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Seven Role Models for Game Developers

Where women in the industry can look for inspiration

"Oh god, I have no role models." A few years ago my colleague Aleissia Laidacker and I were speaking with students at a local university. One of them asked who we looked up to at work. As we tried to answer, we looked at each other, and we realized at the same time that the women we had looked up to over the years had left the studio. Women leave environments dominated by men. (And then I left too.)

Role models are important. One of the things Aleissia and I had been speaking about was that women computer science students who have access to role models are much more likely to choose and keep computer science as their major.

What make a role model? I think a good role model is someone who is driven by a similar purpose, who shares similar values, and who has triumphed over some of the same challenges. In an industry so heavily dominated by white men, many of my challenges involve sexism and many of the challenges of people of colour involve racism. Men in my field cannot be my only role models - they have not faced the same challenges.

So where could we find role models? After realizing I had none in my immediate vicinity, I looked at the industry as a whole: to the talented, insightful, driven women game developers who paved the way for me. You probably look up to the same ones I do, no matter who you are, because these women are legends and because there aren't very many of them: The games industry is a young industry with few veterans and fewer still of those veterans are women.

"The games industry is a young industry with few veterans and fewer still of those veterans are women"

The editor and writer Suzanne Braun Levine suggests we can also look to "horizontal role models" for inspiration, to our peers or colleagues. Levine speaks about women, but her words can be generalized to anyone who is underrepresented: "We don't know how to measure what we are going through against earlier generations because there were no women experiencing this... The two things that always hold women back are: one, the feeling that they're crazy if they want to do something out of the ordinary; and two: that they are the only ones in the whole world who are experiencing whatever it is that they are experiencing. Once we are there for each other, regardless of the similarities of our situations, we reinforce each other's courage."

But then again, if you are underrepresented in the games industry, maybe you hardly even have peers. For me, it's better these days--in the first five years of my career I was the only woman games programmer I knew--but it's still not great. Thank goodness for Aleissia.

I also like fictional role models. Sex and the City and Absolutely Fabulous led me through my 20s. The Mindy Project helps a lot and The Good Wife too. You probably have your own favourites. What I especially like about fictional role models is you get to see more sides of them: Not just that moment when they killed it in the boardroom but also when they cried in the elevator afterward.

And finally, just as I'm a fan of looking to other creative industries for ideas for game development, I'm also a fan of looking to other creative industries for role models. Purposes and values can be shared across all forms of art/media, and many of the same challenges that exist in the games industry exist in film, art, advertising, etc. So now I have a list of over a hundred women who inspire me from other industries. Here are my top seven.

Television: Shonda Rhimes

If you spend any time in airports like I do you've probably seen Shonda Rhimes' book Year of Yes. Shonda Rhimes runs a major television production company and makes big, progressive shows like Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder. And then she wrote this very honest, raw, vulnerable book about her journey. Honest vulnerability without weakness is a leadership style I look for in role models.

And her journey: She decided to say yes to everything that scared her for a year. She inspired me to have my own similar year. Saying yes to everything for a year is a little extreme. But, the thing is, once you've said yes to so very many so very impractical ideas, starting an indie studio doesn't seem scary or impractical at all. It seems rather comfortable in comparison.

"once you've said yes to so very many so very impractical ideas, starting an indie studio doesn't seem scary or impractical at all. It seems rather comfortable in comparison"

My year ended up taking me to many different places: The Global Game Jam in Tunis, Death Valley during the super bloom, Berlin many times, a fisherman's cabin north of the Arctic Circle during midnight sun, an art/breakdancing/music/hacker space in an industrial area in Casablanca, Montreal from Zagreb and back for one night to fix a problem with my insurance and surprise a friend for his 40th birthday party all at once, and many more adventures. I learned more about life, video games, and myself in a year than I have in the rest of my life combined thanks to all the incredible people I met along the way. Many new role models.)

What are you putting off doing because it is risky? What could you say yes to that might be a good investment in yourself or in your network?

Advertising: Cindy Gallop

Cindy Gallop speaks her mind and takes up space. She has this to say about business: "The top...continues to be male dominated, is a deeply unpleasant, high aggravating, very irritating, utterly ridiculous place to be and nobody should want to get to the top of it just for the sake of it." I couldn't agree more! She says instead to "design the industry you want to work in, design the company you want to work for, go and start it and get to the top of that." And she is doing that. She was an advertising executive with accounts such as Coca-Cola, Ray-Ban, and Polaroid, and then one day she quit with no plan.

Gallop is making her own path forward. After she left she started two start-ups. And then to fund them, she built a consultancy business and a speaking career.

Gallop's start-ups are MakeLoveNotPorn and IfWeRanTheWorld. MakeLoveNotPorn attempts to fill a market need in an industry that creates content that is primarily for men and/or quite shallow. (Do we know any other industry like that..?) IfWeRanTheWorld is the kind of thing that applying game design thinking to world problems could create.

In what ways do you not fit in, and can you leverage these as strengths? Can you solve a problem in the market, in your industry, or in your game in an unconventional way?

