When Anita Sarkeesian first began publishing her web series Tropes vs. Women more than a decade ago, the focus was on a lack of positive, authentic representation in media, especially with regard to women. At the time, saying something as simple as “maybe have women in your games be a little more empowered than just boob armor and victimized sex objects” was deeply contentious, she says.
Not so much now. Though there are still those who push back in cruel ways against women having any place in games, much less one that’s diverse and celebratory, the overall industry attitude has dramatically improved. Powerful and interesting women of all ethnicities, ages, and sexualities grace video game covers in 2023, and representation only continues to improve.
“At this point we can see the change. We can see the actual shift in ten years of what’s happened in games based on that work and the work of activists during this period of time,” she says.
But, Sarkeesian continued, we have not solved the video game culture problem. Far from it – especially we look past outward representation and analyze the companies internally.
Speaking at DICE Summit alongside Take This executive director Eve Crevoshay, Sarkeesian tells me that since Tropes vs. Women and in no small part because of the conversations it sparked, more and more studios and audiences have also been asking questions about who it is that makes games. Historically, game development has been overwhelmingly straight, white, cisgendered, and male, and in more recent years there’s been a growing outcry for increased diversity both within studios and in the content they create. So in response, they’ve been scrambling to make those more diverse hires.
But Sarkeesian says that this misses the point of it all. It’s not just about filling up the studio with bodies who don’t look like the traditionally white, cisgendered, straight, male leadership. In order for culture to truly transform, studios have to create environments where those people can thrive. “You can’t just slot people into a toxic system and wonder why they’re upset and wonder why they’re being harmed and wonder why they don’t stay and you can’t retain them,” she says.
But how, then, do you change the culture not just of a single company, but of an entire industry?
The Burden of Culture Change
Sarkeesian and Crevoshay tell me they’ve spent the last several years working with and within studios doing research, interviewing DEI managers, stakeholders, and developers, and they’ve observed a sea change in the overall industry mood around work culture. Workers are growing increasingly frustrated – even angry – with the way they are being treated industry-wide, they explain. They’re angry about crunch and burnout, sexism and racism in the workplace, toxic work environments, and low pay. The pandemic exacerbated these feelings, as more people began to work from home and discovered the benefits and safety of remote work. And recently, growing social movements around unionization have brought even more game workers into the understanding that their current conditions can and should change.
Sarkeesian explains that the frustration has grown so palpable that companies, studios, and leaders are finally taking notice, but they’re at a loss for what to do. The tools employers are handing employees to supposedly help improve their lot, such as employee resource groups (ERGs) aren’t working – largely because that work is being foisted onto marginalized individuals without pay or prestige.
The hardest work around this transformation has to come from people with privilege.
“So you have marginalized folks who are being asked to do all of the work and you have the allies who tend to be very well-meaning but are actually making it harder in a lot of ways because there’s not an infrastructure built in for them to go and do their own work to grow and be better…a lot of their efforts are performative, they’re superficial, they’re reactionary, they’re not getting at the core of the problem in order to actually create the environment that I think they want.”
But, Crevoshay says, those more privileged allies are the exact people who must lead the work to improve industry culture.
“The hardest work around this transformation and change has to come from people with privilege, has to come from people who are white, who are straight, who are cisgender and who don’t understand currently. And I think to develop the vulnerability, to develop the muscle around acknowledging that you will make mistakes, that you will royally screw up, that you will do harm inadvertently in the process of learning. And the structure around that in a corporate environment is very – there’s no structure for it. It’s very risky.”
Creating a Culture Shift
In an effort to offer that safety net structure, for a time Sarkeesian and Crevoshay were developing a multi-year program called “Culture Shift,” which was an effort to “shift and change the way the norms and the systems and the standards for developing culture in studios and how people are heard, how leadership functions, what systems are in place in order to create healthier, safer, more supportive workplaces,” as Crevoshay explains.
The goal was to build a space where allies and leaders could learn these skills – communication, anti-racism, empathy, and difficult cultural problem solving – while feeling comfortable not always getting things perfect on the first try. Crevoshay and Sarkeesian say they were actively fighting against participants’ deep-seated fear of saying or doing something wrong, the shame of having failed before, and a lack of understanding of how to apologize when they did.
Their strategy was to help those they worked with move from a place of defensiveness to one of curiosity.
“If I come to you and say, ‘You caused me harm,’ how do you approach that with curiosity instead of shame and defensiveness? [How do you] acknowledge the harm that was done, and realize that you are not the worst thing that you’ve done? You can be better and grow and we can have a better relationship and you can not do that harm again in the future. I think everybody wants the one-size-fits-all process for solving this. And I think a lot of DEI processes are trying to find the one checkbox thing and that’s just not the way this works.
