March 8th is the international day of struggle for the rights of women and gender minorities. It celebrates the historical and current struggles of feminist movements. The video game industry, far from being locked in a bubble of apolitical passion, is an environment where sexist and sexual violence thrives and where these struggles are very much alive.
Today, cisgender men make up more than 75% of game workers and hold a majority of positions of power. Their over-representation leads to a homogenisation of video games and difficult, violent and dangerous workplace environments for women and people of marginalised genders.
Yet this was not always the norm, as women were the first to work in programming. The story of the « human computers » – invisible for a long time – is becoming more widely known thanks to the work of feminist activists. Similarly, women have been involved in the field of video games from the beginning, in contrast to the fantasy of the solitary developer in his parents’ garage. As in the rest of society, women occupy essential roles in production and contribute to the creation of cultural works. But their work is made invisible and discredited, and their presence is reduced to a “list of notable women”.
State of play
Feminist organisations in the industry
The low presence of women in the industry is a social and political problem. For several years the SNJV, one of the industry’s employers’ lobbying groups, has presented its own statistics to give a subjective account of the French video game industry. The growth in women employment in the industry that bosses congratulate themselves about every year remains pathetic: the share of women workers in studios gravitates around 20%.
Women’s organisations – sometimes reluctant to define themselves as feminist – are trying to encourage the presence of women in the industry. The most influential ones include among their members employers’ organisations, game publishers and studios that have been criticised for their sexist and misogynistic corporate culture. They believe that they are virtually required to do so in order to exist politically and have the financial resources to support women in the industry.
It can be acknowledged that these organisations can be useful as a springboard for women who are not very politically aware and are just discovering feminist issues. We all started out with no political and feminist consciousness. Angry and radical ideas develop over the course of one’s life, and it doesn’t take much to build engaged people.
Despite this, the existence of alliances between these organisations, employers’ lobbies and publishers is problematic, both in terms of preventing violence and in terms of radical feminist strategy:
- their actions serve to whitewash the actions against women taken by the studios, publishers or schools they work with;
- their initiatives only highlight women as part of symbolic performances, setting them up as tokens of diversity to comply with the hypocritical statements of employers’ organisations;
- their structure sets the conditions for the emergence and perpetuation of a white, ableist, bourgeois feminism, which will never understand the lives of other women and which, in the long run, will further exclude precarious, LGBT+, racialised and/or disabled women from the industry;
- these alliances imply a lack of independence from publishers and employers’ lobbies, who will shut down any feminist criticism deemed too aggressive, and have already prevented these organisations from speaking out about recent revelations.
The fight against oppression in video games will not succeed as long as it serves as a way for employers to promote their interests. They have already revealed their hypocrisy by lobbying politicians to get them to withdraw an amendment imposing a gender equality requirement on the allocation of video game tax credits. They only serve their own interests, and never those of women and gender minorities. It is no longer necessary to prove that the video game industry has long favoured the development of toxic working environments for women and gender minorities, who still suffer from sexist and sexual violence.
The defensive reactions of people in power
In recent years, the general and specialized press has reported on the systemic violence that flourished in the video game industry. This journalistic production comes directly from what some have called the liberation of women’s speech, even if, in fact, women did not wait for the arrival of social networks to talk, especially among themselves, about what they were going through.
In response to this bad press, the bosses, studios and school administrators have put in place numerous initiatives to promote diversity policies which are, as we have already been able to demonstrate, only communication campaigns. Women who carry out these diversity policies are expected to be docile and not challenge the established order, allowing management to ignore the discriminatory working conditions that people of marginalized genders face.
At the forefront of these communication campaigns are renowned publishers: Riot Games, Activision-Blizzard, Ubisoft, and many others where there are still thriving boys club and misogynistic, sexist and dangerous environments for women and people of marginalized genders. Smaller studios are not exempt from these environments and, on the contrary, the precariousness that reigns there encourages behaviors of harassment and violence.
In almost all cases, bosses and people in positions of power (managers, HR) protect each other and use anti-democratic corporate structures to shelter themselves. Regardless of the size of the business, women and people of marginalized genders face the same choice: shut up and suffer, or leave.
Women and gender minorities are over-represented in the most precarious occupations, whatever the industry. Because of the discrimination imposed on them, they encounter greater difficulties in finding a job, accumulating experience, gaining recognition for their expertise… which leaves them less freedom to refuse jobs and precarious working conditions. In addition, they are very often responsible for reproductive work in their “free” time, whether it is domestic work, children or other family responsibilities.
There are solutions to break this precariousness: improve job stability, promote the reduction of working time without loss of pay, set up unlimited days off, put an end to the cooptation that maintains boys club, and many more. The demands made by the STJV in March and June last year respond to these needs.
Discrimination, sexist and sexual violence will not disappear by magic. This will go as much through training as through the direct evolution of working conditions, by giving back agency to women and people of marginalized gender.
It is the collective organization of the people concerned, us, game industry workers, which makes it possible to create real places of exchange, support and activism outside of any dependence on the logics of capitalist exploitation. Through union action, we can force employers to accept our demands for a fairer video game industry.
Unions as a mean of contestation
Women and people of marginalized genders have always been present in labor movement. March 8, the international day for women’s rights, has its origins in the strike of workers in Saint Petersburg on March 8, 1917, which triggered the Russian revolutions. It was neither the first nor the last time that women took action.
Although their fights, like their place in working society, are invisible in labor history, the mobilizations of women are driving forces and are not limited to one area. With patriarchy and capitalism feeding off each other, when women fight for specific rights, they often advance rights and working conditions for society as a whole. The revolution will be feminist or it will not be.
In game development, we can mention the Kotaku article in 2018 and the Riot Games workers’ strike in 2019, the collective organization of affected people has shaken up the established order. Their mobilizations have led to legal actions and, we hope soon, to major changes in working conditions for the video game industry in the USA.
By creating the STJV in 2017, we aimed to destroy the last ideological bastions that said that the video game sector was a big family, a place of passion without politics. For more than five years, we have been fighting to make the professional environment of French video games more just for all workers, and in particular for women and people of marginalized genders who continue to suffer from working conditions and deleterious existence.
Unions are fighting spaces for the rights of women and people of marginalized gender, whether it is a question of creating spaces for speaking out in single-sex groups, of providing legal support for women who are victims of sexist and sexual violence inside companies, to force the bosses to give power back to the employees or to undermine the authority and the power of the aggressors and those who protect them. What gives us the power to speak out and act is to be able to come together, recognize our common problems, know our rights, train ourselves on the violence we suffer, qualify it, and support each other to obtain justice and break the system at the origin of this violence.
Joining a union is reaffirming a pact of friendship, solidarity and mutual defense between all video game workers. It is to train on how to listen our comrades testimonies, to acknowledge rape culture’s harm, and it is to fight against the patriarchal mechanisms at work in our circles. It means breaking our isolation and helping each other to create the balance of power that will improve our living conditions for all.
We, women and marginalized people of the STJV call on our peers to unionize to form a radical feminist bloc and together create the conditions necessary to destroy the entire system of patriarchal violence in the video game sector. May, never again, no woman and no marginalized person who comes into the industry, have to go through what we have gone through, and that oppressors shall meet their consequences.