Reflecting on the Feminist Game Salon

Recap and reflections by Alison Harvey on DMG’s Feminist Game Salon.

January 6, 2014

A full house of people came out to DMG on a cold Friday evening to talk about feminism.

2014 is just a week old and yet already Twitter (or at least my feed) has exploded, set aflame by a handful of excellent articles on social justice, call-out culture, toxicity, and anger, in relation to games culture certainly but also online discourse regarding oppression and marginalization more broadly.

I won’t summarize these fantastic pieces by Zoya Street, Quinnae Moongazer, Mattie Brice, Aevee Bee, and Kat Haché here (please, do read them), but I do want to reflect on what I see as their common thread for what to foster and create in 2014. After the heated and productive years that were 2012 and 2013 for a set of rallying cries about combating harassment in games communities, this year might be the time for a turn towards creating the grounds for a positive, open, respectful, and peaceful dialogue (though some very compelling disagreement has also been voiced, see for instance these articles by Jeff Kunzler and Liz R).

Dames Making Games has already evinced a commitment to providing the space (both literally and figuratively) for such exchanges, as evinced by their willingness to host a series of workshops and conversations under the banner of DMG Talks. In this post I want to reflect on the topics of conversation of the most recent event, the Feminist Game Salon, held at Bento Miso in Toronto on December 13, 2013, in which those in attendance reflected on a number of issues related to the question of what exactly feminist games are or might be. My immediate response to the event was just how striking it was to have a full house of people come out on a cold Friday evening to talk about feminism, and it was even more impressive that many of the participants in the conversation were not dedicated Dames Making Games members but instead had been drawn to event specifically because of the topic, even though it included quite prominently in its title and description the much-reviled word “feminism”.

Attendees came from a range of backgrounds and approaches to games, including independent and triple-A game development, professional game design programmes, games criticism, and academia, among others. The salon was structured around a recent article by Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon on the potential for feminists to modify the stereotypical and oppressive narratives of games culture, but our discussions ranged quite far afield from this particular topic, touching on participants’ passion for intersectionality, inclusivity, and equity in some cases, and a reluctance to identify as feminist as well as resistance to the label and reactions to the word in other quarters. Working with women-in-games initiatives over the past few years has shown me that ambivalence about the word ‘feminism’ can actually be quite productive, as defining one’s own approach as ‘things need to change’ rather than relying on a sense of a shared definition can provide for more common ground in a climate that is so hostile to the F-word, and to social justice work broadly. We didn’t spend much time parsing the reasons for this acrimony as our larger group discussion touched instead on a range of issues related to feminism and games, including the realities of working in the industry, particularly the aggravation and exhaustion felt by women working in often quite hostile spaces. It seemed that for many the alternative to this exclusionary environment was to work alone or in small teams in the independent game design scene, an idea that has been questioned in many spaces but that still seems to hold promise for those frustrated by the status quo of triple-A. Along with better working conditions, indie game design is also seen as potentially providing the grounds for developing more interesting, radical, and critical games. Game criticism was brought up as a domain that allows feminist discourse to flourish, proving Layne and Blackmon’s point, but it seemed that for many not informed of the alternative voices in the area the contributions of this criticism are not necessarily visible. Certainly, after both our large and small group discussions the need for easily-located repertoires of radical work, from indie games to criticism, became apparent. For some kinds of indie games these do exist already, in the form of Free Indie Games, Forest Ambassador, and Twine Hub, but are perhaps still not reaching the broader community, requiring even more signal boosting.

Furthermore, there seems to be a need for more impression management- we need to demonstrate the ways in which the perception that feminism is about negativity is inaccurate, including creating a place for collating positive representations and actions in the game industry and for the planning of more conventions and conferences for open dialogue. Certainly, everyone articulated a need for change and the fact that action is required, but what this entails is still in need of careful thought and deliberation, especially given the exceedingly thin line between being an ally and the all-too-frequent co-optation of the struggles, issues, and stories of those who have been oppressed. Regardless of the caveats, the differing viewpoints, and the occasional discomfort with self-identification, many seemed to feel that digital games possess tremendous creative, educational, and social potential, and change must come from the grassroots level. For change from the ground up to occur, we have to share our unique and diverse knowledges, experiences, skills, and tools. Fortunately, the grounds for this is available to us right here in Toronto, if we want to take up DMG’s offer to plan and organize for ourselves as community members.

As this review of the wide-ranging topics of conversation we had at the Feminist Game Salon indicates, this DMG Talk was just the beginning of a larger discussion that people seem to be eager to engage with. What’s needed is for us to share the labour of planning and hosting these events, which would hopefully entail even more focused and nuanced discussions and workshops. I’m still interested in finding out what it means to be a feminist game-maker and what comprises a feminist game, a topic we engaged with only briefly by necessity. Game designers and critics from other cities have expressed interest and could be included via Skype or other means. The participation in the first two DMG Talks indicates quite clearly the desire for an open dialogue in tandem with other DMG activities- all we need to do is organize!