This panel discussion took place live on 19 March 2021, as part of the Singapore Francophonie Festival 2021. It was organised by the Singapore Games Association and the Embassy of France in Singapore, in collaboration with Pixel Studios and the High Commission of Canada to Singapore.
Two sessions were organised:
- 1st session: Gaming Industry Careers & Gender Equality: Please wait, still loading…
- 2nd session: Gender Representation in Games: New Avatars Loading?
A recording of the entire panel discussion can be viewed here.
1st session: Gaming Industry Careers & Gender Equality: Please wait, still loading…
- Ariana Yeo, Student, Vice President of the NTU E-sports Society
- Rika Lim, Lead Level Designer, Ubisoft Singapore
- Sybil Collas, Narrative Designer, Writer, Speaker
- Sophie Mallinson, Senior Game Designer, Electronic Arts Vancouver
- Kah Hui Teo, Ambassador, Women in Games Singapore.
Executive Summary: This panel was organised to raise awareness on gender issues in the gaming industry, and to provide guidance and recommendations to both the gaming industry at large as well as students/young professionals living in Singapore and beyond.
For Ariana Yeo (she/her), the gaming industry, and e-sport especially, suffers from a very negative image, which she believes is strongly influenced by wide-spread internalised stigmas about gaming and the gaming industry – the chief of which is gaming being regarded as a chronic waste of time.
Additionally, among children, gaming is also unfortunately perceived to cater only to boys, and not to girls – video games are for boys, and girls are not welcome. In fact, very few school-going girls play video games, as it is not considered to be an appropriate social activity for them. From her experience, girls are often encouraged (or sometimes even ‘pushed’) to choose more ‘suitable’ activities befitting their gender, such as dancing.
From the outset, boys are perceived to be ‘better gamers’ than girls are. This is a misconception. For the most part, any truth to this is attributed solely to the fact that boys have a disproportionate early start to gaming, compared to girls, alongside more direct access to video games and societal acceptance of them being involved with video games. It is not because they are innately skilled at gaming. With practice comes muscle memory, and like any other sport, those who begin playing video games from a very young age would have better chances of being successful, compared to those that start gaming much later.
Ariana’s view is that if a woman wants to embrace a career in e-sport, she will have to be prepared to face many challenges. Apart from having to overcome the lack of early exposure to gaming and the initial gap in accumulated experience that is a result of that, they would also need to contend with common salary gaps in the professional gaming industry. To illustrate this: among the 100 top earning e-sport players globally, not one of them is female. It is also quite common that all-women gaming teams have no choice but to pursue gaming part-time, because they don’t earn nearly enough money from it for them to make it a full-time profession.
In Rika Lim’s opinion (she/her), a career in the video game industry is not a walk in the park, as existing gender biases are very strong and in many cases, demoralising. In Asian families like the one that she grew up in, boys are given more access to the computer to play video games on, whereas girls often find themselves needing to fight with boy relatives for a chance to play on a computer, as Rika had to in her childhood.
At university, Rika chose Game Development as her major. She found that very few non-male students did the same (or even chose it an elective course). Over the course of the year, female representation gradually dropped. Rika also shared that, from her experience, some modules such as Programming was also more challenging for women from the outset, as they came in without the same level of prior knowledge as their male classmates. This was because it was common for men to be encouraged by their families and friends to pick up programming basics earlier on in life.
According to Sybil Collas (they/them), video games were classified as a ‘distraction activity’ when they were growing up. For instance, in the Catholic school that they attended, no one gamed before university and playing video games was perceived in a negative light. As a student, Sybil had the opportunity to pursue Game Design, but they could not shake off the feeling around the fact that non-binary people were not welcome. This made them realise that overall, gender equality initiatives/efforts often fall short of being truly inclusive, as they often apply to cis-gender women and men, only.
For Sophie Mallinson (she/her), joining the gaming industry only became a conceivable option much later in life, even though she enjoyed playing video games from a young age. Sophie didn’t realise she could become a game developer until she was an adult, because she didn’t have an inspiring role model growing up. As such, it is apparent that visibility and diverse representation in the gaming industry is critical for societal change.
- Learning and development in the Gaming Industry
As gender biases stems from an early age of cognitive development, it is virtually unavoidable in today’s gaming landscape. This is why special mentorship for underrepresented genders, is important.
