HAMBURG - Irina Galtsova has to concentrate on what she’s doing. If she makes a mistake, the inhabitants of Bonga Island won’t be able to plant any more palm trees, go fishing, or make pottery. Plus she could ruin the fun for hundreds of thousands of women who love the computer game she designs.
The 29 year-old is a developer for the Hamburg-based computer gaming company Intenium. On average, the company puts a new game on the market every two days. The firm, which employs 90 people – of which 18 are women – is one of the largest games providers for female players. In its studios in Hamburg and Kaliningrad, Russia, games are specially developed for women who constitute a rapidly growing target group. Of the 25 million Germans who regularly play computer games, 11 million are women, according to the German Trade Association of Interactive Entertainment Software (BIU).
In games that are targeted for women – like Alamandi, Lady Popular, Farmerama or Bonga Online – fighting and shooting have been replaced by flirting and craft-making, and players play with and not against each other. The goal is to find solutions to puzzles and crimes -- and things are created instead of destroyed. The main priority is for the games to offer relaxation and distraction.
From Bigpoint and Wooga to Zynga, nearly all gaming companies employ men to create digital worlds. Women are the exception on development teams. At least right now – because gaming companies are actively looking to recruit women. "We need a female influence on development teams," says Christina Barleben, a freelance game designer in Berlin. She intends to open her own studio.
Maximilian Schenk, the BIU general manager, agrees that women are needed in the field: "Women know better what other women want and what business models will work best for them." Male developers also realize their limitations when it comes to projecting themselves into a “female universe,” as Arne Blumenberg of the Goodgame Studios in Hamburg puts it. Being able to do that is essential to develop products for the target group. To get inspiration the 27 year-old spends a lot of time talking to female colleagues, looking at women’s magazines, and watching TV and movies. "It’s not about making everything pink,” he’s realized.
According to the BIU, up until now women have accounted for less than 20% in the sector. The demand for more women developers is there, but there are too few available in Germany -- so many companies including Intenium hire abroad.
Russian-born Irina Galtsova, who has been a computer geek since her school days, has been on the Intenium payroll for six years. She designs banners, produces graphics, mixes electronic colors, develops characters, and draws whole game worlds on the screen. She’s also involved in coming up with ideas for products. Before signing on with the Hamburg company, she studied graphic design for two years in St Petersburg and Moscow.
A female punch
There is no ideal way to train for this job. Some have backgrounds in computer science or communications, but at the end of the day what’s really needed is technical ability paired with visual talent – and empathy. "Most games for women carry a strong emotional punch, they’re designed to touch a nerve," says Galtsova. "A female developer might understand how to do that better." While male developers working on women’s games ask women on the team for their input, there is otherwise no difference between male and female employees. The qualified designer says she feels accepted: "I don’t have to fight for recognition, I’m always heard. We make decisions together."
Anton Denisov, who heads Intenium’s development department, says the women – there are two other women developers besides Galtsova – bring added value: "Many things in the world of computers that are routine for programmers are questioned by female colleagues. Which is good, because it prevents the kind of issues in games for women that would otherwise cause women players to lose interest in the game and stop playing." Developing a game is in any case team work: "Just having a great idea isn’t enough, you need a group of people who can transform it into a game."
Also at Intenium is 31 year-old Alla Khramtsova from Russia. She has been with the company for five years and markets the games that Galtsova develops. With her two university degrees in English and economics, and having studied in the U.S., she is a boon for the company – highly-educated women are difficult to get in the games sector.
Yet work in the industry is exciting and multi-faceted; a lot of different steps are involvedbefore a game is ready for release. First the “creatives” come up with themes that are attractive to women, which may include topics like travel or gardening, and sketch out a scenario or plot. As the team discusses it, the idea grows on a kind of virtual blackboard. Then the graphic designers put together some mood pictures, which for women’s games are usually in soft colors.
Landscapes are idyllic, clothes are brightly colored, and sounds are less harsh and the pace slower than in men’s games. A player has to be able to grasp what the game is all about quickly. "Women tend to react spontaneously," says Galtsova. "That’s why the look of a game has to be pleasing; you hook – or lose – a player in the first minute." And if the player stays? "To keep a woman playing, she has to like the graphics but the feelings she’s experiencing while playing have to be positive too. It’s a very fine line. You can’t calculate it. You can only sense it."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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