Intimate Publics

Towards Creating Supportive Spaces for Women in Games

Commentary - Feminism and Games

Emma Vossen is a third year PhD student at the University of Waterloo and the Commentaries editor at FPS. She specializes in depictions of gender, sexuality, and the body in comics, videogames, and pornography.


You may have caught a piece we ran last week that discussed GamerGate broadly as a movement. This commentary is Part 2 of that piece and examines the divisions between people who play games from a more personal perspective. In this part, I illustrate my experiences as a member of the Games Institutes Janes (GI Janes) here at Uwaterloo as fodder. Furthermore, this piece also discusses the new direction we are taking the Commentaries here at FPS. If you haven’t read about GamerGate at all, I suggest you read Part 1 of this piece here.

The mammoth division among people who play games is not new. This fight for space for women within games culture has been going on for a very long time. The issue has been particularly prominent in the past two years, when mass attention was directed towards the successful funding of the Tropes vs Women in Videogames Kickstarter. In Part 1 of this post, I referred to the recent events in games culture as the tipping point for women working in gaming, which I don’t think this is an exaggeration. It is not a tipping point simply because the harassment that women in games are facing has reached its peak, although this is part of it. It’s the tipping point because many of the women who have been standing up to this kind of harassment, who have been creating the kinds of games and games journalism that are being demonized right now, are exhausted, myself included, and I only started writing about games and holding women-focused gaming events two years ago. I can’t imagine being a public figure with a large following dealing with these issues, because just being a small part of the conversation both online and on a local level has totally exhausted me.

GI Janes

Two years ago, I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed PhD student who wanted to do what I could to make the world more safe and enjoyable for women gamers. I co-founded a division of the University of Waterloo Games Institute with two other women to do just this, called the Games Institute Janes (GI Janes). Because women were a huge minority in the GI, I wanted to make sure we had a face that could be seen as welcoming to potential female games scholars, who may have otherwise seen game studies as a boys’ club. Being part of UWaterloo’s Games Institute has provided us with tons of opportunities to talk, write about, and make games, but when it came down to it, we didn’t want talking about diversity and women’s issues to be a sidebar to talking about game studies and game theory – we wanted to talk about it all the time. We also wanted to intervene on the ground and in public, so we held a few events and gave a few talks and interviews around Kitchener Waterloo. Our aim was to make thinking about the issues that concerned us in games a daily task, instead of just a week on a syllabus, at a reading group, or in a section of a gaming website. The lack of diversity in gaming affected the three of us on a daily basis, and we wanted to do what we could to change that. Furthermore, we wanted an official way to intervene in the debates that were happening online by posting articles about our subjective experiences as women playing games, so we wrote and podcasted about such topics briefly at

Even though this worked for a time, I recently decided to stop writing for that website and began writing and editing at FPS. The main reason for this change was that FPS was looking to change the type of content they were publishing, and myself and the other Janes were exhausted of going it alone. Most of my effort was taken up by how upset the research made me, and how stomach-turning it was to watch the continued abuse of women whom I respected and emulated. Doing this sort of work/activism was draining, not simply because it was a lot of work, but because most of the work we were doing was sitting around talking about what we could do to help, and how not to piss anyone off.  We discovered that the latter was impossible; we could hold gaming nights or talks, but we couldn’t exclude men without causing a stir, and we wanted to be liked. Because of this, our events always ended up with substantially more men than women, and we found that women weren’t really any more comfortable than they would have been at any other event.

Despite our blatant mandate of no sexist, racist, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted behaviour at these events, I witnessed or heard about it transpiring. Sometimes, myself or someone else would intervene, but I would often feel as though people had wished that I had just ignored the dumb thing their friend had “let slip.” Furthermore, even though we never held a women-only games night or programming workshop, rumours of us even considering doing both quickly spread, and the reception that got back to us was less than warm. Some women felt that women-only events would limit the extent or quality of the conversation, could come off as exclusionary, or could turn potential new female participants off. Some of my male friends warned me about the potential backlash, and others were sad that they wouldn’t be able to come to the cool events we were planning. All this left us with a lot to think about. We wanted to create a safe space where women did not feel like they were being judged or left behind because of their gender or their lack of knowledge about gaming, but we realized we were going to have to acknowledge these other concerns first.