For instance, when Rika joined Ubisoft Singapore, she found that she was the only female game designer. Unlike her male colleagues, who had a large pool of mentors to approach, she was not able to benefit from another woman’s mentoring due to the lack of representation. While her colleagues were keen on helping her whenever she asked, she felt that her transition process would have been much smoother if there was a female role-model within the company. As such, when the time came to choose a mentor, Rika chose a female leader in the Human Resources (HR) department – HR is of course, not exactly related to her expertise, but she found that it was still useful to gather insights of a female leader in the company, as well as to tap on her mentor’s expertise in management and leadership. Change is the only constant, and Rika noted that things are changing – slowly but surely. Today, there is a much larger female representation at Ubisoft.
Ariana feels that in e-sport, women often can be their own worst enemy. She chanced upon a couple of forums online that published false ‘scientific justifications’ about why men are better gamers i.e. because they are naturally ‘better decision makers’, have innate reaction times that are faster than women etc., some of which were written by women.
Ariana also noticed that there is a huge lack of support for women in the gaming sector – both financially and mentally. Apart from facing remuneration challenges, women in e-sport also face a constant obligation to prove themselves worthy of their gaming achievements, and in so doing, undermine their mental health. In fact, when a woman is succeeding in the e-sport sphere, it is as if no one can quite believe it – she is often perceived to have ‘cheated’ or ‘hacked’ her way to get to where she is. As a result, it is not unusual that women in e-sport find the need to game LIVE in a controlled environment, to prove their worth and capacity for gaming. This is highly stressful and should be completely unnecessary – and yet the pressure to do so is overwhelming.
In general, female gamers are not taken seriously. When Ariana games with a male friend, the other players online will assume that this friend might be her boyfriend, and that the only reason she is playing is to ‘accompany’ her boyfriend. This in turn also has an impact on communication in gaming. Communication is, of course, a key aspect in e-sport, and the use of a micro is very important. Sometimes, Ariana finds herself hesitating to use her micro because she knows that it triggers a lot of negative stereotypes in the minds of fellow gamers.
Ariana is no stranger to being confronted by hurtful comments about her legitimacy in the e-sport industry. In the pro scene, there is this assumption that if a woman plays against a man and the latter does not win the game, it is largely because he performed poorly, and not because she was more skilled. The constant demeaning and belittling of women in the gaming industry discourages many women from joining the e-sport scene, and forces existing female gamers to quit.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ariana has also been at the receiving end of a lot of genuine and positive support from the gaming community. When some gamers realise that she is a woman, they send her words of encouragement, which keeps her going strong. In general, when a player is trashed online because of her/his/their gender, receiving support from the community is vital.
Indeed, underrepresentation of genders in the gaming industry is a problem that everyone has to come together to address – it is not only the responsibility of women to call it out. Due to the multitude of negative stereotypes around women and underrepresented genders in gaming, their behaviour is always unnecessarily scrutinised and criticised. Oftentimes, this begets the development of an ‘impostor syndrome’, and overtime, the e-sport ecosystem becomes an inhospitable place for women and those of underrepresented genders, which in turn gradually pushes them away from gaming altogether.
As a gender fluid person, Sybil has witnessed emotional stress in many different situations in the gaming industry. They have had discussions with many female students that decided to drop out of gaming-related studies, activities relating to gaming, or just gaming in general, because of the stress that comes with prejudice against them and their abilities. In Sybil’s view, the system is by default, constantly rejecting and questioning the legitimacy of underrepresented genders. When a junior gamer of an underrepresented gender joins the gaming industry, they can be easily destabilised by the constant barrage of negative comments and remarks on their pairs, especially when they come in with no prior knowledge about the state of discrimination in the e-sport industry. To make matters worse, they often feel powerless to react against this tide of negativity, and many end up believing they do not ‘belong’ to the group.
This is why education is important, and why teachers have such a huge role to play: by being aware of the current situation in the gaming community, they can guide their students towards understanding the situation, and also help them navigate challenges when they arise.
Currently, many underrepresented gender students and young professionals are pushed to engage in careers that traditionally associated with their gender, but which they might not be interested in at all. For instance, women are supposed to have the ‘maternal skills’ to take care of people, and so should engage in studies or activities that require that trait. However, they are perceived to have little or no ‘masculine skills’ which are seen as essential in field of game design. In consequence, underrepresented genders find themselves ignored, unheard and unseen, as they constantly have to prove their credibility. In the eyes of the gaming world, the technical skills that they possess are ‘not enough’ – this is why specific training, in relation to the impact of their gender in video games, is critical to help overcome the challenges that they face.
There are clear parallels between e-sport and game development, when it comes to how women are perceived. Sophie shared that at gaming industry events and conferences that she has attended in the past, whenever someone approached her to open a conversation, she was often asked who she was accompanying – a huge assumption made on their part, but a pretty common one that she is familiar with. Similarly, during meetings, she has noticed over the course of her career that design ideas from women were more likely to be discredited by the rest of the group, in comparison to ideas tabled by male team members.
