"Would you rather be a cyborg or a goddess?"
Kara Stone and Kayte McKnight stand in a large, brick-walled meeting space on Toronto's West Side. In front of them is a gathering of approximately forty women to which they've posed a very simple question: Cyborg or Goddess? A projection screen behind them echoes the question, displaying an adventure game coded by the two women as part of a two-day workshop run by local nonprofit Dames Making Games.
"We're 50% of the population, and we should be 50% of the game-making demographic," explained Stone."We have all of the skills to do it, it's just that people don't really want women making games, or don't think they can."
It's a sad truth about the games industry. In spite of all the progress made in the name of gender equality, it's still very much a boy's club, particularly in the development sector, where both female developers and female gamers might potentially face abuse, derision, and ignorance from their peers. Worse, there still seems to exist an overwhelming presumption that women simply aren't meant to be involved in game development.
Perhaps because of this presumption, the exact number of women making video games is estimated as somewhere around 1 in every 10 developers. Given that half of all gamers are women, this - along with the fact that men are still the target demographic for games - hardly seems right. Dames Making Games is one organization that seeks to challenge this discriminatory status quo.
"There's a certain kind of pressure that comes from being the only woman in a room full of men," said DMG co-founder Cecily Carver. "There are a lot of examples of the ways in which women are actively discouraged from participating in game culture in any way. But it c an also be much more subtle things, like being evaluated on your geek cred. Have you played the same games that the leaders of the group think important? Do you relate to the same kinds of experiences? A lot of things can lead to feeling like an outsider."
This sexism isn't just reflected in how women are treated in gaming, but in the games themselves. According to Carver, the exclusivity present in the development sector causes the same storylines, archetypes, and narrative conceits to surface again, and again, and again. Take Grand Theft Auto V, for example - which featured three protagonists for the first time in the series.
All of these protagonists were male, because, according to Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser, "the concept of being masculine was so key to the story."
"Games have the potential to be rich in terms of their themes and their content as films or books, but that potential isn't really being explored because the interests of the creators are a lot more homogenous."
For Stone and McKnight, the struggle against sexism can be a frustrating one. In McKnight's case, she says she's not asking for much.Though she still enjoys playing games, she'd rather see a few more female characters not specifically designed for male consumption.
Stone, on the other hand, sometimes has to just stop playing.
"It kind of feels like 'pick your battles,"explained Stone. "I don't personally have to put feminism on my back and carry it everywhere and solve everything in my day-to-day life. Sometimes I just want to play video games."
Video games aren't a niche market anymore. Last year, Americans spent over $20 billion on digital entertainment- and that amount is only slated to increase. More and more, video games are becoming an important element of our everyday lives - which is why, explains Stone, it's so important that the medium's storyline's evolve to encompass the entire human experience instead of just one half of it.
"It's like (developers) have it in their head that men are going to hate it when women make video games, but these video games with women not wearing clothes and shooting guns, they're still going to be there, they're still going to be made. No one's stopping them from being made. It's just that we want more diversity, more choice."
Dames Making Games - and organizations like it - wishes to bring that choice and diversity into the industry. The founders wish to challenge the false dichotomy that seems to exist in the development field, where you're either a woman or a game developer. That, explains Stone and McKnight, forms the crux of their "Cyborg Vs. Goddes" presentation - it's meant to represent that dichotomy. The central idea of the game is drawn from an essay by Jasbir Puar, which challenges the notion that women must either be a traditional female or a cold, 'perfect' creature which can be continually improved.
Through the adventure game, the women who chose to be a cyborg eventually became goddesses, while the women who wished to be goddesses started to become more like cyborgs. The point? There's essentially no difference between the two - they aren't two opposite ends of a spectrum.
So...Cyborg or Goddess? Woman or game developer?
"I want to be both," says Stone.