Sections

The Difference Between Us

Diversity is about building bridges, says Brie Code, and in the wake of Donald Trump's election that's more important than ever before

Spaces

I'm interested in the space between people who are different. I advocate for diversity in the industry workforce and for better representation of a diversity of characters in our games. I travel full time to meet game developers in other communities than the ones I've known. I make video games with people who don't like video games. I think I do all this because I'm lonely and want to understand people better. I was planning to write this article about why and how to build diverse teams.

And then a spoiled, selfish, insecure baby won the election in America and everyone is talking about polarization, and my friends who have never met someone who would have voted for him are either struggling to understand these voters or resigning themselves to not understanding. Other friends aren't surprised at all and understand all too well. And I'm so desperately sad.

"The percentage of women enrolled in computer science today is almost half of what it was when I graduated in 2001. The statistics are also miserable for Black or Latinx students"

Sad is not even the right word. It's a new feeling I haven't felt before. Pause. Emptiness.

I'm leftist and feminist and queer and eat kale and chia seeds and cacao nibs and live in the city and don't even know how to drive, but I grew up in the country. My family is solidly, staunchly conservative, and last time I was home my father referred to NPR as "liberal propaganda." (Maybe he was kidding..? Anyway, hi Dad! If you're reading this.) My brother has beautiful, half-finished muscle cars scattered on my parents' front lawn. I loved going to Pentecostal church when I was a teenager. I saw my friends speak in tongues and wondered why I didn't. I guess growing up in Bible country and being super weird and geeky is when I first felt lonely and first became interested in finding new people.

Misunderstandings

When I was a kid we had a computer before other people had computers. I wasn't allowed to watch PG-13 movies until I was 13. I didn't watch much TV. I wasn't allowed to have a video game console, but we did have a computer and it was marvellous. I spent a lot of time writing BASIC programs and drawing pixel art. And I had The Colonel's Bequest. It's a game by Roberta Williams and Jacqueline Austin about a teenage girl snooping around an old house. Because I had this game and because I didn't see Radio Shack commercials or movies like Revenge of the Nerds, I didn't understand that computers were supposed to be for boys.

And this is A Thing. Women used to study computer science more than medicine, law, or the physical sciences. And then in the mid-80s something terrible happened and they stopped. And what had happened was simple: marketing campaigns to sell computers to boys, and movies tying computers to geeky boys. The percentage of women enrolled in computer science today is almost half of what it was when I graduated in 2001. The statistics are also miserable for Black or Latinx students. Because of the stories we tell ourselves about geeks, about gamers, and about programmers.

If you find this hard to believe, try this thought experiment: If you had to be well-read in Judy Blume books to be considered a gamer, would you be one? (You could also just go read the research, which is very clear.)

But I didn't know about any of this. Computers were my escape from a culture that didn't value me, and then I went to the city and studied computer science. And even as I rushed through the arts building from math class to computer science class, past all the punk girls who I wished I could be friends with, I didn't understand that my chosen field wouldn't value people like me so much either.

"People assumed they knew who I was or what I was capable of based on their incomplete ideas about women or how women should be"

Men and women aren't that different. There are average differences between men and women - for example, women tend to be shorter than men - but for the vast majority of psychological traits the overlap is much greater than the difference. This means you can't assume anything about an individual. You can't understand anything about my tastes, my hobbies, or my programming skills by my gender.

But when you have groups of people where there is one dominant group, there are some dynamics that tend to play out. In groups overly dominated by men, the men tend to erase or pigeonhole the women. People don't naturally understand each other, so sometimes we understand each other by putting each other into categories; the funny guy, the sporty guy. And I noticed among my colleagues that often women (and feminine men) only get one category. The woman. People assumed they knew who I was or what I was capable of based on their incomplete ideas about women or how women should be. In one permutation of this, many of my performance evaluations critiqued my personality and not my results and that is common for women and not for men.

