It's no big secret that the tech and video game industries have a problem with diversity. And when it comes to women, those issues are particularly well-documented.
Apple earned plaudits just this week for having two women appear onstage during a keynote event and finally announcing a menstruation-tracking feature in a health app that had already been around for a year. And in 2014, some individuals organized under the #GamerGate banner launched an infamous, sometimes violent campaign against feminist critics of video games.
But there are people working on the problem. Earlier this year, culture critics Leigh Alexander and Laura Hudson launched Offworld.com, a gaming (and sometimes tech-focused) website initially described as "an unequivocal home for women and minorities."
The website is an offshoot of Boing Boing, an award-winning media outlet founded in 1988 that now exists mostly as a blog focusing on art, pop culture, tech and science. Alexander and Hudson are no strangers to the game: Alexander was the editor of industry news site Gamasutra, while Hudson was the founder of popular site Comics Alliance before jumping over to Wired a couple of years ago.
Their Offworld site isn't perfect, though. It's is still building a stable of contributors and is mostly populated with pieces by its two main editors, somewhat obscuring its mission of diversity.
The Huffington Post recently interviewed Laura Hudson, one of those editors, to talk about the challenge of bringing diversity to gaming and tech culture -- a task shared by Offworld.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When Offworld was first announced, its mission was to include diverse voices and bring in all sorts of different people. I wonder if some might go to Offworld.com and see that the bylines tend to be Laura Hudson and Leigh Alexander and wonder if that mission is being fulfilled. How will you continue to include diverse voices moving forward?
Laura Hudson: Right now, we’re trying to establish ourselves as a site. I feel really proud of all of the freelance feature writers that we’ve brought in. It’s a balance that I think we are never going to stop pushing for, because I don’t think that anyone should ever get to a point where they say, "Diversity goal achieved, mission accomplished!"
Obviously, both of [our editors] are women. I’m white. Leigh identifies as mixed race. But it would be very difficult for any two people to comprise the diversity necessary to represent everyone.
Let's talk about diverse voices being heard in the gaming realm. Where do you think we are right now and where do we need to go from here?
LH: What I would say about games is something similar to what I would say about a lot of tech and a lot of industries, particularly ones that are male-dominated. There’s an attitude within a lot of corporate cultures, that it’s not that they want to exclude women, it’s that they don’t particularly do a lot to include them.
It’s easy for a lot of these workplace cultures to be hostile to women -- or people of color or differently abled people -- in ways that they don’t necessarily understand are hostile. And there’s more of an expectation that women or different types of people have to adapt to it. They don’t really change anything about the culture and then wonder why there aren’t more diverse people there, then they shrug and say, “Well, they’re not interested.”
If companies and game developers really care about these issues, then they need to deal with it on a deeper level than just saying that they want more diverse employees. It requires a slightly more transformative approach. I don’t think we’re there. After last year, I think there are a lot of women who have come to perceive games as an even more hostile place than they had before. I’d like to see more work around trying to counteract that.
What sort of work to you have in mind when you say that?
LH: Partly it’s hiring practices. If you just throw the doors open and say, well, we’re not going to change anything about ourselves and anyone can come through the door, you’re going to perpetuate the cycle of the people who always have historically been there.
You know, there’s this notion that in a meritocracy you just throw open the doors and anyone who comes in is the most deserving. I think that’s not always the case. When you’re dealing with environments and industries that have been hostile to women in the past, you have to do a little extra work. You actually have to seek out that diversity and not just wait for it to come to you.
Even if you look at recruiting materials, you look at them a lot of the time and it’s just guys, or it’s just female video game characters in bikinis, and that’s not necessarily going to achieve that goal. There are a lot of ways that more work could be done, and I think it varies from company to company. It requires active work.
On that note, "Grand Theft Auto V" is one of the biggest games in the world, but a lot of it strikes me as sexist or offensive. Do you think that the mainstream game culture is actually hostile to people who don’t fit the most basic mold?
