Women Leaving Games Over Harassment Is "a Real Shame," IGDA Director Says

Q&A: Kate Edwards talks harassment in gaming, the need for developers to take on risks, and more.

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Women quitting the games industry over harassment is a "real shame," according to Kate Edwards. She is the executive director of the International Game Developers Association, a non-profit group that advocates for developers big and small across the world. It's a significant responsibility, and one she doesn't take lightly. That's the impression I got when I sat down with Edwards recently for a wide-ranging interview about several hot-button industry issues making headlines in 2015.

Below are highlights from our conversation, covering topics like the the aforementioned harassment some women are facing, the need for developers to take risks, and more.

Harassment of Women: "A Real Shame"

The IGDA partnered with chip-maker Intel earlier this year as part of the company's $300 million effort to increase efforts to hire women and minorities in the wake of the firm's controversial decision to pull an advertisement due to pressure from the "Gamergate" movement. Edwards says she's quite proud of Intel's campaign and looks forward to working with the company on the inclusivity effort.

"Obviously, there was a big deal made with our partnership with Intel, which we're very proud about. And I think what Intel did, their move, which I really applauded them for, was not just about--'Let's just remedy our mistake,'" Edwards said. "[Brian Krzanich], the CEO, he is very serious that it's not just about covering our ass with this one mistake. [He said], 'We're going to change this situation not just for the game industry but the entire tech sector,' and I thought that was a very bold move for them. I'm hoping other companies follow suit because it's not just one company's problem."

"I'm hoping other companies follow suit because it's not just one company's problem"

So in our partnership with them, we're focusing on areas of primarily looking at acquisition and retention as two key areas that we need to focus on in the industry. And with acquisition, part of that is going to be developing a better pipeline; there's a lot of STEM programs out there for girls, there's a lot of even game STEM programs for girls, and people of color. How do we get that better connected with the actual industry track, like how you get into the industry? It's one thing to expose them to it. How do you actually bridge that from exposure to education to actual entry into the industry? And so we're talking with different partners about how we can make that happen, implementing programs and have a better on-ramp to a game industry career."

Talking specifically about harassment towards women in the video game industry, Edwards said she's heard stories of women who have simply walked out of the games business and took another job in the technology sector to avoid the abuse. That's a "real shame," Edwards said.

"So when we're talking about retention issues, of course one of the major retention issues, especially in light of the last few months, is harassment and how do you deal with that," she explained. "Everyone has a different fortitude with how they deal with it. I know a lot of women I speak with in the industry, they see that happening, they've been part of it, they've been targeted by it, and they're just like, ‘I don't need this. I can go get a job … I can still be a programmer, just not in games. I can go work for some IT company, have a good job, and will never have to deal with this stuff.' And that's a real shame. We don't want to see that happen."

As part of the IGDA's effort to combat such issues, it's working with organizations like the anti-bullying group Cybersmile and mental health advocacy group TakeThis to provide resources to game developers.

"So there's different organizations like the Cybersmile group that specializes in online bullying, and there's groups like TakeThis which is focused mainly on mental health issues," Edwards said. "So we're trying to better partner with them because we, in our role, we interface with so many developers worldwide. We can act as a resource center so they can come to us and help them to say, 'Here's what you can get if you have this need go to these folks.' If we can't provide it, then we're going to partner with someone who can. And obviously we're not trying to retread the wheel. If we can be a coordinating group that brings together different resources that developers can leverage, then that's what we're going to do."

"Sequel-itis"

Clearly, there is money to be made by releasing sequels--and there is nothing inherently wrong sequels or making money. But all the same, "sequel-itis" is a potential problem, Edwards says.

"One of the big things we need to be careful of is being risk-averse. It's understandable why an industry would be risk-averse because they want to maintain revenue flow. And that's why we keep seeing sequel-itis. Not that that's necessarily always a bad thing because sometimes these sequels are good; they're good, compelling games. So I'm not knocking that strategy. It's just that, going back to the idea of advancing game design and advancing the craft and providing the public with something they've never seen before, we have the opportunity to do that. Just like film does it. Film has been around for over 100 years; you think you've seen everything, and then some movie will come out one year and it blows your mind."

I interject here, saying I thought Birdman was an example of this. Edwards agrees.

"Are you going to just keep delivering the umpteenth variation of a Bejeweled/Candy Crush game or are you going to do something that's really different?"

"So we have the opportunity to do that. We basically have the collective attention of a consumer base that loves playing games. So what are you going to do with that? You have this demographic, they love playing, so what are you going to do with it? Because effectively that is your future. Are you going to just keep delivering the umpteenth variation of a Bejeweled/Candy Crush game or are you going to do something that's really different?"

"And a lot of it comes down to, it's an individual developer decision. Do they want to make money and that's it; obviously there's a lot a reasons for it; we get cloning," she added. "Or do you actually want to do something different and unique, and have accolades for it? Or not even get accolades; just be happy with what you're doing? And I think for most developers out there, they really want the latter.

The Video Game Industry: Similarities to the NFL?

The National Football League had its fair share of problems in 2014. Off-the-field domestic violence controversy was a staple of the season, with some even calling for commissioner Roger Goodell to resign amid the fallout. He didn't. And despite all of that, the Super Bowl in February posted the best ratings in history. I wondered if Edwards thought the the video game industry, which also faced an avalanche of criticism during the year over "Gamergate" but saw overall sales climb year-over-year, was similar to the NFL in this way. That is to say, the headlines may sometimes be unpleasant, but they aren't enough to drive people away.

Edwards admitted there are similarities. But she sees a one major difference. That's the fact that Goodell has the power to step in and make dramatic, sweeping changes in regards to policies and punishments for domestic abuse (or any other issue), while is no one central body that ultimately influences behavior for the video game industry.

"There's certainly similarities with the community around, the fanbase community, around that, whatever it is. Yeah, you can draw similarities between the way the game-playing community would act or react to something. It's kind of the nature of fandom, is what I'm getting at," Edwards said. "And I think there's a lot of similarities around anything. Fandom around comics, movies, sports, whatever. So I think you can draw a lot of parallels there."

"The game industry is extremely diverse; it's global, you've got so many variables that make up what is the industry"

"But I think at the same time with the game industry, there's a lot of things we can do to change; the NFL can do it too," she added. "They can make those changes. Actually, I would say one of the differences there is that the NFL is one body; they can just decree and make it happen, although it has to be through negotiations with their unions. But the game industry, that's not what we are."

Edwards said the video game industry is tough to describe with any one definition, since it's such a diverse and constantly changing business, full of developers big and small. And with the proliferation of free or inexpensive game development tools, just about anyone can be a developer today.

"The game industry is extremely diverse; it's global, you've got so many variables that make up what is the industry," she said. "You've got a definition of the industry that is rapidly changing because when you consider, for instance, what do you call someone who gets a free copy of Unity and does Unity games on their spare time but they're an accountant? And they love being an accountant and they're never going to change that, but they love throwing a game up on the App Store every once in a while. Are they a game developer? And if they are, then what does that make professional game developers versus hobbyist game developers?"

"I think in a way, that's OK. I think we're at that stage where [we're] talking about ubiquity of gameplay. I think we're also at a stage where we're talking about the ubiquity of game development. Because tools are cheap, they're free, there's umpteen tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere, and so in a way it's kind of like the old days when anyone could get a drawing pad and start sketching; anyone had access to painting. Everyone could have access to a typewriter to write to express themselves artistically; so I think we're finally getting to that stage with games where virtually anyone can just make what they want to make."

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