Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Of Games and Men

One of my favorite movie lines in the history of movies is the one from "The Usual Suspects."  "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."(Suspects)  I think that is applicable to a lot of things in American society.  Has media convinced us that some things that do exist don't? What is the most damaging? 

In my estimation the thing that has been the most interesting is the perception of achievement and the acceptance of class as a racial, gender, sexual orientation, and ableist identifier. How often are people of color depicted as affluent and deserving of it when it is not related to sports or entertainment?  How often are women portrayed in the same way? And citizens with disabilities, are they even depicted at all? Gays and lesbians aren't left out.  If anything they suffer the most as all populations no matter how abused can hold their sexuality over them in addition to all the other social classifications. Think of seeing any of these populations being referenced in regards to technological advancement and technical proficiency. The images just don't come readily to mind do they? However when a negative connotation can be added, all parties are displayed to a sensationalistic degree.

Americans have an over ridding belief system in place that declares loudly that whatever station a person finds themselves in they only have themselves to blame.  People of color just don't work hard enough to get promotions.  Women should've made different choices to avoid being abused. And somehow a disability is a slight from the Almighty Himself marking someone as unfit.  Why do gays and lesbians CHOOSE to be that way?

The implication is always that a position in life is a matter of will and choice, and not a desired result of an unseen, unspoken structure put into place for American society by the privileged class. No one looks to the other end.  Why do equally qualified applicants of color get over looked for promotions?  Why does that man feel the need to abuse women? The person with the disability is here so that God can teach us tolerance not avoidance. Why is it not ok that they are gay or lesbian? To some extent these populations are aware of their undeserved designations and understand that sometimes through no fault of their own opportunities just aren't available.  

The most interesting victim of the system is the privileged man who is aware, sees this inequity, and is rendered powerless to change it for fear of repercussions from the class he finds himself in.  What a tragic figure indeed as the bounds of their masculinity is defined by their ability to dominate and subjugate others. Constantly they are asked to continue the structure causing a little bit of their humanity to be eaten away each time.

All it builds is a sea of anger and self-hate for all.  The result is a need for violent behavior and overt aggression against those who would try and unseat the ruling class by just existing.  The goal becomes this process of blind self absolution where everyone is aware that admitting that this structure exists would be admitting their guilt in maintaining it. No one wants to be found guilty of such a horrible crime against the bulk of humanity.  Think of all the victims, millions of men, women, and children.  It would practically make you a Nazi.

With this in mind I recall my game design classes and sitting with my classmates as we had a discussion about our field, and the issues inherent with being a game designer in the modern world. Believe it or not game designers have a slew of social issues they have to navigate. The main stays are violence in games, the depiction of women and ethnicities in games, and the lack of diversity in game development companies.

Game Designers Image 1
While I often referred to them fondly as 'my video game boys', I was mostly an outcast during my educational stint.  The teachers appreciated me because I was a good student, but my classmates always treated me with a passing sense of discomfort.  I understood why. I was in fact a white elephant for them.  There is a reason why most game design companies have issues with depictions of women, minorities, and the propagation of violence. That is because in most game design classes you'll find a very prevalent self-fulfilling stereotype.  Young middle to upper class privileged white males who have no idea that they are any of the above however instinctively maintain the structure.  Most do not acknowledge privilege at all.  In fact most would imply in class and outside of it that privilege is a lie.  When confronted directly a few will tell you that there is no such thing as white male privilege. The playing field is even, and anyone who has a desire to create video games has the same opportunities as they do. 

I would sit quiet for a time and then ask the question that was to me as obvious as a 1 ton gorilla.  Then why is it that I'm the only person like me in this classroom? Usually the room grows quiet and people look nervously from one to the other seemingly trying to understand the question. On their face's accusation as if asking this question is picking a fight. Why I would ask such a thing their looks say. And yet the best they can come up with is, "Certain people just aren't interested in creating games."

In a lot of ways I feel like this inefficient answer is the only one that my classmates feel they can actually say.  The underpinnings are there, and can be felt seething beneath the surface. Minorities aren't intelligent enough; women aren't intelligent enough to create video games citing me as the oddity that sustains the rule.  Women don't enjoy things like games.  Non-whites are lazy and don't want to work hard enough to compete in a career like this.  They want things to be given to them, and won't work as hard as I do and people like me do.

Game Designers Socialize
These are still not viable answers simply because they aren’t true.  It is a result of the victim blaming society that American culture has fostered. What I’m after is the real reason why is it that at most I have usually seen a handful of none-white male students since I've begun my 4 years of education, and even less female students? Is it possible that only white males have a desire to use technology to create video games?  Considering how 'cool' everyone thinks it is that I'm trained to do this, I sincerely doubt it.  So what is the REAL cause of this disparity?

