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What it means to be a woman in games

Developers, press, academics share highs, lows in #1ReasonToBe GDC panel

The Game Developers Conference advocacy track rolled on Thursday with a sprawling #1ReasonToBe panel, a follow-on from the Twitter hashtag movement intended to inspire young women to enter the game industry despite the horror stories they may have heard from the #1ReasonWhy hashtag. The session was hosted by veteran developer and UC Santa Cruz program director Brenda Romero, with a microtalk format allowing each of the participants to share their own stories about what it means to be a woman in the gaming industry.

Leigh Alexander | Editor at Large, Gamasutra

Alexander started talking about her first GDC in 2007, saying she was an immature, emotional wreck at the time who made her own trouble. But over time, she came to realize that some of the problems she'd been having weren't her fault so much as they were the product of heteronormative systems that alienated those who didn't fit a certain game developer stereotype. But that realization was slow in coming, she said, because those systems aren't always self-evident. But now that she's seen them, she can't ignore them and has been trying to help other people open their eyes to those structures and understand like she did that not everything is their fault. It is a fact, she said, that some people, by virtue of their bodies, their experiences, and who they are, feel less safe at GDC than they should, and that needs to change. Furthermore, she dreams of a world where panels like this one are no longer necessary because they would be redundant. But until then, Alexander said, "My #1ReasonToBe is to be here for each other."

Laralyn McWilliams | Chief Creative Officer, The Workshop Entertainment

McWilliams said she had multiple starts in game development, as it took her about 12 years to go from knowing what she wanted to do for a living, and actually beginning to do it. As a child, she visited Disney Land and was convinced she wanted to make worlds for a living, but had no idea how. It wasn't until a decade later when she discovered the Apple II in her high school's computer lab and began coding. Soon she found Scott Adam's Adventure, which inspired her to write her first text adventure.

While she loved making games, it still hadn't occurred to her that it was something she should do for a living. When she graduated from college, she got a job as a secretary because she didn't care about her career; it was just something she did during the day so she could get into games at night. That was followed by law school and work as a tech writer, all the while unaware that making games was her true calling.

That revelation didn't happen until she played Myst in 1993. Enraptured by Myst and finally realizing what she wanted to do for a living, McWilliams began working every night and every weekend to teach herself StrataVision 3D. She coded a demo, sold it to Microprose, and started her own company in 1994.

In the following 15 years, she was frequently asked what it was like to be a woman in the games industry, and her canned response was always "Well, there's never a line at the woman's bathroom at GDC." But women have become more common in the industry, McWilliams said. On her way to GDC each year, she sees women developers identifying each other and striking up conversations more and more in airports and on planes. And at first she wondered why nobody ever asked her if she was on her way to GDC. Then she realized that even with multi-colored hair, being a woman in her 40s still counts as "deep cover" in the field.

As a women in game development, McWilliams said she used to feel like a lonely unicorn, but women are now more likely to feel like the butchered unicorn in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone because of the grief people direct at women in games. She acknowledges that's new, but said people need to speak out against it, and not let it drag them down.

"Whatever project you're working on, no matter how bad it gets, whatever hate the internet spews at you tomorrow," McWilliams said. "You need to find your way back into the light. Because life is short, and it's way too short to do anything but dance."

Lauren Scott | Game Designer, UC Santa Cruz

Scott said she got into games as a child, and spent countless hours playing them with her sister and unconsciously shaping a very different perception of the gaming public. Until she got into elementary school, Scott said her game industry was completely black and completely female. But even before that, her dad put her in front of a keyboard to give her a first taste of the industry. He saw the sort of games that were popular at the time (Doom, Duke Nukem and the like) and set out to provide an alternative. Scott's father, a coder at Oracle by day, made a game in Java called "Lauren's Alien Game."

The result was that at five years old, she knew a young black girl could be a character in games, and it forever silenced any voice in her head that could say she couldn't be in tech or in games. Scott said she's never actually felt like an outsider, and it's because everyone in her environment growing up made her understand she belonged. She's always known she's different from the people around her, but it's never stopped her from feeling like part of the whole.

