Liberal Feminism Is Not a Winning Strategy in Gaming

by Marijam Didzgalvyte

23 March 2017

Jonah Kessel/Vimeo

It is no secret that gaming is often perceived as a boys’ club. Although too many of the famous titles feature plot lines involve a damsel in distress or scantily-clad female characters, the actual composition of gamers looks quite different – women make up 52% of all people playing video games!

But this diversity is not reflected on the development level, with only 22% of games developers being women as of 2014. Games journalism sites will also offer numerous articles on the fact that within the industry, men are three times more likely to earn top dollar. Quite a few collectives and discussions are dedicated to the promotion of women getting involved in making video games and having equal opportunities to their male counterparts. Unfortunately, it is not enough.

The route that allows career prosperity in the gaming industry is paved with the blood and suffering of women populations in the Global South creating the devices crucial for the game development jobs to exist – yet sadly their voices are vastly underrepresented or even silenced.

Most of the gadgets used to create and enjoy video games will contain minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where  decades of conflict have progressively dismantled the region’s long-standing economic systems based on agriculture and small-scale trade. Mining, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the very few ways to earn cash quickly, particularly for widowed or divorced women without other job opportunities. Women are also uniquely vulnerable to sexual exploitation and there are reports of transactional sex being demanded in order to gain entry and employment in the mining towns.

The minerals mined in DRC are then transported, most likely to Foxconn’s plants in Shenzhen or Longhua, where more than a million people are employed to assemble PlayStation and Xbox consoles, many Apple products, HP and Dell laptops. At least 20 suicide attempts have taken place at Foxconn’s plants since 2010, eight of them women. One of those was Tian Yu, a teenager who had to skip meals to do overtime, working more than 12 hours a day, six days a week manufacturing tablets and smartphones. On the morning of 17 March 2010, Yu jumped from the fourth floor of her factory dormitory.

Yu’s experience is completely neglected at the events for minorities in the gaming industry or at the Bafta award ceremonies for outstanding games. The people who can afford having discussions about representation and top jobs producing games are already fortunate enough not to be dependent on the jobs which create the tools that are paramount to the industry.

It’s a sort of Hillary Clinton/Theresa May type of feminism – a belief that if only we could have more women in the positions of power and paid just as well as men, then the effect would trickle down to lower paid jobs.

If no structural change is produced, placing more diverse figures in positions of power means nothing for the majority female workforce that remains overworked, under-appreciated and underpaid. This is what corporate feminism looks like: billion-dollar corporations which screw over the working class and marginalised, time and time again using diversity at the upper echelons to disguise structural inequality.

How do we combat this? Here is a selection of proposals the games industry should take a note of:

Conference panels.

Obviously there is a need to include discussions about the gendered impact of the tech industry at conferences like Women in Games, Women in Tech and Next Tech Girls. However, the suggestion would be to take it much further and organise separate conferences, focusing solely on production processes. Otherwise, it risks becoming a box-ticking exercise – tokenistic socially-aware discussions happening in the midst of the business moguls, with little action coming out of them. These panels must include members of the fragile but incredibly important unions that work to protect and demand workers’ rights in the Global South.

Support the strikes.

2012 and 2014 has seen thousands of Foxconn workers go on strike, demanding better pay and safer working conditions. Those working in the upper echelons of the industry, all safe and competing for better jobs in the West, Japan and South Korea, must express loud and unanimous solidarity with these strikes.

There are many ways to express support –  for instance, gaming outlets could raise money to pay into strike funds. The (self-proclaimed) socially responsible part of the tech industry should spread awareness of the reasons for these strikes and fund their existence.

Just a few months ago, an estimated 150m Indian workers went on a general strike to demand better wages. If the numbers are to be believed, this is the biggest industrial action in human history – but the media was remained suspiciously quiet. If we are serious about challenging the status quo of the tech industries, we cannot ignore such actions.

Pressure on the industry.

Whether one works for a magazine reviewing games made for PlayStation, Xbox or PC, or is a developer creating games to be enjoyed on these platforms, make a stand. Write open letters, boycott, challenge these companies for employing brutal practices in manufacturing. Right now, certain people are making billions off the suffering in the Global South and they reign with impunity – this must stop.

Companies have choices! They can make an effort in building conflict-free trade in partnership with the Public-Private Alliance on Responsible Minerals Trade and pilot closed-end pipeline projects like the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative to increase community benefits for Congolese people exploited by mineral mining.

