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.
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.
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.
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.
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.