Hello and welcome to âWomen Donât Want To Work In Games (And Other Myths)! Allow me to introduce myself: my nameâs Elizabeth Sampat. Iâm a senior game designer at a mobile game company called Storm8, and theyâre kind enough to let me make weird personal projects in my spare time. Iâve been in digital games for about three or four years, maybe? And Iâve been involved in the tabletop and hobby game industry since 2006. Iâm also on the advisory board for the IGDA Women In Games Special Interest Group, which is why Iâm doing this talk. Iâll get to my personal story as a woman in games eventually, but here: if you know me itâs probably because I yell on Twitter, or because I wrote a polemic about Penny Arcade that went viral, or because I was on the #1reasonwhy/#1reasontobe panel last year.Â
The years Iâve spent as a game designer have been some of the most rewarding, most fulfilling times of my life, and itâs important to me that other people get the opportunity to discover all of the amazing things that this life has to offer. So as you might imagine, I am really and truly passionate about our industry, and about cultivating diversity among its workers. And now that Iâm here, in front of so many people with such a strong interest in furthering our industryâs reach, itâs my pleasure to tell you that everything regarding the lack of gender diversity in the game industry is solved. I know! Iâm just as surprised as you are.
I really am sorry that you came all the way here, but in doing the research for this talk, I came across a lot of really congratulatory glad-handing articles about how everything has been fixed, so I guess it HAS to be true, despite the fact that, you know, only ten percent of workers in the game industry are women.Â
See, hereâs the magical thing that has fixed the gender gap: right now, there are a lot of initiatives to get young girls to use computers. Heck, thereâs even a game design badge in the girl scouts! With all of this interest in teaching our progeny how to code and hack andâ whatever the kids are calling it these daysâ everythingâs going to be juuuust fine. So instead of digging any deeper than we already have, we can all pat each other on the backs, say âGood job!â and just wait twenty years for the industry to fix itself.Â
Early outreach is important, definitely. But we need to start looking for solutions that work now. It may seem like the industry will be an egalitarian, gender-parity utopia by the time that weâre all playing Angry Birds Fifteen on the holodeck at the old folksâ home, but that doesnât fix the homogeneity of voices in the games now, or the behaviors that have lead to an industry dominated by white men under the age of 45.
But even nurturing young women and girls interested in games isnât enough to change our future. If we donât change the attitudes, hiring habits and retention issues that have lead to the current gender disparity in the game industry, then no matter how much passion we instill in our youthâ no matter how many proficiencies we teach themâ all of that work will be for nothing.
The best ways to bring more diversity of experience and perspective into our industry is to face our mental barriers head on. Hereâs a spoiler: the problem isnât with the women who supposedly donât want to be here. The problem is with us.
Myth #1: Women donât want to work in games
This is the most common sentimentâ we canât FORCE women into the industry. Weâre not going to put guns to their heads. We canât make people do jobs they donât want to do! Women donât want to be here, thereâs nothing to be done, so letâs just continue to have men make all of the first person shooters and all of the Farmvilles and all of the everything in between. I just have one question for those who think women donât want to work in games: have you asked them?
I have. Using Facebook, Twitter, mailing lists and word-of-mouth, I polled a large number of women who are currently employed or seeking employment in the game industry about how long theyâve been here, what they did before, and how their priorities, experiences, and lives have impacted the paths that their careers have taken. Â Â
On the surface, the numbers arenât surprising. 45% of responders said that they âhave always knownâ they wanted to be in the game industry! This adds an air of truth to one of the other forms of the âwomen donât want to work in gamesâ mythâ that the game industry is ONLY for people who were born cradling their own copy of Chrono Trigger. The game industry requires passion, dedication, and true loveâ and anyone who doesnât have those things from the get-go will be eaten alive. Thatâs the common narrative.
