In the video game industry, a race for inclusivity that still comes up against obstacles

In the video game industry, a race for inclusivity that still comes up against obstacles

On June 22, Xbox France organized a round table entitled “All in the game” about the place given to women in the video game industry. On their high chairs, the three participants, Morgane Falaize (president of the Women in Games association), Ina Gelbert (director of Xbox France) and Lucie Prunier (producer of video games for the Don’t Nod studio) tell their story Internet users who can follow the exchanges live on the Twitch platform. By telling their personal stories, the three women quickly find a common point: they started working in video games almost inadvertently, convinced that they had no place in this very masculine environment.

Then, it was necessary to fight to make a place in studios where they were looked at like UFO. “I started in the video game industry in Japan and everyone asked me if I played video games. It pissed me off”testifies Lucie Prunier. “When I was made a director at Xbox, the headlines in the specialist media were: a woman at the head of Xbox. It bothered me“, loose Ina Gelbert. If this trio has chained promotions and successes despite the obstacles, the women do not yet start on an equal footing with the men.

The cupboards of the video game industry are filled with cases of harassment, testimonials around toxic behavior and cases of discrimination. The management of the Activision Blizzard group, publisher of the Warcraft suite, has for example been accused of having allowed discrimination and having fostered a culture of sexual harassment in this group of nearly 10,000 employees, acquired in January 2022 by Microsoft. A complaint, filed on July 20, 2021 in a California court by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), a California public agency, marked the culmination of a two-year investigation into the practices of Activision Blizzard.

Faced with pressure from the public and the media, the major players in the sector are trying to change this image and internal practices by promoting inclusiveness. Both by recruiting more varied profiles in their teams, and by creating more feminist characters and virtual universes. “Companies that are not open enough to women will quickly be overwhelmed”analyzes the director of Xbox France Ina Gelbert.

In a survey commissioned by Xbox France from the CSA and carried out among 1,007 young female gamers aged 16 to 30, several figures are indeed eloquent: 72% of female gamers say they feel stigmatized and eight out of ten respondents say that the women represented in video games don’t look like women in real life.

Young Saudi women in a gaming house in the seaside resort of Jeddah on the Red Sea, May 15, 2019. (AMER HILABI / AFP)

This is the number one challenge for video game developers and publishers today: to offer a less sexist vision of female characters in new productions and to include characters representative of the ethnic diversity of the population.

At the giant Electronic Arts (EA), one of the world’s leading video game developers and producers, a task force has been created specifically to think about ways to inject more inclusivity into the studios’ creations. This is Tullay McNally, manager inclusive design and product development at EA, which is at the head of this cell. This 30-year-old who spent her childhood in Germany before joining the United States explained to us by videoconference what her mission consists of.

“My job is to push to bring more inclusivity to EA’s teams, whether it’s marketing, developers, players… I have a team of four with me. We also work with Glad, a pro-LGBT organization in the USA. I have already seen on social networks or in press articles very positive feedback on the changes made at EAshe confides.

With his collaborators, Tullay McNally particularly looked at the famous life simulation game The Sims, a perfect laboratory since the game tries to stick as much as possible to the daily lives of citizens of our modern society. On The Simswe’ve done a lot of things to make the game more inclusive. A rather striking example that I have in mind: the representation of fountains in the game. We changed the way water can flow over the bodies of female characters, because we had remarks about it in certain countries. It’s a detail that we had never thought of”.

In France, the Afrogameuses association is campaigning for studios to give more importance to black women in video games. “Among the female characters, there are some who are of Afro-descendant. But, they often suffer from several clichés. We noticed that there was often a catalog of exotic clothing such as bone necklaces, whereas has nothing to do with the story of the game. It was important for us to deconstruct these biases for children who play”says Vanessa “Nessabe”, vice-president of Afrogameuses.

“The games that bring the most inclusivity are currently independent studio productions”

Fanny Lignon

researcher at Lyon 1 University

All these efforts aimed at transforming the image of women in video games are not in vain. Lara Croft, the heroine of the Tomb Raider franchise, has seen her figure evolve for the better over the years. “It’s an interesting game to study, because there are plenty of opuses”says Harmonie Freyburger, vice-president of the Women in Games France association and manager at Ubisoft. “Initially, she was hyper-sexualized with a big chest. Now she’s really dressed differently in a less sexual way. But she hasn’t lost any of her soul and that’s what’s great”.

Another blockbuster has adapted to the times: Assassin’s Creed. In this sequel of stealth games in open worlds developed by Ubisoft, big changes have been offered to gamers recently. In the penultimate opus, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey which takes place in ancient Greece, players were given the choice between a male and a female main character for the first time. In Assassin’s Creed Valhallathe latest installment in this long sequel, inclusivity goes one step further. At the beginning, the player takes control of a child without knowing if he is a girl or a boy. And then when he grows up, it is possible to choose whether he becomes a man or a woman.

“This case is telling. The lines are moving. Ubisoft did this because they believe this is what is expected of the public”believes Fanny Lignon, lecturer at Lyon 1 University and specialist inhe representations of the masculine and the feminine in video games. However, the researcher qualifies this progress. “The games that bring the most inclusivity are currently independent studio productions”.

An advertising poster for the game "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" at the Electronic Entertainment Expo E3 event in Los Angeles on June 12, 2018. (CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA)

The other major project of the studios is to make a change of strategy in the human resources departments to recruit more employees with more varied profiles: women, people of color…

According to the Women in Games association, in 2021 there were 22% of women in the studios. “We have gained 10% of women in 5 years“, notes Harmonie Freyburger. This HR specialist applauds this growing diversity while pointing out a well-known fact: men still monopolize positions of responsibility and the most prestigious services. “There are a lot of women in communication positions, but too few in technical professions such as developer or game designer. The percentage of women in positions of responsibility is also low since we only reach 10% of women in these positions. “.

To accelerate the transformation of studios, recruiters are changing their recruiting process. “We have a Discord space with 2,500 members and we have more and more recruiters posting ads there to reach women more easily,” says Harmony Freyburger. There is another issue: how to keep these employees once in position in very masculine environments? “In tech, 30% of women leave the industry after their first year, it’s a real problem”adds Morgane Falaize, the president of Women in Games.

Yet women in office are playing a crucial role in transforming video games. “I think there really is an impact of the composition of teams on sexual and gender representation in video games. And the more women there are, the more they will succeed in expressing their ideas”says Harmonie Freyburger.

“I’ve been in video games for 10 years and it’s evolved. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s already not bad”

Lucie Prunier

Producer at Don’t Nod

If one tries the never-easy exercise of taking three steps back to get a view of the bigger picture, studio efforts to inject more inclusivity into the industry seem to be paying off. “In fighting games, I had calculated a few years ago that there were almost zero female characters. Today, we arrive at around a third. Afterwards, we have to see how these women are presented”thinks researcher Fanny Lignon.

An observation shared by Lucie Prunier who sets foot in the Don’t Nod studio every day: “I really think it’s getting better. I’ve been in video games for ten years and it’s evolved. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s not bad”.

The math can be quite simple sometimes. In its survey of gamers, the CSA explains that 36% of gamers dream of working in the video game industry. And since one in two players is a woman according to the institute, that’s a lot of potential candidates for a position in gaming. It’s up to the studios to open the door to them.

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