As seems inevitable in any conversation on the subject, Gamer Girls: 25 Women Who Built the Video Game Industry opens on GamerGate. In the opening pages of the book, insomniac author and writer Mary Kenney, who has worked on Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and more, explains what it’s like to be asked about it.
“GamerGate never really ended,” Kenney tells me. “It was a protracted campaign of harassment that caused people – especially BIPOC, gay men and women – to abandon game development. If GamerGate had never existed, these people would still be writing and create today.
Even on the gaming media side, most of us know someone who left the industry due to the amount of harassment that still exists in online gaming spaces. It’s tempting to just want to move on, but it’s hard when its damage was never undone, and the lessons we should have learned from it aren’t clear.
Unfortunately, the other side has learned lessons.
“It taught bullies how to organize harassment campaigns. Many of the stalkers we now see on Twitch, Twitter, and more mainstream politics started or learned from GamerGate,” she says.
And that’s what women and people from diverse backgrounds face. GamerGaters has been largely successful in rehabilitating their images, but that’s not bringing back all the game developers and writers we’ve lost. On the contrary, seeing the abusers get away with it is probably what makes young girls ask women like Kenney if it’s safer for them to be game developers.
What reading Gamer Girls reminded me of, however, is that women in games aren’t defined by their abusers.
This isn’t to downplay GamerGate, of course. Its damage cannot really be overstated. But as Kenney posits in Gamer Girls – a collection of stories about women in the gaming industry – we do ourselves a disservice when the conversation about diversity in gaming begins and ends with abuse. Because despite everything the abusers have taken from us, there are some things they will never get their hands on: our history and our accomplishments.
No matter what the dudebros say, the first person to write a text-based video game will always be Mabel Addis Megardt. Unreal Engine 3 will always be what it is thanks to engineer Corrinne Yu. Rebecca Heineman will forever be the first National Video Game Champion. In Gamer Girls, the list goes on.
Because of how often society – especially in the tech scene – undermines the accomplishments of women, I read these stories with disbelief. I researched several of the names, with an internalized misogyny that made me half-expect to find that their male partners were actually doing most of the work, and they just helped out on the side. However, in all cases, I found the opposite. Designer Muriel Tramis has largely worked alone on her games, such as Méwilo and Freedom, and saw those efforts recognized in 2018 when she was named Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur – the first woman to receive the title. The story of Sierra Games On-Line co-founder Roberta Williams was much the same. In fact, when it comes to the studio’s pioneering horror game, Phantasmagoria, she had to put in the work to convince her husband that it was worth it. She wrote a 550-page screenplay herself, despite everyone telling her it couldn’t be done. I found no exaggeration in the stories shared by Gamer Girls.
“The men of the teams are those interviewed by the points of sale and invited on stage during the awards ceremonies. Over time, their names are the only ones remembered on a project,” Kenney says, explaining how these important women were almost forgotten.
“Other times it’s a bigger problem that game developers don’t get recognized for their work,” she continues, drawing attention to Final Fantasy artist Kazuko Shibuya, who has no been credited for creating the series’ pixel art for years. “I noticed in a few chapters that some studios wanted to list the studio and publisher, but not the individual names, in [the] game credits. It wiped out a ton of people, including women on any given project.
It’s sad to think of what was stolen from us by not knowing those names earlier. As simplistic as discussions around video game authors may be, there’s no denying that we know a “Kojima game” or a “Druckmann game” when we see one. But I’d like to talk about what makes a “Roberta Williams game”, or talk about any non-male game developer with the same level of respect, because there are plenty of them.
We create this illusion that games become art when the graphics get good, but it does a huge disservice to creatives like the aforementioned Muriel Tramis. Born in Martinique, she has developed games that educate players about her country’s enslavement. Or Roberta Williams, whose controversial depiction of sexual assault in Phantasmagoria would be a topic of conversation even today. Hell, especially today.
It’s conversations like this that could help us bring more women and BIPOC into the industry. Because of course, most careers in games start with a childhood playing them, and it’s hard to want to to play them when you don’t see yourself in them.
“The women inspired each other even at the very beginning of the games. Jane Jensen played Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest and loved it so much she applied to Sierra On-Line. She then co-wrote a game with Roberta, then wrote the Gabriel Knight series solo. Stories like these create a snowball effect,” says Kenney.
And with games increasingly being marketed to a wider audience, we’re finally seeing improvements.
It’s a way to contextualize GamerGate – to look at the issue generationally. Gen X women have had their accomplishments silenced and Millennial women have been abused online, but both can still be role models for later generations. They can show Gen Z that there’s more to game development than Twitter hates.
Gamer Girls does just that. Throughout its 148 pages, the forgotten women who created the gaming industry as we know it today enjoy a platform to share their creativity, as well as their thought processes when writing, developing and designing gaming experiences They are treated like the artists and pioneers they have always been.
In the end, it took a book that has very little to do with GamerGate to give me the clearest idea of how we’re moving forward. We cannot control the abusers. You cannot write about LGBTQ+ issues or analyze games from a feminist perspective in a way that they will approve of. We can only control ourselves, and sometimes we should take a break from the trauma and look back to our elders in the industry. History will ignore these women if we let it, but we have the power to continue what they started. We owe it to Muriel Tramis, Roberta Williams and everyone featured on Gamer Girls so as not to water down us and our messages, so as not to explain ourselves to the aggressors. We’re on the safe side here, and Gamer Girls gave me the confidence to accept that.
“What I hope my book shows is that abuse and harassment isn’t all that’s going on in the gaming industry,” Kenney concludes. “There’s also excitement, launch parties, friendships, families, empathy, curiosity, rapid prototyping and unique storytelling. There are various teams of developers trying to create experiences with positive messages. These teams are also waiting for you.
Gamer Girls: 25 Women Who Built the Video Game Industry is available to buy now at Amazon, WHSmith, Blackwell’s and other major retailers.
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