And I wish I had been more aware and more detached and handled it differently, but I didn't. I see now looking back over the last 15 years that each time I felt misunderstood, I took another step away from things I loved: geek culture, games and programming. Not purposefully, but I did. And my other, secondary interests - art, music, etc. - naturally deepened over time. And so I moved further away from myself and further away from my career. And so I became lonelier and lonelier.

Crumbling Bridges

But of course I'm not alone in my loneliness. Loneliness is one thing we all share. In his novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote, "everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else."

Not being understood is the loneliest thing. In groups of people who are similar to each other, there is a pressure to become even more similar to each other. People stop being themselves. And so the way to soften loneliness is not for everyone to be the same as each other. It's for us to recognize and give space and respect to our differences. To bridge the distances, not to attempt to close them.

"One woman character in a row of men characters is not a good message that women are as valuable as men. Years later, the preview image for Red Dead Redemption 2 is still a row of dudes"

I wrote before about how art is about understanding life, but maybe I should have said it is about understanding each other. This is what games can do.

Elif Shafak said that, "globalization has...intertwined our stories, and therefore our destinies." She said that creators, "have a duty to build bridges of empathy... We must speak up for democracy, pluralism, cosmopolitanism, and coexistence." This is what games should do. Are we doing this?

When I've talked about loneliness and diversity in the past, this is the part where I usually tell this story: near the end of the development of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, I was rushing through the metro one night and I turned a corner and there, in my face, was a very big poster of a lifesized Ezio flanked by the Brotherhood. I stopped and stared at it. At that time, I had never really contemplated that what I was working on would be played by millions of people. I knew it in an abstract sense, but I had never contemplated the reality of it. The meaning of it. And as I was standing there, staring at the poster, I saw a teenage girl walk up. And she was standing there, staring at the poster. And then she walked forward and she put her hand out and she touched the one woman in the Brotherhood.

2

At the time I was opposed to participating in any women-in-games things. But that moment in the metro was the moment I realized that we have a responsibility as an industry to better represent people of all races and genders and sexual orientations and ages and abilities and religious beliefs and political beliefs. Stories can change lives, and maybe that girl's life was changed just as The Colonel's Bequest changed my life. Isn't that an inspiring story?

Stories change lives. I have one more example. It turns out that the solution to women's enrollment in computer science is also about telling better stories. At Carnegie Mellon and Harvey Mudd it has been shown that if you build a welcoming introductory class that explains the basics about what computer science is and what it can be used for, and if you provide early opportunities for students to make a project so they can see for themselves what computer science can be used for, and if you show role models so students can see what their lives will be like if they choose this field, women enrol in computer science at the same rate as other sciences. It's that simple and it's called the BRAID initiative. And isn't that an inspiring story?

However, I no longer find my Brotherhood story remotely inspiring. One woman character in a row of men characters is not a good message that women are as valuable as men. Years later, the preview image for Red Dead Redemption 2 is still a row of dudes. If women and underrepresented minorities aren't welcome in video games culture and aren't studying computer science they aren't there to design the future of the tech industry, which means they aren't there to design the future of basically every industry. And when I talk with my colleagues who don't have the privilege of working for themselves like I now do, they still tell me stories of bigotry from their work days that make me feel closer and closer to being completely dead inside. They are hurting and I want to gather them in my arms and tell them everything will be okay but I can't.

1

A spoiled, selfish, insecure, sexist, racist baby was elected in America and there's this whole scary Breitbart thing connected to him, and maybe now I am dead inside. My friends and I who love and champion diversity have found the one group we don't love and that is people who voted for this baby. That's a large group who are probably lovely people in many ways and I can't figure out how to reconcile that. I won't ask my parents if they support this baby because I wouldn't know how to reconcile the probable answer. How did we get here?

The Good In Everyone

There is a good business case to be made for diversity. I've made it many times in the past. I've built my studio on it. And there is a good cultural case to be made for diversity, which I just made; the stories we tell ourselves inform our opinions and our unconscious biases, changing our lives and the lives of people we project our biases onto. When we tell the same old stories about women being there for powerful men's pleasure, or about men being super tough and not having feelings, or about white men saving helpless white women from evil brown scary foreigners, we spread messages that damage people's lives. When we tell stories about women being complete people who are both strong and flawed, we inspire young girls to grow into their real selves.

