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Threats, fake names and philanthropy: The untold story of Jane Whittaker

From Alien vs Predator to Goldeneye, the developer discusses his journey to Keystone Games, a publisher donating profits to charity

You've probably never heard of Jane Whittaker. You've definitely played his games.

His first big role was at Atari, where he helped develop the hugely popular Alien vs. Predator and became vice president at 19 - the youngest VP in Silicon Valley. He served as executive vice president at MGM, where he director of development and later VP, working on Goldeneye and its famous Nintendo 64 spin-off.

He spent more than a decade at Electronic Arts, where he wrote code for The Sims, Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park and more. He moved on to Microsoft, where he was a long-term board advisor, a technical advisor on the Xbox, and helped develop numerous Microsoft Flight Simulator expansions.

Jane Whittaker has contributed to over 100 titles, and yet he's rarely been able to talk about his work.

To understand why, we have to look at Whittaker's origins - even less publicised than his portfolio. He began programming at just 13 years old amidst incredibly difficult circumstances.

jane

Jane Whittaker, Keystone Games

Jane Whittaker was born as a conjoined twin with a very rare mix of male and female body parts. Medical professionals are unable to officially class him as either gender. In the early '80s, he and his sister endured over 40 operations in order to successfully separate them - making them one of only four male-female twins in the world to survive this process. In order to cope with the multiple surgeries, Jane sought solace and distraction from video games.

"To keep myself sane, I built myself a Sinclair ZX 80, then the ZX 81," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "I couldn't go to school, I was literally in a hospital bed strapped to a machine, so I made games for my own amusement, taking myself into a fantasy world and away from the hospital.

"It took me out of all my pain and the surgeries, out of the real world. I was determined to be a brilliant programmer. I had it in my head that this is what I wanted to do, I would focus on that and forget about surgeries, stitches and the rest of it.

"It took me out of all my pain and the surgeries, out of the real world... Games still do that for me now - I go into Skyrim and all my troubles go away"

"Games still do that for me now - I go into Skyrim and all my troubles go away. I was creating universes on that machine. My first game was sort of like Elite; it was called Stellar Trader. You were rushing around between planets, trading and fighting off space pirates. I wrote it, but I still played it for weeks on end just to get myself a break from our world."

Impressed with Whittaker's early accomplishments, his father encouraged him to sell his games via mail order, taking classified ads in Your Spectrum and Your Sinclair. The games were a hit, enabling Whittaker to transform his development talents into something more than a coping mechanism.

"My dad came in one day to see me and said, 'Do you realise you're in hospital, you're not 15 years old yet and you're making three times my salary?' He encouraged me to pursue a career in this."

With the surgery successful, a 15-year-old Jane partnered with fellow budding games developers Steve Turner, Andrew Braybrook and the Graftgold team and moved from Yorkshire to Turner's home in Essex, where the team developed games from the garage: Quazatron, Morpheus, Magnetron, Uridium, arcade conversions of Flying Shark and Rainbow Islands, and more.

Their output attracted big names from around the games industry. While his medical situation created some barriers, a 16-year-old Whittaker was determined to "fight that using my skills" and eventually secured a role with Atari, "because my games spoke for themselves".

alien

Jane was a programmer on Alien vs. Predator, but had to be credited as Andrew Whittaker to avoid impacting sales

When Whittaker was ready to leave school, Atari boss Sam Tramiel and his father Jack, founder of Commodore, flew over to the UK and met him back at his parents' house - "Imagine that, Sam and Jack flying to visit a council house in Hull."

"I was asked to use a male name, because if you were doing a macho shooting game it was thought that a female name would downgrade the brand"

After lengthy discussions about Whittaker's situation, the Tramiels asked if he would be willing to come and work in America. Whittaker says: "We spoke about the problems, like how difficult it would be given my background and all the rest of it, but it was said that my games would override those issues in the eyes of others."

Jack Tramiel, a survivor of Auschwitz, also gave the young Whittaker valuable advice that would steel his resolve in the decades to come.

"He talked to me about facing my issues - and of course his issues were way worse. His advice to me was, 'no matter what obstacle you face in life, you can always move forward'. Jack instilled an ethos in me, to forget all the gender issues I was facing and just go out to California to try and make a living. My parents agreed on the proviso that I was looked after, because I had just turned 16. I went to Atari and was treated like one of the family."