But letâs take another look at that number. 45% of responders to my poll said that they have always known they wanted to be in the game industry: thatâs almost half! Or to put it another way, thatâs LESS THAN HALF. 55% of responders got into the game industry in a wide variety of ways that had nothing to do with their lifelong aspirations of game-developer fame and fortuneâ and for some, all it took was being approached by a recruiter while they were in school.Â
Just talking to someoneâ just asking someone if theyâve ever considered a job in gamesâ is an incredibly potent recruitment tool. But itâs one few people ever think about, because itâs in direct opposition to the prevalent narrative: âWho needs to be given permission? Who would ever need to be ASKED if they want into this amazing industry we all love? If the candidate doesnât already know how fantastic making games can be and how much of a privilege it is to even be employed bringing joy to so many people, this isnât the place for them!â
Every time you perpetuate the myth that the only way to make it in games is to have always wanted to be in games, youâre reducing the potential talent pool youâre recruiting from by 55%.
And of that 55%, thereâs a second demographic that is almost as potent as lifelong burning desire. Among the industry women in my poll, 41% of people became interested in games as a career because they either had friends, family, or acquaintances who worked in the industry, or else had someone directly suggest to them that they consider working in games. For a lot of womenâ even women who grew up loving games!â the leap from âenjoying gamesâ to âmaking gamesâ is one that is difficult to make without support.
Itâs almost a Catch-22. Because only 10% of the game industry is made up of women, itâs a career that never even occurs to a large number of women who would be very happy here. And because so few women realize itâs an option, the number of women in the game industry remains incredibly low.
The best way to deal with this particular problem is fairly self-evident, then: actively talk to women about the game industry. If you yourself are a woman, be vocal to friends in tech and outside of the industry in general about what you do and why you love it. If you represent a company, sponsor game jams for people who have never made games before. When youâre in an interview, quit looking for lifelong dedication and start looking for curiosity and current interest.Â
But Elizabeth! you might be saying. Are these hiresâ the ones who havenât been burning with a passion to create new game titles since they were old enough to hold a controllerâ quality hires? Do we NEED people who lack that lifelong dedication? What could these dilettantes possibly bring to the table?
Iâm glad you asked. In 2006, I moved to a small Massachusetts town about 10 minutes from the border of Vermont called Greenfield. I lived two blocks down the street from Vincent Bakerâ one of the most highly-esteemed tabletop roleplaying game creators in the independent hobby scene, responsible for titles like Dogs In The Vineyard and Apocalypse World. His wife Meg is also an award-winning tabletop game designer. Across the street was my friend Julia Bond Ellingboe, a fantastic tabletop designer whose critically-acclaimed Steal Away Jordan explored and celebrated the heroes she grew up withâ escaping and runaway slaves in the antebellum south.Â
A few exits down 91 was Northampton, Massachusettsâ home to Joshua AC Newman, acclaimed designer of the tabletop roleplaying game Shock: Social Science Fiction, and the lego mech-warrior miniature strategy game Mobile Frame Zero, which blew past its Kickstarter goal by almost one THOUSAND PERCENT.
I hung out with these people, I played their games with them a few nights a week. And it wasnât until I was aggressively pushed by my friends to try my own hand at game design that it even occurred to me I was capable of such a thing!
I eventually published my first tabletop roleplaying game, Itâs Complicated, and brought it to GenConâ the oldest and possibly largest tabletop game convention in the United States. On the Saturday of the convention, a man came up, plopped twenty dollars down on the table, and announced he was there to buy my gameâ and hopefully talk to me. The man introduced himself as Ryan, and the first thing he said to me was âHave you ever considered going digital? This design would port beautifully to a computer game.âÂ
We talked for a long while, and he left me his card. It turned out that he was Ryan Scott Dancey, the then-CMO of CCP games and the former senior Vice President in charge of tabletop RPGs at Wizards of the Coast, responsible for the successful launch of Dungeons and Dragons: Third Edition.
If Vincent and Meg and Julia and Joshua had never convinced me to try to make my first game, Iâd still be struggling to come up with new and innovative concepts as a freelance stock photographer. If Ryan had never told me, rather forcefully, that I had a future in the digital game industry, Iâd probably be writing exciting new encumbrance rules for the next edition of some White Wolf RPG. I love what I doâ now that I make games every day, I canât imagine my life doing anything else. But it took a lot of arm-twisting and encouragement for me to get out of my own head and to step out of my comfort zone.
