This weekend I had the good fortune to attend NYU Practice, a fantastic in-depth conference on game design. I was repeatedly surprised at how clever the solutions were to the presented challenges. The lessons were both insightful and, more importantly, applicable as a game designer working for a social games startup. The NYU Game Center really hit the ball out of the park, and I can't wait to attend next year.
If I felt a sour note over the course of the weekend, it was only during the panel on Street Fighter, a moment Kotaku covered earlier this week. The Q&A had just opened up after a great discussion about the hypertuning required to balance a competitive fighting game for tournament-level play. The first question, lobbed up by professor and game designer Matt Parker, was about misogyny's damaging effect on the Street Fighter community.
Sitting in front of me was one of my former NYU Game Center professors. He twisted in his seat so that we could share a glance, and smiled. He was happy to see someone raise a tough question. I smirked and mimed running for the exit.
The tiny exchange between us was an acknowledgement of an incredibly unpleasant incident that had taken place roughly a month before. At an informal meetup of aspiring game designers, the misogynist undertones that permeate game culture escalated. For the first time in my shiny new career as a game designer I watched a welcoming environment turn hostile. When I couldn't take it any more I made for the exit, the chant of "No Flat Girls" filling the room. Since then the NYU Game Center has assured me that they take this problem very seriously. Unfortunately, no matter how inclusive, a university department's policy can't change entrenched attitudes overnight. I rest easier knowing that they are actively responding to this behavior on the rare occasions that it crops up within their walls.
That incident was sparked by a discussion on fighting games, so when "Why so sexist?" was posed to a panel including Capcom's Seth Killian, the face of the modern Street Fighter community, I couldn't help but take notice. I was excited when Killian opened with a promise to "take that one on the chin." Would he, really? Was he going to take responsibility, even a little bit, for the current status quo?
His first response wasn't only to pass the buck to Japan, but to set the tone for the topic with a joke. "Japan's a very different place," he explained, pausing for the laughter which promptly rose from all corners of the room. (Street Fighter games are primarily made by Capcom in Japan.)
Blame Japan. And, well, why not? It's easier to imagine that vicious cultural problems are solely the product of some Over There place halfway around the world. Within the same minute Killian made another joke, this time dismissing the gratuitously sexualized camera angles used for female characters as a sign of improving technology. Again, the crowd laughed.
I hoped for the "But seriously..." moment that sometimes happens after someone makes a joke about an inflammatory topic, but it never came. There was no sobering transition to give the issue the weight it deserves. No examples were offered to show what's being done to address the problem. The moderator pointed out that this isn't just a problem in Japanese studios or with fighting games, citing StarCraft as another example of a game whose representation and community struggles with sexism. When nobody stepped up to challenge Killian's comments further, it was on to the next question.
Why didn't you say anything?
That's the million dollar question. It's what everyone asks when they hear stories like these. Why didn't I speak up when I experienced sexism at the hands of some game design students? Why didn't any woman speak up and challenge Killian? Why did no one demand an answer that didn't conveniently absolve him of all responsibility for the misogyny within the Street Fighter community—a community he's tasked with cultivating, and presumably, pruning?
If you've never experienced what it's like to be on butt end of systemized objectification and exclusion, the reason can be very hard to understand.
A culture of misogyny doesn't strike once, but twice. The first blow is the act: hypersexualized female characters, or some guys snickering about what they'd "like to do" to a woman playing on a stream at a tournament.
The second blow is dismissal. It's foisting the entire problem off on silly old Japan. It's the jokes made, and laughed at, to ease the tension in the room. Most guys, especially creative professionals, in no way want to be associated with misogyny. It's less scary to blame a distant society and showboat for laughs than to seriously address what is (or is not) being done to fix an upsetting problem in the industry.
Dismissal in this context is an ugly thing. Women are not-so-subtly informed that their concerns will be sidestepped and possibly also made into a punchline. Worse still, any young guys like the ones I recently had trouble with can walk away feeling vindicated that destructive sexist behavior is No Big Deal. As far as I see it, neither of these things are worth our ability to chuckle in comfort.
Ultimately, I'm glad that these issues are being addressed at all, and that folks like the NYU Game Center staff are on the forefront of inspiring difficult, thought-provoking discussions. While I took issue with the way Killian shifted the blame, he did suggest that we may be at a "tipping point" for women in fighting games. Hopefully we have reached a critical threshold for women and girl gamers, and it'll be a downhill fight from here. Until then, I'm incredibly proud of my Alma Mater for working so hard to make gaming and game development a safe space for everyone.
Nicole Leffel is a recent NYU graduate and active member of the game development community in New York City. In her free time she writes a guest series for the NYU Game Center about her experience turning a game design internship into a full-time position at social games startup FreshPlanet. For more reading on the problems women face in competitive fighting games, check out this post on iPlayWinner.