But I'm starting to wonder if it's disgusting that I have to make these cases at all. We are all human. Diversity in your workforce and good representation in your stories is just the right thing to do. Otherwise you are dehumanizing people.

When you read that implicit association tests show that we correlate black people with bad things because of stories, aren't you horrified and don't you start telling better stories? When you read that women used to study computer science and stopped because of stories and therefore aren't there to design the future, aren't you horrified and don't you start telling better stories? When you read that switching the names on a resume leads to different hiring decisions, aren't you horrified and don't you redesign your hiring process? When a sexist, racist asshole is elected in America, and you decide it's really cool to continue to write sexism and racism into your stories, aren't your horrified by yourself and send yourself home for some introspection? If you're not reacting to these events with horror, I tell myself it is because you find the horror so painful that you can't process it. That you can't reconcile it. What else can I believe?

Spaces Filled With Echoes

In this new emptiness inside me I think I might be lonely, sad, disgusted, and just not ready to process it yet. My thoughts are swirling around. How do we bridge this newly found distance? When the difference is so great as it is between people like me and people who would vote for someone who wants to build a wall across an entire border and openly discriminate based on religion, how do we bridge it? I can't tie this up neatly. A wall! A wall. A wall. My god.

"When the difference is so great as it is between people like me and people who would vote for someone who wants to build a wall across an entire border and openly discriminate based on religion, how do we bridge it?"

As I turn these questions around in my mind, I know it isn't fruitful to ask my friends who are women to sympathize with or try to understand someone who doesn't mind voting for a man who brags about sexual assault. It is not fruitful to ask my friends who are Muslim to sympathize with or try to understand someone who doesn't mind voting for a man who speaks of banning and registering them. My friends are traumatized enough. There is a line past which there isn't two sides to every story and it's destructive and disgusting to pretend there is. I reject that. Vehemently.

And I've been wondering, am I erasing or pigeonholing some of the people who voted for the misogynist bigot? Am I putting them all in one category when they belong in many? Am I assuming I know who they are based on my preconceptions about them? Am I treating them as people in my workplace have treated me? Why did they vote for him and would I understand any of their reasons? Are they interested in understanding why I find their choice beyond disgusting? If things go to shit over the next four years, will some of those voters be as horrified as I will be?

I don't have any answers.

I didn't want to follow up my first article with another long-form personal critique of the industry. I wanted to go from that article into sharing a series of useful processes and structures. Concrete things. But like many of my colleagues, right now I don't have any optimism or concrete next steps. We're empty. Because the games industry, by frequently telling sexist, racist, irresponsible stories, is more than slightly culpable in getting us to this point. Stories change lives. We have a duty.

Louise Bourgeois said, "The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it." I'm thinking of spiders and trying to keep working. I think I might be very angry. But I think that I can be angry and still try to repair things. I can't think about bridges yet, but maybe I can think about tenuous threads.

Marina Abramovic said, "The governments are corrupted and there's hunger in the world and there's wars - the killing. But what we do on a personal level - what is our contribution to this whole thing? Can you turn to your neighbour, the one you don't know, and look at them for two full minutes in their eyes, right now?" I do want to understand.

I want to understand people who don't like video games so I've been making games with people who don't like video games. I've been thinking about doing a game jam about the election with people who voted for Trump. This is my version of looking at them for two minutes in their eyes.

But I think I just want to tell better stories. I think I want to spend my two minutes looking into the eyes of people who want to build bridges, not walls. I think with their help I can build bridges. I am not making this decision lightly.

