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Changing the Narrative: How Janina Gavankar Is Empowering Gamers Walking in Her Footsteps

Photos: Courtesy of Tiziano Lugli

The video game industry is huge, nearing $50 billion in revenues — but as its popularity grows, so do its problems. One main challenge is the perceived sexism rampant on both sides of the industry — despite the fact that 41 percent of gamers are women, and 65 percent of women aged 10–65 in the United States play mobile games.

Janina Gavankar, actress, musician, and dedicated gamer best-known for her many television roles on shows like “The League,” “Sleepy Hollow,” and “The Mysteries of Laura,” and a frequent voice actress on video games like “Far Cry 4” and “Afterparty,” isn’t surprised.

“I think the games industry is just a mirror to the rest of the world,” she says. “We live in an unequivocal patriarchy. Women experience the same things in every other industry.”

Lack of representation

Gavankar’s gaming cred is pristine. “I had a strict upbringing,” she says. “My neighbor had a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), but I wasn’t really allowed to play anything. I did play ‘Duck Hunt,’ but barelyI started truly gaming in 2007, with my at-the-time nerdy boyfriend. What a year to start gaming! ‘Half-Life 2,’ ‘Portal,’ ‘BioShock,’ ‘Zelda: Twilight Princess,’ and the first ‘Assassin’s Creed.’ I ate them all up.” She laughs. “Clearly I didn’t have a job at the time.”

Gavankar’s love for games still runs deep. “I specifically play deep narrative games, with an emphasis on supporting independent studios. Nothing allows for more intimate story than choice. I’m always looking for games that will make your heart sore and crumble.”

Despite the perception that video games are made by boys, for boys, some of Gavankar’s favorite games were created by women. She name-checks Amy Hennig, head writer and creative director for the “Uncharted” series, calling it “a series that changed the trajectory for narrative-first games.”

Gavankar loves her games, but finds the lack of female representation — and participation — frustrating. “Just as we should be engaging and creating in all mediums,” she says, “the games industry needs us to tell our stories. Diversity in voices breeds better story. Period.”

A new era

One reaction to criticisms of the gaming industry’s tendency to portray women in video games as set dressing or damsels in distress was a surge of “strong female characters”: butt-kicking women defined solely by their, well, butt-kicking. Gavankar is over it. “I like to say that we’re in a Post-Strong Female era,” she says. “‛Strong Female’ is not a character. We have storytellers who are better than just writing tough guys/girls. The world is ready for complicated characters.”

Gavankar sees a lot of misconceptions that might be holding back young women from diving into the world of gaming. “There are two major misconceptions of the games industry,” she points out. “One, that it just contains games like ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ That’s like saying the film industry is only ‘Saw’ and ‘The Justice League.’

“Two,” she continues, “that you have to be able to code to get into game creation. Artists of all kinds — writers, graphic designers, modelers — are necessary to create games. You don’t need to speak in ones and zeros to find an empowering place for yourself.”

For herself, her reasons for standing up as a proud gamer have everything to do with showing girls that everyone can enjoy — and create — video games. “If you can see it, the path to being it becomes simpler,” she explains. “Until we stop needed pieces like this to be written, we have work to do.”

Jeff Somers, [email protected]

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