Canadian gamers address gender equality

CNC report from Vancouver
Added On July 18, 2013

Video game consumers are overwhelmingly male, and so, it happens, are the heroes in the games. But some would like to see more strong female characters in them. So in Vancouver, Canada, more than 150 game developers, designers and digital media artists held a competition to see who could make the best game with a woman protagonist.

They only had 48-hours to do it.

The competition was fierce at the video game jam in Canada last weekend with a serious message addressing gender equality.

"On a beautiful, sunny weekend here in Vancouver, more than 150 game developers, designers and digital media artists have been bunkered down in a local warehouse participating in a 48-hour Game Jam. The whole premise of the event is to create a totally original video game from scratch where the main protagonist of the game is a strong female character."

The game jam marathon was set up in response to criticism levied at the industry by an online game developer magazine that highlighted the industry's bias against using strong female characters in video games.

Jam organizer Kimberly Voll said there's been a real disproportion of representation of women in video games. The professor of software engineering called many of the games one-sided representations, and the jam was to increase the breadth of representation where there were examples that better reflected society's makeup. She called the 48-hour window to create a game a challenge.

"It's pretty short. Forty-eight hours is not a long time to make a game. So these people have to design, they have to prototype, they have to put everything together within this 48-hour window. So they're going be reasonably small games, sometimes they're laying the ground work for larger games that they'll go on to finish later on."

With so much creativity going on at the Center for Digital Media hanger, CNC reporter talked to a few of the video game creators toward the end of their 48-hour marathon to find out what they had produced and what they thought of the jam.

Jose Ilitzky (Ho-say E-lit-ski) from Mexico worked with his team to create the game Chloe (Klow-eee). In the game, a player can follow the life of a university student. He called the 48-hour time limit a big challenge as popular commercial games can sometimes take years in development.

SOUNDBITE (ENGLISH) JOSE ILITZKY, Video games developer:
"The funniest thing is even though this is a 48-hour project, you go through the same stages. You do that creative process in the beginning where everything is possible and then you hit roadblocks, and then you feel like 'how am I going to get out of this place, how am I actually going to succeed?' And then eventually you maybe make some compromises to find the right scope for the game, and sometimes you get to the end and you get to see and have fun with a new game."

Patricia Nunez (NOON-EZ) and her team created a 'beat-em-up' game called Torn Identity about a girl named Samantha Torn who is battering her inner demons, such as depression and lack of self-confidence in her appearance, among others. Nunez (NOON-EZ) noted not all women gamers want to play games that are blood and gore. Instead, they're looking for something more realistic that reflects how women really are.

"I think it's a good idea, especially since we're all trying to be sensitive towards it so it's not like Tomb Raider where the bombs are huge. It's really about figuring out how do you portray strength without it being 'all muscle.'"

Industry professional Heather Harvey called the game jam a lot of fun, and noted too many games are geared towards young males. Her game "The Colony" is about a woman who is a lone survivor waiting for help to arrive in space.

"I'm more bothered by games where I have to portray a type of character that I'm not. Like the type of women that go and, RPG (role-playing games) games tend to have very little clothing on, for example, and that bothers me a bit, or games where I just don't get to play as a woman. It's weird, cause then when you're playing with guys you feel like you’re pretending to be a guy and it's strange."

In the game Celtic Forrest, a wandering protagonist comes back to the forest where she spent part of her childhood, only to find it cursed and dark. Kirsten Grove-White, one of the designers of the game, praised the pro-female theme of the jam and said that it was timely.

"I think it's wonderful. I think it's a really proactive and positive viewpoint and method of kind of challenging these issues in the industry. Cause the temptation, is to have a lot of mud-slinging and there's a lot of people calling each other names, 'Oh, you’re a male chauvinist pig,' whatever, or 'You're a femi-nazi.' So I think is a really great way to just avoid all that negativity and just focus on making great games that have strong female characters."

With three satellite jam sites running simultaneously with the Vancouver jam in San Francisco, Denver and Boston,  as well as others participating from such countries as Australia and Brazil, Voll  said there was a wonderful community within the video gaming industry who were willing to address issues that mattered and to promote a message of inclusion for everybody.

"I think part of it is the issue. I mean people feel very strongly about this. People want to have an opportunity to step up and express their views of a more tolerant world, and an industry that's more representative of the people within it. And I think it's also just really awesome to feel a part of a community and connect with people around the world."

According to analysts, the global video game industry is forecast to grow to 91 billion U.S. dollars by 2015.