If youâre not worried about the industry losing the next me, thatâs fine. But if we donât actively reach out to women, we might lose our next Robin Hunicke. In her #1reasonwhy talk at last yearâs GDC, the former executive producer of thatgamecompanyâs groundbreaking title Journey and the current founder of the game company Funomena freely admitted that, despite a path that lead up to and circled around the game industry, it wasnât until Will Wright mentioned game development to her that she considered a career in games.
Myth #2: Itâs Too Late, There Are No Women To Hire!
This myth concedes the point that, okay, perhaps you could interest women in the game industry, but that doing so is useless. Even if you somehow convinced women to apply, or show interest, itâs too late! Look at the number of women currently in game programs at universities, or recent graduates. There are so few women who have the necessary skills we need in the industry that thereâs no point in pursuing them.Â
This particular myth comes with a secret consolation prizeâ when people ask why your game company has so few women, you can just smile and shrug. âThere are only so many women with the skill sets required to make games,â you can say, while furrowing your brow in empathy. âItâs a numbers game. Until more women graduate with the skills necessary to make games, the pool of potential female candidates will remain low, and not every company will be able to woo them.âÂ
If that dog-whistle is a little too high for you to hear, let me make it even clearer: I once spoke with someone in charge of hiring at another company, and they had a really interesting excuse for an all-male workspace: âWomen are probably in really high demand and can ask for whatever they want, because everyone wants to be diverse. That just makes them too expensive.â
Weâll sidestep the implication that the only reason those women may be in demand is because of their gender for the time being, and address the broader pointâ the idea that there arenât a ton of women who have the appropriate training and necessary skillsets to be a necessary and effective part of a game company. And, yes, if youâre only specifically looking for senior software engineers who have gotten at least three titles through the gold master process on two different consoles, the pickings are probably a bit slim.
The thing is, though, that a game company is first and foremost a company. You need people to keep the lights on and the books balanced; you need people to keep the company part going as much as the game part. I understand that thereâs a mindset that a lot of game-makers have that says HR, and marketing, and office management donât countâ but study after study has shown that the best way to attract women candidates is to have women as employees.Â
If you say you want to attract women when talking to software engineers or designers and they notice women are absent from even the non-technical departments, theyâre not going to take you at your word. Actions are important. Employ women wherever possible, and treat those women with respect; believe me, the female candidates who interview with you will notice, even if the women they see arenât in their department.Â
And by the way? When I say âtreat those women with respect,â I also mean respecting their jobs, and how those jobs are vitally important to the growth and success of your company. The pervasive idea that HR, marketing, and office management âdonât countâ or arenât âreallyâ part of game development at your company or in the industry as a whole is, in and of itself, sexistâ those are the roles that are most often coded as feminine, and the roles where women are visible, even in male-dominated companies. And itâs not even a matter of those roles not being âcoreâ to design and production. Have you ever noticed that the game industry will occasionally champion the unsung importance of QA, and yet a no one ever talks about the vital role that Community Management plays in a gameâs success? And as for the stereotypical woman in a business role, sheâs still considered â well, Shanley Kane put it best in her blistering article titled âMisogyny and the Marketing Chick:â
âSheâs not in tech, sheâs around it. She doesnât understand engineering. Sheâs not a programmer. She probably got her job because sheâs pretty. Or how did she get that job, sheâs not even pretty. She probably got her job from sleeping with that guy. She probably does social media. Sheâs helping out with the conference. Sheâs doing the launch. Sheâs setting up the meetings. Sheâs writing mass emails. Sheâs composing tweets.
What is to be done about her? We need to make sure the marketing chick canât infiltrate our industry, make sure we donât accidentally aid and abet her rise. So weâre going to assume all women in our industry are like her unless they can prove to us theyâre not a marketing chick. Now even women hate the marketing chick because they have to prove everyday, in every meeting, in every conversation, that they arenât that.â
Every woman you invite to the office for an interview will watch to see how the other women in the office are treated and referred to. And if the women you invite to interview never see another woman, well, theyâll notice that too.
