I spend most of my time, both at my job and volunteering, advocating for the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. As part of this work, I attended the Game Developer’s Conference 2016 (GDC 16) so I could see what was on offer for women in games. It underscored for me that one of the most important tools we have available to us as women and minorities in white male dominated fields is the connections we build with each other.
Although I had set out to focus on “women in STEM” as my lens into GDC 16, I was struck by how the Advocacy Track was full of so many other intersectional voices and perspectives. I’ve seen this shift occurring since 2015 at women in STEM conferences and within corporations as well. Many organizations are trading women’s committees for diversity committees and even well-established organizations that were built to serve only women are writing inclusive mission statements and inviting the participation of all people.The gaming world seems to be participating in a shift to centre intersectionality. Click To Tweet
One panel that exemplified this shift perfectly is the #1ReasonToBe panel at GDC 16. Way back in 2012, the hashtag #1ReasonWhy began trending on Twitter to highlight the hardships women in the games industry face to shed light on why there aren’t more women participating. In response to this, Rhianna Pratchett started the #1ReasonToBe hashtag to highlight the positive things about working in the games industry as well. This was a way to keep encouraging the women who were working toward or already in the industry to stick with it, while allowing #1ReasonWhy to highlight the things that still needed to be addressed. Following this, Brenda Romero and Leigh Alexander presented #1ReasonToBe panels at GDC from 2013 to 2015, to feature women’s often unheard voices in a public venue.
Building upon this legacy, the panel was passed onto Rami Ismail to showcase a new set of unheard voices at GDC 16. As Rami said in his introduction for #1ReasonToBe, “These here are 6 of the 6 billion people around the world…they are by all accounts included in the word diversity, but very rarely included in the effort of diversity.” The panelists came from South Africa, Ukraine, Zambia, South Korea, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia to share their stories as game developers. What followed was like nothing else on offer in GDC’s program, a real international look at what developers face around the world: from gender-segregated conventions, to struggling with tech manuals that aren’t available in their native language. In the spirit of this panel, and the goals of intersectionality, I’d like to uplift their voices again and suggest that you listen to them directly.
Threats to Diverse Voices
Now it’s February 2017, at the start of GDC 17. In times when political agendas are continuing to shift toward xenophobia and white supremacy, solidarity and embracing intersectionality are essential. The biggest lesson I want to share from my experience at GDC 16 is the value of interpersonal connections. When developers save up to make the pilgrimage to GDC each year, they’re not just going to see the awards show, or play a really neat new VR demo, or even just to pick up new skills; Devs go so they can connect and network. It’s the opportunities for personal, one-on-one interactions with a large swath of the industry that makes GDC so enticing. Even now, as I watch people on Twitter change their handles to indicate they’ve arrived in San Francisco, I wish I were there.
Interpersonal connections are what help us survive and keep going in the face of adversity. They are also the target of many hate mobs and xenophobic propaganda. The “us” and “them” rhetoric works best when the “them” is kept faceless and you’re not personally connected to it. This is why the connections (speculative or not) drawn between marginalized voices were so heavily criticized during the Gamergate harassment campaign. It was a tactic meant to isolate us into silence, and convince us that if we stopped having connections to the people being targeted the most then we might just save ourselves.
This silence was felt the hardest by those who needed allies, journalists, and gaming companies to step up and speak out. We are seeing a lot less silence surrounding the current attacks on civil liberties in the US. People are using their voices en mass, and yet the administration is using larger campaigns to silence them, like creating laws to restrict protests.The question now is how we will refuse to be silenced by hate. Click To Tweet
Shame & Silence
Another factor contributing to the silencing of marginalized voices is shame. In her talk “Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability” at GDC 2016, Renee Nejo opened up about what it’s like to deal with shame on a regular basis because of your identity. Renee is half Degueño Native American Indian, who are part of the Kumeyaay Nation in Southern California, and, in her own words, half “other stuff.” She is a game designer and artist who, upon being featured on a list of women of colour in gaming, was asked “what colour are you?” (She told them purple.) Renee’s discussion of this internal struggle was something many marginalized folks can relate to, “I have imposter syndrome of the identity…I always held my identity like it was two pieces.”
After a run-in with an organization that was appropriating Native American culture and language at their GDC booth in 2014, Renee’s initial response was not to do anything and not to make a scene. Silence was her first response: “I was consumed by shame. I wanted to fight but I couldn’t move past my own weaknesses and feeling of isolation because that’s how shame works.” She’s usually one to speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in, and on that day shame got the best of her. As a way to process this, Renee did some research into work by Dr. Brene Brown who says there is a profound difference between “guilt” and “shame.” Guilt is “I’m sorry, I made a mistake” and Shame is “I’m sorry, I AM the mistake.” It is this definition of shame that oppressors prey upon, focusing on a facet of a person’s identity that they cannot change and making sure they feel like it’s a mistake. Renee said, “Shame silences you. IT is the enemy. Shame makes you hide away from the world and hope that nobody sees you.”