"I am of the very firm belief that game developers and designers are the Renaissance people of our time," Scott said, adding that she could have taken 10 majors in school and still not have mastered all the skills that are needed to create a game. And as in the Renaissance, Scott said mentorship is key for young creators learning their craft. Scott implored the women in the audience to stay in the industry, and to pass their experience on to the next wave of women developers about to enter the field.

"I wanted to be a part of this industry since I was a very, very little kid," Scott said. "And I want to be a part of helping other people realize a truth, helping them realize the undeniable truth within themselves that they can belong here."

Anna Kipnis | Senior Gameplay Programmer, Double Fine Productions

Like Scott, Kipnis's appreciation for games came in large part from her family. She grew up in Kiev, Ukraine when it was part of the USSR. Her dad was into card games and taught her enough of them as a child that she started to appreciate the importance of game design. Beyond that, Kipnis' parents would often entertain friends who would bring their children, so it fell to Kipnis to devise games for them to play.

In 1989, the family moved to the US and Kipnis got her first taste of Super Mario Bros. It opened her eyes to the possibility of video games, and at the time she figured it meant she had to be a programmer. But that's where she started hitting snags. Computer science seemed to be a boy's club, but she was encouraged by the presence of developers like Brenda Romero, Carol Shaw, and more who convinced her that she belonged in the industry as much as any guy because women make games too. But she's worried that even though there are so many more women in games than when she just started, but still so few games made with women in charge of the production.

"More than anything, I feel it is up to us, the current generation of game developers, to change the industry," Kipnis said.

Kipnis has worked in games for 12 years now, but until a few months ago, she'd never attempted to lead her own project. This year, she pitched the game "Dear Leader" during Double Fine's Amnesia Fortnite studio-wide game jam, and it was greenlit by the company's fans. While the studio had run the Amnesia Fortnite game jam numerous times, she never tried pitching a project during it because she was afraid her ideas were half-baked, and that if she pitched them nobody would like them anyway. That's a terrible reason to not pitch a game, she said. In talking with coworkers who had pitched at previous Amnesia Fortnite events, Kipnis discovered many of their ideas were less formed than hers.

Kipnis said that leading up her own project felt like Christmas morning every day, that there was nothing like having a team of people helping her out, working towards realizing her vision and offering their own contributions to the process along the way. The control over the project kept her from feeling helpless, she said, and the whole process helped her grow as a developer. So to make that sort of situation a reality for more women, Kipnis suggested turning any studio into a place that harbors creativity, with game jams like Amnesia Fortnite where everyone can pitch a game, not just designers.

Colleen Macklin | Associate Professor, Parsons The New School for Design

Macklin started with her #1ReasonToBe, saying she's an educator in the industry because the only thing she likes more than making games is making friends, and this is the friendliest industry she knows. Getting back to her origin story, Macklin talked about growing up wanting to make games, but stopping when she was 12 because she noticed the only other people into the idea in her school were nerds. The departure was obviously a temporary one, as 30 years later, she joined the industry again.

Macklin cued up a video of footage shot around GDC 2014, asking people to spot patterns about who they were seeing. Every now and then, she noted, someone comes across the screen that breaks the pattern, and is more noticeable. Macklin said she wanted to break those patterns more often. Diversity hasn't truly arrived in the industry yet, but it's where she wants things to go.

She then talked about a recent interview with GDC organizer Meggan Scavio. Specifically, she called out the way some commenters on the story explained away the paucity of women at their companies. They boiled down to a lack of qualified women and a lack of interest from women in most cases, Macklin said. It's a pattern people have in the industry where they acknowledge that there is a problem, followed quickly by dodging any personal responsibility for fixing it. Macklin rejected that idea, saying that fixing the problem is all of our responsibility.

