Review by Don Unger
Read about or watch a video of Keynote 3 on the C&W conference site.
Samantha Blackmon began her keynote by addressing specific situations where the treatment of women in the gaming industry led to immense public discussion. For example, she addressed #1reasonwhy, a hash tag that emerged in response to this tweet by Kickstarter employee Luke Crane:
Crane’s question generated thousands of responses. #1reasonwhy provided a way to collect personal anecdotes about treatment at conferences and in workplaces, critiques of game content, and links to projects by, for, or about women as well as other initiatives aimed at combating sexism in the gaming industry and throughout nerd/geek culture. It opened up discussion, provided answers, and raised further questions about what could be done to combat behavior and practices that denigrate and marginalize women and women’s experiences in various milieus.
As Blackmon argues, the flurry of activity surrounding the hashtag prompted many folks to rationalize why women should be there and underscored how and why it is important to mentor women interested in tech industries. Such work carried over into other venues. One example Blackmon addresses, though I may discuss differently in this review, stems from the 2013 Game Developers Conference (GDC), which featured a panel dealing with the issues raised through #1reasonwhy. While it’s awesome that the conference featured such a session, the treatment that the panel drew attention to continued during the GDC itself. Only hours after the panel concluded, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), the organization that manages the conference, held a party featuring scantily clad female dancers meant to entertain party goers. The incident prompted Brenda Romero to resign her position as the chair of IGDA’s Women in Games Special Interest Group. Other resignations followed. In the aftermath, representatives of IGDA apologized, blamed their corporate sponsor YetiZen, and invited those who resigned to come back and help make the organization better. Is it hard to imagine why Romero and others weren’t interested in taking IGDA up on its offer? There’s a certain disconnect apparent in both examples, i.e., IGDA’s lack of consideration in carrying out its event and the impetus for Crane’s question discussed at the outset of this review.
I’ll explain. At Kickstarter, Crane deals with projects aimed at gamers and gaming communities. Additionally, his Twitter feed documents the countless gaming events he participates in as both an avid gamer and someone with at least a modicum of power within the industry. If I interpret his question as one of genuine interest and concern, then I would assume he does not meet many women game designers through his work. Still, considering Crane’s level of involvement in the industry, it seems strange for him not to have observed incidents similar to those detailed in the myriad #1reasonwhy tweets. Moreover, those tweets weren’t limited to incidents. What then about the games that get funded via Kickstater or even the games he plays? Has Crane missed how the lion’s share of video games depict female characters? Did he miss the tweets critiquing game content? He probably did considering that 3446 people follow him on Twitter, but he only follows 165. To continue to give him the benefit of the doubt though, maybe Crane has observed such incidents and played these games, and maybe he’s critical of them. Maybe when he tweeted his question he was incapable of considering how such experiences work together to keep women on the margins of the industry or he felt powerless to do anything about it. However well-intentioned his initial tweet was, he has a blind spot. IGDA exhibit a similar blind spot. Apologizing to Romero and others after the fact and then asking that they return to help make the organization better doesn’t address the organization’s practices and their membership’s behavior. If we are overly generous in interpreting Crane’s tweet and IGDA’s apology, then we see that these blind spots belie a serious problem, which is an inability to relate to women’s experiences and to consider perspectives other than one’s own, or an unwillingness or inability to act on these perspectives. Addressing this problem lay at the heart of Sam’s keynote.
While Blackmon’s examples focused on tech industries, particularly gaming, the lessons hit close to home. Throughout her presentation, she urged the audience to become #thatgirl (or #thatguy or #thatperson). #thatgirl might well contribute to #1reasonwhy. She intervenes in specific situations to draw attention to women’s experiences and critique the mechanisms that keep women at the margins—individual’s attitudes and behaviors in addition to organizations’ policies and practices. #thatgirl is self-critical and dedicated to reflective practice as well. She works with others to develop alternatives and solutions that are inclusive and accessible.
To that end, Blackmon turned to questions and comments after setting up what it means to be #thatgirl. During the discussion, she and a number of scholars offered practical advice about what we all can do to combat sexism and misogyny at various levels of our field and in the various spaces that comprise it. In the classroom, we can address sexism in the workplace and assign readings that demonstrate the struggle against sexism isn’t a personal crusade: we can look at examples from social media and address how industries respond to particular incidents. In our departments, we can address how attitudes toward gender, race, and sexual orientation affect assessment measures, such as teaching evaluations. On our campuses, we can help create safer spaces by making it known that we are someone students can talk to about their experiences, and we can point them toward additional resources. In the discipline, we can craft policies and popularize practices that emerge from the diversity of women’s experiences rather than in spite of those experiences. We can work with organizational bodies, such as Computers and Writing’s Social Justice Working Group, to bring specific issues to the field’s attention. We can address the bifurcation between those scholars focusing on technological aspects of the field and those focusing on cultural critique. In commenting on a colleague’s work, we can ask why there aren’t any (or are few) women cited in their research. Finally, we can be open to criticism that helps change our own practices and behavior.
Put simply, Blackmon used her keynote to issue a challenge to the field, and if the discussion following her presentation is any indication, many people have been considering this challenge for a long time. The question remains: as a field, are we ready to take it up?
For some of Samantha Blackmon’s recent work, check out Not Your Mama’s Gamer, a podcast and blog that focuses on the perspectives and experiences of women gamers.
Don Unger is a Doctoral Candidate at Purdue University. You can follow him on Twitter @donunger.