Guest post: Horrified to listen in to some sexist chat

Originally a comment by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood on A rebellion against moral crusaders.

So far as I can see, the authoritarian gaming press has, to varying degrees, come down on the side of virtue. If the gamers are winning, as Summers suggests, I’m not seeing it.

Of course, as an industry insider it’s always possible there’s something I’m not seeing.

I wade into the open sewer of message boards only so far. However, I very much doubt that my corporate masters will ever be moved to send out a memo suggesting we ditch diversity or in any way rein it back in.

That said, when it comes to questionable content I’ve pointed the finger before at Marketing. Devs are, of course, responsible for most of the content, but Marketing departments are a hinge point in this discussion.

I recall an incident on a famous AAA franchise I worked on. The four-player co-op mode was to have four characters, and we pitched an equal gender balance and diverse racial makeup. We even addressed age, making one of the women an older, Helen Mirren type. Marketing nixed this. They hated the scheme with a passion and, so far as I could see, plotted to squash it.

How they did so was very interesting. They set up focus groups in the American midwest primarily made up of young males. And they structured the presentation to give them the answers they desired. The dudebros delivered, and some of our women designers, watching from behind one-way glass, were horrified to listen in to some sexist chat by the participants, commenting on the fuckability of the characters.

So, Marketing got what they wanted: of the four characters there were three white guys, their one concession to diversity being the black woman. There was no arguing with Marketing. They had the metrics from Left 4 Dead to prove whatever the hell they wanted with regards to player selection of women characters to play.

It’s not just dev culture that needs a sea change, but Marketing also. They have input into greenlight decisions. They have powerpoints with data that can push products one way or the other.

I’m hopeful that change is coming. But that change will, in part, be metrics-led, it will be founded on the facts about the growing presence of women in gaming, and the realisation that tapping that audience will lead to $$$$$. So part of the solution, crass though this may sound, is more and more women playing games.


  1. fleetfootphilo says

    Yes, ^ this. Marketing is such a powerful force in our culture, something I didn’t realize until my job got mixed up with the marketing ethos. Repulsive and powerful stuff…

  2. R Johnston says

    It’s sad that marketing is made up of people who know fuck-all about statistics. I mean really, throw a small sample size of dudebros into a room and what do you expect? That’s not even trying to figure out what the most marketable team setup is; it’s trying to figure out how best to market to dudebros. You’d think that marketing might be interested in figuring out what the current and potential markets for a type of game are, rather than just how to sell to one specific segment of their current market, but no, they’ll never do that so long as they understand fuck-all about statistics.

    Or maybe they’re just lazy assholes. But certainly the Golgafrinchans had the right idea about what to do with the marketing department.

  3. Kevin Kehres says

    @2…you missed the point entirely. The marketing guys know absolutely enough about statistics to make valid decisions…they RIGGED THE GAME to give them the results they desired.

    I’ve had exactly the same experience in my career. Focus groups are used to validate the conclusions already reached. But because there are “metrics” (fucking hell) associated with those focus groups, the higher ups play along. Even though they know as well as anyone else that the whole exercise is bullshit.

  4. says

    The current episode of NPR Planet Money podcast is about women programming computers, and what happened to them. It’s interesting. Their claim is that a lot of women programmed computers in the 60s and 70s but that died out when schools began dealing with an influx of young boys (waves!) who grew up playing with computers because computers were marketed as a toy for boys. The decision to do that was fairly arbitrary and mostly had to do with the fact that in the 80s marketers saw toys as gendered and had to decide which gender got the computers. The Planet Money folks also argue that a lot of young women were out-competed in school by those boys, who were light-years ahead of the class material. I have to say that a lot of that matches my experience. By the time I got to college I was basically taking CS classes for the easy A to bring my GPA up, because I could already out-code the faculty and TAs (in fact the reason I have a psychology degree was because of the easy grades I got by trading number crunching on SPSSX and typesetting on the Imagen printer for extra credit to offset my never showing up for lectures…)

    Remembering back to the introverted kid I was, going to an all boys’ school, being the president of our computer club (which I started) — I’d have been absolutely thrilled to death if there had been some women interested in computers. As it turned out, though, there was a gamer-girl who showed up at one of my D&D sessions in 1976 who was and remains one of the great loves of my life. (And, who was and is an ardent feminist who complained about tropes versus women in D&D at that time, now that I think of it. Since she was right, I didn’t argue with her, let alone threaten or bully her)

  5. chrislawson says

    Yep, I agree with Kevin@3 — the marketing dept in that story knew *exactly* what it was doing. There was no statistical naiveté there, it was pure rigging a trial to get the result they wanted.