- What can be done to create a more inclusive e-sport community?
Rika advocates for an education system that emphasises diversity and inclusion across all aspects – from the way we look at gender, career options etc. She noticed that Primary and Secondary school-going pupils are usually not exposed to the game industry as a viable career path option: a long-term career in the video game industry is often not seen as a ‘legitimate’ option i.e. ‘gaming can never be a job’, ‘it is not professional to be a gamer’, etc. Additionally, she has noticed that Programming lessons are still very male-oriented, and this discourages female participation – more must be done to encourage female participation.
Rika feels that companies in the gaming industry should lead by example, as they are well-placed to alter the course of the current narrative and affect lasting change in the gaming industry as a whole. They can do this by prioritising and advocating for gender inclusion in their various departments, alongside appointing relatable and representative mentors and role-models. Companies would also need to focus on communicating messages around this effectively, so that it is clear that they are in favour of inclusivity, no matter a person’s gender, religion, ethnicity or race.
Ariana feels that despite the present day challenges (outlined above), society as a whole is moving towards being more open-minded and accepting of e-sport. For example, even though Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has an e-sport club today, e-sport is not part of the ‘pro teams’ of the university. Because of this status, the e-sport society in NTU does not have a dedicated club room, and it is not taken as seriously as other sport clubs.
Sybil shared that there is a lot of unspoken expectations of underrepresented genders. The expectation of queer people today, in a nutshell, is to simultaneously ‘blend into’ the ‘conservative’ society around them as well as to raise awareness about who they are and what they represent, in the communities that they live with. This is a huge burden for those from underrepresented backgrounds, as they often already struggle to be accepted by those around them. As such, societies need to find a way to come together to create environments where people can be both truly heard and seen. They need to look beyond the stereotypes, and to take gender fluid individuals seriously. Additionally, to boost gender representation in the industry, the panel noted that open discrimination should be severely frowned upon, and those perpetuating it should be penalised appropriately; advocating militants should not be arrested.
For Sybil, gender diversity in game design and development is very important as it affects gaming content and the representation i.e. it is natural for gaming design professionals to design content that they are familiar with. If you don’t have diverse representation in the industry, then you will not have games that reflect diversity. Expanding on this point, Sophie discussed the term ‘inclusion’. She believes that it involves not only important discussions around gender, but also encompasses much more than that: realising inclusivity is part of a bigger fight on preconceived notions around sexuality, disability, ethnicity, and religion. Homogeneous teams (e.g. those that only feature white, middle-aged men) have similar life experiences and, as such, tend to make games that reflect just their set of experiences. On the other hand, diverse teams mean diverse perspectives, which in turn drives innovation and challenges the status quo in gaming.
- What actions have companies put in place to be more inclusive?
According to Rika, there have been many positive steps forward, such as the founding of diversity and inclusion councils or the creation of new positions that have the power to address important issues like gender representation, inclusivity and diversity. Rika also mentioned that having a code of conduct in an organisation is very important as well, as it is a company-wide platform where gender discrimination issues can be addressed. Equally critical in the journey towards creating more inclusive work environments is providing toolkits, easy access to relevant content, and holding open discussion sessions to educate staff – all of which is now currently being done at Ubisoft Singapore.
For Sybil, the creation of a non-partisan association that focuses on advocating for inclusivity in gaming, would be key in creating a platform that provides a much-needed space for underrepresented genders to be heard and seen.
Sophie added that great efforts have been made at Electronic Arts (EA) to work with localisation partners and development teams as a whole in order to better represent different genders, sexualities, and cultures in their games. The Inclusive Player Experience (IPeX) team, which is part of EA’s Positive Play Group, was formed to support developers, by advocating for a more consistent and deliberate effort for inclusion and diversity in both products and game development processes.
Ariana feels that it is important to raise awareness about how the gaming industry should not classify female and other gendered characters as just ‘token’ characters in games – these characters deserved to be developed and invested in. Overcoming this misrepresentation would be an important step forward for the gaming industry.
- How can the ‘older generation’ learn about the actual state of affairs in the gaming industry today?
According Ariana, younger folks need to strike a balance in their lives: they need to show their parents / those of the older generation that gaming is not harmful, and that it doesn’t consume their entire existence – that they can juggle work and play. Additionally, children need to find meaningful ways to demonstrate to their parents that their gaming achievements matter, as what they are doing is part of a multi-billion industry i.e. that video games are not a ‘waste of time’ and contribute to the society as much as other entertainment industries – maybe even on a much larger scale than they are aware about!
