New Game! and the trouble with women in tech

Fresh out of high school, Aoba Suzukaze lands a dream job at the game studio she’s admired since childhood, Eagle Jump. Clearly the studio saw a spark of the exceptional, hiring her off the bat with no apparent experience in game design, something unimaginable here in England, or the further western world for that matter. Set as part of a wider environment that has a near institutionalised distrust of women’s abilities, the occasional gender-political duality of the portrayal of women in shonen has appeared as a fixture of yet another new season, calling back to our exploration of the springtime series Bakuon!! and sisterhood as seen through shonen.

In New Game!, the all-girl company is an empowering fantasy striking a chord with any girl who’s been dismissed as ‘faking’ their fandom. But even so, the fact remains that our protagonist is a cute, bumbling waif, bound to make lots of charming slip-ups for a presumed straight male audience. Shizuku Hazuki, the design department’s director, has a platonic interest in cute girls, which goes some way to explain how the design floor came to be populated by women. But outside of being a pretty glimpse into a fairly improbable microcosm for geek guys, it’s difficult to find any practical substance in the show.

New Game! - Aoba

Now, we’re not saying that its all-girl milieu would be impossible. For a start, there are movements like Girls Make Games and Girls Who Code letting girls come together to design and develop their own games. But it’s highly unlikely factoring in our current society’s wider population, especially where the male:female workers ratio in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers is concerned. Even taking into account that Japanese businesses hire post-graduates en masse, Aoba’s sheer dumb luck is a ridiculous notion. In a field where women make up less than 12% of the worldwide workforce, she couldn’t have dreamed of jumping straight in at what seems like a AAA-level studio in Eagle Jump’s case. Any young button-masher would have the most minute chance of actually achieving that feat, even if they had a basic grasp of programming from their high school years.

More on Japanese attitudes later, but speaking from a strictly British perspective, people considering their career paths and going to university are being deterred from courses and vocations in and around Aoba’s new field. There’s a dire lack of encouragement as to what paths can be taken in the STEM sectors, with Engineering perpetuated as a load of low paid blokes standing around in hard hats, hi-vis and pouring rain on roadworks and construction sites. And for women in particular, these fields are trapped in a perception cycle of being dominated by the kind of men whose views on women could be politely described as prehistoric. When not considered a distraction by male colleagues, women are being subjected to objectifying, demeaning and condescending behaviour that all too often drives them out of their chosen vocation. Even though things were looking up where representation in schools and universities was concerned, with figures of girls taking computing at A-Level in the UK doubling from 2013 to 2015, there was a 5% drop in women graduating from STEM degrees last year. And even still, girls as young as eight aren’t having their minds opened to the possibility of a job in science or technology, with such subjects seen as favouring the abilities of the ‘practical, right-brained’ boys in their class.

New Game! could, of course, be seen as a show driving home a positive message that women are just as capable coders and computer scientists as their male counterparts, diverse in their various levels and natures of nerdiness. While Eagle Jump’s lead character designer Ko Yagami will fall asleep in the office but strive to get the job done on time, and motion designer Hajime Shinoda is a sentai and sci-fi fanatic who customises her workspace with replicas and collectibles, they have the freedom and support to work hard in a way that’s comfortable for them. But even considering that eight women occupy this Themiscyran professional paradise, these apparently dissimilar characters have still been crafted within the borders of male heterosexual caprice. Hajime is the hot yet approachable geeky girl, and Shizuku the horny guys’ cipher, keeping the cuties coming under the camouflage of a quiet but sultry cat lady. Hifumi Takimoto, Aoba’s character design compatriot, can only communicate comfortably through instant messaging, but although so desperately introverted, she takes teasing steps out of her shell to reveal other adorable quirks such as her pet hedgehog, Sojiro. And Ko Yagami presides over all as a mature, patriarchal presence; irreverent, moody, able to hold her drink, but flashing her panties on occasion for good measure.

New Game! - Ko Yagami

It just so happens that Ko is the character designer who first inspired Aoba to become one herself, when she first played the Eagle Jump game Fairies’ Story. Whether intentionally or not, this lands on another major issue in the STEM fields’ drastic gender imbalance. Girls with the potential and interest in these careers simply weren’t seeing women that they could aspire to until, in recent years, western movements like WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering) and the aforementioned Girls Who Code began to call on women in STEM to talk and teach about their work in dedicated events and workshops. Aoba seeing a woman’s name on something she loved, and realising she could be a vital part of it too, is something that should happen for girls worldwide as much as it does for boys, but sadly doesn’t.