    The sad thing is that their one tip of the hat to diversity is to take one character and load it with as many minority demographics as possible. Make the woman the black character. I look forward to v3 when the black woman is also gay, one-legged, and Aspy.

  6. says

    It has to be mentioned that one of the women observing was a wonderfully talented Danish designer who was:

    (a) Nigh unshockable, making it notable that she was so unsettled, and

    (b) A tough-as-nails feminist roller-derby player who can look after herself.

    On balance, maybe it was good that she was restrained behind glass, or there may have been blood.

    But yes, our opinion was that the whole dog-and-pony show was to reinforce Marketing’s prejudice. So it’s my view that Marketing, as well as studio culture, are key nodes to be tackled.

  7. says

    Chrislawson @5. If it had been left entirely to Marketing, the four-character makeup would have been:

    (1) The handsome white dude (the hero)

    (2) The skeevy white dude (the colourful amoral character)

    (3) The big black dude (the reliable sidekick who’s never the hero)

    (4) The spunky hottie (there to make up the numbers, to add a dash of diversity, the eye candy)

    This is something close to the L4D template. And to be fair they do a pretty decent job of it in that game. That we managed to dodge that bullet shows how Marketing don’t completely get their way. But they get enough.

  8. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    My experience of marketing was being asked for a forecast on a new product that had absolutely no precedent because the issue it was there to deal with had only been recognized six months earlier. I said that I could not produce a forecast without data. Marketing came up with a ten page presentation with graphs and five year plans, all based on the information I didn’t give them.

    The job of Marketing is to market Marketing in the organization and they are very good at that.

    Going back to the original issue, the reason the MRA gamer types are so pissed is that they have lost this one already. They are fed up of buying ten packs of game licenses and blowing through them in six months as they get banned. They are peeved at losing their best character on the brink of making level 30 after a girl gammer complained about their rape threats. They are angry about getting their ass handed to them on a plate by a woman in Death Rage Showdown 5.

    Re Marcus and marketing of computers in the 1980s. The Sinclair computers were advertised in the Sunday times and other mainstream press. Over a million ZXSpectrum were sold in year in a country with a population of only 55 million. The games were not gendered at all because there really isn’t much gendering can be done on an 8 bit machine with 16K memory. The buyers were overwhelmingly men.

    The reason early ‘programmers’ were largely women is that in the early years of computing there were tight social delineations in engineering. Typing was considered to be a lowly clerical skill. So if you look at the early pictures of computer systems there is a man standing by the cabinet looking at the flashing lights and a woman sitting at the console typing or asking another man a question. Hardware was a man’s job requiring skill in electronic engineering and a deep understanding of the workings of thermionic valves. Programming was mere translation of equations into instructions, a clerical task. This started to change when high level programing languages started to take hold.

    So what is being presented as a change in approach is really a constant sexist approach that had different effects in different contexts. The telegraph system saw the opposite effect. Early on the switchboard was considered to be a skilled job and the operators were all male. As the system expanded the maintenance role was separated from the operator role and the operators were all female. One of the main reasons behind this was that customers preferred a female voice on the line and the boys had a tendency to play pranks.

  9. MadHatter says

    Phillip @8 I read recently in a story about Grace Hopper (PhD in mathematics) that one of the big reasons women were the early coders had nothing to do with typing, but more to do with the fact that maths was a common subject for college educated women in the early part of the 1900’s. And the early work in computing was all to do with maths, but when it computing started to become a more popular area of engineering (hardware etc) it changed as there were few women engineers. That changed when there was prestige to be had in the writing of software too though.

    Here it is…or one of the stories I read anyhow.

  10. Scr... Archivist says

    Phillip Hallam-Baker @8,

    They are peeved at losing their best character on the brink of making level 30 after a girl gammer complained about their rape threats. They are angry about getting their ass handed to them on a plate by a woman in Death Rage Showdown 5.

    You know, I’ve been following this fight for equality in video games for a couple of years now, and I can’t believe I haven’t ever considered this angle. I thought the opposition to the presence of women and girls in these games was that boys just didn’t want them around, intruding on “their space”.

    It hadn’t occurred to me that they might be frightened of losing face by losing a game to a “girl”. Are you saying that the extreme rage we’ve seen is rooted (at least partially) in this kind of anxiety? Is it a fear about how they are seen by other sexist boys who would heap extra scorn on a “dude” who lost to a “female”?

    This might even explain some of the discrimination between “real” games and non. The self-described “hardcore gamers” can safely ignore Facebook games and cellphone games no matter how many women play them. The “guys” don’t play those games, so they don’t count as games, which neatly dispenses with the fear of losing to a woman. Hmmm….

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