“Not everyone is willing to do the work, but for the people who are, we could really transform this industry in a way that allows growth and care and we stop throwing people into misogyny island and be like, ‘You’re dead to us.’ ”
But their effort ran into even more roadblocks than expected, they tell me. Legal, human resources, and PR departments repeatedly got in the way of the work needed for companies to transform, even when leadership was fully on board with what Crevoshay and Sarkeesian proposed. Smaller studios had an easier time and were generally more flexible, but especially with large companies fear of legal liability got in the way. And it didn’t help that the two were pioneering this program at a time when DEI initiatives in general were being slashed across the board at many companies they spoke with in response to recession fears.
“We push for transparency, we push for communication, we push for folks being in solidarity with each other so that the different groups can do the work that they need to do to heal, to grow, to be better,” Sarkeesian says. “And these structures get in the way of that. You need transparency, you need communication to build trust, to actually repair or to deal with some of the harms that have been happening.”
Work Yet Undone
Ultimately, the Culture Shift program as it was conceived by Crevoshay and Sarkeesian didn’t work out. They formally ended the program after about a year, but that doesn’t mean their work in this overall effort is done. Sarkeesian tells me that one way it’s manifesting began with the Games and Online Harassment Hotline, which was launched in 2020. While the hotline is ostensibly for victims, she says the hotline began getting calls from people who had caused harm and either been called out or felt deeply guilty, and didn’t know what to do about it. It forced the group to reevaluate how a victim-led organization should respond to such calls.
“We realize that if we want to end cycles of abuse, we have to work with the people who are doing abuse,” Sarkeesian says. “And that abuse isn’t about a couple of bad actors. It’s about transforming the larger culture in which abuse is allowed to proliferate. We figured out how to support people who have caused harm without validating the harm that they have caused but giving them space to grow and be better, giving tools… Isolation is the antithesis of growth.”
Part of the response was for the Hotline to start a monthly support group for people who have caused harm to allow them to, collectively with peers and facilitators, discuss and reckon with what it means to have hurt someone, or suffered consequences for doing so. It’s not therapy, she says, but it’s a space to engage with their questions. And the two consider it successful thus far, because participants keep coming back.
Abuse isn’t about a couple of bad actors. It’s about transforming the larger culture in which abuse is allowed to proliferate.
Sarkeesian adds that they still wants to bring these concepts into workplaces, teaching leaders to move away from punishment-focused responses and into accountability, all while still centering victims. She and Crevoshay continue to visit studios, running workshops and trainings on these topics, and developing materials on psychological safety, burnout, leadership, self-care, and setting boundaries.
Sarkeesian emphasizes that a key component is starting conversations before harm even happens, as opposed to waiting until an incident has already occurred and everyone is scrambling. For now, the two are offering services such as crisis consulting as well as conflict and problem solving consulting in ways that are “not just an HR liability machine.” And they’re advising people who run HR and DEI initiatives on how to start integrating accountability principles into what they already do day-to-day, even on a small scale. Starting small, with minor conflicts and improved communications, paves the way for larger solutions.
I ask the pair what would indicate progress to them down the line, similar to how Sarkeesian noted earlier that diverse women protagonists are now far more widespread in games. Crevoshay responds that she wants to see topics like workplace culture change and accountability move out of the sidelines at events like DICE and into the forefront, past just surface-level discussions. “I think that if one day down the line at one of these big events, we had a big public keynote conversation that centered accountability that would indicate to me that there were enough people in the industry who weren’t terrified of this conversation.”
For Sarkeesian, the next step would be to see people who had caused harm and gone through a long-term process to be accountable for being able to stand up and talk about their process openly and honestly, to help others learn how to do the same. She says conflict resolution, crisis management, and listening skills are all just that – skills. Anyone can learn them, practice them, improve. And it’s time this industry started trying.
“It starts with learning how to support your direct reports better when [there is an] emotional crisis, or being a better manager. It’s about learning how to apologize. It’s about holding compassion. These are everyday skills that you can implement in your life.
“But also that there are specific things you can do. It’s not this big idea that then you have to muddle through. There are real things that you can learn how to do that allow you to do this better. And so I think the other really important thing to say is, this is really possible. It is not going to be easy and sometimes it’s not going to be fun. It sucks to be accountable when you’re not used to it. And as someone who comes to this work with a fair amount of privilege, it’s… You’re going to feel like trash sometimes and that’s okay because that doesn’t mean you are trash. It means that this process is hard and you’re doing things that are not things you’re used to doing.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.