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Developers' most important tool: self-care

Game designer Whitney Hills on the challenges women in games face, confronting expectations, and living an authentic life

At the Gamelab conference in Barcelona this June, game designer Whitney Hills (Fable II, Viva Piñata, Hieronymus Bash) gave an interesting and very personal talk about how her experiences as a woman in the game industry deeply affected her and, as she said, "how I got my act together and stopped feeling at the mercy of others' behavior." While her perspective is that of a woman because that's who she is, her strategies to deal with her own psychology and others' can be universally applied, regardless of gender. Throughout the talk (embedded below) Hills discusses strategies like understanding how the brain works, reshaping her use of language, cultivating empathy for others, and very importantly for her, learning tai chi.

It's worth noting that she was the only female speaker to present at Gamelab, and she was slotted last, at the very end of the conference when many people had already gone home. The Gamelab content director actually admitted that he didn't make enough of an effort to recruit more women speakers and he said he'd request Hills' support on that front next time. But why does gender continue to pose problems for professionals in this industry? Shouldn't we all be treated equally?

There isn't one single answer to this of course. As chatted with Hills about the talk and her own life experiences, it became evident that problem is deeply engrained in society and culture - it's hardly the game industry's cross to bear alone. As a starting point, Hills noted that playing games and working in games has simply been viewed by society as a male activity or career for too long now. She said she "missed that memo" when she was growing up.

"I felt embarrassed and out of place. Later in high school, I made some new friends who invited me to their LAN parties, and I was always the only girl there"

"When I was a kid, my dad had a tech business based out of our house, so I grew up playing Duke Nukem 3D and other shooters on a big LAN in our basement, completely oblivious to the fact that most other 11-year-old girls weren't really doing that," she recalled. "It wasn't until I got to high school that I realized my interests in games and science fiction seemed unusual to others. My first boyfriend was a football player and his peers were mostly jocks. I remember a conversation at the lunch table where someone was talking about how he wished he had a technology that could make food magically appear, 'like those things in Star Trek.' I said: 'Oh, you mean a replicator?' and everybody got really quiet, then made fun of me for using the word. They weren't intentionally being mean, but I felt embarrassed and out of place. Later in high school, I made some new friends who invited me to their LAN parties, and I was always the only girl there. I definitely felt out of place at first, but because they were nice kids, I ended up feeling pretty safe and just enjoyed the time we spent playing on the LAN.

"In college, I had a peer group of dudes that I loved to play games with, but every so often somebody from a tangential peer group would have a problem with women being present. Once, a friend invited me over for a small party, and when one of these 'tangential peers' arrived, he ended up dismantling the party and taking all the guys elsewhere to play games because 'it was supposed to be dudes' night.' The host and I were left sitting alone. One of the guys that left with this pied piper was a good friend of mine, so I felt incredibly hurt and unwanted. (The friend that left tearfully apologized the next day after he realized how he had contributed to my being ostracized, and we had a make-up game of Civilization IV.)

"Being a minority in these situations didn't automatically mean I had a negative experience; I only felt that it was negative when someone called my attention to it, or was overtly hostile. But those experiences didn't cross my mind when, as a junior in college, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in games. I just knew what I wanted to do."

Another problem is that women unfortunately can get in each other's way. In her talk, Hills described how "some women will be threatened that you're not playing the game of undercutting yourself, not being deferential and being weak," and while she's been lucky to have never encountered this with her peers and female bosses in her own career, it's a problem that remains present in the business. Her advice is to be confident and to stop inflicting harm on oneself.

"I definitely had a moment of realizing that I was inflicting far more suffering on myself than anyone else is currently dishing out to me. One of my teachers, Michaela Boehm, says that great women tend to have a polarizing effect. This seems accurate to me," she told us. "As I continue the process of examining my own values and living my life in a way that's more congruent with who I am and what I believe, I've found that... uh... not everybody likes it.

"This year was one of tremendous growth, because when I stopped avoiding conflicts or concealing aspects of myself that I thought others would have a problem with, in some cases, my greatest fears came true and I did experience rejection. Some of it came from close family, and it sucked. But at this point in my life I feel like the stakes are too high to keep being a half-assed version of myself, and I'm able to tolerate discomfort better than I could before."

