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Taking on the challenges of being a mom in game development

January 23, 2014 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

Leanne Bayley wasn't sure which would enter the world first: Her game, Glyph Quest, or her first child. Just one month after leaving her job as creative producer at Plymouth, UK's Remode Studio so that she could relocate to be with her partner, fellow developer Alex Trowers, she learned she was pregnant.

What had been a relatively easy decision -- Brighton is a hub for game development in the UK and she expected she'd be able to find work nearer to her partner, or at least commute to London or Guildford -- had suddenly become complicated. Her pregnancy "pretty much mothballed" her chances for getting work in the game development industry, Bayley says.

"After that, the only replies to job adverts I had applied to, or even agencies I had sent my CV to, was that I would be kept in mind for future opportunities or to come back when I could return to work," she says. The implicit expectation is that game development should involve long office hours and crunch periods, and employers presumed an expecting mother wouldn't be up to it.

But games have long been Bayley's first love. Even before joining Remode, where she released six games, got involved in jams, and had the opportunity to wear many hats as a producer as a small studio, she worked as closely to the industry as she could, studying 3D computer visualization and animation at Bournemouth University and working as a store manager for GAME and Gamestation stores.

So rather than enjoy an unplanned, extended maternity leave, she decided to work on her own games, and plan a portfolio that would be ready for her return to work. When her partner lost his own job at Boss Alien, though, there was no other choice for the game-developing parents-to-be: "We decided to take fate into our own hands and go indie together," Bayley says.

"I wasn't going to let getting pregnant end my career in games development after I had really just started," she adds. "I just didn't expect to have to go independent to keep doing what I love."

The couple's spare-time project became "plan A," she says: Glyph Quest, a puzzle game for iOS featuring her art and his programming. It hasn't been easy -- there've been hospital trips at 3 a.m., backaches, pre-natal depression, and working close to the kitchen fridge in a tiny flat, but the game is on its way. [UPDATE: No baby as of press time, but Glyph Quest has launched on iOS, with an Android version to come].

"I couldn't get a job when I was looking, I wasn't desirable at the time, so now I'm an indie," she says. "It's sad that I had to go through all this to get here, and no doubt I'm not the only person who's given up with trying to fit a job description and gone it alone, but that's what had to happen."

Indie designer and illustrator Beth Maher also became a mom and a game-maker all at the same time. "All my personal identity has changed in the past couple years, which is still overwhelming at times," she tells Gamasutra.

Her situation in some ways is opposite to Bayley's: It was motherhood Maher planned for, and game development that came as a surprise. "I decided to learn how to make games because I had a miscarriage," says Maher. After her loss, she felt a need for something different in her life, and a new set of goals.

"I think I thought motherhood was going to be it for me, and when it didn't work out right away, it made me have to me seriously consider something that could fulfill me outside out of becoming a mother," she says. Not only did it turn out that games were that fulfilling thing -- but Maher had a healthy pregnancy immediately after publishing her second game. She's now the mother of a baby boy.

Designer Elizabeth Sampat, a mom of two daughters, works at Storm8 for a day job and does her own work the rest of the time. Her work in games began in the indie tabletop and pen and paper space. "Being a mom was actually really useful for self-employment in general: the needs of my two daughters gave structure to my day and pushed me to work as hard as I could in the time that I had free," she says.

"And when I got an offer to move across the country and be a lead designer on a Facebook game, being a mom was what helped me get over my fears of isolation, homesickness, and imposter syndrome," Sampat continues. "I knew a better life was waiting for my girls across the country, and in the face of being able to offer them that kind of stability, my own fears were meaningless."

As the youngest of four kids, Sampat never envisioned herself as someone who'd have kids of her own. For her, being the best mother she can be means not placing the identity of "mom" front-and-center. "I want to raise strong, independent, unique young women who feel comfortable being themselves, so the best thing it feels like I can do is to be true to myself," she says.

"As a result, I tend to be more honest with myself, because I know my girls are watching. When they ask me why I stayed late at work, or why I stopped being a work-at-home-mom, I answer them honestly about the passion I have for what I do, and why my work is important to me. I love my kids, and it was a really tough transition from 'indie' to 'day job,' but it keeps me honest. Not every gig is worth more time away from my family, and it's harder to slip into complacency when you've got an audience."


