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IGDA head Kate Edwards: "Games are an art-form, pure and simple"

GDC 2013: Plus more on gender, cultural sensitivity and the resignation of Romero

GDC 2013 was an intensely emotional conference. It was the year that several thorny issues were tackled head-on, on-stage, rather than in the corridors of, and bars surrounding, the Moscone Centre. Whilst the show may have suffered in terms of headline news thanks to the looming presence of what undoubtedly be an E3 full of fireworks and spectacle, it meant that there was far more airtime to discuss some of the issues which don't find the limelight quite as often.

The biggest of all of those, in a continuation of a steadily rising current of dissatisfaction over the last year or so, was gender. There big centre stage events, like the #1ReasonWhy panel and the all-female Hothead Rant session, which dealt with gender to an extent, but one event really stood out as a point of division in the gender arena: the resignation of Brenda Romero from the IGDA special interest group on gender over the presence of female dancers at the organisation's GDC after-party.

When I sat down with Kate Edwards, head of the IGDA, on the Monday of GDC, none of this had happened yet. It was just the first appointment of many in a tight schedule for us both. By the end of the week, it was headline news. So, whilst it's not referred to in the main text of the piece, Kate did answer some of our questions on the party and the subsequent resignation later on. They are presented here in the first section, with the rest of the interview clearly delineated below that.

What is the final position of the IGDA, and you personally on the events at the party? Do you believe that the dancers were inappropriate, given that you'd vetted them previously?

The IGDA was a co-presenter of the Yetizen party Tuesday evening at GDC. Yes, we approved some of the costumes. We did not see the costumes of the stilt walkers. We did not know that any of the performers would be doing things on a stage.

"We agree that some of the performers at the party engaged in activities that were not appropriate"

We agree that some of the performers at the party engaged in activities that were not appropriate. We apologize for that. The IGDA does not intentionally condone activities that objectify or demean women or any other group of people. One of the core values of the organization is encouraging inclusion and diversity. That certainly means we would not want anyone attending an IGDA sanctioned event to be uncomfortable in any way with what activity was going on.

Do you believe that Brenda's course of action was the correct one?

We regret that Brenda decided to resign. We hope that she will continue to work with the Association to help us do a better job making sure all our programs and activities are inclusive and professional.

Can you give an absolute promise that this won't happen a third time?

Just to clarify, this was the first time the IGDA international organization co-presented an event with Yetizen. We thought we resolved the issues from Yetizen's 2012 party through their assurances and our oversight. We were told all costumes and activities at the party this year would be vetted by us, but unfortunately that did not happen and we obviously didn't achieve the result we expected. We will be more vigilant with any future partners.

Main Interview

It's not uncommon that I have to look up someone's job title as part of my research before an interview, but it's generally because it's something deeply technical or verbose. For Kate Edwards, whose previous employment history lists her as a "cultural and geopolitical strategist for Microsoft", there was a bit of both, but also a genuine curiosity.

As it turns out, it's largely about sensitivity and diplomacy, as you might imagine. In Edwards' words: "A lot of designers will tend to borrow from different cultures. My role was basically to look at what they were doing and let them know if, for example, a costume was a little too reminiscent of a certain culture and then that character starts doing something that's the antithesis of that culture's beliefs. I saw it as being a creative partner - I wasn't just trying to say 'no, don't do this. It was rare that I'd say don't do that at all."

Whilst this role has a clear application for games like Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed, Edwards' work also extended to products like Word, Office and Dance Central - anything that would go through any sort of product approval test at the corporation came under her scrutiny. "If Microsoft was going to be the publishing platform," she tells me, "then it was my job. Microsoft was ultimately going to held responsible. It wasn't always a cherished role, I was called all sorts of names."

That experience is now being refocused on Edwards' work at the IGDA, where she presides over the majority of the group's activities - with a focus on an advocacy agenda. Read on for her thoughts on gender, censorship, crunch and the industry's future.

That role of cultural advisor is clearly one which is expanding with the emergence of new markets in geographically and culturally diverse areas like Turkey, Brazil and India. Does that make the job, and the task of being both successful and sensitive, more difficult?

Not necessarily. For me, that's the kind of research that I do. I brought my academic background to the private sector and the games industry. For me it came naturally because those were the tools given to me in my training as a geographer. So that part of it isn't difficult. What is hard is when you get the unexpected connections between markets that you just can't predict. There was a Korean game, something involving Knights, which was a very popular game in Turkey - it's become a huge phenomenon there. Who would have guessed? Those kind of unpredictable connections are where it can sometimes get nasty - there are certain flows of cultural knowledge and ignorance.

