TFG Discussion: Activision Blizzard Lawsuit and the Representation of Women in Video Games, Part 1

Three of the members of TFG, Catherine Harlow, Kathryn Cooperman, and Hayley Garden, as well as Julia Makivic, who makes indie games herself and who we have interviewed before, sat down near the end of August to discuss the current situation with the lawsuit against Activision Blizzard.  We also talked more generally about how women are represented in video games.  We had such a long discussion that we are breaking it up into four installments, so stayed tuned for the rest of our conversation.

The articles either referenced or sent to the team in advance that go more in depth about the lawsuit can be found here: Time’s summary of the lawsuit, IGN’s timeline, and Kotaku’s report of the Blizzcon panel

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Catherine Harlow  0:01  

Okay, so thank you all for joining today. As you know, we’re going to talk about the Blizzard lawsuit and more generally our thoughts on how women are represented in video games. Did you guys all read one of the articles I sent over? Oh sorry, Julia, I forgot to send you an article. 

Julia Makivic  0:30  

Okay, if it’s about Blizzard I am vaguely familiar with what’s happening there, mostly through Twitter, though, I know what people are saying so I like, I know what’s going on but you can feel free to catch me up.

Catherine Harlow  0:42  

So as a really, as a really quick, basic summary, Blizzard is being sued by the state of California for basically being horrible to their female employees, the generally very frat bro culture, very inappropriate behavior, women not being promoted or valued, or paid as well as their male employees, and just like general horrible treatment of women. So there’s even a specific example that they brought in, you know, one woman, committed suicide after some retreat that they had taken and the manager brought sexually inappropriate materials. So just generally a lot of harassment and sexual harassment against women. And even reports of in the breast feeding stations like men would just open the door and just stare at them and the women have would have to yell to get them to leave. And then – I do apologize I realize I really should have sent this over to you.

Julia Makivic  2:07  

I am familiar with all that you’re saying basically. Yeah, mostly, I suppose it might have even read the same article, but yeah at least snippets of it.  But all of this is familiar. 

Catherine Harlow  2:20  

Okay, good.

Yeah. For me, The thing that was most telling was a video from Blizzcon 10 years ago, where the woman asked a question of, you know, these high these high level execs which was when are you going to stop representing your female characters like Victoria’s Secret models and the response was, oh, which catalogue, do you want instead. So for me that was particularly telling because this is a public event.

Kathryn Cooperman  2:58  

Yeah, that really resonated with me too. It was great that she asked that question, because often female characters in video games are sexualized and it’s not really given a second thought, it’s just a given in this community, but it was good that she questioned it. I thought that was very brave of her, though it seems now the panel that was answering her is denying what they said; they’re just making excuses. I think the article described it as empty excuses and that they’re trying to cover up their behavior when it was very clear what they meant. But yeah, hopefully the resurgence of that means that there’s going to be a change in this organization.

Catherine Harlow  3:38  

Yeah I mean I agree and I think that, I mean, yes it was 10 years ago, but just the fact that it was 10 years ago shouldn’t mean that it’s more, it was more acceptable then like, people knew that sexism was bad then, too. But I think for me it was telling, because it was a public event, you know, recorded, huge number of fans, and if they’re willing to say that in public without any qualms, it does make you question how bad was it really behind the scenes, which is what we’re hearing now. 

Kathryn Cooperman  4:17  

Yeah, it says a lot about them and about the gaming industry as a whole. It’s good that this kind of attention is being given and hopefully something will come of this lawsuit, but it’s really unacceptable.

Catherine Harlow  4:28  


Hayley Garden  4:31  

I also am closely familiar with this situation and follow a lot of fellow video game fans. I read the Kotaku article about the Cosby suite. That was not good. The fact that they had a special suite with alcohol and a portrait of Bill Cosby, who was already embroiled in convictions at the time, and the fact that they were joking about it and referring to him, who was already a convicted rapist at the time, means that there was definitely an agenda there. It’s just sick. It’s sick to think that these people are in charge of us and our careers and our livelihoods and other women. And because of the way that corporate in general is not just dealing with corporate debt or adult carriers as a way to get ahead. So it’s really awful. That really stuck with me, the fact that they had that suite, and on their Facebook pages, there are pictures of all the Craig records in the head, talking about, “Oh we’re going to the Cosby suite at Blizzcon.” It’s just horrible to think how many careers have been ruined – careers and lives being ruined, when workers in the industry are just trying to get ahead.

Catherine Harlow  6:33  

Yeah, it’s really gross. Yeah, so you bring up a good point that the fact that they’re proudly, openly call it calling it the Cosby suite, and it was well known at that time that he was a rapist, that they have no problem with what he did and instead like in a way, venerate him and want to be like him, which is deeply disturbing. 