Related stories

"Life doesn't wait for you, and neither does VR"

Baobab discusses the difficulty of directing player attention, and why we need new terms for virtual reality experiences

By James Batchelor

Tencent crosses $500 billion market cap milestone

Gaming giant is the first Chinese tech company to cross that financial mark

By James Brightman

Latest comments (16)

Matt Rider Managing Director, Play Context11 months ago
Hi Brie, nice article.

Just wanted to mention that sometimes oppression can lead to great work. Example: Charlie Chaplin's Great Dictator (1940) during the rise of fascism in Europe. Still watching this scene 75 years on! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8HdOHrc3OQ

Unfortunately we can't always force the world to fit to our expectations. Perhaps we can find creative ways to challenge people's beliefs, that are not judgmental or stigmatizing. The world might not be ready for such a progressive vision just yet.

It would be great if we could go beyond gender, beyond race, beyond sexuality and aim to cultivate enviornments where the focus is really on the work! What do you think?
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Ruben Monteiro Engineer 11 months ago
The irony of the paradox in this type of stance always cracks me up.
You claim we're all human and the same, but call for diversity in the workplace. If we're all the same, where's the diversity? In fact, what you're saying is that your colleagues' race and gender makes all the difference to you, which is actually a racist and sexist statement in itself.

You defined yourself as a feminist and a leftist. That's already two problems you got there. What if you wouldn't define yourself as something that ends with "ist"? What could you be, beyond that self-imposed limitation?
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
William Fisher President, Quicksilver Software11 months ago
I am struck by your comment "It's a new feeling I haven't felt before." I'm in the same boat. Not sure where we are any more as a society. I've heard people talk about this being a "post-factual" world now, where truth is thought to be relative and victory goes to the one who tells the most compelling and emotional story, regardless of whether it's based on pure fiction or actual, verifiable facts. As one trained in the sciences, I find this deeply disturbing and am having a hard time understanding the level of cognitive dissonance that people seem to be perfectly happy living with inside their heads.

You are definitely not alone in this. But you are definitely a stranger in a very strange new land.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (16)
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 11 months ago
Food for thought when it comes to the question of what is wrong with the amount of female characters in mainstream entertainment and more importantly, their role in it.

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?view2=worldwide&yr=2016&p=.htm
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 11 months ago
@Matt Rider: If we ignore the existing problems, then how do those of us on the outside of the wall get inside to do the work the focus is on? I honestly don't think we can get there without first getting past the wall of stories people have built that tell them that the status quo is what is meant to be.
4Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Matt Rider Managing Director, Play Context11 months ago
@Bonnie Patterson: Hi Bonnie, I totally agree with you.

I like to look at the status quo as a creative challenge. In the past, to deal with bias, female writers published work under male names. Black artists broadcast music on pirate radio when they couldn't get mainstream visibility. I'm not saying that this is how it 'should' be, but we all have the tools to create great work. There is space in the market for new ideas and projects. Let's be bold and courageous.

People don't change by being told what to think. No racist, sexist or homophobe was ever changed by being lectured on a politically correct version of how to think. People change when you give them a context to explore their beliefs. As game designers, we can provide this context perhaps more potently than any other creative medium.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 11 months ago
Gah, I've written 14 different attempts at a reply to this, and there's just so much... But Ms Code has stated it all really well.

The reason I got into the industry in the first place was that I felt video games were really important. People keep apologising for their passion for gaming, as if it's trivial and a waste of time, but life today is itself so trivial, so linear and repetitive and predictable, and it's stressful without relief yet at the same time we have so little power over it. I could have gone into novels (and in the end I probably will if things don't get better), but the power of games to make people happy in this miserable railroad of a world, to give them a choice, to experience things that they don't dare even show an interest in where people can see them - that seemed like my last, best chance to make a difference.

And I'm not just talking about stories where the black man isn't just a cloned NPC thug to be shot, where a woman can do or be something more important than "attractive" and has potential futures other than "teenaged mother". I'm also talking about the lonely guy who found the Dragon Age romances touched the part of him that wanted something sweet, the 12-year-old boy who still wanted to be playing with toys rather than looking at porn, the sensible, mature man who only went to see Bridget Jones with his girlfriend but who could laugh at all the jokes while he was there, the girl who wants to help but nobody will let her, the boy who doesn't want to die in war and the woman who'd take his place if she were allowed, the tough guy who cries at Miyazaki films and... argh, just fucking everyone who isn't a frigging robot, who could find comfort in a story that's about them, not the cardboard cutout of who they're supposed to be.

