Monday, 6 October 2014

"Ethics & Diversity"

I'm sorry for not updating sooner but I came down with an illness at the same time I planned on writing a new blog.

College has started up again and my games design course kicked off with a focus on Ethics & Diversity as part of the induction. There isn't a lot to say about it -- just as there wasn't much discussion about it last year -- but I'll relay what was discussed.

Rather than a typical class of students, this year's course involves each group working together as if they're each an individual studio. Each "studio" has its own name, logo, etc. but before we reached that stage, we had to research mission statements from existing developers and create a "do's and don'ts" poster about ethics and diversity, after discussing it for a while.

Prior to creating the posters, the students had to list examples of discrimination they could think of either in games, the gaming community or the industry, under different headings on big sheets of paper the tutor provided. Headings like "Have you ever seen discrimination in the games industry?" and "List some examples of current ethical issues in the games industry". The one that stood out was "Why do you think women are under-represented in games?"

It's clear that it's a loaded question and your response is probably the same as all of mine were (but I didn't list). Could there be more female characters in games? Yes, as well as more varied and diverse characters in general. Do I think women are under-represented in games? No. I don't believe that just because few AAA games have female characters means women are under-represented and games with female protagonists are plentiful if you cast your net wider, particularly towards Japanese titles. Even if only AAA games are focused on, there are still plenty of strong female characters being represented, even while not playable. Plus, I don't think it's stressed often enough that just because there's a main character in a game with the same skin colour, sex and sexual orientation as me, that doesn't mean he "represents" me in any way. Sharing a few similar characteristics doesn't mean that character is representative of me or anyone else who shares those characteristics. I've spoken about this before, saying it's often easier for me to identify with someone who doesn't share my characteristics, such as a female protagonist, than a character who does that I dislike (Final Fantasy X's Tidus being being one of many examples).

In fairness to the tutor, he seemed reasonable enough. I spoke to him about having "heard" counter-arguments before to accusations of sexism in games -- without naming names, I mentioned that some critics had a habit of taking examples out of context and diminishing good female characters by ignoring/minimising their most praiseworthy attributes -- and he seemed happy to hear me out.

When speaking to the entire class, however, there were two things that bothered me. Firstly, a student mentioned women in the games industry being paid less, which the tutor acknowledged and also mentioned that it was common across all industries. This particular "fact" has been debunked many times over the years, to the point that it ended up on Christina Hoff Sommers' TIME piece "5 Feminist Myths That Will Not Die" (and Sommers also wrote this article for the Daily Beast if you would like more info on the subject or you can check out the report yourself). Not to go into it too much but the wage gap doesn't take into account hours worked, experience, incentives for relocating, travelling long distances or being poached from another company. It's the same story in the case of the games industry but bear in mind that games have been a male-dominated industry for thirty years (and still is). Senior figures in the industry are more likely to be male and their salaries are obviously going to be larger than those of the entry-level employees that their salaries are being compared against (which, while still male-dominated, is more likely to have more female employees because the games industry has tried to appeal to women more in recent years). When you collectively weigh the male salaries against the female ones, it's obvious that the male salary is going to be higher overall.

The problem is that saying that in a classroom when everyone except the tutor is silent makes you look like a nut. Just saying "that's not true" doesn't do much good and it wasn't as though I could back it up with a PowerPoint presentation on the subject.

The second thing that bothered me was when the tutor asked outright, "has anyone here not seen any examples of discrimination in games?" The problem with that is it occurred after talking about the wage gap, after the class had wracked their brains to come up with examples of discrimination to write underneath the headings and after everyone had read out at least one example. After that, nobody is going to say "I haven't" and I doubt they would have even at the start of the session. It's also a loaded question, given it's not structured to account for answers like, "sure but [context, artistic direction, etc.]". That's not to say there isn't discrimination in the games industry -- most notably in online games, where trolls are indiscriminate about who they discriminate against -- but I wouldn't describe, say, the women in Dead Or Alive as an example of "discrimination" or "misogyny". Those terms are too strong to describe something so minor and waters-down the severity of actual discrimination and misogyny. I know this has all been said before but it's worth repeating.

At some point, one of the things the tutor said was something like, "ethics and diversity has become a bigger issue in recent years and will only become bigger as time goes on". To that all I have to say is ... great! One of the biggest misconceptions gaming's Social Justice Warrior critics have towards people who critique their viewpoints is that we don't want to have the conversation. That's not the case at all. I want this conversation as long as it is a fair conversation, with all viewpoints being given equal consideration. To date, that has not been the case.