There was something missing from the stage at last night's Sony event, and it wasn't just the final price, release date, or physical console for the PS4. With almost 20 different speakers over two hours, not a single woman took the stage.
Onstage, this is what the gaming industry looks like
This has sadly become business as usual in gaming and consumer electronics. If you didn't notice, it's probably because there also weren't any female devs or executives onstage at the Wii U launch, or the EA Gamescom event, or the most recent HTC unveiling, or any Apple keynote in recent memory. With an all-male board and executive staff, Apple would have no one to send. In 2013, that should be shocking, but it's so much the industry norm that it's hard to single Sony out as especially egregious. Onstage, this is what the game industry looks like. It just isn't what gamers look like.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 47 percent of gamers are women — effectively gender parity. But only eleven percent of game industry employees are women, measuring across all departments. It's the same mismatch we saw last night: women in the audience, but none on stage.
Behind the scenes or onstage, representation matters
And whether it's behind the scenes or onstage, representation matters. The mismatch between gaming culture and the gaming audience is a huge and ongoing problem for the industry. It’s why Sony thinks it can get away with sexist ads like this, only to find out too late that it can’t. It’s why you see things like the spectacularly queasy gender politics of this summer’s Hitman: Absolution trailer. And most importantly, it’s why women in the industry were lining up under the #1 reason why a few months ago to share stories of being harrassed or otherwise silenced. The industry alienates its female fans over and over and over. And each time it comes back to the same point: surely, if there were a woman in the room, she would have pointed out that this was a terrible idea. The men should have noticed it too, but clearly they didn’t.
The result is a lot of boring games
What's worse for gamers isn't the bad ideas that get through but the good ones that don't. By now, we have a pretty good idea of what a male-dominated game culture can do — a lot of guns, mostly, which is what we saw front-and-center at Sony last night — but it's hard to even imagine the distaff counterpart. Jane McGonigal jokes about cashing in with a 50 Shades of Grey game, but the truth is, gaming culture is so relentlessly male that it's hard to imagine games outside of it. There are plenty of talented women in the industry, but they don't have the power to move the industry toward new ideas and new ways of thinking. The result is a lot of boring games with different variations on the same testosterone-fueled themes. It doesn't have to be that way. The console is a powerful thing — and a company as large and talented as Sony is even more powerful. There's so much more that could be done with this technology. But until the culture opens up, we're not likely to see it.
Just don’t think it couldn’t happen. In fact, we caught one reason for optimism last night from Stephen Toulouse, formerly of Xbox Live.
a thing I know because of the prevalence of them in development: There will be plenty of women presenting in whatever Microsoft announces.— Stephen Toulouse (@Stepto) February 21, 2013
We may hold you to that.