Anita Sarkeesian says the fight against sexism in gaming is far from over
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Tuesday, we’re spotlighting Anita Sarkeesian’s GDC talk on game industry sexism; discussing gaming’s growing labor movement; and preparing for the imminent launch of Sony’s supposed Xbox Game Pass competitor.
Anita Sarkeesian takes a much-earned victory lap
Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” launched its Kickstarter campaign 10 years ago, and the media critic took the stage at the Game Developers Conference last week to reflect on the impact her series has had and how much — and how little — gaming has changed in the years since.
“We won.” In some ways, the talk was a victory lap for Sarkeesian, who told the crowd at GDC she feels feminist voices in gaming media and criticism succeeded in holding companies, developers and fans accountable for their behavior, while also ushering in meaningful changes to both how games are made and how women are presented in the medium.
- “If I tried to make any of these ‘Tropes’ videos today with only games from the last 10 years, it would be harder — not impossible, but harder,” Sarkeesian said. “There would be fewer examples and the patterns less egregious, and I think that that's saying something.”
- Sarkeesian pointed to examples like Dishonored 2, Horizon Zero Dawn and The Last of Us that featured strong female protagonists that didn’t fall into many of the same traps her “Tropes” series highlighted in past games.
- But Sarkeesian said that there are still deep-rooted issues, both in the number of games willing to tell unique female stories and in the conditions in which these games are made. “In the cultural war that ensued for the heart of gaming, I think it's fair to say that this talk is about winning. It's about what we won. And more than that, it's about how much more we have to do,” Sarkeesian said.
Gaming is still male dominated. Sarkeesian joked that the bestselling games when she started her “Tropes” series were Call of Duty, Halo and Madden, and that now the bestselling games of 2021 are … Call of Duty, Halo and Madden. She also said that many developers have skirted opportunities to tell female stories by creating live-service games and games without rich narratives.
- Studios at the center of the industry’s current reckoning around sexual harassment and discrimination are largely staffed by men. Women make up just 24% of employees at Activision Blizzard, for instance.
- A survey the organizers of GDC conducted with developers last year found that only 38% of respondents said their companies proactively reached out to talk about harassment, discrimination and sexism, and respondents felt those conversations fell short of expectations.
- “Our industry has been moving towards service games, where you choose from a roster of characters, or maybe even have character creators, and I think this has done two things simultaneously,” Sarkeesian said. “We now have more characters and more diversity of characters. More players get to see themselves reflected in games than ever before. But it's kind of killed stories. We have less stories.”
- Sarkeesian pointed to the indie game Gone Home, which she called a “revelation” for centering a queer female narrative, as an example of the kinds of the games the industry needs more of to continue evolving.
The conversation has shifted. Sarkeesian pointed out how it’s no longer taboo to voice feminist critiques of video games and industry culture, the very things that made her a prime target for vicious harassment during the early days of Gamergate.
- But improving representation is just one step. Sarkeesian said it’s important now to recognize and combat sexism and harassment happening behind closed doors, at game studios large and small.
- “You probably do not see the suffering that is happening right now in your companies,” Sarkeesian said. “This industry is drowning in trauma, abuse and harassment. Workers are being mistreated. They're being abused and harassed by people who hold power over them, by their communities and by their fans. As an industry, we are not OK and we haven’t been OK.”
- “Clearly, this industry is not yet prepared to truly reckon with these powerful men and the harm that they’ve caused. But that harm is not only happening at these massive companies, and it isn't just perpetuated by extremely wealthy executives,” she added. “It's happening at small studios, too, because this isn't fundamentally a problem of money. It’s a problem of power.”
“I would very cautiously, extremely cautiously make the argument that at least [in] the West, games are overall less overtly and egregiously sexist,” Sarkeesian said, adding that she takes pride in the work she did and how it improved gaming culture. “I think that in this moment — in this talk, in this room, at this point in history — I have to say that ‘Tropes’ opened up a conversation that fundamentally changed the industry.”
The nightmare some gamers feared — that developers would have to “tell stories about women as real human beings” — came to be, and of course the world didn’t end. The video game industry is in fact thriving, larger and more diverse than it's ever been. “We won,” Sarkeesian said.
