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How Sweden Is Taking on GamerGate

The Swedish gaming industry has long strived for more diversity, and continues with renewed vigour in the wake of the recent controversy.
November 27, 2014, 10:01am
A group of people playing video games. Image: ​​Valentin Ottone/Flickr

If there's one constructive (I can't quite bring myself to say "good") thing to come out of the Gamergate controversy—the online movement fuelled by misogyny in the video game community—it's that many people are at least showing a renewed concern for the issue of diversity in the gaming sphere. The place of women in particular—as game developers, as gamers, as people—has found itself on the agenda. In some places, it already was.

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Earlier this month, news spread that Sweden was going to start certifying games based on their portrayal of women and gender issues; a kind of Bechdel​ test for video games. Swedish n​ews site The Local reported that a new government-funded project by gaming industry organisation Dataspelsbranchen (Swedish Games Industry) would consider such a "label."

The news was picked up by​ US sites, but Dataspelsbranchen spokesperson Per Strömbäck told me the group's project had been misunderstood; it has no intention of introducing any kind of consumer rating. "Games are a work of art, and they should be open to interpretation, irony, and satire," he said in a phone interview. "It would be very difficult for a committee to put a stamp on what is approved or not in terms of those type of interpretations."

But the organisation is nevertheless set on doing something. It's not just Gamergate; the project was started before that scandal, and is pretty much carrying on an already-thriving discussion about diversity in the Swedish gaming world. He said the trade organisation had recognised a great demand for improved diversity in the industry. Last year, the percentage of women employed in Sweden's gaming industry went up 3​8 percent (though Strömbäck noted there's more to be done; that only brings the total to 16 percent).

Games are a work of art, and they should be open to interpretation, irony, and satire

Dataspelsbranchen teamed up with research organisation Praxikon to launch diversi​ty project Diversi, and earlier this year approached companies, academics, and players to share ideas in a grass roots-style initiative. "But a couple of weeks after we first met up, Gamergate happened and hit the Swedish media, and that changed the situation," said Strömbäck.

The group's response was to launch a pe​tition. "Sometimes you have to state the obvious: we will never accept threats, hate, violence or sexism in the name of games," it reads. "We welcome more diversity. We oppose all discrimination. Games are for all!" Companies who have attached their name to it include Microsoft, IGN, and King (of Candy Crush fame), among a current total of 1,554 signatories.

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One of them, Stockholm-based developer Andreas Zecher had previously started ​his own open letter "against harassment and threats of violence," which similarly attracted thousands of names.

A team of Swedish academics and developers also wrote a​n op-ed in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, decrying the recent threats made against women speaking out against sexism in the wake of Gamergate.

Strömbäck said the discussion in the press "demonstrates there is a lot of awareness and appetite for tangible action, but also frustration within the Swedish games community that action is not happening fast enough."

And the Swedish gaming community is not an insignificant part of the industry. Strömbäck called the country's success in the field "disproportionate," noting that last year​'s top free app (Candy Crush Saga) and top paid app (Minecraft) both came out of Sweden.

It's a big topic in Swedish society overall

The industry body's latest initiative—the "certification" idea—was a response to a call by government innovation agency Vinnova. Strömbäck emphasised that it was a feasibility study, and the group hadn't yet decided how a diversity rating could work. He said the idea was to look at the process of game development itself, rather than just the finished product—"whether it be the type of content, who makes the game, how it is represented."

Earlier in our conversation, he recalled his earlier days as a games publisher and developer in the 90s. Even then, he said, diversity was an active conversation; a graphic artist he was working with noticed that in a city environment, he was drawing women pushing prams. So he started drawing men pushing prams instead.

If that seems radical, it's really only reflective of th​e Swedish culture; shared parental leave has been in place for decades. The World Economic Forum lists Swe​den fourth in its Global Gender Gap Index, after three of its Nordic neighbours.

The idea with the new project is that companies making the grade could then have some sort sort of certification, perhaps that they could show off in their office or in recruitment ads. Dataspelsbranchen will deliver its results around next summer.

I asked Strömbäck if he thought the Swedish industry's response to gaming diversity differed from the rest of the world, and he said he thought gaming had changed worldwide; no longer was it viewed as a subculture (if ever it was), but as entertainment for all. "So I'm not sure that we are that different, but it's a big topic in Swedish society overall," he said.

It's evidently a big topic elsewhere, too. Perhaps just not for such a good reason.