A lot of people would classify the US as culturally ignorant, and they might not be far off, but it's not just the States. I've seen cultural issues come out of East Asia, from Korean, Chinese and Japanese developers, which are just as offensive as anything going in the other direction.

"A lot of people would classify the US as culturally ignorant, and they might not be far off, but it's not just the States"

This must be something quite important to you after all your work on it. Is it something that you intend to make a bigger part of IGDA advice?

Well, it's naturally part of the policy since I'm the executive director, it's kind of flowed downward from there. It's something that I'd already been pushing; I created the IGDA special interest group and I chair that group. As an international organisation it's something that we have to be very conscious of - it's something that we have to make sure all our developers know. As a resource we actually created a localisation fundamentals whitepaper - there's a section in there about culturalisation.

With growing methods of distribution relying less on localisation, in that, if you put a game online in a browser, almost anyone can get it, is there an inherent danger of cultural problems?

One of the things I've seen, especially in the indie crowd, is that they don't think about it. Most indies are happy just to get the game done, let alone localisation. I don't blame them one bit - if it's a choice between having them over think localisation and getting the game done, I'd rather they get the game done. But there's a point where you do need to stop and think about where the game is going to go.

If it's released on the internet, then it's going to go everywhere. I've given a lot of talks to indies and other developers and that's always one of the things I emphasise the most: you have to consider the ubiquity of the content. With global content, the moment you release, it's everywhere. You can't take it back. The onus is really on you to be pro-active about how you deal with these issues.

It's especially true for indies, because if they make a game that offends someone, they might not survive that. Microsoft, Sony, they'll survive - they know what to do. An indie may not.

There has to a balance, though, doesn't there? There's an argument that it could lead to a blandness, via an over-sensitivity to cultural feelings. There was a particular example recently with End Game: Syria, which was trying to portray a very serious message, but had to change all of its settings to fictional locations in order to pass Apple certification.

Games are an art-form, pure and simple. As an art-form they should be free to express whatever they want to express. Here in the US we've had the Supreme Court decision which protects games as free-speech, rightly so. So they shouldn't have any limits put on them, like books don't or movies don't.

Where the limit comes from is the goals. If your goal is to distribute worldwide, you're probably going to want to think about the cultural impact. If your goal is to make a political statement then you need to do what you feel is right. The main thing that I do when I consult with developers, even now in the IGDA role, is to encourage them to be proactive and think about what they want to get out of it. I think developers should feel free to make what they want to make, to create what they want to create. But they can't expect consumers in all markets to have that same understanding of creative freedom.

As long as they understand that, and that to me is one of the things we can do as the IGDA, then they can go ahead. It's like telling a painter 'don't paint that picture because it might offend someone.' Most painters would laugh at that - it should be the same for game developers. Games are still progressing from the perception in society that they're a toy, which can have defects and need to regulated, to that of an art-form.

"Games are still progressing from the perception in society that they're a toy, which can have defects and need to regulated, to that of an art-form"

A lot of the issues of public perception, sensitivity and cultural import which we've seen arise in gaming recently have been gender-based. There's been a huge increase in awareness but there's a surprising amount of resistance too. Do you think we've come far enough?

Well I do think, and coming from my background especially, there needs to be more awareness. When you do things like awareness training in a formalised sense, it can be effective. However, at least in my experience, people often don't learn unless they pretty directly experience the issue. Whether they experience it personally, or they have someone who has explain it to them in a way which makes it meaningful to them.

There are different mediums to express that - film is a good way - whatever it might take. Honestly I think a lot of it is just going to be time, which unfortunately is not the answer I want to hear, but I think is the realistic answer. Not only time, but also good examples - both women in the workplace and companies who can showcase the fact that they've created a very inclusive environment and what sort of games come out of that and how they benefit.

Also game like Tomb Raider that really get it, honestly with most of the people who don't seem to understand the issue, my feeling is that having games which really illustrate the point of what it means to design women more realistically within a game, that's really what's going to do it.

There's always been a stranglehold on the games market by the vicious cycle presented by the traditional marketing demographic and workforce. Are games like Tomb Raider a move in the right direction?

Even on traditional games that might be seen traditionally as male orientated - take Halo, for example. I'm a major Halo geek, I play Halo a lot, I love it, and I worked on 1, 2 and 4 but that's not why I love it, I love it because that content resonates with me. I love playing multiplayer, and I know a lot of women who do. The nice thing is that Microsoft finally understood that because they finally allowed you to create a female character within the game. So they get the demographic. Now that's not for everyone, but it's my thing and I'm glad that they did that, because you're all in armour so it really didn't matter if they had a female character or not but I really appreciate the fact that they did that because they recognised the fact that they have a lot of women who love this game.