Sadly, it's here the story takes a darker turn and we come to the crux of why Whittaker's achievements have gone unsung for so long.

"There were issues with my name, because my christened name is Jane," he explains. "I was asked to use a male name on titles, because at the time if you were doing a macho shooting game it was thought that a female name would downgrade the brand. My dad came up with the idea of using Andrew - I think he got as far as A in a book of names and got bored. So most of my games went out as Andrew Whittaker to avoid advertising these gender issues to the outside world."

Andrew Whittaker coded and released over 30 titles, including Atari's biggest selling game of the '90s: Alien vs. Predator for Atari Jaguar. But eventually his true name was discovered, which shouldn't have been a problem but as Whittaker puts it: "There are some very extreme people in the world."

"The ultra-religious in the US say that anyone born differently is demonspawn - that's the word they use. I've had to face that throughout my career"

He elaborates: "I had numerous death threats from people who found out my real name. Letters were sent to Atari saying I was a sin in the eyes of God and needed exterminating. One death threat was so extreme they had to get the FBI involved, and the guy got arrested. But he was adamant that because I'd been born a Siamese twin that it was the work of demons.

"Even fairly recently, when people see I've got a male face to my name, I've had comments from the ultra-religious in the US that anyone born differently is demonspawn - that's the word they use. I've had to face that throughout my career."

Whittaker threw himself into his work into order to shut out the threats. He developed a safe environment around himself in the office, building supportive relationships with his colleagues. Even today, Whittaker receives abuse from outside the workplace, but he's thankful for all the people he has worked with over 30 years and the "emotional safety net" they helped create.

But he struggled to cope with his false persona as Andrew Whittaker.

couch

Jane Whittaker's birth as a Siamese twin has raised countless issues, but he hasn't let it hinder his career

"It made me feel a bit uncomfortable over the years, but it's something I had to do," he says. "As people's attitudes have changed over the last four or five years, I'm finally able to go by Jane - because I'd just had enough of using a fake name.

"There's not a lot of imagery of me on the net, there's not a lot of interviews and stuff - and that's because I was deliberately keeping to the background because I didn't want to promote myself as somebody else. I've had 35 years in the games industry, but all discussions or mentions of me on the internet are almost incidental."

"I was told people didn't want transexuals working on games. But I'm not transexual; I'm a Siamese twin. It's how I was born. I've not changed gender in any way."

He continues: "I used to hate it... because it's a painful thing. I put out over 30 titles as Andrew, and I was told repeatedly by publishers and the entire industry at large that if you use a girl's name we won't be able to sell the products, and therefore won't be able to keep you.

"I've been ready [to be myself] for a long time, I've been making noises to the companies I was working for - but they kept saying, 'no, the world isn't ready for it'. Then I was told people didn't want transexuals working on games. But I'm not transexual; I'm a Siamese twin. It's how I was born. I've not changed gender in any way.

"[My employers were worried that] by changing my name from Andrew to Jane, gamers would think I'm a transexual - but they were the people telling me to use that name. I was born as Jane, I'm a separated Siamese twin, I'm not a trans-anything."

Today, Whittaker is in a much better position, at the head of newly-formed publisher Keystone Games.

Having supported disabled kids with his royalties for several years, Whittaker is keen to find a way to aid as many people in need as possible. During his time as a board advisor at Microsoft he met with Over The Wall, a celebrity-patroned charity that helps children coping with serious illnesses or conditions. Over The Wall approached Microsoft to discuss setting up a games publishing arm that might generate funds for its work, and the conversation led to the formation of Keystone.

"The industry forced me into that false male persona before I was allowed to be myself. [But] the world has changed so I can come out of the background"

The publisher was formed with the help of Save The Children Fund patron Gordon Cooper, as well as contributions from leading names in industry. Like Over The Wall, Keystone has also been able to get a number of celebrities on board, with Kenneth Branagh leading the voice acting for its first title Homicide Detective, and Warwick Davis brought on board as a full member of the team.

Whittaker is quick to stress the insurmountable effort all these people and more have put into forming the company: "Keystone is a long way from being just me. As much as I'd like to take credit, I can't."

Crucially, Keystone Games gives Whittaker the chance to be something he's wanted to be throughout his career: himself.