New Game! - Aoba gaming

Although girls in Japan are encouraged by their parents on relatively equal levels with boys to go into higher education in the STEM fields, the percentage of women in these industries in Japan stays at around 14%, in what is a conservative if highly technologically advanced country. 39% of girls were being willed towards pharmaceutical studies over 9% of boys in 2014, which reflects the country’s traditional societal and gender ideals, with the family held sacred and women still considered the nurturers of the family, even though it’s now more acceptable for them to pursue careers. Although this is shifting slowly, with women striving for equality and many Japanese men wanting to be present fathers, men are still expected to live for their work above all else, strict schedules seeing senior staff grow older in their jobs as the generation gap widens, exhaustion stifling change. Spring and summer schools which focus on the sciences, and favour girls in a similar sense as the blossoming UK and US initiatives, have been gaining in popularity and support from science and education institutions since they began opening in 2005. Still, their students’ numbers are a pittance at 100 to 120 junior and high school students per school each year, especially when considering Japan’s population was over 126 million in 2015.

Even with all the fighting women have done to get ahead in STEM, against domineering colleagues and discouraging educators, UK women made up 14.4% of the STEM career force in 2015, with Japan reflecting that proportion in the sciences at 14.6% in 2014. And putting aside the positive messages which can and should be read into New Game!, in the end it doesn’t portray equality, but idealised segregation of the genders. In an all-female utopia free from toxic manly chutzpah, women can be successful creators of sword and sorcery games. But only if they’re cute or alluring, and only in a way that would be entertaining and inoffensive to men if one ‘just happened’ to be watching through the wall.

About Elisabeth (1360 Articles)
Otaku blogger, mum and hyper-pixie of the cosmic realms. Might have made that last part up. Or did I?

9 Comments on New Game! and the trouble with women in tech

  1. As much as I appreciate the intent of this post, I heavily disgree:
    1- “Empowering fantasy”, a girl who lands a job in the game industry with no prior experience at all? You must be kidding yo.
    2- All-girl game companies are not unheard of, they’re actually much more likely than #1. Some girl game makers do get tired of searching jobs in such an aggressive market (I know – I’m an indie game dev myself which is less problematic, but my friend who’s a professional had people ask her if she knows what’s an MMO in job interviews).

    Bottom line is, New Game is never really about girls in tech, it’s about cute girls doing cute things in which “cute things” = “game making” (sort of?). We may have an anime about subversive girls who want to make a career in something they like, say, anime or games (which is still much better accepted in 2D fiction than in actual japanese society based on what I hear from japanese colleagues) but hardly in less than five years.

    In any case, thanks for the well-written post but… yeah, not even bro.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elisabeth O'Neill // November 24, 2016 at 17:10 // Reply

      I hear you. It would be virtually impossible, if not entirely, for anyone to come fresh out of school and into such a technical skills-heavy job. But that’s exactly why I called it an empowering fantasy. I probably should have specified that it would be the same for any young person without experience aspiring to be part of the industry. At the very least, they’d have to work up to designing for what looks to be a AAA-level studio in Eagle Jump’s case. Besides that, it’s an empowering show for women who still make up less than 12% of the worldwide workforce in the field, and 31% of related college programs in the US. What it presents within its microcosm is a utopia, not a currently-attainable reality for the broader population.

      That said, I realise I assumed that an all-girl game company in itself was an impossible notion. There’s movements like Girls Make Games and Girls Who Code for a start, which are providing spaces for girls to come together, design and develop their own video games. It’s ridiculous that women are fobbed off as clueless like your friend, even when they clearly make their living in the games industry.

      Taking this series as a whole, I wish we had seen a lot more of the game making than the cute things. There was an imbalance there that stopped it from making any kind of real political statement. I think mainly that comes from the source material, and the mangaka who was also a game dev being so sucked dry by the pressure that he turned to manga as a way to enjoy his job again. In that sense, it would have been difficult to represent any of the realities of the job, its processes or discriminations. But I will stick to my guns in saying that because it revolves entirely around a group of women who work in a game studio, New Game is about women in tech. It just falls down on stating that it is a utopia, and laying out why that is, because sadly that’s not the show it was cut out to be.

      I do hope we’ll eventually get to a point where anime can make bold strides and say “this is a female engineer/game designer/archaeologist/whatever and she faces adversity in her career, but gets shit done anyway”. And anyway, what I mean by this long and rambling reply is to say thanks for your comment, and for thoughtfully challenging the presumptions I made. I will fix those ASAP.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. First of all, no problem and I’m so glad you’re up to debate, thank you! Yes, “unknowing newbies” is definitely a problem in the game industry or tech industry in general. Women shouldn’t have any less opportunity than men of studying beforehand, though – many people do study programming before college – but I can see how the STEM stigma for women makes many give up all hope, as I once did in fact. (And by “women” I mean women with access to study tools, Internet etc, which are basically the women who could be watching this anime or working in the game industry. Definitely not many overall, right.)

    Having said that, I don’t think New Game is any empowering for actual women in the industry, is my point. I agree the premise had a lot of potential, and I was interested when it was announced but a quick glance at the manga made me go “nope nope nope, this is literally just cute girls doing cute games”. There’s anime about girls working while not making any statements (like… Working!!, huh) but the statement on this one was clearly not relevant to my interests from the beginning. Nothing really wrong with the moe (and I can see where you come from with “empowering fantasy” in the sense that it’s a happy fantasy; to me, K-On! is an empowering fantasy probably in the same sense) but it’s so, so impossible it’s not even funny for those who lived this reality somehow.