And I think even doing subtle things like that can kind of change over the time the nature of inclusion with these games.

How do you feel about issues of crunch? Where do you find the balance between necessity of finishing the product and a quality of life for developers?

That's a great question because obviously this comes up a lot. I think a lot of times in the industry that the notion of quality of life is equated to crunch which is... I mean that's a part of it for sure but there are other issues as well. Even issues like for smaller studios having health insurance, stuff like that, well, for those of us in the US that have to deal with paying our own health insurance...But it's a big issue, so...

"I see crunch as an ineffective management issue. It's an ineffective planning issue, the whole notion that it's a given in the games industry is crap"

Things like crunch, I mean the way that I look at it and I think the way that IGDA's approaches it is this: basically to me I see crunch as an ineffective management issue. It's an ineffective planning issue, the whole notion that it's a given in the games industry is crap. That's a non-starter. I think people who take that approach especially in management at companies who approach from that point of view that 'well yeah, you have to expect crunch because that's what we do, it's the games industry!' That's rubbish. That doesn't happen.

Now, yes, there's going to be times on projects, and I've had it in non-game projects where you have a crunch mode, they just don't call it crunch mode, they just call it finishing the project. That happens, it happens with anything, we all know it, it even happens at home when you're trying to leave for a trip and you have to do your laundry and all that - that's a crunch mode! It happens. But when it's intentional crunch, or implied crunch - or should I say implicit, implicit crunch - then that to me is just the notion of a company that needs to do a better job at how it makes the games. That's really what it comes down to for me. And we even have a talk on the advocacy track, I believe the track is on Thursday, one of our board members, is talking specifically about the crunch issue and why and how studios can do a better job of avoiding the necessity of crunch.

I know that in some studios, and I think in the games industry in general, for some people, not everyone, crunch has become sort of the badge of honour - 'oh yeah, I remember that crunch in 2004, yeah we all survived it,' The notion that adversity develops camaraderie and bonding...there's a need for that but just completing the game on time can do that too.

I see crunch as kind of a hold over notion from the 80s and 90s, especially when the industry was younger the demographic was younger so all those people who were starting up in the industry were unmarried, no kids, so they're like 'what else am I going to do? I'll just sleep in my office.' So I think a lot of it's a carry over and an outdated notion. If studios can't figure out how to make a game without crunch, then maybe they should rethink how they make games completely.

Sticking to staffing issues, what are your thoughts on the boom and bust model of publishers growing massively before imploding and giving rise to a bunch of new studios? What about inherent job insecurity of that? Is it healthy for an industry to do that?

"We're seeing the rise of the indie developer who can churn out stuff, give it global exposure, get it out there and they don't have to go through the publishing model anymore"

I tend to be more of the belief that it's part of the evolving nature of our industry. Because it is still a relatively young industry and it's so technologically focused, we are so hyper dependent on the technology and how it affects us. So we have new development methods that affect not only development but delivery methods, getting games out. So we're seeing the rise of the indie developer and small studios and indies who can churn out stuff, give it global exposure, get it out there and they don't have to go through the publishing model anymore, that's changing things a lot. It's changing things radically in fact.

I think what we're seeing is some level of contraction, some kind of studios that may kind of fit either between the AAA, the big stable studios, and the small indie developers. Naturally they're in a more volatile world, but it also can be on an individual level, potentially far more rewarding personally, financially, and otherwise if they make something that just takes off with people.

It's part of the evolution of the industry. For those who are caught in that cycle where they get laid off, we often see it through our chapter levels. For example, I think it was the IGDA Philadelphia chapter when 38 Studios closed down, they immediately put up a web page that was listing local jobs. They said here's a resource for insurance, for temporary insurance, and here's a resource for all kinds of other stuff if you need help with moving or any of that kind of stuff. So that's really where we kind of rally, use our community.

Because they need the support; they need to be part of the community. Even though we know that for the most part a lot of these developers eventually find somewhere, unfortunately there's a certain percentage that might just drop out of the industry and they might find an IT job somewhere or do something related. I know a lot of people who go in and out of the games industry depending on what... well partly on their own desire and partly on just the cycle of what's going on in the local market.