Cosmetics: Huda Kattan

Huda Kattan is one of Cosmopolitan's most fascinating people on the internet for 2016 and Kim Kardashian wears her eyelashes. She studied finance, but then gave it up to follow her dream of becoming a make-up artist. I love this story.

"In what ways do you not fit in, and can you leverage these as strengths? Can you solve a problem in the market, in your industry, or in your game in an unconventional way?"

She built her business slowly from scratch and from passion, but also very strategically. She trained with the very best-Joe Blasco in Hollywood-and then started her business in an unsaturated and growing market where she would stand out, the Middle East. She started with a blog and grew her audience slowly. When she decided to release her first product, her false eyelashes, she started with a very small batch to minimize the cost so that she could refuse to release them unless they were in Sephora.

And her ideas are just so beautifully creative and witty. She tries contouring with scotch tape all over her face, she tries putting on makeup with a silicone bra insert.

How can you hedge your bets? When pushing for a risky idea, what mentors, sponsors, and partnerships can you find to increase your chances of success?

Music: Rihanna

In 2016 I fell a little bit more in love with Rihanna. ANTI was my album of the year. If you sort my iTunes by play count you'd see how weirdly obsessive I've been about the track Desperado especially.

In a patriarchal industry and a patriarchal world, Rihanna is "reclaiming her own life, her own space, and space for women overall to recognize their own power and exercise their strength." Imagine that.

She's making the best music (and best music videos), and she's making a lot more than music. She's designing fragrances, clothing, shoes, and a scholarship program. Her stuff is popular because she is true to her own taste rather than following trends. Because she has consistently good taste, she sets trends. This year she launched the FENTY x PUMA Creeper, and won Footwear News' Shoe of the Year. Shoe of the Year. Let that sink in.

Can you find people who share your tastes and values and who complement, not share, your expertise? Can you work together to create something stronger than any of you could do alone?

Visual Art: Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat's work is about bridging spaces. For example, her work has explored the space between Iran before the revolution and Iran now, the space between Islam and the West, and the space between Iranian feminism and Western feminism. She identifies as a secular Muslim. She is in self-imposed exile from the country she loves so that she can say what she thinks.

Neshat started her career in the art world and then risked the credibility she'd built by directing a movie. Of this move she said, "I'm doing this film wholeheartedly, without really knowing if it's going to succeed. I know the price attached. I could fall on my face."

"The Western view is that Iranian women or Muslim women are very repressed, but the reality is that in my country, women are far more radical and rebellious than men are"

She says, "The Western view is that Iranian women or Muslim women are very repressed, but the reality is that in my country, women are far more radical and rebellious than men are."

She also says, "Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance."

She doesn't rely on simplistic explanations or stereotypes, but explores complexities. She starts conversations.

Can you recognize that culture is more than entertainment, that it is power, and can you use your power to say something beautiful and complex?

Publishing: Janet Mock

Janet Mock is powerful. Watch her. The strength and captivating energy with which is speaks is my highest benchmark for how I would love to be able speak one day after much, much more practice. (Right now I'm just working on trying to remember to stand up straight and not fidget. Though I've finally mastered not using notes.)

Mock is a magazine editor, writer, producer, and television host at the top of her game. She recently produced the documentary The Trans List. Like Neshat, she knows that stories are power. She says, "Telling our stories is a revolutionary act."

Mock also doesn't want the story of her power and her success to be misinterpreted as meaning that discrimination against people like her isn't a problem. So she uses her power for activism. She listens to people's stories. She empowers other people to tell their stories. This is her intention with The Trans List. She asks, "What are the struggles you're grappling with in a culture that doesn't quite understand?"

Can you use your platform to listen to and enable other people who may not have access to the power you have?

Fashion: Rei Kawakubo

Rei Kawakubo changed the fashion industry. She runs Comme des Garçons. People are known to cry at her runway shows. She started small, did things radically differently, and built a powerful business. She said "I could never find clothes that I wanted to wear, so I decided to make them myself."

Kawakubo's clothes demonstrate how fashion can be narrative and therefore can be power: "There is also the sense in her shows that she is setting an example, tackling disturbing and painful subjects about the experience of being female".

AnOther Magazine did a great piece interviewing other industry professionals about the reach of her influence. One of the interviewees says, "her influence is so wide that I would even go so far as to say that if she hadn't been there then Apple wouldn't exist." If she can do that with fashion, someone in video games will do this.

She is also very reclusive. Take heart, dear introverts: Not every leader needs to be an extravert or manage a social media presence. And most inspiring to me, she uses her empire as an incubator to position designers who have similar values and strong vision.

What video games do you want to play? Can you make them? Can you empower others to make theirs?

And who are your role models from other industries and why?

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Latest comments (3)

Mike Spence Course Leader for Game Art BA, South Thames College7 months ago
Good idea to look outwards for RMs, and if anyone is still wanting to look inwards you can seek comradery amoungst WiG: https://www.facebook.com/groups/womeningameswigj/
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee7 months ago
Great article and role models, I love the fact you've found inspiration from multiple industries.
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Lateef Martin Founder/Creative Director, Miscellaneum Studios7 months ago
Powerfully insightful and empowering. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!
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