And that's everyone.
5Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany11 months ago
@Ruben Monteiro:
That's quite a rhetoric right there.
Brie is talking about lack of diversity from a cultural stand, due to limitations and prejudice. She also talks about "being the same" as worthy human being. That is "human right 101", man! Is it that hard to understand?
Or is you the one who is trying hard so it would make sense only in the way that is convenient for you? Where do you see the problem of a person defining him/herself as "whatever-ist"? People can't embrace a point of view they like or feel being part of? Should we be all fully neutral to have a valid opinion? And if that is the case, where would you put such neutrality? Why is having an "-ist" a limitation? Don't your perspective on it is a limitation itself for you when trying to accept those ideas even if you disagree with them?
As you can see, we could be rolling the ball or rhetoric here forever without even stating our point of view nor why the other person is wrong. I think that's exactly what you are doing here so please: I invite you to elaborate your point more directly and tell why it "cracks you up", if you have one I'm sure you will not need to try to discredit the author by beating around the bush.

Cheers. :)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany11 months ago
@Bonnie Patterson: Have little to add to what you wrote there, except that "People keep apologizing for their passion for gaming, as if it's trivial and a waste of time" is something that they used to say about Movies and Books back in the day. Games will get there eventually; we have already proved that we can tell stories and that we already have our unique features:
I remember me playing "This War of Mine", and how I took food away from a wounded person because I had to feed two kids in my refugee. I had no choice, the guy could shot me, but I had to do it or those kids would be gone. The guy reacted by grabbing a gun, aiming it at his head and ending his life.
It was not an actor who did this, it was not the character of the book I'm reading. That was me who did it. That's something only a game can do.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Ian Griffiths Senior Product Manager, Hutch11 months ago
@John Owens: The CVs were the same. The only thing that was changed was the name to indicate male or female. The test showed that knowing a candidate's gender changes the opinion of whether they are considered for the role. How is that not relevant?

It's difficult to say demonstrably worse because it's a subjective measure and the resume/CV test, among others, shows that gender will be taken into account when considering things like job performance.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Ruben Monteiro Engineer 11 months ago
@Alfonso Sexto:

Of course I'm not against equal human rights, there's no argument there. Prejudice shouldn't be allowed, and although I believe the lack of women in the software industry has a lot more to do with their general disinterest for the topic rather than any prejudice against them, it surely needs to be ended when it occurs.

Regarding what cracks me up in the article:
The author claims to be a feminist, not realizing that's a subset of sexism, which the author claims to be against.
She claims to be a leftist, not realizing that's not better or worse than being a rightist by itself, and that there are valid points of view to be found in both positions.
She wants to build bridges, but goes into insulting a man because he has a different point of view than hers (along with the 60M that voted for him).

And I just find those contradictions amusing, because it all comes from adhering to an "ism" which limits your view to this veil of thoughts and stances it imposes on reality, distorting your understanding of things as they are.

You can build walls or you can build bridges, but none of those will resolve the conflict derived from the distorted perception that there are sides to divide or join in the first place. You'd need to abandon the "isms" to realize otherwise, or like the first commentator wrote, going beyond gender, race or sexuality, which only become important (and a problem) because we focus on them.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 11 months ago
Feminism could only be called a subset of sexism if you define it as furthering the interests of women at the expense of men. If you more correctly define as supporting gender equality, as in the opposite of sexism, such a statement is shown to be nonsense.

And to claim sexism disappears when you stop paying attention to gender, is just wrong. It is like saying racially motivated assaults disappear if you stop looking at the colour of the skin of the person tied to the burning cross. Does it really?

