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Brianna Wu speaking at InspireFest 2015 earlier this week. William Murphy/Flickr
unconscious bias

'If a woman comes out and criticises the gaming industry, all of a sudden we're censors'

While the gaming industry is making progress, the response women get in the field is still something that needs work.

IF YOU HAD to describe the past year that Brianna Wu has experienced, ‘eventful’ would be a major understatement.

Not only did the studio she co-founded, Giant Spacekat, release its first game Revolution 60 on iOS this time last year (and a PC/Mac port is close to completion), it was also a year where she became one of the targets of Gamergate, an online movement which began back in August that claimed it’s tackling corruption in gaming journalism but really began with an attack on one female games developer and snowballed from there.

This year alone, she’s received 106 specific death threats for speaking out about the treatment and obstacles women in her field face, but that hasn’t stopped Wu from pushing forward with her work.

Most of that work revolves around Giant Spacekat’s first title, Revolution 60, which took roughly three and a half years to complete before it was released on iOS in June 2014.

For a debut game, it was an ambitious title and has received generally favourable reviews for its focus on story and characterisation. Spending that much time developing it was in response to both a growing audience not interested in action games and a grievance she had with games: the lack of women in games as a whole.

“What I wanted to show was a game that anyone could play. That they could just enjoy the story no matter what their skill level is,” explains Wu. “It was very challenging, but I have to be honest, we came so close to failing so many times and it’s a work I’m tremendously proud of.”

My mission with my company, I absolutely believe in women being treated more fairly in the games industry, but the real reason I got into the industry is because the games I wanted to play weren’t being made by the marketplace.

Brianna Wu / YouTube

That marketplace has changed in the past few years as more than half of gamers are women compared to just 3% in 1989. Of that general demographic, roughly 1.5 million people have played Revolution 60, showing that it is tapping into an audience that want’s something more than just endless runners or clones of Bejeweled or Candy Crush.

A PC and Mac version is due to be released soon, but not before some changes are made to it. For one, feedback from the women who played it felt the characters were a little too skinny and sexualised which the team is addressing. Doing this adds an extra three or four months to the development process but it’s important to Wu as it shows the team is “willing to listen to our consumers and [we] also care about criticism.”

Ongoing harassment

Yet while gaming is an industry that has made leaps and bounds in terms of technology and money, parts of it are still catch up, mainly the general perception towards women in gaming.

Much of it is a case of unconscious bias but at its worst, and something that has been greatly exacerbated thanks to GamerGate, it leads to death and rape threats – these threats forced Wu out of her home at one point – harassment and abusive messages being directed at women in gaming.

No matter who you are, constant tweets, emails and people analysing your every move to disprove you or find a smoking gun takes a major toll and it’s something Wu faces regularly.

She has regularly spoken out against it and has gone as far as holding talks with lawmakers, the most recent one was with the FBI earlier this week, but online harassment is still an area where law enforcement can’t properly address, something Wu finds “very frustrating.” However, she doesn’t want this to distract her from her job.

“I think it’s important to hold the people accountable that have been sending me threats of this nature and I think that’s something I have a responsibility to other women in this field too, but I also have a responsibility to the women in this field to get back to making games,” says Wu. “I don’t want to be a games critic, I just want to make games.”

What is very frustrating about being a woman in the gaming industry is this. If a man comes out and critiques the gaming industry in a professional role, it’s treated as just that: criticism. If a woman comes out and criticises the gaming industry, all of a sudden we’re censors, we’re not real gamers, we want to censor creative thought. It’s such a double standard that we’re held to and it’s nothing but a silencing tactic.

This doesn’t just impact those women immediately targeted, but all women within the industry.

As an example, Wu mentioned how employees in her studio had to use aliases when dealing with people outside the company in case those using said threats would target them and their families and likewise for those on the outside who may fear that speaking out about it will lead to the same thing.

siliconrepublic / YouTube

Although there are signs that things are beginning to change. At E3 this week, one of the biggest gaming events on the calendar, there was an increase in the number of women on stage at each major keynote as well as more high-profile games with female protagonists heading them. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a good first step towards greater diversity and inclusion within the industry.

Wu highlights the multiplayer action game Splatoon, a recent release from Nintendo, as an example of how this diversity can work. The developers behind it came from the same team that created the Animal Crossing series, one that has an even split of men and women from different ages and backgrounds.

The result is a game that turns a well-worn genre, the tactical person shooter, on its head by shooting paint at your environment to win (and the opposing team), and it has enjoyed strong sales and a great critical response. Most development teams tend to be male-centric, but Nintendo’s success was “the result of a game that studio including women and letting us have a seat at the table.”

Nintendo / YouTube

And turning existing ideas on their heads is something Giant Spacekat hopes to do with its next project. For one, it will be a virtual reality experience – they’re working with Oculus Rift since the team already use the Unreal Engine for development – and it will focus on an area in games that hasn’t really changed since the 80s according to Wu: dialogue.

“If you look at dialogue in games, it has barely changed since the 80s… dialogue would be pick one of three options and that would be it,” says Wu. “It’s now 2015 and it’s the exact same thing, no one out there is thinking about this or working on this problem.”

I am so excited about this because imagine a game where you put on the goggles where you’re talking to someone and the beats of what you say, how you say it, what you respond to, what that person’s personality is, what their facial features are telling you as you’re talking to them. That’s all stuff you have to pick up on and respond to so we’re trying to invent the holodeck and to me that’s an exciting problem to work on.

Read: WhatsApp fails almost all criteria for data protection >

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