“There’s a scene in the dark video game The Last of Us when a girl of 13 is stalking a deer in a snowy forest. Ellie is one of a few survivors in a post-apocalyptic, disease-ridden America, and is hunting to feed herself and an older man called Joel, who is injured. So the roles of hunter and carer are reversed – Ellie is strong and playful, challenging the more typical roles of women as bystanders, or collateral, or victims. She is as capable of saving Joel as he is of saving her.
Thousands of Christmas days will have been spent trying to keep the pair alive. Video games are one of the most vibrant cultural forms of the 21st century – but they have an image problem. The industry is seen as a boys’ club, a production line of games written by young men, predominantly aimed at young men. Even though independent studios are making more diverse content than ever, gaming culture is dominated by male voices. In the UK only 14% of the UK’s video game workforce is female, compared with 47% in film production.
In many ways, the video game industry is facing the same challenges in representation and diversity as Hollywood, yet games are far more dynamic and more intimate. Too often the assumption is that playing the role of a woman would be a disadvantage – you’d be weaker, already a victim – and that it raises the odds. Perhaps where film represents an aspiration, games reflect an uncomfortable truth about real life – that it might be a disadvantage to be a woman.
Yet as games themselves diversify, so do their players. Take account of games such as Candy Crush Saga, and more than half of gamers are women. The sniffy response within the games industry is that games played on phones and tablets aren’t really games – they’re mere interactive diversions, based on highly compulsive luck mechanisms. But this says more about the inherent and problematic assumptions and beliefs of the industry than it does about the games themselves.
Part of the problem is that there are not enough female graduates in maths, physics and programming, although there are outstanding exceptions, such asRhianna Pratchett, who has led the writing on games such as Tomb Raider andMirror’s Edge, and Sophia George, who spent 2014 as the Victoria and Albert museum’s first ever resident game designer.
The industry makes about $60bn a year, so it’s a financial success. But in the mainstream console and PC gaming sectors, the prevalent mono-culture relies on an ever-diminishing pool of staple concepts – war and sports games dominate the charts, and sequels, tie-ins and spin-offs are the norm; in creative terms, the industry is imploding. A more diverse workforce, in terms of not just gender, but also sexuality and ethnicity, would lead to a wider array of ideas and inputs, not because women and minorities have better ideas but because they sometimes have different ones…”