Women and Technology and the Future of Games

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Below is a post that follows in the vein of arguments I have made here and here about procedural ethics. Where many theories of games, and ways of analyzing games, start at the code and move forward, procedural ethics starts at the code and moves backwards. Rather than see code as something that solely influence by the culture at large, procedural ethics analyzes code, images, and games as something influence by specific contexts. In a way, it connects procedures in the game to the procedures that produced the game.

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The AAUW labels environmental improvements (programmatic and cultural) as the single most important factor in improving the recruitment and retention of women (62). Getting a company to adopt a comprehensive sexual harassment policy or to examine hiring practices may not seem like big changes, or even meet much resistance. However, they are a start to much deeper, systematic changes that can have enormous repercussions. Further, policies like the ones I’ve examined in this dissertation are certainly not the sole source of the gender inequities in the video game industry, though they are also not free from having significant influence on employee behavior. The policies function as a discursive manifestation of and perpetuation of deeply ingrained attitudes about technology and gender.

In Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology, author Autumn Stanley writes, “…including women’s contributions [to the applied history of technology] will not merely revise but transform the history, and especially the prehistory, of technology. When technology is no longer just what men do, but what people do, both the definition of technology and the definition of significant technology must inevitably change” (xvii). In her work, Stanley takes a similar approach to a similar problem: she recognizes that the entire technological industry is built upon a skewed perspective of who and what counts, and she is arguing here that the only way to change it is to completely redefine the key assumptions the history of technology is built upon.

Similarly, I hope that Procedural Ethics serves this function to redefine what is and is not important when it comes to studying video games. While most popular methods of game scholarship starts and the procedures (ie. the video game) and moves forward, tracing player reaction (Sicart) and cultural implications (Bogost), Procedural Ethics argues that ethical research practices must also start at the procedure and move backward. Video games did not program themselves. They are the result of an enormous industry filled with ideologies, opinions, policies, norms, and so on. Can we really make an argument about how one of the most sexist games in recent memory, Duke Nukem Forever (Gearbox Software 2012), has impacted society without also talking about the fact that roughly 5.8% of Gearbox’s workforce is female? I certainly don’t think so. And while critiquing, engaging with, and discussing the representation of women in games is crucial, it should not be done while ignoring the actual women in the industry.

The underrepresentation of women in the video game industry is in no way unique to that industry. It is a problem across many technology-based and technology-producing fields. Stanley reports that “most historians of technology and most anthropologists, particularly males, before the 1970s seemed to define technology as what men do” (xxxi). In support of this she looks as multiple cross-cultural studies of sexual division of labor as well as publications. For example, women were primarily responsible for inventing almost all early agricultural technologies. Over time, these were redefined as horticulture and male inventions were connected to agriculture. In patent offices, then, horticultural patents were filed under  “hobbies” while agricultural patents were filed under “technology.” This type of silencing and redefinition partly contributes to the lack of women in technological fields. The fields are first defined by men according to what men do, so are already exclusive of women, and then women who do attempt to work in the field are ousted as not adhering to the “way things are done.”

In order to include women’s contributions to the history of technology, we must redefine what counts as technology. To do this we need to provide alternatives, or rather provide more accurate, accounts of technology’s history to include women’s contributions as well as technologies surrounding things like women’s reproduction as central, rather than tangentially related, to core definitions of technology. Stanley’s work begins to do this, but she also opens the door for others to do this as well. Her work is not about recounting every contribution women have made, but to be an example of how we can go about creating the kind of change that’s needed. Taking Stanley’s approach, the work we do here at NYMG is the kind of work I believe needs to be done in order to remake the games industry and game scholarship.

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2 Responses to “Women and Technology and the Future of Games”

  1. Terry Peterman says:

    Well done, Layne. I really like the point about beginning with the procedure and working backwards because games do not write themselves. I think that is a practical tip for most rhetorical scholarship. I like to think a big part of my work in the History of Rhetoric is the systematic investigation and explanation of symbolic acts and artifacts to reveal the relationship between rhetoric and power. I like that you propose a different way to do this with technology and gaming. They are an artifact that I never really thought of extending critique to until I met you and Sam. Its really opened my eyes to whole new way that ideology functions via technology.

    • alexlayne says:

      Thanks TP! It’s so bizarre too, because I’ve been getting a bunch of backlash to the idea that we need to start at the code and move backwards. Scholars seem to 1. think this is going to be too much work or 2. invalidates the other work they’re doing or 3. think it’s somehow already implicated in the present theories that we can move back. It’s not about what we “can” do with these extant theories, but for me it’s about what is being done. That’s why I want a theory that forces this kind of contextual reflected. As always, thank you for your thoughtful comment! Any maybe this is the thread we can use for RSA :)