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Comments


Kenneth Blaney
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"... the only replies to job adverts ... [were] that I would be kept in mind for future opportunities or to come back when I could return to work,"

Is that legal? Seems to me that's direct discrimination against someone's pregnancy status (and pretty direct evidence of a bias against women) which I can't imagine would be allowed.

Ben Sly
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It is clearly illegal in the US (see the Pregnancy Discrimination Act), but that doesn't stop the impending pregnancy from being influential. In as subjective an environment as a job interview, it's quite easy to get worried about the prospect of pregnancy and, because it's not socially acceptable, unconsciously transfer that worry to the other parts of the resume. I very much doubt that anyone ever said, "You're going to be pregnant so we can't hire you" but I don't doubt that a clearly pregnant woman is going to find getting a job in the games industry to be very hard.

Kenneth Blaney
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I get how all that might happen as it is how a lot of hiring discrimination happens, but if they actually replied with the quote (or similar) in the article, then I would think it would be a direct violation. That's why I expressed my surprised/confusion.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

David Lindsay
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There is no way to conclusively prove discrimination, and employers won't open themselves up to it. Legality doesn't enter into it -the employer chooses the person with the most available time when he knows that extra hours are a certainty.

Jeremy Helgevold
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I think its pretty irresponsible to consider that 'evidence of bias against women'.

Would your reaction be different if someone interviewed, and said they had a month long leave of absence for personal reasons they would be taking 3 months into their possible employment? Not to presume what the authors leave length would be or how it would affect her ability to work; in all possibility she could keep trucking with minimal impact.

Its just understandable from the point of view of the employer to be hesitant without painting them sexist bigots.

Whoops, I didn't properly respond to the correct post. This is directed at the first response to this article.

Kaitlyn Kaid
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well here is part of it... if you don't want to tell the hiring manager that you will need to take some time off, you don't have to... if you are 3 months away from giving birth, you don't have to say anything, they will know. There is no hiding it, no way to gloss over it, they will know and they will judge you for it.

This carries over even to women who are not pregnant and have no intent on ever being so. The "she *might* take time off to have a kid" can cause hiring managers to give a pass on female applicants. This, of course, assumes that it's always the woman who stays at home to take care of the kid and never the man (which is where the sexism comes in).

Yet another reason for paternity leave, let them have those thoughts about everyone they hire.

Tanya X Short
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The more central problem is that without mandatory paternity leave (as in most of Scandinavia), the same anxieties (which are highly rational) apply ONLY to women who are pregnant, instead of also applying to people with pregnant partners.

A similar bias can be found against mothers but not against fathers, even after maternity leave, simply because it's culturally assumed that mothers will take more time off for parenting than fathers will.

I don't have the link here, but in blind resume/CV tests with tech job applications (it wasn't specifically games I don't think), female-named applicants with any mention of children had a much lower response than the exact same application with a male name attached -- and the women that did get a response had a lower offer of pay. Of course, I'm sure if you applied race to this, it'd get even uglier, since white women still get better responses than others.

Also on the subject of parenting & gender, some employers genuinely feel men with children should be paid more than women without, arguing, "Well, of course your male colleague gets paid more than you -- he has a family to take care of," whereas for women, it's an excuse to pay less -- "Well, don't you get money from your husband anyway?"

So... it's not a problem with one particular employer -- it's a problem with the unequal structuring of what it means to be a parent, and how that influences corporate culture, when some of us are ambitious, business-minded women and find ourselves at a disadvantage against both single men AND fathers.

Wendelin Reich
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@Tanya:

As someone who has lived in Scandinavia for 14 years, I can assure you that there is no such thing as "mandatory paternity leave" here (nor anywhere else, I assume). I know it's a widespread myth, but a myth nonetheless.

What does exist in some Scandinavian countries (e.g., Sweden) is "pappamånader". This means simply that a part of the very generous Swedish parental leave (ca. 450 days for one child!) can only be taken out by the dad. At present this amounts to two months. A majority of Swedish dads still chooses to not use them in full, which just means that the couple (if it is a couple) only gets about 390 days. I assure you, no one is being "forced" to stay at home...

My 2 cents: The Swedes havent noticed it yet, but if even such an absurdly generous system doesnt motivate men to stay at home with young children, something more powerful than 'nurture' - that is, nature - is likely at play.

Jeremy Helgevold
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Thanks Kaitlyn and Tanya for well thought out and worded responses. I pretty much agree 100% with what you guys have said.