If you have additional questions to our panellists or if you need support, feel free to contact them to:
- Rika Lim on Twitter: @jubbileus
- Sybil Collas on Twitter: @Sybil Collas
- Sophie Mallinson: https://sophiemallinson.com/
2nd session: Gender Representation in Games: New Avatars Loading?
- Dr Sim Jiaying, Assistant Professor, DigiPen Institute of Technology
- Ms Jennifer Lufau, Founder, Afrogameuses
- Ms Angela Mejia, Co-founder and Studio Head, Clever Plays
- Ms Gwen Guo, Chairperson, Singapore Games Association
Executive Summary: This panel was organised to raise awareness on gender issues in games content, discuss the influence of scenarios and storytelling in games on contemporary gender representation, and provide recommendations to all levels of society from individuals to businesses to authorities.
Faculty member at DigiPen, Dr Sim Jiaying (she/her), teaches modules mapped to the Humanities department, which links English modules with Game Design and Game Studies. Tapping on insights gleaned from her academic background in film, Dr Sim highlights a parallel between the processes of cinema with that of games. In particular, she identifies the transformative power of both films and games in enacting different ways of thinking above their function as cultural products that reveal aspects of present reality. Jiaying no longer games a lot these days, although she enjoyed them as a child.
Angela Mejia (she/her) is a Co-founder and Studio Head of Clever Plays which is an independent game studio located in Montréal, Canada. She has been in the industry for the past eight years and joined as an entrepreneur. In her role as one of the Board of Directors of La Guilde du jeu vidéo, a non-profit organisation, she has worked on areas of improvement in the gaming industry concerning diversity. Presently, she does not game much apart from occasional multiplayer games with her family.
Jennifer Lufau (she/her), a gamer who has been playing since she was six years old, enjoys playing games of different genres: from multiplayer to adventure to indie games. She is also an occasional streamer and expresses a deep interest in the evolution of the video game industry in Africa as a whole. According to Ms Lufau, toxic behaviour in gaming and underrepresentation of black women in the industry are veritable challenges that must be tackled and overcome. As such, she works towards better representation and inclusion of underrepresented groups in the video game industry through her non-profit organisation, Afrogameuses. This focus extends to other persons of colour who are likewise involved in the industry, be it as a gamer and streamer or an employee.
- Stories: What games or events got you interested in gender diversity and inclusivity in games?
The speakers retraced their thought process and engagement around gender diversity in games, by drawing from their personal experiences. For Jennifer, an acute awareness had been present early on ever since she reflected on the poor and limited representation of female characters in games as always being helpless or hyper-sexualised. Her experiences in gaming since young have also been marked by loneliness as she had not felt represented in games nor did she know that there were communities of female gamers. Today, while she highlights that the game industry still suffers from a lack of diversity, her positive experience in playing a black female character in League of Legends (LOL) has reinforced her belief in the power of representation. Overall, the need for an inclusive gaming community and the importance of representation emerged as key focal points.
An interest in inclusivity can also arise later in life or be triggered by significant events, as was the case for Angela. Through her work, she has been exposed to the question of the position that women and minorities occupy in the gaming industry. Additionally, Angela identified the Gamergate controversy of 2015 as an alarming wake-up call for the industry over its lack of representation. This watershed event also revealed the systemic barriers that change-making initiatives in the gaming industry are up against: e.g. reactionary consumers who are quick to protect their environment against perceived threats and changes. Consequently, there is a need to create spaces for women where they have a more equal access to opportunities and funding.
Jiaying expanded on these points by applying gender studies as a framework when working towards greater diversity and representation. In particular, she raised two aspects of the gaming industry that should be mutually inclusive: the fact that the industry has a clear male majority and the role that gender studies classes have in encouraging broader thought on gender diversity. Through such classes, individuals will learn how to articulate vulnerabilities and what it means to be marginalised. Subsequently, this can challenge and change the way we think about representation. Despite her acknowledgement that gender studies is not a popular choice among students in Singapore, she maintains that anyone who gets involved in it realises the immense benefits that it brings to everyone.
- Educate: Why should games have a responsibility in shaping society and what can game creators do to better showcase diverse characters?
Games are immersive and have the unique potential and ability to give players the ability to affirm one’s identity through play. Seen in this manner, game developers have a role to play in shaping society. The games that they create should reflect not only the diversity of players, but also that of society at large, as it is important for gamers to feel represented. Hence, to Jennifer, games have a duty to be inclusive and responsibly represent diversity if the industry is to move towards eliminating marginalisation and the feeling of being invisible. While she acknowledged the continued challenges faced by the industry, Jennifer expressed optimism for the future of gaming.
