Someone told me the other day that I’m “one of the most connected people” he knows. He couldn’t understand why I’ve been feeling left out lately, like I don’t belong among the “indie” community or among the local scene here in Toronto.
I am well-connected (freakishly so, in my mind). Since I started becoming a game developer back in 2011, I’ve really spread myself around. I am constantly amazed by the people I have access to, especially when it comes to the makers of games I’ve played and admired. The more time I’ve spent in some of these circles, however, the more ostracized I begin to feel. Strangely, these feelings generally do not come from conscious attempts at exclusion. In most cases, they stem from a dissonance between the way I perceived these groups when I entered and the way I perceive them after observing them for a period of time. To put it plainly, some of these groups are not wholly the inclusive, respectful communities I first believed them to be.
I became a game developer because of how I saw the Toronto game development scene from the outside. There was one key moment - where Craig Adams responded to a passive request with a very active engagement - that cemented my desire to join the community. At that point, I didn’t want to make games because I liked to make games. I certainly enjoyed playing games, but I had no idea what making games would be like. Rather, I started making games so I could be one of them. I had found a group of people who I considered inspiring, and I wanted to be included with them. They responded with a large amount of acceptance: invitations to join game jams, suggestions on where to start, an unorthodox internship that springboarded my growth. The community immediately lived up to my idealistic expectations.
I recently read an essay about the Difference Engine Initiative, an incubation program that ran in 2011 that was meant to take six women with zero game-making experience and turn them into developers. The essay details an anecdote where the participants related how they had attended community events but felt like intruders; how they felt it necessary to be accompanied by a man, and even then were only ever viewed as “girlfriends” rather than potential participants. I shared those feelings of being an intruder until I had my first moment of inclusion. Part of me wonders why these women were never given a similar moment, but another part of me already knows the answer: I am a white male who was given many opportunities by other white males. That may be a generalization, but it is close enough to the truth.
I want to be apologetic and say “I don’t think most people were being consciously sexist by treating these women as less than equals” but really, I’m growing tired of “I’m sure they didn’t mean to” as an excuse. Many of us have an internalized sexism. We mentally fit men and women into different roles, which guides how we interact with them in many situations. Assuming a woman at a game development event is ”just someone’s girlfriend” rather than a developer (or someone just interested in getting involved) may be an unconscious act of sexism, but it is still sexism.
Strides have been made in Toronto. The first Difference Engine Initiative had a core disconnect between its intent and its organization, but in its place arose Dames Making Games (DMG), the model for an inclusive program to incubate and promote diverse new developers. To me, DMG is the exemplar of community outreach and support. I recently had a member of the Toronto community confide to me that they saw DMG as a divisive element working to break the community apart; that its members were the source of too much “drama.” One cited incident of said “drama” was a recent panel discussion on game development education where the Q&A period was dominated by a person described as an “agenda-driven feminist.” I might agree that using a Question & Answer period to deliver a wordy statement may be in poor taste, but I have spoken to many people who immediately dismiss this person with rolled eyes, groans, chuckles, and sighs. Whatever point she was trying to make about gender representation has been rendered meaningless simply because she chose the wrong time and place to express it. Folks who have related this story to me tell me she was associated with DMG, even though they can’t actually identify who she was or how she is associated with the group, and one even used it as an example of how DMG is “full of wackos.” My experience with members of DMG has shown many of them to be intelligent, creative, and generally positive people. These perspectives from members of the Toronto community outside of DMG clash with my experiences, and give me heavy doubts about the inclusiveness of that community.
As a white cis male, I’ve been pretty lucky to avoid a lot of discrimination within Toronto. As a beginner to programming and game development, the local community has been incredibly helpful. However, as a beginner among the wider “indie” scene around the world and connected through the internet, I have not found things to be so inviting.