Ryan Creighton
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Pretty much 100%.

TOTALLY mostly.

Absolutely completely almost.

Kenneth Blaney
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The "mandatory" in the myth is not that fathers are being forced to stay home, but rather that employers are required to make this time off available to employees. So actually, from your explanation, it seems that the myth is true.

I should add "Unless there is a version of this myth that I hadn't heard" as a general tack on to this comment.

Laura Bularca
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As far as I know, the only country with MANDATORY paternal leave is Portugal, but that is just for 10 days. However, maternal leave is not mandatory either, not even in Sweden, and even though some people might judge a woman for doing so, you can still have a child and get back to work as fast as you deem it fit.

On the other hand there are plenty of swedes who take even more than 3 months of holidays based on their paternal days. You have to schedule around this as you cannot refuse that request. Statistics still show that women tend to stay more at home with kids than dads, but as we debate this and provide more support for equality through both law support and debates, this will change.

Peter Eisenmann
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[edit]nevermind - mixed up some terms here[/edit]

Diana Hsu
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I do agree that nature has something to do with men not wanting to stay at home with the kids. However, it would be silly to think that just because the time is made available by employers due to the laws, that taking all that time off wouldn't aversely affect your standing at the company. Just look at all the people who allow their accrued vacation hours to be lost at the end of the year.

James Yee
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Fun fact, California does allow Paternity leave and since it's state and not per job I guess you can call that "required."

I used it when my daughter was born. Basically it gave me, I want to say 3 weeks paid off within 12 months (before or after) my daughter's birth. We were not required to take it all at once and it didn't kick in until I had taken 5 days off regularly. (Which was no problem I had been saving time off)

This was back in 2008 who knows how much more broke California is but I'm sure it's probably still in effect.

Genna Habibipour
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What I've noticed personally, is that you "don't get to have a family" unless you have seniority to some degree in your field. Male or female- interns and junior employees that take time off for their kids are seen as low-return employees, but when you're senior/lead/director/etc, taking time off for (anything really) life outside of the office is viewed quite differently.

Once you have seniority, it becomes less of an issue as you're probably putting in plenty of hours working from home anyway* and the expertise you bring to the table has the added benefit of improving/training junior employees, or being able to be productive without being closely managed by someone else.
(*Your work life-balance is already screwed, so we'll let you take a couple of hours off here and there to take care of Fluffy, Billy, and Suzy just so you think you have a healthy schedule.)

However, women without seniority (professional or age) do suffer more from the stigma/expectation of having children. You're in a serious relationship? Just married? Well, you're going to spontaneously start having children as soon as we employ you.
If you are the mother, we assume you will be the primary caretaker, so we have to plan on the time that you won't be in, or possibly abandoning us entirely mid-project/as soon as your maternity leave is over.
If you are the father, you'll have to decide whether your job or your family are more important- but we're sure you'll make the "right" (wink) choice.

Equal paternity benefits (and childcare benefits) would do a great deal to address the problem where women are seen as a greater risk than men. The disparity adds another barrier to entry for women ("I had to go indie to get started") that most likely contributes a great deal to our low overall representation in the industry.

Pamela Charlebois
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"Crunch needs to die. Employers need to learn to care for their employees outside of profit margins. People need to be allowed the time and space to be human, really."

Crunch definitely needs to die especially when a woman is pregnant... I was almost 6 months pregnant when I got yelled at for taking the Monday off after having worked 6 days straight (sometimes 12hrs/day) the previous week.

I love games and I love making games-- but I can't see myself being a mother and games producer with the hours of overtime that's needed to make a game.

Elizabeth Boylan
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Imagine if you worked those 12 hours a day for yourself? Freedom.

Jeanne Burch
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Or poverty.

Elizabeth Boylan
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Your portfolio and what you create always speaks louder than your gender.

As Seth Godin puts it, we're moving toward a project based 'work for hire' reality. Male, female, pregnant or not, there's no such thing as 'job security', it's the end of the industrial age. Adapt.

Kaitlyn Kaid
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unfortunately, studies don't back that up. Blind tests where a recruiter was sent two resumes with the same portfolio, one with a male name, and one with a female, were FAR more likely to call the male name in for an interview than her female counterpart.

lisette Titre
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Oh boy. Were do I start? I am a single mother who has raised my daughter on my video game career. She is now a senior in high school. The most difficult issue I have faced is work life balance. The hours are brutal, especially when a project is mismanaged. Crunch is not a badge of honor, its a clear sign of poor management of time, resources, and lost vision. All of my previous work life balance difficulties are due to poor management. 14 hour days when your a single mother take a huge toll on your kid. I was lucky to have a supportive family to help me in those times, but I am blessed more than most.