Does this seem recursive? Iâm sure it does, but honestly, the best way to combat the myth that there arenât any women to hire is to understand the inherent, subconscious biases that are keeping you from hiring the women that are already there in front of you.
Research in numerous studies has demonstrated that invisible bias hurts the prospects of women in all industries, not just tech. People look at menâs resumes for potential, but look at womenâs resumes for proof. By removing the names of candidates and doing blind resume reviews, youâll be surprised by how many women candidates suddenly seem viable. And by respecting the women in your employ and making them visible to the women you interview, you can show candidates proof that you take them seriously.
Myth #3: We Canât Find Any Women Who Are A Culture Fit
Startup companies love to talk about âmaintaining a strong company cultureâ and being sure that new hires are âgood culture fitsâ the way that white people love calling shit their spirit animals. Ask any casual game company what makes their company different from the other companies working on the latest card-battling RPG with real-time casino feedback, and theyâll tell you that the thing that makes them special is the PEOPLE, that the secret sauce that will make you happier working there than anywhere else is the company culture.
You might think that Iâm about to go on a rant about how âculture fitâ is complete and total bullshit, and youâd beâ well, wrong, actually. As I mentioned before, I work at a mobile company called Storm8, and Iâve been there longer than Iâve been at any other game company. Hopefully I get to stay there for a long time to come. The size of Storm8 has almost doubled since I joined, and the thing thatâs been amazing to me is that it is still, at its heart, the company I fell in love with, and a large part of that is due to maintaining the company culture as the company has grown.
What does âCulture fitâ mean to me at Storm8? It means a greater numberâ and a greater percentageâ of women and people of color than at any other place Iâve worked, including a good chunk in engineering and data analysis. It means a truly collaborative environment. It means a place where everyone treats each other with a fundamental base of respect, and men take paternity leave so women donât feel weird about starting families, and watching the number of women in my department grow to seven times what it was when I joined. Weâve got the pool table and the hackathons, but weâve also got free feminine sanitary products in the restrooms and flexible schedules and summer parties where Iâm encouraged to bring my kids. But mostly, weâve got the kind of company culture where me giving this talk here at GDCâ and all of the other ranting I do about equality in our industryâ is something that I feel supported in doing, and has never for a moment made me worry about repercussions.Â
Storm8 is a special company, and thatâs why I choose to stay. But I also know that what Iâve just described is definitely not what most companies mean when they talk about their own company or what they mean by culture fit, and thatâs part of the problem. If you canât find any women who will fit into your company culture, have you considered that your company culture mightâŚ you knowâŚ suck?
Often times, the concerns about âCulture Fitâ as a company are simply neophobicâ a longing to cling to a status quo that may not be perfect, sure, but at least itâs familiar. If youâve been doing something for a long time, and youâre given the opportunity to do something new, it can be tempting to stick to your old ways just to ensure that you donât fail.Â
The idea of culture fit is useful, but the TERM itself is worse than uselessâ itâs actively harmful in a number of ways. There are two different types of culture fit: homogeneity and habit. If someone isnât a culture fit because they schedule meetings at 7 PM on a Friday and come from a company where design is always at war with marketing or something, then yeah, donât hire themâ their work habits will negatively impact the work habits of the people in your company. But if someone didnât laugh at your Magic: The Gathering joke or didnât seem excited enough when you mentioned the company fantasy football league? Get over it.
Donât ever, EVER, let someone turn down a candidate by saying theyâre not a good culture fit. Not even as part of a broader concern, not even a little bit, nope nope nope. If someone says that a person isnât a good culture fit, interrogate them like youâre in an episode of Law and Order. Get the specific reasons out of the interviewerâ did they seem unenthusiastic about the games youâre making? Did they seem like they have preconceived notions about what project management processes work best that are at odds with your companyâs best practices? Or does the interviewer avoid your gaze and just say something about their âgut feelingâ that the candidate wouldnât be happy there? Worse, do they say something about how the candidate might make others unhappy to be there?
