 PM on 08.18.2011

Long-time game player, first-time game blogger. I'm a news junkie and quite fond of armchair analysis. Hit me up to sate your craving for uninformed opinions about the Future of The Industry.

I play all games, on any platform that's available, but I'm always looking for games that offer unique experiences. I am one of Those People who payed money for Bus Driver, a game about driving buses. This should tell you everything you need to know about my tastes.

I'm interested in the development of strong narrative in games and seeing them expand their scope and inclusiveness. Expect politically charged opinions. Polemics are a distinct possibility. Take appropriate safety measures