"Obviously we will always carry on making these single-player narrative-based games such as Ghost of Tsushima, The Last of Us, and Horizon Forbidden West … but you've spotted correctly that we have invested in live-service games, because that's incredibly exciting for us. It allows us to build larger worlds, it allows us to create really meaningful social connections between players." — PlayStation Studios chief Hermen Hulst elaborates on the company’s acquisition strategy and whether its focus on live-service gaming may draw resources away from single-player narrative games in an interview with Gamesindustry.biz.
“For us at Xbox, there’s not one business model we think is going to win. I often get asked by developers, ‘If I’m not in the subscription, am I just not viable on Xbox anymore?’ That's absolutely not true … It’s really about the diversity of business models. This is where I sometimes contrast against other forms of media we get compared to whether it’s music or video, where the models have condensed down to one or two business models that are working. I fundamentally believe a strength for us in the video game business is the diversity of business models." — Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer discussed the company’s approach to business model diversity in a recorded GDC chat with Xbox Corporate Vice President Sarah Bond.
A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP
If you’re a CEO these days, odds are that your CIO understands something you may not: your company’s cybersecurity strategy is fundamentally flawed, and has been ever since your organization began using cloud-based services.
In other news
PUBG maker is getting into crypto. PUBG parent company Krafton has signed a deal with blockchain platform Solana Labs, with the goal of building “blockchain- and NFT-based games and services,” the companies said last week.
Tencent’s gaming business reigns supreme. The Chinese entertainment and tech giant posted its most recent quarterly earnings, with results for fiscal 2021 that outpace Microsoft and Nintendo’s gaming businesses combined. Sony still ranks No. 2 by revenue.
Sony’s Spartacus is imminent. Bloomberg reported on Friday that Sony might announce and potentially launch its new combined subscription and cloud gaming platform, codenamed Spartacus, as early as this week.
Wardle on Wordle. Wordle creator Josh Wardle gave an insightful talk at the Game Developers Conference last week detailing the counterintuitive elements of his simple word game that transformed it into a viral success, as well as why he ultimately decided to sell it.
Another Activision Blizzard lawsuit. A current employee of the game publisher who works in the IT department of subsidiary Blizzard Entertainment alleged rampant sexual harassment and retaliation in a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles last week.
The GTA V machine keeps going. Rockstar Games on Friday unveiled a new $5.99-a-month subscription for its GTA Online platform, called GTA Plus. Meanwhile, next-gen versions of GTA V launched to impressive sales performance in the U.K., while GTA Online is now available as a standalone purchase for the first time since its launch in 2013.
Apple TV+ becomes first streaming service to win Best Picture Oscar. Apple’s bet on “CODA” paid off big time during Sunday’s Academy Awards.
Crunchyroll stops streaming ad-supported simulcasts. Fresh off its merger with Funimation, the anime streaming service is severely limiting the amount of content available to users not willing to pay.
The sky is falling for cable networks. Linear TV viewing is down double digits, with only sports and news standing out as bright spots, according to a new MoffettNathanson analysis.
The game industry’s labor awakening
Among the various themes present at GDC last week, labor organizing emerged as one of the most prominent conversations in the industry. It was apparent in the countless talks on crunch culture and the shift to hybrid and remote work, as well as in the discussions around the industry’s sexual harassment and discrimination issues and what measures employees can take to improve working conditions and accountability.
When discussing ways to combat burnout, studio director Saleem Dabbous of Montreal-based indie developer KO_OP told the crowd they should consider unionizing at their studios to cement benefits like a four-day workweek. “If you're a group of team members, you should build collective power, because you can't trust people like us who are giving this talk right now as business owners,” he said. “You know, we might be nice bosses; we might be good people. But there's nothing stopping us from reverting that.”
The Communications Workers of America also raised eyebrows by setting up a booth on the expo hall floor featuring a custom-made arcade game called “Super Anti-Union Campaign Simulator.” The game, which will be made available online, is designed to poke fun at the industry’s aggressive union-busting tactics in the face of labor campaigns at Activision studio Raven Software and elsewhere.
Members of Raven also sent an open letter to Microsoft asking whether the tech giant intends to voluntarily recognize its union once the deal to acquire Activision Blizzard goes through, to which Microsoft told Axios it “respects Activision Blizzard employees’ right to choose whether to be represented by a labor organization and we will honor those decisions.”
A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP
As a business leader, you need to understand that zero-trust is not just another buzzword. It’s a fundamentally different mindset that you will need to embrace — and the sooner you do so, the better.
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