TIFF Nexus Takes On Gender in Film, Games, and New Media
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TIFF Nexus Takes On Gender in Film, Games, and New Media

Game culture is working on inclusivity and gender equality, to the benefit of the games it's producing.

Earlier this month, TIFF held a one-day conference on women in film, games, and new media, the second in its Nexus series at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. (In total there will be four conferences, each with a unique theme.) The Nexus events are important for Toronto because they harness TIFF’s pan-industry reach to introduce the city’s media old guards—like film and television—to the new big thing—games—in a comfortable setting. This session focused on encouraging more women to get interested in games and to help diversify the current landscape.

The idea of cross-pollination was at the heart of the talk by keynote speaker Leigh Alexander, who cautioned that homogeneity was a bottleneck to the industry. Alexander is a powerhouse in game journalism as editor-at-large of industry bible Gamasutra, games editor for NYLON Guys, and contributor to the Los Angeles Times. In an interview with the writer after her well-received presentation, she explains why cross-pollination is needed: “I’d really like to see more people work on games besides 30-something straight white males. I don’t want to sound like I hate the norm, or that there’s anything wrong with the work these people are doing, I just want more. I want choice.”

The problem, she stresses, isn’t the men themselves, but that most come from one school of thought, resulting in a paucity of experiences available within the medium. “[Many developers] grew up on dragon novels and now they want to make the bigger, better, interactive dragon novels,” she says. (The past year has seen the release of fantasy games like Skyrim, Dragon Age, Skyward Sword, Witcher, Lord of the Rings: War of the North, and World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria—all sequels—with nearly every game a commercial bestseller.) “We’re getting static, genre-wise,” Alexander observes, and this kind of monotone content could keep people who don’t relate to dungeons and dragons away from playing games. “I want more kinds of experiences for more kinds of people.”

The issue of gender equality in game culture is complex, yet is often reduced to blanket statements about immature teenage boys and basement dwellers. “Granted, there’s a lot of endemic prejudices in the most vocal portion of the audience I’d like to see changed,” says Alexander, but, she adds, “I have many progressive, open-minded male friends. There are more good people than is evident from the results of the products in the market.” (Most of the highest-grossing games involve killing things.)

Keynote speaker Leigh Alexander shares her advice for women entering the games industry. Photo from the TIFF Nexus website.

A shift appears to be underway, though, as the game industry is making a concerted effort to unpack issues of fair representation in an articulate manner. It’s rare now for a week to pass by without one or two articles from industry voices, both male and female, contemplating, demanding, or lobbying for equality, especially in terms of gender. Alexander says people with different perspectives are starting to be welcomed in the shaping of the industry: “There’s now a market for that different kind of work, for that different kind of voice, even since I started my blog [five years ago]. I did a radical thing when I started my blog [by being a woman] and I wasn’t even trying to be radical. I was trying to blend in!” (Since then, Alexander has become an advocate for not blending in, with a new motto she shared with the crowd: “Never shut up.”)

Toronto, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) its relatively new status as an independent game development hub, provides a reference for other cities that need a model for how to catalyze inclusivity and accessibility within the games community. For example, indie game collective Hand Eye Society has launched two major projects to increase diversity, including the Difference Engine Initiative, which introduces women into the field to make games, and its spiritual predecessor, the Artsy Games Incubator, which focused on artists. (Some of the participants from the DEI took part in a panel moderated by Ubisoft Toronto managing director Jade Raymond, and all the games were available to play afterward.) The DEI recently completed its second round, bringing its total number of released games to 12, and also spawned a new group called Dames Making Games for women to meet and discuss games.

Why is Toronto ahead of the curve in terms of gender equality? One reason could be that in other cities with older gaming communities, a boys’ club mentality could form, something Toronto, in its late coalescence, avoided. The liberal and progressive nature of the city likely plays a large role as well. And it could be that because of the number of other industries situated in Toronto, many of which have dealt with gender inequality for longer, the concept doesn’t seem as foreign as it might to more insular communities in other cities.

Whatever the reasons, for Alexander the TIFF Nexus conference was one example of Toronto getting it right. “I don’t see this event happening so frictionless in San Francisco, even,” she said, citing another city with a bustling game community and progressive attitudes. Going back to the idea of cross-pollination, she observes that being a “multimedia town” is one of Toronto’s strengths. “There’s such a hunger in everyone I’ve met to learn how other people do things to enhance what they do.”

Perhaps Alexander has figured out a root of the city’s social consciousness: the realization that, in the end, the best collaborations are the ones based on the passions shared by people—male or female—above anything else.

CORRECTION: December 19, 2011, 3:30 PM This article originally indicated that Leigh Alexander was a contributor for the New York Times, when in fact Alexander has contributed to the Los Angeles Times.