The overall attitude toward motherhood in the game industry is a reflection of the demographics of the industry itself. Thankfully, we are in a aging industry and attitudes are improving as a result. However, I have found that how motherhood is handled is based on the culture set by the studio's executives. A young new start up hot shot is going to assume that everyone has the time he has and should be dedicating every waking moment to the game at hand. Veteran Senior E.P.'s and teams with more women at the top have a more balanced view. basically, if your CEO/EP has a huge ego and something to prove, your are in for a rough production cycle.

I am happy that I get to work a dream job and support my family, but it has come at a cost. Time. Its the one resource we all given the same amount of, 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week. As a mother you must choose the projects you take on wisely, and to do that you must start by looking at the top. What is the CEO's, EP's, and/or Founders attitude and resulting studio culture? If the culture is not a fit, walk away. Its not worth it.

David Lindsay
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As a business founder myself, I can say that you are absolutely right. You nailed it.

I wouldn't brand start ups as sexist or discriminatory though. Typically it's a few guys with a dream, but inadequate resources to pull it off. The only play start ups have in their deck of cards is zealous devotion. If they succeed, things will pan out, though.

If you are planning on kids then go for a business with older execs, absolutely.

Diana Hsu
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I haven't finished the article yet, but I just wanted to say thank you for tackling this topic, which I've never seen tackled before in the game industry context. It means a lot of me, and I'm sure also to many other young women who are considering the same potential conflict between game development and children.

Pamela Charlebois
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I agree Lisette that if the culture is not a fit then walk away. And I'm always amazed at single mothers and their capabilities especially one in this industry. Also, the crunch being a badge of honour is just horrible for the reasons that you've stated. I'm 31, and I've seen a lot of people my age who have left the games industry because of work/life balance. I'm hoping the industry realizes the cost of this loss of talent, but I don't see things changing unless you're willing to move on and find a company with a culture that you like.

Thank you Leigh for writing this article, it brings light to a subject I've wrestled with as I'm now 31 and starting to build my family.

Katy Smith
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Thanks for writing this. My situation was a little bit different than the people interviewed for the article. I had a career in the games industry for a long time before becoming a mother. Coming back was...odd. I think I would have had an easier time if I were working for a large company like EA or Activision, but since I was at an indie, there was a culture issue that was hard to get by. As the only woman at a company of ~20 guys, there was a slight feeling of resentment that I would "take time off" to pump breastmilk or things like that. Let me be clear, no one that I worked with was inappropriate or overtly discriminatory in any way, but there was definitely a feeling of "ugh, we have to do this". Part of the reason it was so weird is that motherhood and game development is not something that is ever talked about. I'm glad this article is taking the time to explore a circumstance that is almost never discussed.

Lihim Sidhe
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I really have no idea how this site is not more popular than it is. It has incredible articles that cover every nuance of the gamingverse from the trivial, the monumental, and in cases like this the human angle.

From the three page article to the well constructed commentary that followed I don't have much to add. I just want to say thanks for this article being published. Not all game developers are single bachelors/bachelorettes eating Ramen noodles as we burn away the midnight oil on our latest efforts.

Some of us are parents or otherwise have family matters pulling us every which way.

Just... thanks for this article!

Joonas Laakso
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Just to give a counterpoint: in all of the places I've ever worked in, both in games and elsewhere in Finland, it's always been a given that families require time and parents with young children always put their family first. Fresh parents are not going to be quite as much present as people without children; we do expect them to take their parental leaves, and kids are often sick quite a bit and require care.

Even in the most otherwise questionable circumstances I've been in professionally, this has never been questioned or frowned upon. I think a large part of that is that the managers in all of my work places have had several children. In the most obscene crunch period I've been a part of, nobody frowned when people with young kids left early and didn't come in for the weekend.

I wouldn't trust a company that wasn't willing to hire a pregnant woman who's right for the job. However, the project based nature of many games companies is an obvious obstacle here: if the contract is for six months, you need someone for those six months and not some subset of that. For permanent positions I can't see it being an issue.


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