Look. If your company is predominantly male, I hate to tell you this, but youâre not going to magically be able to find women who fit into your company as it exists now. You might get close, but in order to accommodate diversity of backgrounds and experiences, your company is going to have to grow. Why do we only think of the word âgrowthâ as it applies to business when it comes to headcount and revenue and market-share, anyway? What would our industry look like if companies were just as proud of the growth that theyâve made as a culture?
Part of the issue is that we know what growth looks like when weâre talking about numbers getting incrementally higher, or a line on a graph arching upwards. But when weâre talking about making room for different kinds of people, adding seats at a metaphorical tableâ for a lot of companies, thatâs incredibly difficult, because thereâs no one internal that has the expertise to know what kind of culture can attract the kind of diverse work group that they want.
Good news! There are consulting firms that work with companies specifically to analyze their culture and hiring practices and recommend tactics that will lead to finding more women candidatesâ and more women candidates that will become employees. Places like The Level Playing Field Institute and the Anita Borg institute have the experience and insight to uncover the things about your company culture you might not be able to see, and the knowledge to help you overcome the bad without injuring the good.
But theyâre not here right now, and I am. So, while I am a misanthropic loudmouth instead of an acclaimed institution, I guess weâll have to go with my advice. At least itâs free! And actually, itâs not even my advice. Remember that survey I mentioned earlier, the one I made asking women in the industry about their experiences and perceptions? Fortunately for all of us, the anonymous respondents had a lot of things to say about what attracts them to companiesâ and what keeps them away.Â
One of the questions I asked was âWhat would sell you on a game company if it were mentioned by a recruiter?â In their own words, responders overwhelmingly mentioned three important things.
Family-friendly: this phrase came up the most often, even from women who are not and do not plan to become mothers in the near future. To respondents, this implies flexibilityâ one example was a âcore hoursâ setup where all employees are mandated to be in the office during a set of four to five hours for collaboration, meetings, and face time, and then are able to work as much before or after core hours as they wish. Other things mentioned were flexible hours, occasional telecommuting, and a general atmosphere where families would feel comfortable, even if you didnât have a family of your ownâ a place where fun doesnât always mean alcohol and objectification. Interestingly, some women also mentioned that they want to see dads in the office; if men are taking time off for family things, it makes women feel more comfortable if they want to do so in the future.Â
As one respondent said: âIt currently doesn't affect me personally, but looking to the future, a company that offered on site child care might be appealing; even if I never have children, I think the benefit to coworkers who did would make for a better work environment. (If it matters, I was inspired to think this would be a really good perk by a male coworker who was sad about not getting home before his daughter went to bed.. I don't think its a mothers-only benefit, but I do think men can be more hesitant to vocalize it.)â
Collaboration and Trust: the majority of women who responded to my survey werenât looking to bow at the feet of a single visionary. Many women spoke about their desire to work in an environment where they had the ability to feel ownership over parts of the production process, working hand in hand with peers who understand and respect what each person on the team brings to the table. They want companies that are invested in seeing them learn and grow, personally and professionally, and are willing to invest in them to ensure that growth.
One respondent said the best thing a recruiter could tell her would be: âWe need you on our team, and your voice, and we're also interested in experimentation. The "we need you" part would really sell any position for me. I'd like to know that I could lend my real perspective, and not just participate in the production of something on a surface level. There's a difference between being an artist, and just using a skill. â
Good, Clear Communication: This is one answer that surprised me. I mean, sure, there was an overwhelming response from women who would be interested in knowing that the workplace was already diverse, and the family-friendly business wasnât exactly a shocker. But the most surprising popular answers all revolved around a desire to work in a place where communication skills are highly prizedâ environments where expectations and hopes are spelled out, problems are found quickly and addressed even more quickly, and everything is communicated with professionalism and respect. The women who responded to my survey feel that the best way to ensure good work is through transparent and open communication, and therefore prize it highly.