Diversity is good, not because we need to create it but because we are diverse. We need to stop excluding it. Gender, sexual orientation, race....should not be an issue, but we don't make it true by ignoring any issues.

In our industry we have great access to a vast number of impressionable, vulnerable, ignorant, and more, people that we have a responsibility to to treat all with fairness and equality and we need to start that by setting an example. And we cannot be scared of banning a forum user for sending death threats because otherwise we are being unfair or taking sides.

Bah. Post factual indeed. Zero reason not to encourage everyone to join the industry, and to allow every type of game and idea to flourish. But we can still defend the status quo, because no one can say anything against our opinion. That would be oppressing us.
3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 11 months ago
Sorry, I had forgotten that Feminism is actually a campaign to destroy all men. And of course that they all lie about it so that we can easily discount everything that they say. Cause they lie, you see.

Indeed there is no point reading Ms Code's article as she is a self-confessed feminist and therefore obviously lying.

The point about prejudice you seem to have wrong. The argument, which I am not entirely sure I totally agree with, is not that women cannot be prejudiced, but that they cannot be sexist as to be sexist requires to be part of a system of oppression. As men are not oppressed, you cannot be sexist towards them goes the argument.

I don't really agree with this as it would make sexism culturally relative, where it seems to me to be easily defined in culture-neutral objective terms and therefore would be equally applicable to any gender.

But on topic of the article, I think Ms Code is hoping for understanding, empathy and equality particularly with equal opportunity to all. But that brings us back to your point that you don't believe feminists want equality... So there is no way you can argue that everyone shouldn't have the same rights, but we can imply that anyone promoting gender equality, are in fact lying, and cannot be trusted purely on the strength that they say they are interested in promoting gender equality...

Actually, you convinced me. A totally legit argument.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 11 months ago
Sorry, I cannot really follow what you are trying to say.

The point is, that for all that you agree with nearly everything in the article, you appear to be supporting comments that call Ms Code hypocritical for calling herself a feminist and denouncing sexism.

There is a despair at trying to build bridges with people that are not interested. It is something that I can deeply empathise with.

Everytime, Mr Owen, that we have discussed something we always seem to come down to agreement on all the salient points. However, there is always an antagonism as you tend to paint feminism as some sort of evil cult, and treat attempts to change the status quo instead of just letting it meander wherever it will an evil kind of social engineering that will result in a cruel frankenstien's monster type of society.

But these discussions just go around in circles. But I think it is not ok to attack someone because they call themselves a feminist, and it is exactly such comments as can be exemplified here that can make the industry seem unwelcoming to women. Because from Mr Monteiro's comments it does seem that women are welcome, just as long as they don't complain about gender equality or anything related to their gender because that would be hypocritical. Playing the gender card is sexist.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 11 months ago
I don't believe I ever said you must agree with anyone.

And yes it would be wrong to say that if someone claims to be a feminist that everything they say is about equality.

But what is annoying me is that I have seen plenty of examples even here on this site where people putting feminist ideas forward are attacked for being feminists, that the ideas are wrong because they come from feminists.

We can agree that issues should be discussed on merit, not using logical fallicies such as Appeal to authority (a feminist said this so it must be right) or ad hominem arguments (it can't be true because a feminist said it).

And in my humble opinion, everything I have read points to gender equality being the common factor across the vast range of feminist thought and theory. Where your experience comes from that feminism is based on something else, I don't know. But it does not change that quite a few users here treat feminism as a bad word and it is not uncommon for people to state here that feminism is directly sexist. Which is just... post factual. Sounds great, is actually a contradiction in terms.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 11 months ago
Let's use this kumbaya moment to build a bridge between us, even if only for a moment.

There is no such thing as society? A bit old fashioned I would have thought. And particularly with our industry's front row seat for Big Data analysis would have eroded any idea of the individual being paramount.

But let's not digress any further, but just relax in the warm glow of agreement that discussions should hinge on individual merit instead of what underlying ideology there is and not devolve into attacks on the individuals involved.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.