The XX Factor

Video Games as Applied Design—Without Women as Designers

MoMA’s applied design exhibit gives short shrift to woman video game designers

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Amid all the recent stories underscoring the hardships of being a woman in tech, one that’s slid under the radar is the “Applied Design” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The show features 14 video games, ranging from the familiar (Pac-Man, The Sims) to the obscure (Vib-Ribbon). Of those 14, exactly one, Portal, included a woman on its creative team. This isn’t surprising—women comprise barely 12 percent of the creative force in gaming—but it is depressingly symbolic of an industry that continues to marginalize women. By not even acknowledging gender as an issue in both design and user experience, MoMA’s missed a terrific opportunity.

It’s the rare female-designed game that garners big interest. One exception (not at MoMA) was 1981’s Centipede, designed by Dona Bailey, then the only woman employed by Atari. A huge hit, it was also one of the few games to command a substantial female player base—possibly because women enjoy killing bugs—but the game was big with men, too.

Otherwise, a “no girls allowed” mentality pervades gaming more than any other pop culture medium.

Designers and professors Jessica Hammer at Columbia, Rebecca Allen at UCLA, and Anne-Marie Schleiner at National University of Singapore are blunt about the hostility women can experience in the gaming world. Allen describes being harassed with pornographic imagery when she was team leader at Virgin Interactive Media; one of the most printable of Schleiner’s flames exhorted her to “go play with your Barbies.”

More recently, the threats received by Anita Sarkeesian in response to her Feminist Frequency YouTube series and the firing of Adria Richards from SendGrid (she’d tweeted photos of men behaving badly at a conference) indicate that men are willing to go to great lengths to remain masters of their virtual universes. And with female enrollment in tech programs declining, the combat needs to get a lot more fierce. Jessica Hammer, for one, is working to achieve gender parity in her classes—changing numbers can change the game.

MoMA’s exhibit is a rare instance of the museum being traditional, acting as a repository rather than a leader. The show both reflects and inadvertently reinforces the industry standard. Curator Paola Antonelli notes that the games were chosen on criteria such as visual quality and elegance of code, and while gender is always at the back of her mind, it wasn’t discussed openly. (She did make a point of excluding gratuitously violent or sexist games.) The 26 additional games she hopes to acquire offer no further parity. But Antonelli is interested in changing that, acknowledging, “You work so hard to avoid all the agendas, you sometimes forget important parts. I continue to look for diamonds.” Here’s hoping she starts with Centipede.