Video games still lagging in equality

A scene from the video game "The Wolf Among Us", made by Telltale Games. The scene shows a female character and two male characters, appearing to be in conversation.

writer icon Paige Whitehead     Telltale Games   |   Game Development     🕐 22. Oct. 2018

Video games have broken out of the basement and into the mainstream. Millions of dollars are spent on beautiful art, storytelling, and voice acting. Video games are one of the most profitable forms of entertainment.

For all its success, the history of video games is mired in sexism, poor work ethics, and a resounding stubbornness. In an ever-changing world, why are video games lagging so far behind?

Defining genre and gender
In the 1980s, video games were flooding the market. They were being produced at an astonishing rate, which meant a decrease in quality.

Some games were for adults only and considered very tasteless. One of the most notable games was called Custer’s Revenge, in which a naked, pixelated General Custer attempts to cross the plains to rape a Native American woman.

The game was not well received, despite gaining sales from media attention. After multiple complaints, the game was withdrawn from circulation. The gaming community began to reject these low-quality video games, resulting in an overall decline in video game sales.

In 1985, Nintendo came out with their Nintendo Seal of Quality, guaranteeing that their games had been tested to not only be family friendly but also of a high quality. This dedication to quality helped bring video games out of the red zone, and Nintendo dominated the video game market.

It was their magazine, Nintendo Power, that first provided numbers on just who played their video games. Since the first published statistics, video games have catered to a male audience.

Sex sells
Although around 50% of women play video games, the games themselves are predominantly marketed towards men. Such was the case with Lara Croft, the female video game character whose breasts increased in size with every game.

Not only are women hyper-sexualized in many video games, but they also tend to hold a secondary role, leaving the lead character role to males.

The disparity has improved, with video game producers listening and responding to what people, including women, desire in their games. Lara Croft now has an average bust size, and a much more compelling story, finally making her the hero of her own franchise. 

For its concluding game, Mass Effect put a female version of the beloved hero, Commander Shepard, on the front of the case. They also made a specific trailer for her. Femshep, as fans call her, has been a cult favourite since the launch of the first Mass Effect.

The care given to both Lara Croft and Femshep did not go without criticism. While the changes are welcome, one must wonder why it has taken the gaming industry so long to make these changes. 

The video game crunch
It is known as the crunch. A period towards the end of a game’s development where employees work night and day to finish their product.

This is a widely accepted practice among video game developers. Some developers will even include the crunch into their planning periods as an expectation. Employees work over 8 hours a day and weekends, forcing their game to the completion deadline.

Some argue that a crunch is necessary to preserve jobs. If a game gets pushed back, there is potential that the project could be dropped entirely. If that were to happen, then employees could not only lose their pay cheques, but their jobs.

Some might wonder if it is worth a few months of unbelievable stress in order to keep one's job. Only to have to repeat the process when the next deadline comes down. 

When the crunch is too much
In September 2018, Telltale Games announced that it was closing its doors immediately. Despite making award-winning games, the company lost investors and blindsided their workers. Employees were given no severance pay and told to leave immediately.

Employees at Telltale Games worked through their crunches also. In fact, most of them went into work on that September day thinking their games were still in development. After working their employees so hard, Telltale Games left them with nothing. While this is not indicative of all video game producers, it does hint at a growing problem concerning how video game employees are treated.

Despite harsh working conditions, there are relatively few video game developer unions to keep employees safe. Unions are in talks, however. And with the fall of Telltale, this might be the push that is needed to form unions that put employees at the forefront.

Hollywood is often noted as being just as gruelling, but the film industry has had unions in place for decades. Meanwhile, despite video games being such a lucrative business, unions are only just coming into play. 

Video games have vastly improved, from better graphics to more inclusion. If they continue to listen and work with the wants of their fanbase, they stand to be around for a long time.

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