Game developer wants to take her cultural critique to Congress

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Brianna Wu has been outspoken about sexism in male-dominated video game culture. (Photo by Shannon Grant, courtesy of Brianna Wu)

Brianna Wu has been outspoken about sexism in male-dominated video game culture. (Photo by Shannon Grant, courtesy of Brianna Wu)

Brianna Wu has been outspoken about sexism in male-dominated video game culture.

Brianna Wu has loved video games ever since she was little, when she used to play Super Mario 2 on her Nintendo Entertainment System.

And as an adult, she went from playing video games to making them. But she noticed this: “We are an industry that always portrays women as like damsels in distress, or the girlfriend that’s been kidnapped, or the hyper sexualized sidekick.”

For example, Wu’s favorite character is Ivy, a warrior with a magic sword from the fighting game “Soul Calibur.”

“As sequels kept coming out, her boobs got ridiculously big, and her costume kept getting smaller and smaller,” Wu says.

Wu launched a crowdsourced fundraising campaign via Kickstarter and then used the money to create an independent game called “Revolution 60.”

It’s a science fiction adventure where the player is a spy who tries to save the world by regaining control of a military space station.

“Women are every single part of the cast. We are the hero, we are the sidekick, we are the commander, we are the engineer, we are the villain,” Wu says.

“In ‘Revolution 60,’ there’s not a single line that’s about feminism or equality. We just show women being awesome.”

Game developers like Wu are storytellers. They’re also engineers who have to solve technical problems to tell their stories. Every developer has to decide how to spend the limited processing power of a smartphone or tablet.

“Engineering is fundamentally a profession about trade-offs,” Wu says. “So if I decide to make a very pretty explosion, I’m going to have to take away from something else. What a lot of male-dominated games in our field do is they make beautiful gunfire and explosions and particle effects and violence.”

Wu says male designers often skimp on things like characters’ hair.

“Typically every woman you see is going to have a ponytail or an updo, because the men that are making the games don’t want to animate the hair. If you watch a Disney movie, the way the characters’ hair moves and bounces; it’s beautiful.”

Wu’s game has explosions, too, but she wanted the women to be three-dimensional characters that show nuanced emotions like sadness and sarcasm–and yes, have animated hair.

She’s not the only game developer paying attention to female characters. There’s a well-reviewed game called “Gone Home” where you play as a young woman who comes home after a year abroad to find her family missing. The quest is finding out what happened.

Wu has been outspoken about sexism in male-dominated video game culture. She tweets and writes op-eds about it.

When she began critiquing the industry, Wu and other women were targeted in a harassment campaign called Gamergate. Wu says “trolls” flooded her with negative tweets.

She got death threats. Cyber stalkers threatened to rape her.

The harassment wasn’t just online. It spilled over to the real world. The FBI got involved, though the agents didn’t find the people responsible.

Wu says the intimidation continues. There was an incident just a few weeks ago.

“My husband and I are at our new house, which we don’t talk about the address with people,” she says.

“Someone had followed me around Boston, photographing me against my will, and then sent me pictures saying basically, ‘I know where you live.’ And then I woke up and found my window broke.”

A few months ago, Wu decided that working for better representation of women and other marginalized groups means doing more than making well-developed female characters in video games.

She’s running for the U.S. Congress in Massachusetts. Wu says that, as a Representative, she would use her technical understanding of cyber security and privacy to fight for consumers.

But that means trading one male-dominated industry for another. She took on the game industry, which is mostly run by men, and now her sights are set on Congress–which is also overwhelming male.

“Yes, it’s exactly the same,” she said.

“It’s a system that favors men from a very specific background, straight white cisgender and male. But I have to say–and this is sad–that I’ve encountered a fraction of the sexism I have in the game industry so far in being a Congressional candidate. I think that really says something sad about the game industry when I can genuinely tell you this is a better place to be.”

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