Female video game developers show the importance of diversity

Recent news on Activision Blizzard Workplace harassment has sparked broader conversations about the treatment of women in the video game industry. While Microsoft’s plan to acquire Activision Blizzard could lead to improvements, gender stereotypes have long plagued the gaming industry.

Part of the culture stems from the lack of female video game developers as well as a lack of representation at the executive level of game companies. A report released by Activision showed that only 25% of its employees were women. At the executive levels, this number was significantly lower.

In video games, female characters are often depicted as objects of male desire. These are excessively clothed or defenseless individuals waiting to be rescued. The perpetuation of these stereotypes is partly due to the lack of female video game developers and decision makers.

Activision Scandal

The Activision scandal revealed that Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick had been aware of the sexual misconduct allegations for many years. Although he knew of serious misconduct, including allegations of rape, Mr. Kotick did not inform the board of directors. Reports state employees have filed more than 700 complaint reports, though Activision disputes that number.

Following pressure from investors, employees, and business partners, Activision Blizzard recently fired and disciplined dozens of employees for female harassment.

Amid negative media coverage, Microsoft announced plans to acquire Activision Blizzard in a $75 billion deal. This would be a record setting cash transaction. If the deal withstands antitrust scrutiny, it will be the largest all-cash acquisition ever of a U.S. company.

Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft’s games division, had discussed a potential deal with Bobby Kotick. Many Activision games are already appearing on Microsoft’s Xbox console. There are many synergies between the companies. Microsoft has a strong talent pool and advances machine learning technologies that could help in the development of video games.

Microsoft’s gaming division has faced its fair share of media attention for outrageous behavior. In 2016, Microsoft faced backlash for hosting a company party with scantily-clad women dancing on platforms. The company quickly apologized and pledged to create a more inclusive work environment.

female video game characters

As the creator of popular games such as Candy Crush, World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, Activision impacts the cultural tone of the gaming industry. Despite its influential platform, Activision’s games have largely followed a playbook that features superficial female figures or damsels in distress.

An incident at a video game conference nearly a decade ago highlights the industry’s deep-rooted cultural issues. During a Q&A with the audience following a panel discussion, one woman asked, “I love that you have a lot of really strong female characters. However, I was wondering if we could have some that don’t look like they came out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. After brief applause, the audience began to boo her. The all-male panel responded with ridicule. One panelist teasingly asked, “Which catalog would you like to you that they come out then?”

Games with strong female characters have proven themselves in the market. In 2017, Sony released Horizon Zero Dawn. The action role-playing game was a huge hit. The plot follows Aloy, a female character who does not look like a model and battles dinosaurs and enemy forces. The developers explained that she was designed to be a “believable and inspiring hero for everyone”.

A sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, will be released in the first half of 2022. It should be another blockbuster and woo more female gamers. Despite positive reception, deep-pocketed developers have been reluctant to include strong female characters like Aloy in video games.

Driving industry-wide change

Industry culture will likely shift as more women have a say in game design decisions. Activision is committed to hiring many more women over the next few years. Cleaning up video game content will require more diverse industry players as well as an awareness of the implications of sexualized female characters in video games. Especially for children who play video games from an early age, exposure to stereotypical portrayals of women can shape their cultural attitudes in harmful ways.

Perhaps Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard will contribute to industry-wide changes. Microsoft is reviewing the allegations as part of the acquisition’s due diligence process and is developing internal control procedures to prevent future mishandling of these issues.

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