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Video game industry stung by stigma of objectifying women

| Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

Jennifer Green plays video games. She also builds them as a student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

In the past week, Green, 21, and the gaming world have watched as a drama unfolded online. A woman who pointed out sexualized and violent treatment of women in a class of video games was threatened in social media with rape, death and dismemberment by people who said they knew where she lived. Her family was targeted. The woman, Anita Sarkeesian, said she had to leave her home.

Sarkeesian was focusing on non-player characters, who make up video game backgrounds and help move the story along.

Backgrounds, and the characters in them, are what Green wants to specialize in after she graduates.

“I understand why they do it, but sometimes it's a little excessive,” said Green of video game developers building victimized female characters. “It's a little insulting because you don't see men portrayed in this way.”

A 2014 sales and usage report released at the end of August by a video game industry group paints a striking picture of how women fit into gaming. According to the Entertainment Software Association, nearly half of all gamers are women. There's a higher proportion of adult women who play video games than teenage boys. And those women have been playing for more than a decade.

The industry is responding to that, designing games with powerful female player-characters, said Brad Allen and Stig Asmussen, Art Institute of Pittsburgh alumni and game developers at Respawn Entertainment. Both were in town this week for a school-sponsored tournament featuring Titanfall, a game that Allen, an artist, helped produce.

“It's coming,” said Allen, who, with Asmussen, chaired a panel on Thursday on the gaming industry for a group of Art Institute students that included Green.

Violent games are the best sellers. According to the ESA report, four of the five top-selling games of 2013 were rated M, for mature audiences, even though the ESA's rating arm reports less than 10 percent of games that it rates are given an M rating. The top-selling game of 2013 was Grand Theft Auto V, where strippers and prostitution are part of the plot.

Teaching students who want to design complex, story-driven games without demeaning women is important, said Angela Love, chair of the Media Arts and Animation faculty at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. One of the ways she does that is by challenging something as simple as fashion on the female characters that students create.

“You fight the cultural cliches,” she said. “If you're only going to clad your character in a tank top and a miniskirt, how's she going to fight in that?”

Green and her classmate, Danielle Braddish, 24, said the events of the past week have made them nervous about voicing their opinions online as gamers and as developers. But neither is deterred from careers in video game development.

“You shouldn't have to hide,” said Green, who is graduating soon.

Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or megha@tribweb.com.

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