Renee asked, “How do we take our tendency towards silence and turn it into a story that can reach and touch others feeling alone?” As a game designer, her answer was to finally make a game about her heritage and identity, named after a racist and antiquated system: Blood Quantum. Games themselves facilitate the interpersonal connections necessary for solidarity among oppressed people: You can reach people around the world with content that could support someone through a rough time, help someone process systemic oppression, and show people that they are not alone. As Renee said, “Strength isn’t having no weaknesses….strength is doing the thing that’s hard anyway. Our stories with all our flaws and shame is what makes them beautiful.”
Looking for ways to engage with diverse voices at GDC 2017?
Here are some Advocacy Track talks you won’t want to miss:
Evolve: An Adventure in Accessibility Retrofitting
TIP: Many of the Roundtables are great, but space is limited! If you really want to participate, be sure to arrive early!
It’s long been documented that women can feel “isolated” in male-dominated workplaces, so the common solution is to connect the women in the organization to each other so they know they are not alone. While this can be a great outlet, and I leverage my women’s networks extensively, what’s making these people feel isolated is likely a workplace culture in which they are constantly being made aware that they are different. In the best cases, this “othering” comes in the form of microaggressions that are “just being playful” or are “meant as a complement.” In the worst cases, and we all know we’ve got a story or two for this, the culture takes every opportunity to make someone aware of their differences and allows them to shift the workplace conversation away from their work and abilities. Whether it’s asking someone “what’s that?” in a hesitant tone when you see their lunch is something you don’t recognize. Or perhaps it’s policing someone’s self expression in the workplace, such as through garments that you deem not for their gender or criticizing someone for trying too hard because they like to dress more formally than most.
Sitting down in any number of the Advocacy Track panels at GDC, I would see many people with fun colourful hair. Having just dyed my hair bright pink a week before, this was something that allowed me to see “hey, these people are probably cool too” which is a completely natural reaction. This is the same thing that happens in white male dominated companies as well, leaders see people who look, dress, act, or speak like them and think “yes, this person is good.” These are what social psychologists call “in-group” associations, those easily identifiable things that makes you identify whether you belong to the same group.
Not all of us set out into the world to only associate with people like us, but there’s some inherent programming that’s hard to ignore. Add to that the anxiety which some people experience when they are worried about coming across as prejudiced, and people get stuck. One piece of advice for relating to co-workers is the simple act of focusing on someone’s work instead of their inherent traits. When you’re talking about the work, it puts both parties at ease and you may just find a new friend.
Interpersonal connections don’t just reduce isolation for women in the workplace; they are also essential for eliminating the kind of prejudices and biases that cause discrimination against women and minorities. In the paper “The extended contact effect: Knowledge of cross-group friendships and prejudice” it is proposed that if “an in-group member has a close relationship with an out-group member [it] can lead to more positive intergroup attitudes.” Consider the typical games studio where the in-group is men: this would mean that if a man has a friendship with a woman (the out-group) and the rest of the men are aware of it then the men are overall going to have less prejudice toward women. Additionally, it states, “having an out-group friend predicts lower levels of both subtle and blatant prejudice, greater support for pro-out-group policies, and even generalized positive attitudes toward out-groups other than that of the friend. Similar effects were not found when the individual had an out-group coworker or neighbor.”Friendships are key. Click To Tweet
An important thread in these kinds of studies is the disclosure of those friendships. They were relationships that were known about, talked about, and involved an investment of time. Making your support, friendship, or romantic partnership with an out-group known can influence how others think. If we are more vocal about who we are friends with, who we support, and show up for them when they need us, we will all benefit. This echoes advice that we’ve been hearing within advocacy circles over the past few months: take care of yourself, build your local communities, and love others in defiance of hate.
Panels & Speakers Cited
- Rami Ismail, 50% of Vlambeer
- Tsitsi Chiumya, Founder, SHAPA Studios
- Tasneem Salim, Shapa Studios
- Sithe Ncube, Founder, Ubongo Game Lab
- Elena Lobova, CEO, iLogos
- Sun Park, Turtle Cream
- Laia Bee, Pincer Game Studios
Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame & Vulnerability
- Renee Nejo, Lead Artist, 3 Turn Productions
- Wright S. C., Aron A., McLaughlin-Volpe T., Ropp S. A. (1997). The extended contact effect: Knowledge of cross-group friendships and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 73-90. http://www.sfu.ca/psyc/faculty/wrights/publications/JPSP1997.pdf
Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.
Oxford Dictionary defines it as: The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
Blood quantum laws
Blood quantum laws or Indian blood laws are those enacted in the United States and the former colonies to define qualification by ancestry as Native American, sometimes in relation to tribal membership.
These laws were developed by Euro-Americans and thus did necessarily not reflect how Native Americans had traditionally identified themselves or members of their in-group, and thus ignored the Native American practices of absorbing other peoples by adoption, beginning with other Native Americans, and extending to children and young adults of European and African ancestry. Blood quantum laws also ignored tribal cultural continuity after tribes had absorbed such adoptees and mixed-race children.