Julia Makivic  7:03  

Yeah. But definitely, like going off of what Haley said, but to see all the young people and the careers that probably got just crushed in that kind of environment, like you try to come in as a young person who wants to just make something cool and something that you’re passionate about and basically you can’t because these freaks are just bent on destroying your life; it sucks. Yeah, that’s like, that’s definitely the saddest part to me out of everything that came out. 

Hayley Garden  7:38  

It’s like, it’s so hard to move upwards in these kinds of corporate situations where, especially in a company as big as Blizzard where there’s such a big machine and there’s so many cogs that go into it, and it’s marketed as like only the best of the best in the industry get to work at Blizzard, and then you finally get there and this is how they treat you, it’s just terrible.

Catherine Harlow  8:04  

Yeah. And I think when I was reading the article of the woman from 10 years ago, who asked that question at Blizzcon. You know the article they reached back out to her to ask for more context and she said at the time she was hoping to get a job at Blizzard but after the way they treated her she had to think again and go, “Well you know what maybe not.”

Julia Makivic  8:31  

Bullet dodged 

Catherine Harlow  8:32  

Yeah, bullet dodged. 

Kathryn Cooperman  8:35  

Yeah, seriously. 

Catherine Harlow  8:38  

But you know, so many more people wouldn’t have had that experience as she did in like, you know, A) it would have been really hard for them to get hired in the first place so when they actually did, you know, it must have just been absolutely crushing to like, have their dream finally come true by getting this job but their dream place and then be faced with such horrible treatment like I definitely did read some like that there were lots of people, and not just at Blizzard specifically but in the gaming industry as a whole, like, lots of women who once they were finally in the game industry like the treatment that they faced with it being such a boys club, just had to leave, and it’s really a shame.  Like what stories could we have had instead if the community had been more welcoming?

Hayley Garden  9:37  

I noticed gaming in general, it’s such a boys club.  I think, as a hobby gamer, I think that was not the major reason, but definitely one of the reasons why I chose not to pursue looking for opportunities in the industry. Like, I remember I’ll never forget when I played the Last of Us, which I thought was an excellent game, I love it. But, I was watching the credits, and it was so overwhelmingly male. And I was shocked by how male dominated Naughty Dog is. I’m sure Riot is the same, I’m sure Blizzard, obviously. They’re all in the same boat. And that means AAA studios. It’s so male, it’s such a boy’s club that it’s off-putting and I’d rather engage with the stories in companies that are more hobby based and where I can be guaranteed to find the growth of more women, or not cisgender men. It definitely was a turn-off. As someone who liked and loved video games and has elements of the skillset that would work in the industry, but it’s too male. And I think it’s affecting the quality of story that we get in a lot of these games. They’re coming out of this male perspective and they’re not realizing how damaging that can be sometimes. Like, again with the Last of Us I haven’t played the Last of Us 2, but the backlash that the character Abby got because she was conceived more that the models, she’s a girl. That wouldn’t have happened if she had been male.

There’s just not enough respect for women in both the gaming industry and the gaming community.  It’s very, very disheartening I feel. 

Kathryn Cooperman  12:15  

Yeah, I find that in these traditional larger-platform games, the female characters automatically have to have these overtly sexual features, and if they have any other qualities, then those are overshadowed by their appearance. I personally play more indie games, and I think in the indie game space there’s more of a focus, well with the games I play I’m partial to mystery games featuring women that solve these mysteries; and there’s much more of a focus on the task at hand, solving it in an intellectual way, figuring out the plot with clues. Specifically Nancy Drew and the Carol Reed games I think that does a great job there, and there’s not really a focus on sexism. You don’t even see the characters, which I find interesting. It’s more that they’re just there, and you know they are a positive role model. Nancy Drew actually is targeted towards kids, even though I enjoy playing it as an adult. But yeah, there’s much more of a focus on positive female figure that is completing these mysteries, but I think it [sexism] is still an issue within these larger companies. 

Julia Makivic  13:38  

Yeah, I find that – so I’m definitely more closer to the indie space and I generally, I tend to play more indie games as well, and I think that while a lot of them, I think, on the surface don’t necessarily overtly sexualized women as much as AAA tends to do, although to be fair, I don’t know that much about AAA, I don’t play that many triple A games, I only played World of Warcraft when I was 12, and then everything else is basically been like visual novels and more narrative indie games, and like point-and-click adventure kind of thing that’s the stuff that I generally go for. But I do find – I’ve heard that definitely these few these smaller studios on this even though they do a lot of the times have female protagonists and they’re not necessarily, you know, sexualized in a scummy manner, they’re still very male dominated and even within those studios themselves there’s been a lot of stuff go down basically that’s been, yeah, been quite bad. So, yeah, it’s definitely a thing, even in the indie studios because the guys who got ahead in the AAA companies, oftentimes will do their own spin off when they do try and go indie, and then they kind of bring that mentality with them. So it’s not necessarily gone, although there’ still, a lot of cool people who make indie games, but it’s not, it’s still a good space but that stuff is definitely present there. 