Standing up for oneself and being true to oneself is perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned here. Hills described how she's witnessed far too many developers, regardless of their gender, allow themselves to fall into traps that inflict suffering on them. She learned to avoid this problem.

"I often deny myself experiences that I categorize as a 'waste of time' (and games, sadly, often fall into that category) because I think I should be pursuing things that are more likely to be judged productive, successful, and praise-worthy. The great irony of game development is, of course, that working to make a playful experience for others often results in a dramatic drop in quality of life for the developer; a quality of life that, in my experience, is the antithesis of play," she noted.

"When I give myself permission to do something relaxing - to care for myself -- I feel so much better, and my creative work flows much better. And it's so hard to get to the point where I can give myself that permission. Tension directly inhibits our ability to feel, understand, and create. Individuals practicing self-care (and company cultures that support self-care) create the fastest path to positive change in this industry. I encourage anyone who's in an environment that doesn't promote self-care to either find a way to leave it, or go counter-culture.

"Nothing gets widespread attention until it starts bringing in big money. So I guess we need more visibility at the intersection of Women and Big Money"

"I recently worked a contract at a large studio that was in intense, prolonged crunch. And it wasn't crunch for the sake of making the product better - which is crunch I can get behind -- it was crunch borne of severe mismanagement, crunch to complete a minimum viable product. There was explicit expectation for everyone on the team to work long hours 'for the sake of morale.' I felt pressure to conform to this expectation, because I liked my coworkers and I wanted them to like me, too, and to know that I was committed to being helpful and working hard. But I did not have the power to fix any of the underlying problems that created the crunch, and I was not going to compromise my health for the sake of 'morale.' So I worked the hours I'd agreed to work, making sure to do my very best during those hours, and then I went home. It was hard. I experienced resentment from others. At first, I felt guilty. But you know what? Once you're at home, relaxing with the cat and a glass of wine, the guilt wears off pretty quickly if you let it."

Putting the focus back one oneself can also be very useful when facing vitriol and attacks spewed from social media channels. "My advice to anyone who feels overwhelmed by it is to pull your focus back in to yourself, because you are a microcosm for all the larger workings. That super tired adage 'be the change you want to see in the world' is more true than we realize. Live the most authentic life you can, and the ripple effects are endless," she said.

Whether an attack comes online or in person, the individual on the receiving end of the abuse can feel defenseless. It was that feeling of helplessness that changed Hills' life and attitude forever. Years ago, during an interview for a job at a game company, the man conducting the interview took issue with her explaining what a user experience lead does on her resume. The guy said, "now I know it has nothing to do with game design" and essentially accused her of not being a designer. "That went right in because he was calling me a fraud. That was the pivotal moment that led me to start tai chi classes because I have no defense against that. I have this internal saboteur who's always telling me you're not good enough. I've chosen to use that as a way reframe how I think about myself everyday," Hills explained.

Of course, by continuing to talk about women in games, Hills understands that she's potentially making herself a target and she certainly doesn't view herself as a spokesperson for all women designers in the industry. In fact, her talk wasn't even directed explicitly towards women, but at the same time it's an issue that she feels is of great importance still and needs further discussion. To that end, Hills would like the industry to place more value on women.

"I remember hearing some psychological adage that 'men respond to challenge, and women respond to encouragement.' I don't know if that's true or not, but I know encouragement never hurts. I have a perception that conference organizers and marketers don't encourage women's participation because they just don't see it as valuable. It's frustrating, because to many people, it's so evident that diverse teams and multiple perspectives are objectively better for business. But nothing gets widespread attention until it starts bringing in big money. So I guess we need more visibility at the intersection of Women and Big Money," she remarked.

Ultimately, Hills remains an optimist and she believes the winds of change in this industry are gaining strength. "From a slightly more hopeful perspective, I think that this tremendous outpouring of energy - even the hateful shit - is shifting a lot of tectonic plates in the surrounding culture. Amid the mud, amazing and liberating things are happening. There are successes. What happens when an unstoppable bullet meets an impenetrable wall? That's when things gets interesting," she said.

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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