JUDGE NOT, LEST… (PART 2) [Author: BruceR]

Represented on the panel by their editors are nine print magazines (PC Gamer, CGW, and seven mostly console titles), one TV show (Electric Playground), and a number of websites (Gamespot, Gamespy, Gameslice, Gamepro, Game Revolution, Games Domain, Gamers Republic, Happy Puppy, UGO and five judges from IGN). Also present were the game reporters from Red Herring, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone, and the L.A. Times. No doubt ably representing the female half of the species were L.A. Times tech reporter Alex Pham, and Wired contributing editor Van Burnham. Um, that’s it. Out of 36 actual gaming press representatives, none were women.

36-0. Is that the best we can do? At our most prestigious awards at our largest gaming convention? 36-0?

It’s not that the talent wasn’t there. Present at the convention, but not part of the judging, were writers such as Gamespy’s Caryn Law, Stomped’s Vangie Beal, and radio host Pam Dixon (who was there to moderate a panel.) And if those magazine editors had extended an invitation to all the talented women game reporters they have, it would no doubt have improved matters\’e2\’80\’a6 or would it? Well\’e2\’80\’a6

You see, getting women on the editorial staff isn’t something the big gaming magazines, at least, seem very good at. The percentages on the awards panel are pretty much the same as you find on the editorial boards of the major magazines as well: currently one out of 10 editorial staff, art staff, and contributing editors (managing editor Holly Fleming) is a woman. At PC Gamer, that number is one out of 20, and assistant art director Chiaki Hachisu doesn’t write that much. The balance improves, obviously, when you start factoring in the more traditionally female production, marketing and advertising staff, but on the writing side the two biggest magazines between them have a current balance of 28 men, and two women.

28-2. 39-2. 36-0. Mm, hmm\’e2\’80\’a6

Those balances might have been improved somewhat if the third North American computer gaming magazine, Computer Games, had chosen to participate (two of its six editors are women)\’e2\’80\’a6 but as we mentioned last week, that magazine dropped out of this year’s awards, feeling they have become vaguely disreputable. No wonder. The trouble is that the absence of people like CG’s features editor Cindy Yans and West Coast editor Tricia Gray can only have the effect of making these awards even MORE sketchy than they were.

We’re not going to bother giving you the stats on women who play these games, because we know some people don’t put a lot of stock in them. Nor do we deny PC Gamer’s own estimate that 95 per cent of its readership is male. Whatever. But what we think is UNDENIABLE is that the gender balance can be quite different in some genres, such as adventure games or MMOGs. And because women aren’t part of the process, those kinds of games may be being given short shrift. We pointed out a couple of the obvious problems with previous awards the last time. Isn’t it just possible that a judging panel composed entirely of men might have something to do with Oni being chosen over The Longest Journey as the top adventure title of 1999? Or the still-vaporware-today Team Fortress 2 over the about-to-be-launched Asheron’s Call as the top multiplayer title in that same year?

Awards organizer Rob Smith says the editors are encouraged to poll their staffs before casting their votes, although the final decision is up to the individual. And the editor of PC Gamer also says that the panel is meant to be made up of people like him, the editors-in-chief of the sites, a selection process he has no control over. But Smith doesn’t mention that nine (25 per cent) of the game industry judges were currently not on a masthead anywhere, just other (male) writers, no doubt added for what people thought they could contribute to the judging. And the burping contests. But mostly the judging.

And what were the women writers doing while the men beer-klatsched over who to give “best of show” to? Holly Fleming, as managing editor of CGW, the highest ranking woman in game writing today, was there. What was she hard at work at? Um, asking the, um, “booth babes” what they really thought of “gamers.” (Note the implicit gender assumption.) “Many Babes spoke out in praise of gamers,” she burbles:

I’m here to tell you that they like Asians in particular.

“Asians are polite and they smell good.”

But even if you’re not Asian, there is hope. “These guys are more creative and fun than at other conventions.

“There’s a lot of computer nerds. I don’t know. They’re cute,” she said wistfully.

Now you’ve got to congratulate CGW on the editorial genius of sneaking One of Their Own into the girl’s clubhouse. (Thank God PC Gamer didn’t try it: the thought of Greg Vederman in drag scares us all.) But it’s a sad comment on game writers as a whole that a number of good women writers were consigned to writing E3 atmosphere pieces while the male gamers hung with Raph Koster in the LucasArts suite.

One pictures the editorial mastheads of these sites, sitting around, trying to decide what the Other among them should DO at a gaming convention while they judge. “Um, Jodi, we’ve got a big assignment for you. You go out and find us some ‘cute guys’ on the showfloor, okay?” And after the no doubt earnest young reporter romps out, the interrupted discussion can continue: “Okay, guys, let’s vote\’e2\’80\’a6 Soldier of Fortune 2 or Aliens vs. Predator 2?” “I can’t remember, which one had the strippers?” No, I’m not saying that really happened\’e2\’80\’a6 but that’s the impression given when a panel has a make-up like this one.