As one woman put it, âgood communication (and human contact!) is one of the best ways to fuel creative inspiration.â
But enough about all of the things that you can be doing right. What about the things you might be doing wrong? I also asked the women in my survey about what recruiter-mentioned âselling pointsâ would actively turn them off from applying. The answers probably arenât that surprising.
Brogrammer-speak: The word âBrogrammerâ might be one of the most commonly-used words in all of the responses. Many anonymous respondents called out specific companies they never even interacted with, but whose recruitment drives and presentation choices alienated them forever. Here are a couple of examples:
âI will NEVER consider working for Riot Games thanks to their previously used 'No doesn't always mean no' internal recruitment campaign. I know from employees that worked there that people approached them to complain about the practice/terminology, and those people were told that if it bothered them, perhaps they didn't belong at Riot games. As a rape victim I refuse to work for asshats like that.â
A ton of women specifically mentioned Kixeyeâs recruitment video, but one woman put it best: âThat Kixeye video that was going around a while ago contained everything that turns me off about a job posting. If the word "brogrammers" is used without any sense of irony that's a red flag for me. If a lot of the studio staff is very young because they're unable to retain anyone past the age of 30 that's a red flag. If I get asked if I'm cool with a "non-PC work culture" during an interview that's not a good sign (Yes, I was actually asked this once during an interview.) â
The Wrong Perks: A substantial number of my survey respondents look at the typical âselling pointsâ of game startups with serious side-eye. Anything mentioning a strong culture of alcoholâ âbeer Fridays,â booze at all-hands meetingsâ rubbed a number of women the wrong way. Again, even for people who like to partake, nothing says âbroâ like crushing a beer and then crushing some code. Additionally, the more freebies a company has that are designed to keep people in the office, the more skeptical they are of the companyâs commitment to work-life balanceâ something thatâs extremely important to women who wish to have friends and family outside of the workplace.
As one woman put it: âI actively avoid the types of ads I see now that repeatedly scream "we're badass and devote all of our lives to the games we make", Really? That makes for such an unhealthy fertilizer for creativity. I want a company that prides itself on being well rounded.â
But, of course, not all women want the same thing.
Myth #4: Iâm A Woman, I Canât Be Part Of The Problem!
Iâm just going to let this sit there for a while.
Yeah. So. Thereâs an idea that if youâre here, in the trenches of the game industry, simply existing as a woman, youâre Doing Something. And honestly, that idea isnât completely off-base! Existing as a woman in a male space is a fundamentally rebellious act, and as I went over previously, women are more likely to join companies where women employees already exist. Weâre fortunate to be in an industry with trailblazers, and in an industry with a number of companies who have their own pioneers, pushing through the monotony and homogeneity to make a space for themselves.
Itâs hard to be the only woman, especially if youâre in the middleâ you need to win the approval of your male superiors and win the trust of your male inferiors. You can feel the need to assimilate, to make yourself fit into the culture around you. Itâs a hard, difficult, thankless journeyâ at least until you get to the top.
Thereâs something intensely satisfying about proving people wrong, isnât there? Thereâs something that feels so good about reaching a goal. When you do something so hard, when itâs something so few people are able to accomplish, it feels amazing. Youâre special. But hereâs the thing: even when you get to the topâÂ when youâre running your own company!â you are still working for approval; approval of the press, of your C-level peers, of venture capitalists. Youâre breathing rareified air, but it comes in ragged gasps because you never get to stop climbing.
And no one can blame you for occasionally stopping to take in the view.