The people at GDC are designers, Macklin said, so it's time to start designing ways to break those patterns. The advocacy track is a start, but if it's successful, it will be the cause of its own obsolescence, Macklin said. She suggested doing away with the old justifications about why there isn't more diversity in the field, and offered six tips from the organizers of the diverse IndieCade East that were intended for people planning industry events, but could be equally applicable at development studios: Expand our networks to find diversity because it's at the edges. Be explicitly welcoming to "new players." Whether at a conference or a company, don't make your application process daunting. Abandon old safety nets because it's important to take chances and let people in. Make new safety nets; have conversations with speakers before their appearance to make sure they're comfortable about the situation they're going into. Finally, let new voices speak on their own terms about what they want to speak about.

Deirdra Kiai | Interactive Artist, Independent

Kiai, who prefers to be referred to by genderless pronouns, started by talking about their IGF-nominated Dominique Pamplemoose, which was nominated in multiple categories at the IGF awards but went away empty-handed. While one might think that would produce feelings of frustration or sadness, their initial reaction was instead relief. After all, awards bring notoriety, and notoriety brings trolls. Considering the online abuse some of their peers have suffered, they thought about how it might be better to be invisible than acclaimed.

As with many of the panelists, Kiai explained how they came to be a game developer. The story actually began with their nickname, "Squinky," a reference to a joke from The Secret of Monkey Island. That game, Kiai said, was what inspired them to choose game development as a career. They released their first game in high school at the age of 16. Their first job out of school was working with Ron Gilbert, the creator of Monkey Island.

"If anyone was a great fit for the game industry, it was me," Kiai said. "Except the truth is, I wasn't. I'm not. I don't think I ever will be. Making games is easy. Belonging is hard."

They know making games is actually far from easy, but it seems trivial compared to not fitting in, to not being one of the guys and not being one of the gals, either. As Kiai put it, "I could make a million games with the energy that trying to belong takes out of me."

They're also conflicted about an industry where only straight cisgender white men are truly welcome, and women can't go to professional conferences without being hit on. At the same time, they were also bothered that they were never the object of those unwanted affections, as it made them feel like something must be wrong with them, like they're invisible.

"This isn't just true of me," Kiai said. "It's true of all manner of us who don't fit a certain young, fit, white, femme, able-bodied, heteropatriarchal beauty standard... If you're hot enough, you get to have your hard-earned accomplishments diminished. And if you're not hot enough, you're defective, disgusting, completely irrelevant. Heads, they win. Tails, you lose."

They always had the sense that people couldn't place them, that they made people uncomfortable because they didn't fit into a demographic. Marketing departments ignored them and games were never meant for them. They couldn't make games for their own self because they didn't even know who they were; they never saw their self represented anywhere in culture.

"I learned to push and shove my way in because I was afraid that if I didn't, I would disappear," Kiai said. "I became one of those outspoken angry feminists everyone loves to hate, daring to say out loud all the things everyone else was silent about because they didn't want to burn any professional bridges."

They became a willing scapegoat, they said, before long being pushed to the margins of the industry to work on their own projects.

"They could exclude me all they wanted, but they couldn't stop me from making games," they said.

At the age of 25, Kaia played a browser-based RPG called Echo Bizarre (since renamed Fallen London). In the character creation process, they saw that there were three options: man, woman, and a person of indistinct gender.

"When I realized that choosing that third option felt more right than anything, that I didn't just have to be a defective woman or a defective man, but just myself, something inside me just unlocked. Slowly but surely, I started to dress and present differently, so that when I looked in the mirror, I started to see someone who looked more like how I felt. I started to embrace the use of singular 'they.' Who cares if it's grammatically incorrect?"

All those feelings were then poured into a game all their own, a game that vented their frustrations with binary categories, their desire to be seen as a person and not a binary stereotype. That game--Dominique Pamplemoose--went on to be nominated for four IGF awards. Now they think there are as many target audiences as there are people, and they want to see an industry that understands this and cultivates that perspective among young people.

"I've been able to do all of these things, but only in spite of the industry's social pressure not to," Kiai said. "Imagine what I could have done if I'd been encouraged instead of ignored. Imagine how many other brilliant, talented people could be making weird, wonderful games along with me!"

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.