Don’t think for a second that the gender bias is lost on those who market these games, either. If you know that the judges handing out the awards are all male, what exactly is your disincentive for creating spectacles like GOD Games’ “Promised Lot,” complete with strip shows? As Wagner James Au pointed out for Salon magazine, the inevitable upshot is an industry and its affiliated press that portrays ITSELF as not-ready-for-the-big-time:

Boys will be boys, after all — you have to wonder if the pandering is really holding gaming back, or if it’s just what these hormonally supercharged teenagers deserve. Whatever the case, mainstream cultural credibility is still a long way away: This year’s E3 was a snapshot of an industry stuck in the geek ghetto, with little hope of breaking out.

If those planning to pick up an award had to think of making their presentations equally appealing to judges of both genders, E3 would at least have one reason to look a little different. Maybe Sierra would feel it didn’t need the whip-wielding babes in lycra this time out. Maybe GOD could have cut back on the porn budget and used the money to help FINISH SHADOWBANE, even. And these awards could conceivably be a force for progress, giving E3, and by extension the gaming industry as a whole, a helping hand out of a niche market. But instead of fighting stereotypes, the entire structure of the Game Critics Awards is only reinforcing them, relegating all of us for years to come to a public persona which Au neatly summarized as “mouth-breathing dudes in ‘Akira’ T-shirts.”

The controversial writer for Salon could even have been talking about the prestige of winning an E3 award under these conditions when he wrote:

But whatever the outcome, the victor will dominate an industry that is still grossly unprepared for the mainstream, a disreputably grab-ass, twerpy adjunct to the real media. Billions of dollars will change millions of hands, as they always have, but in the end, it won’t have any impact on the larger culture going on without them outside their digitized walls. Just more money shuffled back and forth in an underground economy of lost boys.

Lost boys giving lost awards. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The E3 Game Critics Awards are a sorry excuse for the leading laurels of our mutual obsession. But they can be fixed. Herewith, a few suggestions how.

First, a stipulation for even being nominated in an E3 category should be displaying a game that is playable by someone other than a developer ON THE SHOWROOM FLOOR. Not because Brad Wardell wouldn’t get to see it otherwise: that doesn’t matter. But because a game so far developed that it can be shown to the masses would be more likely to, unlike numerous previous award winners, cross the final mile and get released sometime in the same century. These are, after all, the Best of Show awards\’e2\’80\’a6 should they not be on display?

That doesn’t mean the wowza closed-door tech demos need be completely ignored. The Game Critics actually have a second class of award, the Special Commendation, last given in 1999: meant for games that don’t meet all of the awards’ currently extremely loose criteria. If the graphics on Star Wars Galaxies and The Sims Online had blown everybody away, the judges could have given them special commendations, and saved the real awards for a game someone actually might play before 2003. They can do the same thing again this year.

Second, there must be some kind of attempt to include gamers of both genders on the judging panel. Two out of 41, no matter how talented or nice those two may be, is just not acceptable. Even if three-fourths of the spots are reserved for editors-in-chief as now, there was no reason the remaining quarter of the gaming press spots shouldn’t have included up to half-a-dozen of the best women writers on the gaming scene today, to balance things out just a little. It’s the price of being reputable, people. (Plus they’re a lot more real than those pneumatic blondes in spandex Au and others think you prefer, guys.)

And if the guys behind the E3 Awards don’t want to cooperate? Then Doug Lowenstein and the rest of E3’s organizers have to get off their asses and stop PLAYING PILATE here. Like it or not, these are currently perceived as E3’s awards, and the reputation of the organizers from the Interactive Digital Software Association suffers or rises accordingly with their success or failure. Some, like Computer Games editor Steve Bauman, believe E3 needs to start putting out its own awards, and just let this questionable predecessor fade into well-deserved obscurity. It might be harder than that, though\’e2\’80\’a6 these things have five years of street cred, and people will prefer to have some continuity. No, the best case would be for the powers-that-be at the IDSA to sit down with Rob Smith and his friends, or not, and create a suitable successor award that everyone can get behind. Perhaps some collaboration with the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (whose lesser-known Academy Awards for Games were also a highlight at this year’s E3) could be in order.

There is no shortage of goodwill with this one. Gamers want awards that tell them something. Game writers want to be taken seriously. Game developers with cool products want the recognition. Only three years ago, in 1998, one could hardly argue that the judges hadn’t picked the undisputed Games to Watch For. But since then they’ve been going off-track, and taking the gaming press’ collective reputation, and by extension that of the entire gaming community, along with them. It’s not too late to turn that train around.