    In any case, thank you for adjusting the post in regards to “female-only” movements in tech and answering sensibly! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elisabeth O'Neill // November 25, 2016 at 16:04 // Reply

      It can seem a hopeless situation in STEM for women at times, but we are visibly taking steps forward. The gamer bros are uncomfortable and trying to reassert a dominant position they feel they have, which actually no longer exists where we stand in gaming now. It isn’t the early 90s any more. Now pretty much all that needs to happen is for this shift to be reflected on the business end too. Whenever that happens.

      I catch your drift now, it’s hard to be empowered by something that doesn’t show you the everyday adversities you personally face in some respect. For girls who want to enter the field, it’s a lovely “You can do it!” but not much else, certainly not a preparation for the reality.

      I’ve put those tweaks in place, it should now read like an accurate representation of where the challenges for everyone, and just women getting into the industry diverge.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It does seem, more often than not but your comment makes me smile so much. Yes, it’s better. I beg to differ that they never “had” that position, though; AFAIK, girls have always been allowed to play videogames so at least here in my country many girls have always played videogames (even my mom had an Atari way before I started playing at age 3, and she was no videogame enthusiast), but men always dominated *fandoms* because somehow it’s always been more acceptable for boys to have diverse interests while girls should stay in the (doll) kitchen. The prejudiced way of thinking of some makes things harder for everyone else. But I think you’re right and I hope this happens soon. As a fan of “otome games”, I know there’s this prollific community of games made by and for women, and although the “hardcore gamers ™” would say they’re not games, well, doesn’t change the fact that they are and it’s a gateway for many indie devs since they can be created by a single person (see Christine Love and other creators that got big).

        Exactly, this was my point but after reading your comment I got yours too and I can see where you come from – fictional representativity is always important and motivating, even if it’s not really as we would like it to be. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Elisabeth O'Neill // November 30, 2016 at 09:03 // Reply

          Haha, I know right? We have always been here. Even more near-sighted that gaming as a whole was marketed for dudes. Even now, the heroism you feel when playing games is more often than not highly masculine, in a gruff, irreverent close-up-of-the-head-exploding way. Hey, sometimes that’s cool too, but I feel wary of that at times. Like, I feel bad that I most often want to play on easy because I’m more interested in the characters and story. It’s great that women are actually on the radar now, but we’re not there yet when it comes to a softer kind of play not being ‘girly’ and embarrassing because of that. I’ve seen someone saying that it’ll be a great day when games are confident enough in their narrative prowess to include a “skip combat” option. I wouldn’t always use it, we all want to kill monsters sometimes, but it would be nice to have that choice.

          I’m very glad you read my piece and took something out of it, generalising aside. It made me happy to see your first comment, and I’ve enjoyed talking to you, I’ve learned a lot from it.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I know, right? It’s true, the gaming scene is indeed very masculine – after all, gaming fandom evolved into a very male-dominated environment. As much as I find it complicated to speak of feminine and masculine “gaming styles”, I totally get what you mean. Games that get really popular in fandom are, much more often than not, highly aggressive. And I’d say numerically a minority of players actually enjoy these – after all, Let’s Plays scene is just as popular as the actual gaming scene *if not more*. If we think about scenes like adventure, casual, text games, rpgs etc etc there are probably just as many if not more people playing and making these, but there’s less money going on (after all, there’s often less technology involved in the making) so there’s that.
    I’d rather enjoy characters and story as well, and I’ve always preferred RPGs over action games, but that’s also because for some unknown reason I’ve always felt really weird playing 3D action games. I have no sense of direction when playing a 3D action game, I suck so, so badly. I used to feel bad about it too, because if you don’t play top games apparently you’re not “an actual fan of games” but for better or for worse I just decided to acknowledge the labyrinthitis or whatever that makes me unable to fight and dropped action games altogether after middle school. I regret nothing.

    Thanks a lot! It was really insightful to me too, so I should be thanking you. I was really happy to find your blog too and I wanna come here later to read other articles!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elisabeth O'Neill // December 6, 2016 at 19:32 // Reply

      Let’s Plays are great. I had much more fun watching other people have the pants scared off them by Alien Isolation in particular. Much less stressful. There’s so much more joy in having a social aspect to gaming, whether with other characters in RPGs and adventures, or outside of them with the YouTube community (at least the nicer parts).

      I have no sense for first-person shooters, have enough trouble with getting stuck on various bits of the environment. But I don’t feel bad missing out on a lot of those either.

      Aww, no worries, really. And I’ve just had to edit this comment so I’m replying in the right place, so don’t worry about that either. I’ll look forward to seeing you around here in the future.


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