And that's another thing too, whether or not the developer is wedded to a particular geography. Because a lot of time there is opportunity but you have to be willing to move half way around the world to get it and some are willing and some are not so it's individual choice on how they want to move their career forward.

You're an organisation trying to meet global needs, yet we've discussed how hard it is to transcend international borders on a lot of issues. How do you address that - is it even possible?

"So all of those kind of issues like workplace issues and personal growth and development issues are basically a constant around the world that we see"

There's a couple of ways I'd respond to that. On the individual developer level: yes. We can address the needs of individual developers because for the most part the needs of those individual developers are pretty similar across geographies. They really don't change that much. They all need more or less the same things, they need the same kind of community, they need the same kind of... whether it's insurance support, and not just insurance but just kind of that... the things that feed their quality of life. Where do they live? Who do they work with? All that kind of stuff.

So all of those kind of issues like workplace issues and personal growth and development issues are basically a constant around the world that we see. And yeah, there are some cultural differences depending, but that's kind of a universal thing that we can address no matter what.

On the local level, though, when it comes to kind of how they go about doing things or how they get their support - that's one of the things that we've been launching lately, is chapter formalisation. So IGDA Finland was the first non-US chapter to formalise last year. Basically what that means is that Finland has the autonomy to run their IGDA chapter the way they see fit for Finland. Because obviously they're going to know Finnish game developer needs far better than us in North America. And we want them to have that freedom to do so.

They are still affiliated with the IGDA, because that's part of that affiliation is having that connection to all the other developers around the world and being able to share and collaborate and all that kind of stuff. But we really want them to have the autonomy to run the chapter the way they see fit. They should not be dictated by the United States or whoever else on how to run their chapter, and so that's something that we're pushing pretty strongly.

Is the IGDA about business development or cultural enrichment?

I would not say business development, I would say professional development. That's really the phrase I like to use for it. It really is about addressing individual developers and what they need for their career. How do they move forward in their career and advance their abilities? That's really what we're focused on. And so that's why we have the special interest groups for example, so we have the Writing SIG, where if you're a games writer, both writing for games and games press as well, those who want to go into journalism, how do you improve your craft? What are the ways to become better writers? Or better producers, or localisers whoever it might be. And so that's really what we exist for more than anything is professional development.

And then when we deal with the advocacy part of it, so on top of that...Ok so here's how you can better yourself individually and collaborate to that end, but then what are the roadblocks? What are the issues within our industry and things that are blocking you as an individual developer from being able to do these things and that's where we can speak up as an organisation on a global level.

"I think publishers, management and individual game developers are pretty much on the same page. We all want our industry to thrive, we all want it to be successful, because it benefits all of us all"

Does that extend to lobbying?

We're not looking at lobbying in the classic sense. I mean the way we see it is that our job - if there's something that's important to games developers, whether it's in one geography or multiple, whatever it might be, we want to mobilise them and empower them to basically go forth and speak up. Because that's really what we want to do.

There's not a need to hire a lobbying firm or anything like that to do it. We can speak with our own voice, but the point is just get out there and do it. There's a lot of games developers - we see so much like in the United States - we see the ESA has been very vocal for publishers and for the corporate side of the games industry which I think is very necessary and that's why they're based in Washington DC - but as game developers, if we see a game law in Connecticut being proposed in the legislature, that's a great opportunity for local game developers to show up at the hearings and tell the legislators what it means to them. And we just don't see enough of that happening yet.

You represent both sides of the coin. Do you see any conflict between the interests of big publishers and individuals or smaller companies?

I think in general I would say, for the great percentage of issues that are in the industry, I think publishers, management, whatever you want to call them, and individual game developers are pretty much on the same page. We all want our industry to thrive, we all want it to be successful, because it benefits all of us. There are a lot of issues out there affecting the industry that I think for the most part what might differ is the approach that we want to take to solve the issue.

Because it's the passion of the moment, we must stop SOPA and PIPA right now kind of thing. So it just kind of depends where it's coming from, whether it's strategy or whether it's emotion or whatever it might be and there's a place for both. Here, with the IGDA and the ESA, we have a relationship, it could be better. It's not bad, I'm just saying it could be stronger and more collaborative and that's something that I'm working on.

Undoubtedly though, there's probably going to be some areas where there might be disagreement between us, and crunch is one issue. But I say might because I think most publishers would want to do the right thing and not have that happen, it's just that I don't know if they know the way forward. Because like you said, we're sort of in a status quo. So how do we get out of this and change things?

We're on a good flight path to collaborate more, and it's mutually beneficial to reach out to each other to do it.

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Dan Pearson