LH: Obviously it varies from game to game and company to company, but I think it varies from hostile to unwelcoming. I would say "Grand Theft Auto" is definitely misogynistic, but it’s also misanthropic. That game hates human beings. It hates female human beings in a very specific, sexualized way; but it also hates all humans.
The fact that so many of these games are so popular, yet so many people don’t perceive them as an issue, indicates something larger in the culture. A lot of people genuinely look at these games and don’t see a problem, and they don't feel like they hate women, but they’re so inured to it that they don’t necessarily understand why this would be alienating to a lot of people.
There’s a second step that goes beyond "stop actively offending women." Start actively welcoming them. That’s the next step, and it’s equally important.
What would that look like to you?
LH: You know what is really great, and I’m writing something about it, is “Splatoon.” It’s an amazing game. And it’s interesting because there are actually young men who are playing as the female character.
When I played the game, the player selection screen came up and the girl was on the left and the boy was on the right. So, in a sense, the first character you see is female, sort of inverting these notions that male is default. And you can easily play the guy, but the female character is way cooler. And there’s something wonderful about that.
The game is very playful and fun, and there’s a fashion element to it, but not in an inherently feminized way. It’s not “going to the boutique at the mall,” but there’s something very welcoming about it for everyone.
I think putting that type of care into character design to make the female characters as interesting and appealing as the male characters -- you don’t necessarily need to make a super-feminized game in order to appeal to women. If every game did that, I think we’d live in a profoundly different world for games.
Nintendo's "Splatoon" (Source)
Can you tell me about coverage on Offworld that you’re particularly proud of, or that is emblematic of what Offworld is capable of?
LH: In terms of my own work, I think maybe the thing that I’m proudest of so far is my piece about “Bloodborne.” It’s a "Souls"-series game, which are known for being a very specific type of hardcore, that involve a lot of persistence, that offer these particularly incredible emotional payoffs when you finally achieve your goal.
A lot of the time, these games offer payoffs that we don’t necessarily get in life, and I think that’s part of why we like them. If you put in a certain amount of effort, you will get the rewards that you will expect. And that’s not something that always happens in life.
If a game requires you to put in that time and energy and doesn’t give anything back, then that’s the kind of game you walk away from. And that’s the thesis of my article -- that it helped me recognize that there were things in my life that I needed to walk away from, because they were punishing without any reward.
Gameplay in "Bloodborne." (Source)
The "Souls" series and "Bloodborne" are very low on the list of accessible games. They’re very difficult. I have friends who aren't gamers at all and wouldn't be able make it through the first three minutes. How do you approach writing with that issue in mind?
LH: Some of my favorite pieces about games that I’ve read have come from people who have completely different perspectives from me. I don’t know if you’ve read "When Fashion is Frightening," a feature by Anna Anthropy that she wrote for us? She wrote about a Nintendo game called "Style Savvy: Trendsetters." It’s about fashion, but she also wrote about her experience as a trans woman:
As a trans woman who grew up without ever being taught the thousand secret rules of performing femininity, I walk through life terrified that I'm wearing something the wrong way, this couldn't possibly go with that, I must look ridiculous wearing this outfit in this weather -- no one else is wearing a long black dress and tights. Any detail could give away the game, could expose the facade of my femininity to reveal that I'm a Fake Woman.
I would have never played that game and had that response to it because her perspective and her experience is different than mine. So, you mentioned that one person might not be able to go in and do this or that, but that’s part of what I find so fantastic about games writing.
Nintendo's "Style Savvy: Trendsetters" (Source)
Is there anything else you would like to communicate before we wrap up here today?
LH: I hope more people will check out Offworld -- and games in general. Nothing makes me happier than when someone who doesn’t traditionally play games connects with them for the first time or gets really excited about them. I love that, because I love games, and I love seeing people get out of it what I get out of it. And finding more ways for people to do that is obviously something that I’m passionate about.