The Y Not? Game Jam

Reporting on the #1ReasonToBe panel preceding Scotland's very first women-only game jam.

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Introduction

The Y Not? Game Jam – Scotland's first women-only game jam aiming to encourage and support women in making games - took place last weekend (Friday 29th Aug - Sunday 31st Aug) at Glasgow Caledonian University, in association with BAFTA Scotland and organised by Romana Ramzan, who also runs the Scottish branch of the Global Game Jam and lectures at the university.

Prior to the jam itself, four women from the industry spoke at the #1ReasonToBe Panel, which addressed the various issues that face women working in the industry – the panel consisted of Timea Tabori, a Junior Programmer at Rockstar North; Sarah Dargie, a Digital Design Lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University; Luci Black, Producer at Media Molecule, and Jo Twist, CEO of the UK Interactive Entertainment Association (UKIE).

The event kicked off with a keynote from Luci, who shared her experiences of moving through the games industry. After the talk, she was joined by Sarah, Jo and Timea, who took questions from the audience – which was made up of a majority of women, with a handful of men mostly comprising students, graduates (me!) and staff at GCU.

The Panel

While the panel itself was open to all genders, the Y Not? Game Jam itself was made women-only, in a move that may puzzle or incense a number of cisgender-heterosexual white dudes (as literally everyone else nods their head in an air of silent understanding and solidarity). When asked what they thought about the idea that a women-only event could be seen as exclusionary, each member of the panel disagreed; they discussed the fact that events that are dominated by men - as is particularly the case with tech events - many women can feel unsafe or unsupported by the culture present. Sarah noted that women-only events are important then not only to provide a safe space for women, but also because it allows women to make contacts and make friends within the industry. Timea agreed, adding that if making a game-jam women-only would convince one woman who ordinarily wouldn't participate to take part – it would already be worth it.

Another topic touched on was the negative attitudes of people – including other women – that the panelists faced when speaking up about sexism and misogyny, including Jo's formative experience of being labelled “that feminist” at her school. Sarah brought up a similar point, that, ironically, because some women didn't want to be perceived as or targeted for being feminist, they might speak out against events and issues that centralised women. This speaks to the pervasiveness of misogyny both within and outwith the games industry – that even being speaking about one's lived experience as a woman or being tangentially associated with the word “feminist” would be enough to make said woman a target of misogynist behaviour and attitudes.

The panel also discussed the idea of “making games you want to make”, considering the fact that stereotypical, inappropriately-sexualised or otherwise dubious representations of women are commonplace in games, both historical and contemporary – if women characters are even present in the game at all. Timea answered by saying that it's not always about being invested in the content of the project you're working on – bigger companies often create games in terms of what makes money and what doesn't, and it's not always the things we would prefer to be working on. Luci replied that she enjoyed a lot of the work she has done in the industry – and even if you don't, it doesn't matter what kind of game you're making, so long as you're having fun and being engaged in the making of it. Sarah added that it's important to ask yourself, even if the game's content isn't something that appeals to you, what you're learning and taking away from the experience.

The topic of abuse and harassment aimed at women was an unavoidable one – not only because women experience such a harrowing amount of it when involved with developing, critiquing or even playing games, but also because of the news of two women involved in the industry had experienced such harrowing degrees of abuse that it was prompting industry-wide discussion about the dangers women had to face when involved with games. Jo noted that it is not just a matter of people simply leaving hurtful comments online – that the harassment is frequently illegal as well as abusive.

When it comes to online comments - which are often rife with the above-mentioned attempts at abuse and harassment - Jo stated categorically that she doesn't read them, and, when she is met with the inevitable response that she may be missing out on the conversation and discussion around important issue, points to the fact that the discussion is already happening elsewhere; in casual meetups with friends, in tech conference presentations, on personal blogs and feature articles, in developer offices and fan's homes. Filtering through scores of abusive comments and threats from men to find the rare diamond-in-the-rough doesn't count for “critical conversation” or “measured discussion” in any other industry, and it shouldn't be in the games industry, either.

Timea followed on from this by asking where to draw the line between “feeding the trolls” and speaking out against abuse and harassment, and challenging misogynist ideas – after all, choosing to remain silent in these discussions brings with it its own problems, such as appearing passé or even complicit with the ideas being spread, or else may make those who are victimised by misogyny feel as though there is no visible, vocal support for them in the industry.

Timea also pointed out that it was important for men to speak out and challenge these assumptions, especially amongst other men, instead of remaining silent; this silence, after all, can be taken as anything from apathy to tacit consent, and does nothing for the women experiencing harassment or those looking into the industry from outside.

When it came to advice for women in the industry, Luci replied that there need to be more resources for young girls, specifically, such as Little Miss Geek, which aims to encourage and support girls in getting involved with tech-oriented careers. Jo added that it was incumbent on the media to report more intelligently on the games industry as a whole; gaming is still seen as a frivolous hobby, and as such the issues the games industry faces are often seen as insignificant or unimportant – if they're seen at all. She added that parents, teachers and carers had to have more support, not only in terms of the consumer side of games (age-appropriate ratings for games and awareness of the content of games their children are playing), but also in terms of understanding the games industry as a place their children may one day want to work. Without this support, it can be easy to look at game development as a homogenuous, amorphous and male-centric blob rather than as a potential place for a career, as with any other industry. She mentioned the Video Game Ambassadors project as an example of how this kind of support is being realised right now.

The panel closed, but not before the announcement of the game jam's theme – most game jam are organised around a single specific theme, to provide some inspiration for and connection between all the games that will be made at the jam. The theme of the Y Not? Jam was to create games focusing on heroic women, both modern and historical, as inspired by the “Heroic Women to Inspire Game Designers” Facebook page. Similar projects can be found at Badass Females In History, Historical Heroines, Cool Chicks from History, and the Strong Female Protagonist Jam from 2013. The women in attendance made their way over to the Student's Association to begin the game jam, leaving the men behind to idly muse and pontificate.

Moving On

The Y Not? Jam would always have felt timely in a male-centric industry, but is even moreso considering the explosion of people talking about the misogyny of the games industry because of two particularly prominent women in the industry facing yet more horrendous abuse in the previous fortnight – Zoe Quinn's personal information and private photos were leaked and dispersed across the internet alongside speculation of her sex life and accusations of corrupting the sanctified separation between game developers and games press now being referred to as "GamerGate", and Anita Sarkeesian received threats against herself and her family that she no longer felt she was safe sleeping in her own home. Despite the seeming upsurge in attention and intensity, though, harassment against women involved in the games industry is not atypical: both Zoe and Anita were already subject to massive semi-organised campaigns of abuse and harassment, lesser-known female game developers and critics have also been on the receiving end of abuse from male gamers, and even female consumers and fans are subject to harrowing and horrendous treatment as a result of how all-encompassing misogyny is in our industry and wider society.

As such, the Y Not? Jam is a sign that women are, to quote Luci, “most decidedly not shutting up” - they are vocally and visibly changing the industry across all fronts, challenging the inequalities that have permeated it at every level since its inception, and moving on to make new, daring and inspiring changes. There's been talk of other women-only games events on the horizon; and, rather than remain with the archaic and ever-more-irrelevant chorus of dweeby men mewing “why?”, it's well past time we started asking “well, why not?”

Further Reading

  • Game on! - Yolander Yos' writeup of "Spark It!", a game created at the Y Not? Jam.
  • Bafta Scotland's photographs from the Y Not? Game Jam (header image courtesy of Bafta Scotland)
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