Intel has been the number one company in making progress on conflict minerals – committing to making a fully conflict-free computer chip, helping lead the Conflict-Free Smelter Program which audits smelters, participating in building the Solutions for Hope tantalum project in the DRC, the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative, and the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade, and being on the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region regional minerals certification audit committee. Motorola Solutions and HP have also made steps in the right direction.

Push for government legislation.

On 15 June 2016, the European Union agreed to outline a deal to facilitate a focus on transparency in the supply chain. This legislation concerns the sourcing of conflict minerals, not just in the DRC, but other high-risk regions worldwide. This goes further into the geographic scope than the US’s 2012 Dodd-Frank legislation, which only looks into the DRC and adjoining countries.

These pieces of legislation will focus on imports of materials and substances used to make finished products such as cell phones, computers, light bulbs, medical devices and retail accessories. However, the proposals only allow the companies to ‘opt-in’ to responsible mineral sourcing (which is often more expensive). A coalition of prominent politicians and NGOs criticise these bills for being mere suggestions and covering only a tiny proportion of the trade. They do not ban companies from using conflict minerals, but rather require them to be honest about their supply chains and encourage a greater awareness of their connection to the crises in the region. Encouragement does not equal adequate protection so overall these bills are intensely watered-down and remain at large ineffective.

Charity work.

Now, there is no lack of criticism for charities: they tend to target symptoms instead of causes, they can spend way too much on advertising and staff instead of actual charitable work, they also offer comfortable tax loopholes and may simply become a substitute for real justice – but not all every charity is like that.

Recently I’ve been impressed with the work done by Slum Innovation and Indian Girls Code, which both fund coding and robotics courses for girls in Indian orphanages. The results of the efforts by these organisations are very concrete – they provide tools for girls and women to create opportunities for themselves and empower them in a male-dominated industry. At 23 Code Street, women can sign up for coding courses here in London and the money raised will then support the projects in India.

Charities like Oxfam, Women International and Care also do important work with women affected by the military interventions in the DRC. However, the financial chains of these larger institutions are so complicated that  investing in smaller, more direct projects and workers’ unions seem to be more sustainable.

Ethical hardware.

With the ever-increasing power of computing and network technology, the future has the potential to be marked by a reduction in hardware and the development of cloud-based technologies. In the future, a tiny Raspberry Pi microchip that costs as little as $5- $35 will be able to hold all the computing power necessary for AAA games, due to its connection with the cloud. Storing computer power in servers – which then can heat our homes – is a much more economically and ecologically viable option for future electronics and if we wish to give any civic merit to digital mediums, we should take notice.

In the short-term, it would be fascinating to see gaming companies adopt the ideals of Fairphone and Fairphone 2. The Dutch company is currently working on its third model of ethically produced smartphone – the materials used are from conflict-free zones, assembled in Netherlands by well-paid professionals. At €520 it is not cheap, but due to its modular design, all of the parts can be upgraded so the phone can have an unusually long lifespan. I would love to see a company like Valve, for instance, jumping on to creating a console and monitor equivalent of Fairphone.

Again, none of this ideal. Technically it reduces the existing workforce and results in millions of people being unemployed, though arguably increasing automation means it is somewhat unavoidable.

Direct action.

If nice words and demands won’t help –  it is our responsibility to be angry. As women, it is our creativity that is making tech and gaming ever more impressive, engaging and unique. We have the agency to protest the atrocities committed by the brutal capitalist tech machine. If the bosses don’t listen (and why would they), we must be persistent and combative. We cannot ignore the fact that these economies are so deeply entrenched – people having better work conditions would probably equate to electronics being more expensive, companies won’t just choose to reduce their profit. That’s why a diversity of tactics must lead to a complete overthrow of how we engage with commodities and modes of transaction.

Why do I place the responsibility to fight this onto women, you ask? We must refuse being seen as hypocritical – while asking for diversity in gaming we cannot fundamentally ignore the anguish of communities who make the industry possible. The fight for representation is certainly universal, but as women we have been subjected to oppression disproportionately more. We know better.

While we are experiencing a massive expansion of roles in gaming on a managerial and narratological level, it would be very sad to see it stop there. The mission is to refuse becoming complacent and thinking that if we have an equal number of women at the top of our industries, the fight is over. Diversity can be a convenient tool for capitalism – focusing on individual success stories, rather than structural inequality, is politically useful when attacking living standards. Feminism will only prevail when all women are liberated, not just the ones earning more money.


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