"The industry forced me into that false male persona before I was allowed to be myself," he says. "[But] the world has changed so I can come out of the background."

golden

Goldeneye 64 is one of over 100 titles Jane has worked on, but he has rarely been able to speak about or promote his work

In today's industry, it feels like new publishers are emerging almost every week, but Whittaker is confident that the notable support behind Keystone and his decades of games experience will ensure the company stands out - he even ambitiously hopes to make Keystone "another Electronic Arts". There is, however, one key difference.

"We have a responsibility to feed back to those who are feeding us. More games companies need to think about the real people, rather than the bottom line"

"Instead of profits going out to investors, we give them to disabled and life-limited kids around the world through Over The Wall," Whittaker explains.

"We're still primarily a games company. We sign teams, we've got publishing deals in place, we've got four internal titles in the works, 20 internal staff on development. We run exactly as you'd expect a games publisher to run.The only difference is where the profits go."

While Whittaker is unable to specify how much revenue will go to charity, he does stress that it will be the "majority of profits", adding that a multitude of investors have supplied enough financial support to keep Keystone running.

"Even if I gave 98% of the money to the kids, there's still money for Keystone to continue signing developers and running its own studio."

Donating to children and disabled charities has been important to Whittaker for many years now, in part because of his own situation, and he's keen to see more in the industry follow his example.

"Over the years, the kids have been the ones who bought my games," he says. "We have something of a responsibility to feed back to those who are feeding us. More games companies need to start thinking about the audience and the real people, rather than the bottom-line figures. They wouldn't have a bottom-line if it wasn't for them."

keystone

Keystone Games operates like any other games publisher - except the majority of its profits are donated to charity

"Even if I gave 98% of the money to the kids, there's still money for Keystone to continue signing developers and running its own studio"

Keystone has also given Whittaker the opportunity to help out fellow developers in similar situations to him. One notable employee is award-winning artist Katie Bailey, a woman who was born without hands. Whittaker previously worked with Bailey at EA and knows she has suffered abuse much the same as he has.

"But as far as I'm concerned, and most people in the industry she's worked with, she's one of the best artists in the world."

Another example is Stevie Laws, also an artist. Paralysed and wheelchair-bound, Laws has suffered at the hands of previous employers who neglected to support her.

"Another games company [she worked for] said they'd lower the desk to be wheelchair height and they never did, so she had to leave," Whittaker explains. "She's worked at various companies where they wouldn't do simple things to accommodate her. It was always 'oh, we'll get around to it'. She ended up in really difficult situations because people weren't helping her adapt to the environment.

"If your company says you can't be yourself, you have to be someone else so we can sell you, you should go to another company"

He continues: "These are people who have been trying to get jobs in the games industry for quite a long time but faced prejudice - and that's still out there for the physically disabled. [We're not] filling a certain number of slots with disabled people, it was more a matter of them being really good at what they do. The initial hiring criteria was, 'are these people good at what they do?' and if the answer's 'yes', I wasn't going to turn them away based on physical disability."

The trials Whittaker has endured, whether from extremists issuing threats or employers urging him to hide his own name, are ones he does not want to see any other developer suffer - another reason he's keen to finally share his story.

"You need to be yourself," he urges. "I found out the hard way that if some marketing guy at your company says you can't be yourself, you have to be someone else so we can sell you, you should go to another company. Just keep looking until you find somewhere that will let you be you. It's just not worth the hassle. It might be good for the company to get extra sales, but it's not good for you as a human being.

He continues: "If you're a disabled developer, try and make sure potential employers are interested in you as a person - not box-ticking. They should be interested in your skills. If they like you and what you can do, they'll be more amenable to helping you, which is what I've found through my career.

"And if you're a publisher or developer... If there needs to be some adaptation for a disabled person, do it. But beyond that, just treat them like anybody else in the company. Don't try and make a big deal about it."

Keystone Games makes its publishing debut later this year with Homicide Detective, along with Minecraft-style fantasy shooter Rogue Islands.

All images of Jane Whittaker: Anthony Upton 2017

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Latest comments (2)

Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany4 months ago
This is truly inspiring. I'm going to remember this next time that I feel that I've hit a wall.
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Tim Woodley Head of Global Brand, 505 Games4 months ago
Agreed. Very humbling.

I hope one of his titles is "Jane Whittaker's...". What a triumph that would be!
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