The women’s advocate and games designer speaks out about what the industry can do better, and looks back on her own work in improving it.
Leena Van Deventer was “exasperated” by the lack of support for women in tech, so she decided to do something about it.
“My friend Liah Clark and I… decided to start a group of our own because we couldn’t find any that really clicked with us,” she says.
The result was Women In Development, Games and Everything Tech, or WiDGET, now known as Making Space.
“A lot of them were very corporate focused and we wanted something a little scrappier, a little more punk rock.”
Ms Deventer would go on to lead WiDGET for a little over 5 and a half years, before stepping down from being it’s director.
“I believe collectives concerned with social justice shouldn’t have one leader for too long. It’s too easy for it to become a cult of personality or associated with one person,” She said.
“I also believed that we’d painted ourselves into a corner as being a women’s organisation, in name, design, and leadership, despite wanting to support many marginalised genders. The best way to truly indicate solidarity with all marginalised genders was to change the name and the leadership and allow other new leaders to step up and put their own stamp on it.”
But it had a bright side for Ms Deventer, it allowed her to reevaluate what she wanted to do with her time.
“I also felt like there was a tipping point with this kind of advocacy, where I needed to choose to do that for my job or do other work. I wasn’t willing to move away from game development into full time advocacy, and I felt like the members needed someone who would be more open to the prospect of that maybe happening one day.”
Ms Deventer has made a name for herself in the local industry as a women’s advocate who will call out misogyny and sexism wherever she sees it, going on to be part of not only WiDGET, but also the board of the Victorian Women’s Trust.
“I was absolutely thrilled to join the Board of Directors at the Victorian Women’s Trust. They are a bunch of truly dedicated, formidable women, and they do so much robust and vigorous work striving towards gender equity on behalf of all Australians,” She said when asked about her place on the board.
“It’s a truly unique organisation both in remit and structure, and it’s an honour and a privilege to have this personal insight into it all.”
She’s also co-written a book, Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the fight for the future of video games, and taught game design at RMIT.
But with recent industry news about systemic issues surrounding sexual harassment, a spotlight has been shone on the games’ industry treatment of women, both within the industry and by players.
Ms Deventer said there was a long way to go when it came to moderation in gaming communities.
“It’s nowhere near perfect. The hate raids we’re seeing on Twitch are really concerning, and bots have really infiltrated games like Team Fortress 2 to the point where they’re almost unplayable”, She said when asked about moderation within gaming communities.
These “bots” that she refers to are big thorns in the communities’ side. They are not only utilising un-official cheats to gain unfair advantages, but also entering hateful comments in the game’s chatlog.
Similarly, “Hate Raids” are a practice in which twitch streamers are harassed by spam bots in their chatlog, all of which write similar hate speech.
“I think we’re hitting brick walls with moderation and enforcement and need to think of other creative ways to shape player behaviour as well as trying to solve that problem.”
“I think a lot of games spaces need to model the kind of user they want to see, so people can emulate it. We need role models and spaces designed to encourage desired behaviour, instead of the opposite.”
As for change within the industry itself, she has supported recent calls for a game developer’s union.
“As far as what the industry can do, it’s absolutely clear that we need a union and that we needed it decades ago. We need to learn from film and other industries about how collective power can drastically improve conditions for workers, and stop lionising auteur developers to the point where they’re seen as unimpeachable by stakeholders.”
“Gamers can show their support by amplifying the voices of marginalised developers, not giving their money to companies they know are doing questionable things, and contacting companies urging them to unionise.”
This strategy of boycotting studios and their games has gotten traction in recent months, with some gamers vowing to boycott games like “Hogwarts Legacy” and “Diablo II: Resurrected” due to their ties to creators who are seen as transphobic and sexist respectively.
Most notably, gamers have been boycotting the multiplayer juggernaut “World Of Warcraft”, after one of it’s developers was the subject of a Californian lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, accusing it of allowing workplace harassment of it’s female workers.
Specifically, World of Warcraft’s creative director, Alex Afrasabi, was named as having repeatedly harassed female co-workers, and having an office nicknamed the “Cosby Suite”, after the alleged rapist Bill Cosby.
For now, Ms Deventer is happy as the creative producer and writer on the upcoming Dead Static: Drive, which is being made by the Melbourne-based studio Rueben Games.
“My proudest achievement so far is probably being in the position I’m in right now, actually.”
“After a decade of working freelance I was exhausted! I’m proud that I now have extremely rewarding full time work and don’t have to be worrying about hustling up the next gig while still finishing the last one.”
“This was my first development job after getting my masters in arts management, so it was great to see it from both perspectives, the creative side as well as the management side. I have so much more inner quiet than I used to, and I think my work, and mental health, is benefitting from that immensely,” She said when she was asked about how the change from being a freelance worker to a full-time game developer felt.
“This job is an absolute dream scenario for me.”
Featured Image Source: The Wheeler Centre’s page about Leena Van Deventer.