the*gameHERs push for inclusivity and equity in game industry, community

Heather Ouida (center) exchanges contact information with one PAX East attendee, who stopped by to take a picture at their photobooth. Ouida is one of the co-founders of the*gameHERs, a new gaming community focused on inclusivity and diversity in the games industry. Photo by Hannah Harn / Boston University News Service.

By Hannah Harn
BU News Service

Hundreds of booths and vendors, as well as thousands of attendees, crowded the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center at PAX East earlier this month. There was something new to see and experience around every corner, and exhibitors could even be found taking a few moments away from their own tables to experience what others had to offer. 

Even in the midst of all the excitement and noise, Heather Ouida took the time to shake a few hands, chat with attendees and introduce them to a new community within the greater gaming world: the game*HERs.

“As we’ve kind of brought this idea to fruition, and certainly here at PAX, the support we’ve had from women and girls, but also guys, and you know, men and boys coming to our booth and saying, you know, ‘this is really cool, how can we support it?’” Ouida said reflecting on their weekend taking photos and spreading the word from their couch and booth at PAX East.  

The*gameHERs community is open to women, men and nonbinary people, and they want to be as diverse as the gaming community itself, Ouida said.

“Anyone that feels marginalized, we want this to feel like a safe, celebratory space for them too,” she said. 

In 2019, women made up nearly half of the world’s 2.5 billion gamers. They play on every platform imaginable, some casually and some professionally. They stream content, compete in esports tournaments, design games and art and work as voice actors. 

Despite the strong presence and wide influence women have in the gaming industry, a game*HERs report found that women face three times more harassment than men when playing.

More than 50% report facing verbal abuse, 32% report experiencing sexual harassment and 23% of respondents say they choose not to identify themselves while playing. 

Ouida, the CEO and co-founder of the*gameHERs, said she felt the need for this sort of community back in September while attending The Future of Esports and Video Games Conference in September 2019. 

“We were one of the few women in the room,” she said of the conference. “And this fabulous man named Niles Heron, the co-founder of Popdog, was one of the speakers who came on the stage. And before he did his scheduled talk, he came on the stage and he kind of looked around, he said, ‘Hey, guys, are we going to do this again? Are we going to have another billion-dollar industry run by white men?’’”

Ouida and her colleagues looked at each other and had what she describes as their real “aha moment.”

The*gameHERs community began to take shape. 

Verta Maloney, the chief community officer and a co-founder, first met Ouida when their children went to school together. After bonding over Maloney’s son dressing as a niche book character, she and Ouida became fast friends, even calling Ouida her “people.”

Maloney wanted the*gameHERs movement to be as inclusive as possible from ground zero.

“One of the things that I shared with my team was that you know, like, when you get me you’re getting Verta, a black woman who’s going to bring that to the table,” she laughed. “And they’re like, ‘absolutely,’ so that we can actually make sure that we’re starting off being as inclusive as we can.”

Maloney doesn’t even consider herself a true “gamer.” While her child and spouse both play games, she hasn’t played in a some time. 

“I say I’m gamer-adjacent,” she said. “But I’m not a gamer, and I say that to be really clear that I’m not trying to be. Maybe I will become one, though, because I’ve been actually really intrigued by some games.”

Maloney wants the*gameHERs to learn how to build this community right from the community itself, rather than focus on what she and her co-founders have accomplished in other spaces. 

“It’s about what I’m trying to help do in the future,” Maloney explained. “I’m just a curious person, and when people ask what it is that we’re going to do, I don’t really know yet because the possibilities feel endless.”

In the esports industry, male champions make almost 718% more than female champions. In 2018, Bleeding Cool reported that on average, women have taken home $3,331.18, while men have raked in $443,276.80. 

“I think that it’s sometimes hard for women to state their worth,” Ouida said. “Talking about the discrepancy will help but it really has to come from high up and the people, the decision-makers and the people in power who are putting together the teams and figuring out the pay scale. But hopefully, creating a community like this will be hopefully the first step.”

The*gameHERs also found that in a study of around 1,200 women gamers over the age of 16, 71% feel games oversexualize female characters, 60% feel a lack of strong female game characters and 55% feel women are underrepresented in games. 

“It starts by saying something,” Maloney said. “It starts by believing that it happens, right? So just because it doesn’t happen for you doesn’t mean that it’s not happening for someone else in their experience, and honoring that lived experience.”

Maloney also said that sometimes it’s a risk to handle gatekeeping in the community. 

“The first thing is that you have to [be] willing to maybe piss somebody off in your life because they’re going to be mad because you’re standing up for something,” she said. “We can play this game without hurting people, and that that’s actually hurting people. And it hurts me to hear you say that.”

They don’t want to compete with existing groups either.

For Maloney, it’s also about navigating the ins and outs of the different communities they want to bring together as the*gameHERs.

“We’re trying to collaborate with as many people and support as many people as we can in this effort,” she said, “as well as provide a space and a platform for those voices to be elevated.”

As for what’s ahead, they can’t quite say. For these women, that’s a good thing.

“It’s hard to say if there’s been an evolution of yet,” Ouida said. “But it’s something that I’m excited to kind of learn about and kind of take this journey with all these fabulous gamers.”

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