We talked at length about the difficulties of holding women-only events: Would we even advertise these events as “women only”? Would we refuse someone at the door? If there were men at the events, how would we police their behaviour, especially if it involved micro-aggressions that would cause disagreements? How do you create these spaces within a public space like a bar or a University campus? What if people wanted to bring their significant others? What about guy friends who felt they were “exceptions?” At an open forum, we asked for suggestions for GI Janes events or programs, and the attendees repeatedly agreed that no matter what, the events could not be women only. Yet, it was hard to find women at UW willing to get involved with games studies in the form of a piece of writing or being on a podcast because of how intimidating games culture can be.

Creating a safe space is one thing, but creating a comfortable nurturing space that fosters creativity is another thing entirely. Repeatedly, women I talked to would tell me they didn’t really consider themselves gamers, let alone games scholars. I couldn’t argue with them because I often wondered if I was either of those two things, despite having played games for my whole life and have taken a PhD-level exam in games studies. I believe this lack of belonging is caused by a lack of intimacy within the community. When founding GI Janes, we attempted to create a space of counterpublic activism within the University that had explicit political aims to intervene in debates, but what we needed was to create an intimate public that affirmed the beliefs that we already held that are constantly being attacked. Lauren Berlant explains that an intimate public is:

“[…] an expectation that the consumers of its particular stuff already share a worldview and emotional knowledge that they have derived from a broadly common historical experience. A certain circularity structures an intimate public, therefore: its consumer participants are perceived to be marked by a commonly lived history; its narratives and things are deemed expressive of that history while also shaping its conventions of belonging; and, expressing the sensational, embodied experience of living as a certain kind of being in the world, it promises also to provide a better experience of social belonging—partly through participation in the relevant commodity culture, and partly because of its revelations about how people can live. So if, from a theoretical standpoint, an intimate public is a space of mediation in which the personal is refracted through the general, what’s salient for its consumers is that it is a place of recognition and reflection.”

When trying to intervene in the public at large, we were unable to foster the intimacy we needed to help women feel comfortable making, playing, talking, or writing about games. What women gamers, and the women making and writing about games need, is not so much a political movement, but an intimate public through which they can share a sense of belonging, affirmation and support. A place where they can simply be gamers, without having to question their right to the medium. When we held public events, say, a gaming night, I felt like we were actually making these female gamers more exposed and available to harassment, than helping them by affirming a feeling of recognition and belonging. The reason why feminists in gaming are seen as such a threatening force is because online, on twitter, via Patreon and Kickstarter and other digital methods of support, we form a public that helps us share an intimate dialogue about our shared experiences as women in gaming.

What we need is the ability to converse with one another without feeling like our opinions or feeling are invalid or illegitimate through an affirming feedback loop. This feedback loop, where you can speak with people who agree with you sounds unproductive to many, I’m sure. We are taught that talking to people who agree with you is a sort of self-aggrandizing ignorance, but when you are so marginalized within a specific culture, it’s really a method of survival. When men interrupt that feedback loop with concerns of “but men” or “not all men” or by questioning the “ethics” of us supporting and defending each other, they are making sure we can never reach a level of belonging that is sufficient. When the GamerGaters say that Jenn Frank can’t defend Zoe Quinn, they are blocking our feedback loop and making sure our public never reaches it’s required intimacy for us to become equal autonomous participants in the gaming community.

Public Games Feminism

Just being a public face for these sort of issues makes you feel vulnerable and open to criticism. You find yourself constantly wondering if you are doing a good enough job to represent women gamers: Am I playing enough games? Am I posting enough about games on Twitter? Am I engaging enough with the public? Am I engaging enough with other academics? Am I pissing off the men I work with? My male friends? This is just a sample of the ways that being a part of something so great stressed me out so much on a regular basis. I’ve been hearing echoes of this stress and exhaustion more and more in the past month from other women who have been on the front lines of this movement.