Mary Church Terrell was an amazing woman who worked tirelessly for womenâs rights and the rights of people of color. Born to former slaves, she was one of the first African American women to earn a college degreeâ and she did so surrounded by white male students at Oberlin University. She was a phenomenal academic, earning the respect and admiration of her peers and inferiors. Her stratospheric rise wasnât good luck or lineage, she fought for everything she earnedâ she fought harder than you and I will probably ever have to fight for anything.Â
And when she got to the top and paused to survey the landscape, this is what she said:
âAnd so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long. With courage, born of success achieved in the past, with a keen sense of the responsibility which we shall continue to assume, we look forward to a future large with promise and hope.â
âLifting as we climbâ has become a profound call to action in social justice spaces, reminding us of our unique responsibilities. Yes, existing as a woman in a male space is rebellious, but itâs not subversive. If we try to push through the problems, we risk getting swallowed up in themâ being the âcool girlâ in the boysâ clubhouse, pushing down the ladder behind us, smugly satisfied that the NO GIRLS ALLOWED sign doesnât apply to us. Weâre special. Weâre different. Weâre the exceptionâ weâre not like those other women, the ones who complain and act anxious and canât take a joke. Weâre âthe good ones.â
We canât push our way through the gluey slog of anti-woman spaces. We need to cut a swath.Â
Itâs so much easier to call out problematic behavior when itâs directed at you, you know? I mean, itâs not particularly easy in the first place, but when someone says something shitty and itâs about you, your hackles go up. Youâre offended, maybe youâre angry, maybe you want to prove them wrong. Any woman who has fought for acceptance knows what this is like, and also knows the worst-kept secret in all of the feminist struggle: it gets tiring.
Anger fatigue. Â Youâre offended and furious for a while, and then youâre just mad, and then youâre sad, and then youâre numb because this is how the world is, all day, every day. A million tiny microaggressions, a million forwarded bullshit news articles that people expect you to be outraged about. Your righteous indignation gets batted around like a party trickâ JUST WATCH HER GO! This is gonna be good. Sheâll eviscerate them. Itâll be a hell of a show. Just let me push the button.
We talk a lot about important âvoicesâ in games, and itâs funny to me the way we disembody the outrage and the insight. We remove the voice from the fleshy circumstances that birthed it. We are not voices, weâre PEOPLE. And yet the world is content with our emptiness, demanding our outrage, passing it around for fun, while we sit alone and hollow in front of our computer screens.
So when, for a minute, the bullshit isnât directed at YOUâ when itâs not personally offensive, when some dude at the YetiZen party grins and says youâre not like one of those bitchy women, you actually seem pretty coolâ the urge to smile and let it pass is really, really understandable. Itâs approval we donât seek and we rarely get. Itâs a moment where we could take a break, and survey the view from the top.
But the thing is, when youâre that high up? Everyone looks like ants.
This may sound like Iâm putting everything at the feet of women eating their own, and Iâm not. This is a learned, cultured response to systemic oppression. This is what happens when women who love games start hearing âone of the good onesâ at the age of eleven or twelve and never stop. When you hear a woman say âIâm not like them,â whose words are they repeating? Whose bullshit have they internalized as a survival tactic? The game industry is fundamentally tied to games culture, and we canât fault its victims for their own Stockholm Syndrome. We just need to begin the work of decolonization.Â
Iâm going to say this as clearly and earnestly as I can: if there isnât room for you in the game industry, then fuck the game industry. I donât want to be here if you canât be here. And this is something we need to tell each other constantlyâ on stage at GDC, in line for the bathroom at the bar at the W, on Twitter and Snapchat and late at night in the car and every fucking chance we get. We need to remind each other weâre not impostors, we belong here. Â
And every day, every single chance we get, we have to make space for each other.
All of this feeds into the biggest myth of allâ the one everyone talks around and no one voices.
Myth #5: Itâs Not The Industryâs Fault, Itâs The Fault Of The Women.
In most civilized conversations about the gender disparity in our industry, blaming women for their own marginalization would be a horrifying and shocking statement. When conversations about the gender gap in the game industry come up, weâd never be so insensitive. Instead, we all nod and agreeâ OF COURSE the problem isnât the women. The problem is the misogynist culture we live in, or the fact that the games industry was founded by men! Itâs not that thereâs something wrong with women.
Except for the fact that, you know, women should be more assertive, even though theyâve been encultured to be demure since they were children. Or maybe being bossyâ sorry, âassertiveââ isnât even enough. Maybe they should go Full Sandberg and LEAN IN and ask for more work and more responsibility and more ownership, even though society still expects them to do the cooking and the cleaning and the child-rearing. Oh, and by the way? Even if youâre a single childless woman who can afford a maid, youâll still be the bitch. Possibly the frigid bitch, since you couldnât even find someone to love you during the hour or so that youâre not at work every evening. I think we all know that I could go on like this, but fortunately, Iâm not planning to. I want to get to the solutions.
So hereâs the thing. If we want to actually, honestly, EARNESTLY embrace diversity of gender and experience in the game industry, we only have two choicesâ thereâs no middle ground here. Our first option is, of course, to go with the story that weâve been spoon-fed about feminine success since we were children, the one we see in every television show and every movie about a Strong Women Proving Herself To The Men. We can uplift that stale narrative of the model minority, the badass loner of a woman who learns how to be the âcool girlâ in the boysâ clubâ the GI Jane who works twice as hard for half the recognition of her peers. until one day she wakes up and she suddenly Has It All, and BOOM, suddenly sheâs just as good as a man. Just. As. Good. And thatâs a hell of a storyâ Iâm a writer, I know stories, and thatâs a great one, as far as patriarchal bullshit goes.Â
Or thereâs always the second choice. We can do the other thing, the thing thatâs harderâ the thing that doesnât involve getting a few token, rich white women to the top by making them climb over the broken bodies of our sisters.
We can burn. Shit. Down.
We can stop being polite and looking for ways to lay equal blame at the feet of the establishment and those on the outside, as if identifying as a woman was a choice that lead to their own self-oppression. We can stop expecting women to trust us from day one; you can run the best, most inclusive, most collaborative company in the world, but youâre not hiring anyone directly from the vacuum of space. The world is fucked up, and the women you hire have probably worked at fucked up companies in the past, and it may take them a month or two to really understand and trust that your company is different. And, like with any relationship, if youâre trying to build a bond with an employee thatâs meant to last, you canât begrudge them that time.
The only way to fundamentally change the system is to acknowledge that the system, as it exists, is fundamentally brokenâ and by being a part of that broken system, we are complicit. Do you know why I get frustrated when the only solution anyone ever offers to the gender gap is to mention early-intervention projects and STEM education? Yes, that stuff is important. Yes, making investments in the future is a vital practice for the longevity of our industry. Butâ in case you didnât noticeâ the economy sucks right now. So many people are changing careers, and more women than men are graduating from universities right now anyway. Itâs like weâre starving, right this minute weâre dying of hunger, and instead of harvesting food from the next field over weâre planting seeds.Â
We need to do both. We must do both if weâre ever going to manage to foment change.
My daughter Gwen is ten years old. She decided when she was about five that she wanted to grow up to be a pediatrician. She stuck with that until she was nine, and then she decided she wanted to be an astrophysicist. A few months back, she told me that she still wants to do astrophysics as her hobby, but when she grows up, sheâs going to pursue a career as a game designer.
She draws out levels for her favorite platformers and puzzle games; sheâs made three games in Twine and sheâs learning Stencyl. She wants to learn to program in Ruby, but Iâm not really able to help her because I donât know how. I annoy her by making her write specs, and by interrogating her design choices, because deep down? Iâm fucking terrified.
Iâve had it great in this industryâ so much better than so many women I knowâ and I would still do ANYthing to keep Gwen from having some of the experiences Iâve had. And yeah, I know sheâs ten. I know sheâs changed her mind about what she wants to be when she grows up before, and sheâll probably change it again, and that doesnât make me any less terrified. Some days I actually worry that Iâm a bad example, being so in love with my work, living and breathing game design. Iâm hard on her, harder than Iâd be on a son who showed the same interest, because I want to tell her sheâs going to have to work twice as hard to get half as far but I just donât have the heart.
I see the way I look at her, and the way that I worry, and I know without a doubt that I am part of the problem. Every time I worry more about making her tougher than I worry about making the industry gentler, Iâm complicit. But Iâm ready to stop.