It would have done Dona Bailey good to know more about herself when she went to work at Atari back in 1980, as she told a group of about 70, two-thirds of them women, at the Women In Games International (WIGI) Summit at the Austin Convention Center on Saturday, in an event that immediately followed Austin GDC.
After a friend introduced her to Space Invaders, Bailey said she moved from Santa Barbara, Calif., where she worked at General Motors, north to Sunnyvale, where Atari was based. At GM, she'd written assembly code for the first Cadillac to feature a microprocessor, a 6502, which Atari was also using for arcade games at the time. She was stubborn, she said, and had made up her mind she wanted to make games.
But she also was, and is, an introvert, and on top of that painfully shy and polite to a fault. Atari hired her, the only woman in a company with 30 men, which would continue growing to about 120 when she left in 1982, with Bailey still the only woman. Before she left, she'd co-created Centipede, now considered an arcade classic, but when she left, she left the game industry for good.
“I kind of vanished from that whole scene,” she said.
“Know yourself” was the first of seven tips Bailey gave her audience. Atari's attempts to foster creativity included fun-filled weekends in far-off locations, or conference-room bull sessions, neither of which worked for Bailey, who would clam up when pushed.
“It led to a bunch of loud guys saying, 'She has no ideas. She never says anything when we brainstorm,'” she said.
The rest of Bailey's advice for those interested in making games, particularly women and girls, included:
• Teach yourself new skills, and teach others. Never losing curiosity is essential to keep learning, as is an understanding of what games are, and how to make prototypes to make sure they're designed and implemented properly. Teaching others, she said, is probably the best way to learn for yourself, and she encouraged the use of free software tools and an Internet full of freely available information.
• Learn to communicate effectively. Bailey said she was so interested in “getting along” with her co-workers, she lost face with them. Even if that's a feminine trait, she said, women must learn to work around it or through it.
• Write a book, and start today. Many of the books on games are written by men, she said. “Let's change this. Women are naturals in writing instructional materials. Can we at least take over that part?”
• Consider teaching girls and young women. It'll be that much more likely to inspire them to pursue careers in games and learn the necessary skills, she said.
• Support politicians who would preserve the Internet, and vote. Bailey asked the audience's indulgence for being political, but didn't want the Internet to become a “mercenary tool.”
• Find ways to broaden games' audience to include girls as gamers. Once upon a time, the audience for movies was restricted to a certain class of society, Bailey argued, but that changed. She suggested changing and varying the look of games, using slides of patterns in nature and found by advanced science as examples of imagery that interested her, as well as the source material and archetypes for games. She cited several graphic novels for this, including Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Marjane Satrapi's Persopolis as well as The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kozinski and the GPS-driven treasure hunt known as geocaching.
Diversity In The Workplace
After the lunch break, there were two panel discussions and several square-table discussions. For the first panel, Midway Austin studio head Denise Fulton prompted Lori Durham, operations vice president for Aspyr Media; Sam Lewis, lead game designer for Cartoon Network; and DebySue Wolfcale, senior brand manager for Sony Online Entertainment, on the value of diversity in a game development workplace.
After mutual acknowledgments that there was “room for improvement”, as Wolfcale put it, and that the game industry was “notoriously bad” on the subject of workplace diversity, as Fulton said, the panel got down to brass tacks. Skills are what's needed from any candidate, Durham said, and what's needed the majority of the time are artists and programmers.
As for how to include more women, Wolfcale said her employer, SOE, has realized women players make up a significant part of massively-multiplayer games, the sort they make, and for their sake female game developers are necessary to build the games to attract and keep women playing them.
Furthermore, women are often in roles that hold communities of players together, Wolfcale said, acting as socialite players and leaders of player groups, or guilds. “If we want people to keep playing and paying,” she said, “we have to make sure we're building games that attract women.”
Lewis said in his experience, the classic bar against having women on a game development team is the male-majority that's already there when a female candidate comes to interview. “She meets the team, and the team votes,” he said, and the vote is often for very superficial reasons, often related to the lack of socialization team members have working with women. That's started to change in recent years, he said, in part because male developers have had experience working with women in school.
Wolfcale said she'd seen the effect of a woman's absence in development first-hand, when a game demo was shown to a female game reporter and herself. The reporter noted the lack of female character models, both for player avatars and other in-game characters, and asked where they were. As Wolfcale remembered, the team hadn't made any female characters yet. Often it's like that, she said – not that women were meant to be shut out, but just that no one on the male-dominated team thought to keep them in mind.
Taking questions from the audience, the panelists encouraged would-be employees to be careful in choosing an employer. Fulton, who had a baby last year, praised her bosses at Midway for giving her a long maternity leave. Lewis said one of his male co-workers recently took a break to help care for his wife during her pregnancy. While they were able to cover for him at a critical time in development, he warned not every development outfit can. “You don't want to go to three guys in a garage,” he said. “Well, maybe you do, but just make sure you know.”
MMOs And Diversity
More focus on MMOs followed in a panel moderated by Brenda Brathwaite, instructor at the Savannah College of Art and Design who also has game design credits on the Wizardry and Jagged Alliance series as well as Playboy: The Mansion. Panelists included Joye McBurnett, senior producer at Amaze Entertainment, Bioware Austin co-studio head Gordon Walton, Fragdoll Ashley “Jinx” Jenkins and Naked Sky Entertainment and former DooM programmer Dave Taylor.
After a quick elevator-pitch by Taylor for a game idea he had patterned after the intricate and often brutal social cliques typical of high-school girls, Walton offered that theme and core gameplay seemed to be key to whether women were attracted to MMOs. Of all the titles he'd worked on, Walton said the population of women varied from 5 to 51 percent, with The Sims Online having the highest thus far. McBurnett said the female population of Ultima Online was about 15 percent when she worked on it in its early years.
Panelists ended up talking about games in general, especially the rise of casual games, often called ripe for the female market. Jenkins said many games on the market require too much time commitment for her, and offer experiences that are addictive, but aren't what she'd call fun. Walton said many games evoke a zombie-like state in players, which might give anyone looking over shoulders the wrong idea.
Following the event, WIGI Executive Director Sheri Graner Ray called it a success. The group is sponsoring seminars all over the world since beginning in 2005, and while several were also in town for the Austin Game Development Conference that ended the day before, several flew from all over the country just for WIGI. Attendees told her they enjoyed coming and talking about games with other women, but Ray said she was well aware that the programming had to stay fresh.
“I just hope they don't get audience fatigue,” she said.