I don’t have a background in computer science, programming, or even math. I went to University for English with the intention of becoming a high school teacher. I made my first game when I was 28 years old using a program (Stencyl) that simplified programming into little puzzle-like blocks. I’ve learned to make games through a combination of direct mentorship (when I was an intern at Untold Entertainment) and by teaching myself. It’s rarely easy, and recent attempts to expand into more advanced programming languages have been maddeningly difficult. Part of my problem has been what I call “exponential catchup”. I’ll attempt to do something basic, so I’ll look up the documentation. Within the documentation will be several programming terms I do not understand; often times they will be regular-sounding words used as key programming terms that I’ve never heard in this context. So I begin looking up these terms, which exposes more concepts and words I don’t know. Without this context, I cannot grasp the original concept I was trying to learn; but at each step, I have to dig deeper and deeper to pick up the knowledge I am assumed to know if I am a developer working with these tools. Programming has no “system requirements” like PC games: you cannot look at Unity, Java, Actionscript, Python, C#, or any other language and read off the prerequisites. That doesn’t stop most documentation from having them, however. Most are written from a perspective of extreme familiarity with core programming concepts and terminology. On top of that, I think I’m just straight up having a problem with learning right now. It doesn’t help that trying to absorb all this separate knowledge at once kills any chance of me retaining it, or that I learn best by example but can’t easily put abstract programming concepts into a workable example.
I got into an argument recently with a prominent “indie” developer over my ability to learn. I was told my struggles should be “easy” and that there really were no valid reasons I should have difficulty. I argued that dismissing my struggles as trivial was offensive. As I started to enter the core “indie” circle, populated by the developers of the independent games most people have heard about and played, this sense that “I should know what I am doing” grew worse. It didn’t help that the majority of conversations I witnessed between the most vocal of this group were deeply technical discussions beyond my comprehension - I can’t begrudge them for doing so, but at the same time, my own attempts to engage at my own level were usually ignored.
Then I witnessed something unexpected. See, Toronto is my model for how community and culture should be. In my naivety, I assumed it was a model shared by the wider “indie” community. One day I was privy to a conversation about Leigh Alexander among some male game devs. One admitted not being able to stand her, having unfollowed her on Twitter after “a string of incomprehensible nonsense.” It then devolved into demeaning her for riding “the hot-button issue of women” to gain attention. In the course of the conversation it became clear few participants were aware Leigh is a respected games journalist; to them, she was just “some woman in games” who made a lot of noise to get attention. What struck me as even more odd were the number of people clearly in on the conversation who simply said nothing, who tolerated the sexist attitudes of a few. I later witnessed much more apathy and tolerance of sexist attitudes. A few times I was privately told not to bother confronting these people. It struck me as something of a boy’s club, and while I was assured by some friends that I did indeed belong among their ranks, I consistently felt like an outsider.
We can be better than this. Right now I am still reeling; my idealistic views of my community and peers has been largely shattered, and the circle of those I trust and respect has shrunk. Some have reminded me that it has always been this way. They may be right, but that shouldn’t be the final sentence; it shouldn’t be the shrug of the shoulders, the sentence muttered to convince a person this isn’t a battle worth fighting. It should be the sentence that makes us take it seriously and press on even harder.
We still have problems. Don’t tell me things are better than they’ve always been; they are, but that doesn’t forgive the injustices that remain. We still forgive sexists because we respect their games. We still say nothing to exclusionist behaviour because we don’t want to stir up trouble. We still smile at the respected community member who spread lies about your friend because you don’t want to appear uncivil at such a large game jam.
I’d like to think of myself as a person with zero tolerance for bigotry, but the sad fact is that I am scared. Shaking up the status quo invites anger as you threaten the privilege you share with your privileged peers. But in our fear, we are politely allowing our communities to be less. We are letting them exclude the differences that should be there. Encouraging diversity is step one. Discouraging exclusion is step two, and it is a step that many of us are afraid to take. I’m not afraid anymore; I’ve reached the point where my anger is stronger than my fear. I no longer care who I piss off. If they don’t like such a “disruptive” element, then it’s quite likely they are part of the problem.