No Girls Allowed: Keep Out!

There has been quite a lot of talk about the unusual making of Duke Nukem Forever. Years of production and numerous delays made the game almost a phantom: like some mystical beast that was oft spoken of but never seen. Once the game was released, even more fuel was added to the fire of commotion surrounding the game.

Die-hard enthusiasts raised their banners and took to Twitter and comments to argue against the generally negative reviews and impressions of the game.

Journalists and gamers alike seemed to agree that for all the drawn-out production timeline, hype, and resources poured into the game, it wasn't up to snuff or at least the hilariously high expectations a game with cult status can expect. And I'm quite sure many people are enjoying it nevertheless right now.

I'm not here to argue whether or not the game is good or bad. That is subjective. This much we can agree on. I'm not even here to talk about the game's PR blacklisting threats over the last few days. The controversy of 2K Game's outside PR handlers at The Redner Group was summed up and analyzed quite well in Ben Kuchera's piece on Ars Technica. What I'm here to question is an underlying string I've seen thread through the release of Duke Nukem Forever, filtering down through the gaming world at large.

What I'm talking about is sexism. Oh, now, 90% of the audience will want to turn away and scoff and instantly switch off their brains. "Great, another of these types!" But I'm not talking about in-game sexism. I'm talking about this strange alienation and Neanderthal-esque attitude of the PR behind Duke Nukem Forever's unleashing which has me stretching to find anything redeemable in the entire situation from its inception and indicative of a larger problem at hand in the real world video game space.

I work in PR. I love video games. I always have, and I don't see that changing. I've struggled with coming to grips with being a girl in this industry. Like most fields right now, the scales are tipped in the favor of men and cater to them. Whether that is biological, social, a myth, a construct we can fight against or tackle, that's not what this piece is about. It's about the representation and the implementation of it all in the video game press world and the manner that 2K Games chose for a potentially rad title and how they truly made a train wreck.

I have dealt with video game PR people and journalists for the last five years, and can say from my own experience that the stigma of being a female in the industry has not diminished. I've not only done PR, but I consult with international companies about the US market, I advise and even have worked in the creative process as a producer. I'm not a "PR girl" in that demeaning sense that some people use: making a buck off my genetic attributes in a historically chauvinistic space. I truly love games and have dreamed of their potential since I was a child. I was growing less enthused with the industry as time went by, even as I built up a list of contacts and confidence and had the résumé to back up my talk.

But this last debacle with 2K Games and how they chose to represent themselves got me upset. It excluded me from participation in this cult game on a variety of levels, professionally and personally. It also made me realize the unchecked double-standard in the world of gaming PR. It shut me out from experiencing something years in the making, and present in my cultural vernacular. I have contacts in the industry I would had loved to discuss the game with, had I been able to see it in advance at one of the early events, as I will explain below.

For me, a great part of gaming is the camaraderie which I was excluded from, conceptually and in reality, during this title's promotion. For all I know, I could have been a champion for the game, had I enjoyed it. Even if I was less than thrilled, I would have had a chance to see for myself what I liked or brought a critical eye to the proverbial Duke roundtable. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to decide. The old guard in charge chose for me. It barred its doors, figuratively, to me, a person who would have been open and excited to be a part of something raunchy and cultish and fun. This didn't happen because I don't do PR for them, or because I am not a journalist who fits the type their machine pandered to. It was because I'm a female.

I, myself, am no stranger to raucousness and no one can say I don't enjoy a good time. I am not uptight or threatened at the idea of what GamesRadar reviewer David Houghton deemed "a bout of good-natured debauchery": an earlier press preview of the game held at a converted strip club in Las Vegas. I can assume that they wouldn't want to give a preview of this game in a more apt setting, say, gritty urban corridors that mark the bulk of the gameplay. No, 2K Games and their PR company aptly realized that they should probably skip the aliens and go straight for the tits—none of them bare at the event, at least—to fondle some good graces out of the press before the game was released. And that was probably better than shutting or shooting the press in a dingy old warehouse. That is their prerogative.

But can't they see how they are blocking out and negatively impacting most of the people who drive their games by who and how they chose to promote this game? Duke Nukem Forever is over-the-top and ridiculous, I understand. Good fun for a laugh at home, sure. And I guess when 2K Games looked at the perpetually near-finished product, which could have been tongue-in-cheek loathsome, they thought they needed a method of public relations which embodied and catered to heterosexual young males only. Looking through The Redner Group's Twitter feed after being funneled there after the blacklisting threats, I noticed other snippets from this PR firms' personal-life broadcast to the ether. Lounging poolside with his "lady" wearing a "small bikini" at the "Ritz!". Not personal enough for you? The Redner Group will also tell you "Don't hate!" It's hard working games PR with "too much food and drink and bikini." I'll assume he means worn by others.

As a working female in a male-dominated field, I have had to learn to change my ways of thinking. I've adapted to functioning in a delicate relationship with the creatives and the business developers, the press and the PR people; it is all a give and take. The hardcore gamers can be catered to, but the newly, more vocal minorities must be catered to as well. A growing number of female gamers, non-heterosexual gamers, aging gamers and gamers with different, more sophisticated palates are emerging. The global reach of games, thanks in part to the booming mobile game industry is exciting, too, and as of now unfettered. Gamers are being made of grandmas and teens alike, even if they are a different type of gamer. Possibilities are endless. Yes, we are all excited, and it's up to us to make the changes to this antiquated system. If we understand that the industry is morphing, albeit slowly, away from the old norms, we must also move away from general sexism and sexism in the PR realm.

I have to tiptoe in certain ways that males in the PR field don't have to. Must I do it to get ahead? Maybe not. But I feel I must, and that's what counts. At a recent convention party, I overheard a group of guys begging their games journalist friend to get them into a "wild party" for the game in question. I'm never one to pass up a good time, especially a wild one. His friend had said he could get everyone at the table in! I was excited. But the group of males around me grew silent. I realized they were hesitating. I realized I was the only girl in the entire room. "Well, it's really only for men…" The guy said, rather unapologetically. "You shouldn't go." What if I had said that to any of my peers? What if I carried on tweeting from my work account about all the hot guys and alluded to large bulges in Speedos at a professional event? I'm sure I'd make my male colleagues uncomfortable and they'd wonder if I was glancing at their packages in meetings and events. I'm not calling for the elimination of objectification (impossible in a way), tongues to be tied on personal Twitter feeds, boobs to be less appealing or numerous in games or the world at large, and certainly not for video games to be anything less than fantasy. That's what is so amazing about them. Create your own worlds, experience them.

What I am asking for is the realization that we are now bringing this industry into a bigger spotlight and thus, a more professional lens. 2K Games realized what they had in their product, but they didn't seem to realize how far the campy trick played itself out into reality. Had I, as a girl, been anything less than professional when I was excluded outright from a press event or had I had a history of over-sharing anything of my personal desires on a professional company-branded Twitter feed, I would be ostracized and potentially unemployed. Had I refused to include someone based on their gender to any press event I had catered, I would swiftly be kicked to the curb. Fun and fantasy is terrific, and catering to your audience and gameplay is essential. But we're entering a new era of the video game industry, and blatant real-life sexism and unprofessional conduct should be treated as what they are: serious issues. No matter what industry you're in.

Lydia Heitman is a USC SCA graduate who played video games since she could press the buttons and who has worked in the industry as soon as she could work, with a concentration on the mobile games space. She has worked as a consultant and as a PR manager for five years with great mobile and platform games companies.