Samantha Allen tweeted about her recent decision to disengage from writing about games, saying, “If you can stomach the harassment or figure out a way to dodge it, go for it. But there’s no shame in bowing out or never even trying.”  Another games idol of mine, Mattie Brice, tweeted: “I don’t want to be a part of the games industry,” and Rise of the Videogame Zinesters author and prolific game creator Anna Anthropy tweeted: “Can we also put to bed the idea that staying in an industry where you must face constant harassment is the strong, brave, noble choice.” She also followed up by saying: “If you’re passionate about games, you’ll put up with unpaid crunch time. If you’re passionate about games you’ll willingly endure harassment. Fuck passion and fuck games.” Youtube games critic Dodger commented: “As a woman in the games industry can I Just say: I have no idea wtf is going on anymore”. Games Journalist Leigh Alexander wrote a guide for what you should and shouldn’t do when a woman is being harassed on twitter. Maddy Myers tweeted: “remind me again why there are any women in the games industry? Oh right because we still like video games.”

First Person Scholars

In a way, it was incredibly important to hear other women who were as frustrated as I was. I needed to hear someone say that it was okay to disengage, that it was okay to change the way you were engaging, it was okay to leave if you needed to. I almost needed the permission to quit in order to stay. Moving my efforts over to FPS as the Commentaries editor and away from the GI Janes website is a way for me to work smart and work hard. I want to be able to encourage, foster and help bring to light the type of games criticism that I enjoy reading, and I want to talk about the types of issues affecting games that many don’t want us to talk about. We at FPS want to encourage those who are feeling unsafe writing in other avenues to consider FPS as a viable place for them to comment on what is going on in the industry or culture in a thoughtful and intelligent way.

FPS’s original mandate was to hit the sweet spot in between intelligent games journalism and less rigid academic game studies. We have previously tended to tread on the academic side of this “sweet spot,” and are looking to expand our range. This will include publishing about issues in games and games culture as they are happening (or in retrospect) in our commentaries, while adhering to more traditional structures in our essays. For some, there is a very clear division between studying games themselves and studying the culture surrounding those games, but when you feel like (and are often told) that you are not part of games culture, you are not going to be able to participate in game studies without constantly talking about gaming culture. To put it simply, the personal is still political, and for me, studying games is very very personal. I have a hard time writing about “just the game” when there is so much in the way of me simply enjoying games. It feels much more worth my time to write about all the problems that prevent me from playing, writing about and loving games as much as I want to.

In Conclusion

Over the past few years, we have been witnessing a slow merging of journalism and academic writing on the Internet. For example, Sarkeesian is taking her academic background and knowledge about feminism and applying it to gaming culture in a clear and accessible way. The terms and vocabulary that were previously held within the Ivory Tower are now widely distributed by women on the Internet, so much so that feminism is once again a household term. It’s now a word that stands behind Beyonce at the MTV video awards, and not simply something people discuss in academia or niche political affairs. I think part of what we are talking about when we are looking for that “sweet spot” of middle state publishing about games is a type of feminization (in a positive way) of the very masculine field of games studies. By providing a safe, accessible space to talk about games without a rigid academic formula, we will be able to create and share knowledge that can’t come about in traditional journalism or academic work, because they are so influenced by the institutions that dictate their content. We don’t have a financial stake in the games industry and we don’t get paid to write about games or run this website, we simply want to be a platform for new knowledge to be produced so that we can better understand games as a medium, an art form, and a culture.

Do you want to write for us? Please see our call for submissions.

Further Reading

[Comments are welcomed and encouraged on First Person Scholar; after all, constructive, thoughtful conversations are what we aim to generate with our articles. However, there are some instances where comments will be deleted as follows: any comment that demeans, attacks, degrades, or harms another individual or group, as well as any comments not made in good-faith (i.e. those that hijack or troll the conversation) will be removed.]