Angela offered some balance to discussion around the responsibility that game creators have, by bringing up the importance of sustainability in creating games. While there may be an awareness and intention to promote diversity in representation, game creators are chiefly concerned with the game’s commercial success, which unfortunately may not always favour greater representation.
In light of this key consideration, a plausible solution or approach to better showcase diverse characters could come from promoting women and individuals from diverse backgrounds. Angela highlights that there are already many existing female game creators although they continue to lack the resources. As such, rather than competing with existing games and communities, there is a need to create a space for diverse voices and representations in the industry. Ultimately, this allows diverse characters to be better showcased which will be reflected in the quality of the content.
For Jennifer, diversity cannot simply be treated as a checkbox to be ticked, as it may result in the creation of token characters and overused stereotypes. This would render the attempt to be diverse, disingenuous. Likewise, Jiaying pointed out that many games do not know what female characters want and mentions the Bechdel test which is applied to film. Ultimately, it is clear that for diversity to be properly represented, there should be a thorough understanding and exploration of diverse characters. Furthering this point, Gwen added that diverse game creators need to be empowered and installed in key decision-making positions as well, so as to generate a positive effect on the industry over time.
- “Product: Sex sells”: What do you think about this statement by creators?
For Jennifer, despite her wish that this statement is not true, games are primarily created from a male perspective and the ‘male gaze’ accounts for the current state of gaming. With that said, there are still plenty of ways to create a good narrative with interesting profiles and characters. According to her, if the character is sexualised, the game should explain it and it should add value to the overall game.
The topic of sexualisation is incomplete without the discussion of the portrayal of rape in games, which Jennifer readily denounces as a regrettable but all-too-common vocabulary in gaming. She explained that in gaming, rape is used to characterise the worst thing that can happen to female characters. Furthermore, Jennifer underscores the different standards that apply to black women in video games who are often represented either as over-sexualised or behaving in a very masculine manner. Hence, these aforementioned points all reaffirm the importance of quality representation in games that are not limited to stereotypes and problematic tropes.
‘Sex sells’ is also a part of the marketing formula in the game industry formulated by profit-driven businesses. As a result, shared Angela, it perpetuates. Nonetheless, according to Angela, though they might not be as well-known, there are many content creators who create new games that veer away from the ‘sex sells’ approach. Hence, there is a need to concurrently create a space for such content in the industry, alongside raising awareness about unhealthy content that exists.
From Jiaying’s perspective, there is a need to call out as much sexist and over-sexualised content as possible, in an educational context – and not just punitive ones. While she acknowledges the difficulties in doing so, with gatekeepers of gaming fiercely guarding their environment against intrusions, there can be games that promote more diverse ways of existence that are not just tied to sex.
- Can games be inclusive and still be monetised? Are they mutually exclusive?
For Angela, games can be inclusive and still bring in the profits. While it remains a niche today, making a space for such games in the industry and putting resources towards it will help it grow. Such efforts would have to be driven by a conscious effort and not simply be left to market forces. Given the size and importance of the video games industry, which is currently valued at approximately USD$150 billion, it is necessary to promote better values through better content so that it can become a healthier industry for society as a whole. Therefore, everyone needs to keep talking about diversity in games, and governments need to fund the promotion of non-mainstream content. This can be done through awards for women that do not invade the space of current gaming communities but create new spaces for more diverse groups.
Inclusive and monetizable games are also better represented in indie games versus AAA games which are those produced and distributed by mid-sized or major publishers. While such games are not always easy to find, Jennifer cites successful examples such as Hades, Life is Strange: Before the Storm which deals with depression, and The Walking Dead which has a bisexual black female character. These success stories are encouraging and show that the industry is headed in the right direction when it comes to representing different genders and ethnic minorities.
When it comes to finding solutions, parallels can be drawn with the film industry where festival film circuits allow indie films to showcase their works. This idea can be applied to indie games where festivals can generate publicity.
- As an educator what are some key challenges that you face in trying to educate young male students on gender studies? (Question addressed to Jiaying)
Jiaying believes that many young men are open to learning but may feel stifled as they fear being dismissed or expressing ‘wrong’ opinions. Moreover, she clarifies the misconception that men and women are pitted against each other in gender studies. Instead, she asserts that studying gender studies teaches one about the prevailing structures in society and encourages students to think about how we are all affected by them. Consequently, this will help us to untangle ourselves from patriarchal influences and discrimination.