I realize that my inability to socialize with my classmates was multi fold.  For one instance as a woman I was already embarking on hallowed 'male' ground by even trying to become a game designer.  This was something that I realized my teachers loved that the male students came to resent.  Then of course there was the race issue which became a point of contention that the few female students came to resent.  Video game design is a very competitive industry.  Professionals in game design will tell you that it is an industry deeply entrenched in 'who you know'.  So while I was trying to create a social network to secure my future as a game designer, my classmates were taking it for granted that somehow my status as an African American female would guarantee me a job.  Furthermore they viewed me as someone who was in this industry specifically for that purpose.  Otherwise known as 'not really a game designer' despite my graduating Cum Laude status. What my classmates saw due to media portrayals of affirmative action was a free job pass, and this lead them to not actually taking the time to view me as a peer that could one day help them attain a job.  Instead I was an obstacle to be overcome, ignored, and hopefully passed over.  Some one that would bring down the quality of something they loved.

The third and seemingly most damning factor was my age.  My average classmate was in the early to mid 20s range.  As an adult student I had already had a career as a graphic designer and was redirecting myself for game design.  This final nail in my coffin of being a 30 something student solidified their thoughts about me.  Clearly, by their estimation, I was not a peer at all.  It was a perspective that negated anything of a social fashion.  In general I felt like an outcast.  When I did endeavor to try and become involved in the social aspects of their lives it was readily apparent that this was to be avoided.  The thought was that my presence would somehow alter how they themselves would and could act with one another. There was this irrational 'angry black woman' fear that seemed to stand as a deterrent.  The thought being that at any time something none offensive from their eyes would happen and I would somehow revert into this media hyped beast known as the 'angry black woman' officially ruining the evening for all involved from my inability to take a joke. 

Of course the lack of socialization with me was chalked up to 'not having interests in common'.  This was a fallacy as I shared many of the same interests that my classmates shared that provided moments of bonding between them. The only things I did not share were sex, race, and age.  Which has proven to be the only interests that most of them felt needed to be shared.  And then I think back to that question with a few more facts.  Why was I virtually the only person like me in that program?  Keep in mind that I live in Baltimore, MD which is one of the cities in the US where the African American population is actually the majority. Baltimore also has approximately 12% more women than men. In an actually equitable system the ratio I've seen should not be the case.

A casual game that features a woman of color
People need support from others when they venture into a field such as this.  My age was perhaps the quality that I carried that made me persevere despite the feelings of being odd woman out.  That and my constant desire to buck the system regardless of what obstacles are placed in my path. But not all people are as engaging in self torture as I am, and they moved on to programs that offered more emotional support. Of the people of color and women I had classes with, only a select few of those made it to the end of the program.  Most vanished early in my training unless they came equipped with a social network that was in this program as well.  My assumptions that I would find peers in an industry that I loved was proven false as I had little support from other students to fall back on when I needed that type of assistance.  For me group work was always difficult because despite my work ethic, no one wanted to form a group with me. I was seen as an undesirable partner.  I do have peers from my time at school but they are few and share either race and/or age with me.  Ironically I was not able to establish peers among other females in my program.

So to answer the question why was I such an oddity in game design, I have come to the conclusion that this is an industry that has not endeavored to change its perception of itself mostly because the main participants in the industry have negated all responsibility for making their industry more diverse.  Instead people like me find themselves removed from the inclusive boundaries of this specialized group.  A boundary erected so high that not even the commonality of sex can overcome it.  Game design has in fact Keyser Soze'd itself out of the need to diversify.  It has convinced itself that the devil of its inclusive nature does not exist, and therefore does not need adjustment. 

I fear for this industry because the world around it is changing, and people are building games for more than just play.  Game design is being used to influence, to teach, and to inform.  The truth is games are a very impactful form of media.  Almost more so than television, radio, or film because of the interactive nature of this media.  People have to become involved to play a game.  It is not a passive activity. So the way they are built and by whom they are built has to become a less passive activity. Right now stereotypes rule game design as the so called 'geeks' and 'nerds' who run the industry with repressed rage at being mocked by others and treated as outcasts now visit this onto other populations.  I don't believe this is malicious. I just believe they are like most Americans and are just uninformed of the realities of American life for other populations that are not considered white and male. All sides have their cross to bear as I've mentioned, but if the ones that can influence the most reinforce instead of influence, how is the world ever to recover from the injustices that are being committed for the sake of social status.

Game Designers Image 1 courtesy of:

Suspects image courtesy of: