I turned fifty today.
When I realized a few months ago that Iād hit that milestone this year, I joked with my boyfriend that āThe only thing worse than being a woman game designer is being a fifty-year-old woman game designer.ā After the words came out of my mouth, I realized part of me wasnāt joking. I debated whether to say in public that Iām fifty years old, and what effect that might have on my career.
I was born into a world where video games didnāt exist, at least not for the average person. I was seven when Pong was released, and twelve when the first Atari console came out. I was seventeen when I played Adventure on my TI/99-4A and it changed my life.
Now, after over twenty years of game development, I look around and see many of the people working alongside me when I started are no longer in the industry. I hear folks ten years younger say things like, āIād leave game development right now if I knew another way to make a living.ā Being a game developer at fifty feels like surviving a strange kind of adventure, a great endurance test in search of some form of digital enlightenment.
Part of that feeling comes from the tremendous toll game development takes on your life. Iāve relocated eight times to follow the work. Iāve had five game projects cancelled, including my very first one, each after at least a year of work. Iāve spent probably a quarter of my twenty two years crunching. My experience is not unusual: Greg Wondra also wrote about it in Death of The Game Designer here on Gamasutra.
So what does turning fifty in game development mean to me?
Our culture has a history and foundation of being obsessed with the new. Itās only in the last few years that Letās Plays have started highlighting games of the past, and that pixel or flat-shaded art styles have come back into style as āretro.ā This translates into what we consider our ācoreā audience, which stays young even as we age. It even translates into our choice of tools and platforms: we're always looking for the next big thing.
And itās not just in the games we make--itās in our workplaces too. Game development has always had an uncomfortable relationship with age and experience. Itās common for someone fairly young to rise quickly, whether by starting a company or working for an employer. That means you have people in management and leadership roles who might be asked to manage someone many years older. It's one of the most common things I hear when older developers chat about hiring experiences: āEveryone I talked to during the interviews seemed really awkward about my age, and they ended up saying I might not be a ācultural fit.āā
How do we resolve the awkward feeling, that sense of āit feels weird to tell this much older, more experienced person what to do?ā Well, letās start by agreeing that neither leadership nor management is all about ātelling people what to do.ā That very concept means youāre closing a door to learning from other people, especially people who have been around long enough to have made many mistakes--and are offering, right now, to help you avoid making them again.
Before you think the burden is all on companies and younger people, though, thereās a flip side. Game development is in many ways like marriage. It requires effort, commitment, and diligence. You canāt assume the status quo is fine. You canāt take for granted that the interactions and experiences that built your relationship are enough to fuel it forever. People change over the years, so do games, and does the process of building them.
Thereās no getting around the fact that this is a passion-driven industry--and it needs to be. Keep in mind that passion isnāt synonymous with crunch. Managers who conflate those two ideas are taking advantage of us. What Iām saying is that the drive to make something great, the urge to entertain an audience, is at the very heart of what we do. Without that passion, weāre just assembling parts.
Yes, staying relevant, relocating, the day-to-day stresses of creative technical work can all be exhausting, especially on top ofā¦ well, life itself. Sometimes it seems like game dev does everything it can to try to make you quit. So why am I still here?
I said in my part of the #1reasontobe panel at GDC last year that Iād bet everyone in the audience felt like making games is what they were here on earth to do. Iād say the same thing for everyone reading this post. You feel it, in your heart. You have something to build, something to say, or you want to be a part of creating something that has the power to make a difference in peopleās lives--even if that difference is just a momentās entertainment.
How am I so sure you feel this way? If we didnāt feel in our hearts that weāre here to make games, we wouldnāt put up with so much bullshit to do it for a living. Thatās especially true for those of us in game development for the long haul. Being happy in game development really is the holy grail. And I can tell you it exists.
I canāt imagine a life that doesnāt involve making games. Over the years, Iāve grown and changed--and Iām nowhere near done yet. There are so many things left to do and see, and so many games I want to help build. I have more ideas than I could possibly build in a lifetime. Colleagues continually surprise and delight me with their innovation. And there are so many topics and interactions and control methods and stories and characters and reflections on life that I havenāt experienced yet because no one has built them. Maybe someone is out there building those games right now. Maybe itās you.
Lately you hear more about the differences between us than what we all share. Weāve been adding to the inherent difficulty of our individual, personal quests by choosing to fight rather than supporting each other. Weāre losing sight of the fact that, when we work together, we can build great things. Just as Iāve grown and changed over the last twenty two years, I believe we can grow and change as an industry, too. Iāve watched us do it, time and time again, as we dealt with one challenge after another.
We can overcome this one too--remember who we are. We greet technical and creative challenges with determination and zeal. We love hard tasks. We thrive on thinking outside the box. We work tirelessly to improve our systems and build a better experience for our players. Now itās time for us to work together to build a better experience for our fellow game developers.
After all, regardless of game genre or platform, regardless of discipline or development tools, our shared devDNA binds us: weāre digital siblings, underneath our differences. Like all siblings, we donāt always agree with each other. We take different paths in life, and make different choices. But thereās room for all of us in this family and, in fact, our workplaces and our games get more interesting as our family diversifies and changes.
When I feel worn down or tired, when the stress is eating away at me, when I wonder why Iām still here, I take a minute to remember why I fell in love with games in the first place--that magic moment when I first saw the opening to Adventure play out across the television screen and realized that I, too, could create worlds. Rekindle your relationship--spend some quality one-on-one time with your tools. Game jams are a great way to fall in love with game development all over again. I highly recommend the Ludum Dare competitions. Itās worth blocking out a weekend to feel renewed about yourself, your life, and this sometimes difficult path youāve chosen for yourself.
So how am Iām celebrating my 50th birthday? Iām about to get on a plane and fly to Chicago for Train Jam. Iāll be making a game on the 52-hour train ride to GDC in San Francisco. Like most game development, it will involve awkward moments, long hours, stressful stretches praying for creative insights, lots of focused hard work, and many many mistakes.
I wouldnāt have it any other way.