Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Game On

There’s been a lot of media debate recently about women and computer games. Yesterday's Guardian had a little report from the Women in Games conference currently taking place in that hub of the computer gaming universe, Dundee. Now I reckon I'm fairly well qualified to comment on this topic, given that:

a. I am a woman.

b. I’ve been playing computer games (not continuously, you understand) since the early 1980s.

c. I once got into a fantastic spat* with a Professor of Psychology on this very subject in the Guardian letters pages.

But I can’t see that the people who want to promote the involvement of women in computer games are doing themselves any favours. I mean, just look at the state of the conference logo. It's a little spaceship from Space Invaders, a game that was released in 1978 and which hasn't been seen - apart from at retro-gaming shindigs and in "postmodern ironic" fashion in Nathan Barley-style nu-meeja offices (including the one next door to mine, in fact) - since the 1980s. How is this supposed to engender confidence in women’s ability to contribute to the modern games industry?

The article observes that women are put off from going into the industry because of its “salacious” image. This is probably because the Guardian, like most other media outlets, appears to equate “the games industry” with the Pete Doherty of computer games; Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (or any other moral panic-inducing computer game du jour), thus perpetuating the myth that it's a big, bad dangerous place where women should fear to tread.

It was interesting to read an article in Red Herring (The Business of Technology!) the other week, about women who have actually made it into senior positions in the industry. What struck me was that they'd been successful because they'd played down their gender and just concentrated on getting on with it - while making a few subtle changes along the way.

The truth - unpalatable as it might be to feminist academics - is that the whole of the tech industry is still predominantly male, and the only way for women to get on is to play along with it and make small but hopefully far-reaching changes from the inside. Making a big song and dance about unfair phallocentric hegemonies (as the world of feminist academia is wont to go on) is unlikely to advance the cause of women in technology, and is more likely to set it back - all the way back to the era of Space Invaders, in fact.

* OK, not *that* fantastic: Letter 1 - Letter 2 - Letter 3


Pashmina said...

That logo is hilarious. What *were* they thinking?

You're right, of course, but I don't think that makes the tech industry so very different from any other sector - although the consumer face of the tech industry is indeed the one that's most blatantly male-orientated.

I can see the point of women getting together to moan about phallocentric hegemonies amongst themselves, because after all occasionally it needs saying and I expect it makes everyone feel a lot better to get it off their chests. But as in any male-dominated industry the only way women *can* get on is to do exactly as you say, play down their gender and make changes from the inside.

I do think that the problem of under-representation here is similar to that facing other sectors that are perceived as 'sciency' - and the age-old problem of not enough women taking science and technology to higher education level. It's about girls' perceptions of themselves and their capabilities at really quite a young age as much as it is about adult career choices. What will be interesting is what happens in the next decade or so, when the current generation of technologically literate schoolgirls enters the workplace.

Actually once they get there I think women are often deeply competitive - certainly a lot of people are readier to pull up the drawbridge after them than to extend a helping hand to the woman on the next rung down. If you'll excuse the mixed metaphor.

patroclus said...

All very good points, Pash - and as you say there's nothing better than a good whinge about phallocentric hegemony, just not when you're talking to people from the industry you're trying to get into.

I also think that the "women can't get into IT because they didn't do science at school" thing is a bit of a myth too. A goodly portion (if not most) of the work in the IT industry - especially in the UK, where there's very little actual development work - is consultancy and marketing - areas at which women are pretty good, and for which a technical education isn't really a requirement.

*stands back and awaits brickbats, flaming torches etc. from geeky developer types*

M. Thatcher being the prime example of a woman who didn't really fancy extending a hand down to the woman on the next rung. Mind you, when that woman was probably Edwina Currie or Virginia Bottomley, it's probably not surprising.

hen said...

Especially if you knew where Edwina Currie's hand has been. eeeww!

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Why would I want to meet someone with common desires?


Pashmina said...

Hmm. I have a feeling that "real singles" in either your or my area probably won't be calling US-based toll free numbers. Or indeed paying in dollars.

Back on topic. That's a good point about consultancy and marketing stuff, clearly I hand't thought about that because I have little or no idea of what people in the "Technology sector" actually *do*. However you do, so I'm sure you're right - in which case, what's the m/f ratio of that side of the business? I would have thought there were quite a lot of women doing the kind of thing you do, or are they put off by the tech angle?

I'm in two minds about the girls and science thing - one thing about my single-sex school was that no-one even thought about gender boundaries within subjects, so according to the old girls' magazine there are any number of doctors, dentists and IT consultants amongst what was my yeargroup. But don't you think that one of the things that holds young women back from entering the IT sector is that there is a perceived rather than an actual need for a scientific education?

Smat said...

the "girls don't/won't/can't do science" thing starts very early on - science in school (especially the experiments) are the ideal situation for 12 year old boys to muck around and be generally disruptive. Which means the (on the whole better behaved and quieter) girls are either pushed to the side, or feel that they are, leading them to switch off. Plus science and maths means lots of learning of lists, something that men tend to be better at than women.

patroclus said...

Pash said: don't you think that one of the things that holds young women back from entering the IT sector is that there is a perceived rather than an actual need for a scientific education?

Yes I do - precisely because they think it is for weird, bearded sandal-wearing types who've got PhDs in quantum physics. Whereas it's actually full of middle-aged, be-suited, silver BMW-driving golfers, which is actually worse. But that doesn't mean that women can't get into the industry if they want to - it's crying out for the sort of skills at which women excel - communication, lateral thinking, multitasking etc. So I guess in a small way (as there are probably about three people reading this comments thread) I'm trying to dispel that illusion. Maybe I should write another letter to the Guardian instead.

Smat said: Science and maths means lots of learning of lists, something that men tend to be better at than women

Unless it's a shopping list, where men seem mysteriously to fall down. And I seem to remember French, German and Latin being nothing but learning tedious lists of declensions, verb tables and adjectival endings. Maybe it's because science is often taught by geeky men who can't relate to girls? Or was that just at our place?

patroclus said...

PS excellent debate, ladies!

Smat said...

the latest breed of science and maths teacher seem to be rather attractive actually, which makes parents evening SO much better...

patroclus said...

Gahhh, really? Can I borrow one of your kids?

Pashmina said...

Clearly the times they are a-changin'

LC said...

There are some parallels with motor-sport here (bear with me) - while it's still an area that's largely dominated by men, women are making inroads as competitors. In my experience they tend to fall into two camps:

1) The women who want to make a big deal out of the fact that they're women competing in a largely male sport, and seem to think that merits some sort of special prize in itself. "Look, I'm a girl AND I can drive fast, isn't that amazing!"

2) The women who want to earn respect on the same terms as the guys - by training hard, developing their skills and putting in a solid performance on the track.

I think the second group does a lot more to further the cause of equality and respect for female racers. The same goes for the games industry - if women want to play/make games, just get on with it, instead of organising the kind of conferences about Gender Issues in Videogaming which only the Guardian ever seems interested in.

There is no big conspiracy to keep women out of the gaming industry. But of course, I'm a bloke, so I would say that wouldn't I...

Smat said...

trouble with that though is that EVERYONE ELSE makes such a fuss about 'women in men's jobs' and vice versa, that it can be really difficult to avoid the stereotypes. And if you have worked harder as a woman to get where you are, then why shouldn't you get credit for that?
(Admittedly I do run away from the weirdo dads in the school playground - don't they have proper jobs to do? ;) )