Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal
Riot Grrrls Wanted

Erin Hoffman | 5 Jan 2010 09:13
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Games are cool because they're a renegade art form that your parents hate. We need to figure out how [to make social impact with games] in such a way that we don't lose our renegade status.
- Will Wright, GDC 2009


Once upon a time, a new medium emerged. It started with eccentric lone inventors playing with new technology in makeshift studios and then swept out into a passionate niche market of enthusiasts. It wasn't an invention ex nihilo, but came from applying the combination of electricity and machines to an ancient art form.

That "new medium" was rock and roll, but the same story could be written about videogames. In the beginning they were both riotous and wild, emerging from underground cultures of experimentation. But eventually, a couple of breakout hits brought them thundering into the mainstream - bestowing fame and fortune to some of their early creators, but also marking the end of each medium's sheltered, idyllic childhood.

From there, major publishers moved in, exploiting each medium to make money. Social conservatives, meanwhile, disdained both game's and rock music's rising popularity, even going so far as to legislate against them in various parts of the world. But creators and fans were not dissuaded. They reveled in being dangerous. The scorn of moral naysayers couldn't slow them down. And anyway, sometimes it's more fun being on the outside.

It's a Man's, Man's, Man's, Man's World

But there's another common point between rock and videogames that is easier to miss: their historical treatment of women. Prior to the rise of rock and roll in the 1950s, women represented 30 percent of the singles charts; by 1985 that number dropped to less than 10 percent. Similarly, although women represent 40 percent of the game-consuming audience, they make up less than 12 percent of game developers, and correspondingly fewer are in decision-making roles.

Even punk rock, born in the late 1970s as a reaction to the corporatization of the record industry, didn't buck the trend of rock and roll's marginalization of women. Treated as novelties and oddities, the most notable women in both rock and punk weren't taken seriously even as they managed to break through onto the Billboard charts. But when the rebellious attitude of punk rock begat the Riot Grrrl movement, all of that was about to change.

Riot grrrl began in 1991 as a series of letters exchanged between its founders discussing the treatment they received as girls in the punk scene. When the Mount Pleasant race riots broke out in the late spring of that year, Jen Smith of Bratmobile wrote to Allison Wolfe referring to "a girl riot," and the movement's name was born.

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