Kathryn Cooperman  15:05  

Oh, that’s interesting – so people from the larger companies go to the indie companies you’re saying and bring this demeaning mindset with them.

Julia Makivic  15:15  

Yeah, also a lot of them when they make a successful indie game, they kind of develop this cult of personality which doesn’t help matters, either you know so people will tend to value, I guess value them as an artist more than what they do to their employees. 

Kathryn Cooperman  15:33  

That’s problematic.

Catherine Harlow  15:36  

Also, like, you know, I’ve been playing games since I was a kid. So I grew up as a gamer; as a kid I thought, “Oh, it could be really fun to work on making games,” as many kids who grow up playing games think. I definitely remember that – I mean I wasn’t really involved in any of the online gaming culture at the time but my general sense of it was that like, you know, games are for the nerdy people who are generally thought of as being sweet and nice.  But games have become a lot bigger and I guess are much more accepted broadly in society.  It’s not like, “oh you play games you’re such a weirdo,” like it’s just very normal. So I kind of wonder what actually went into it that it was just a nerdy fun hobby and it’s turned into such a cesspool of toxic masculinity. Maybe there’s some of the, the incel thing going on and like, you know, having the women as representing sexual fantasies is probably – I suspect that those things are playing a large role, unfortunately. 

Julia Makivic  17:04  

I have a theory but –

Catherine Harlow  17:06  

Go ahead

Kathryn Cooperman  17:07  

Yeah, go ahead

Julia Makivic  17:09  

So okay I had to research this for my thesis because I was focusing on controller design – I make alternative controller games and part of it was I had to do some research on, you know, current game controllers and what they’re like and basically at some point these gaming companies decided that they wanted to try and choose a specific demographic to market to in order to make as much money as they can and they specifically decided to market it towards adolescent boys, young boys, and specifically create this persona of a gamer.  So it’s like a sort of a personality and an identity, and it’s not like, “oh yeah you’re not just a person who plays games sometimes for fun,” no, you’re a gamer, so you go and you play games, that’s what you do.  You buy the next one, you buy the new console, that’s who you are.  So it sort of turned into this personality type, and they tried to market it as the type of person and identity it’s who you are so that people will be more invested in it, and you know just keep buying games instead of, you know, buy what seems interesting to them, or when they feel like it and that kind of thing.  And that kind of led to selling these consoles and controllers that already build on top of a specific skill set and that’s why there’s a high barrier of entry for someone who is not that familiar with how some mechanics work or how things work like. I’m someone who I think, even though I played games a little bit as a kid, I kind of got back, I took a bit of a break and then I got back into it later on as an adult and let me tell you I cannot do things like Mario Kart, forget about it, I suck at it, hot disaster, just cannot and that’s because I think part of it is they kept on developing games with a skill set so now I play newer versions of that, of say something like Mario Kart and I’m completely lost, like so much going on, I’m totally overstimulated, and then I played a version from the 90s in this random gaming cafe and oh my god, so much easier, so much straightforward, but it goes throughout the generations they just added more and more things for people who are already familiar with it, and who kind of are already in that crowd and can kind of quickly adapt it and get it, and if you’re not part of that, then it’s not necessarily for you and also like this whole other discourse going on about like whether or not games ought to have like, easy and hard modes like should all games have some sort of an easy mode.

Hayley Garden  19:49  

That is big in Pokemon communities.

Julia Makivic  19:52  

Oh for real?

Hayley Garden  19:53  

 Oh, it’s huge because Pokemon is ultimately for kids. But, I have a friend who works in education who’s told me that Pokemon is still extremely popular with kids, which I think is crazy, like, the longevity of Pokemon. I’m a long time Pokemon fan. That is my baby, that is the franchise that I grew up with, and the longevity of Pokemon is incredible to me the fact that it’s still popular with kids, but people like me who grew up with it. I chase consoles over the new Pokemon game, I didn’t buy a Switch until Sword and Shield came out. So like, that longevity is incredible. It’s the best selling franchise in the world and there’s a reason for it but the fans – mostly men, I find – (which is very ironic) for lack of better words are so bitchy about the fact that Pokemon is for kids. And the fact that they find it too easy, and they complain about how easy Pokemon is, like “I want there to be a challenge.” And they actually invent ways to make Pokemon more challenging, and that’s called the hardcore Nuzlocke community so basically they do Nuzlockes, they take Pokemon and make these arbitrary rules to make it harder, so they can get the challenge out of it but there’s so much discourse over whether or not Pokemon is easy or whether or not it’s too hard and most of this discourse is coming from the male millennial fans who grew up with the older games and can’t really take new quality of life changes that come with the newer games and trying to appeal to kids and trying to make things that are easy for kids and it’s just this whole thing. I will say that the whole Nuzlocke thing is really cool and I think there is a space or some sort of balance for them to appeal to both the fans that have been with the series for a long time and for the kids who are still getting into it. But it’s very funny to see Pokemon fans fight over this because it’s such a big thing in the community.

Come back for part two next week.

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