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Taking on the challenges of being a mom in game development

January 23, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Curiously left out of the conversation

Last year there were a few major games, like BioShock Infinite or The Walking Dead, that brought fatherhood front and center, and much speculation on the aging of a generation of developers -- 2013 was the year of the dads, in many ways, with the role of some young women characters shifting from sex object to care object, from love interest to daughter.

"That was a weird thing," says Maher. "Like, gee, games industry, you mean women aren't just here for your enjoyment? They have lives and dreams of their own? That is totally new information!"

But mothers have been curiously left out of the conversation, and the industry continues to primarily operate on a set of cultural values that are unfriendly to their needs and disdainful of their voices. Bayley's fruitless search for industry work showed her just how much the industry presumes that crunch is some essential show of passion that fathers are able to commit to, where mothers must somehow be unable. No one holds a man's desire for family against his passion for games, but women who choose parenthood seem silently viewed as less-dedicated, she suggests.

"I don't feel it's a prejudice held exclusively in the games industry, but the fact that moms have to band together and defend that they can still be valid in this industry -- like Anna Marsh and the team at Lady Shotgun Games -- is upsetting," Bayley says.

Sampat worries about being taken less seriously by colleagues if she emphasizes her motherhood. Even though she's seen coworkers email in about working from home because of a sick pet, she's found herself hesitating to stay away from the office for a sick child. She says she sometimes feels anxious about having colleagues to her home, not just because of social anxiety or an instinct for the comfort of her oldest daughter, who is autistic. "Mostly because I worry that they're going to stop seeing me as a person and start seeing me as a 'mom,' the demure, sweet caretaker who only wants what's best for everyone and wants everyone to be happy." 

Women face enough assumptions in the industry already -- "but I live in constant fear of people mentally crossing out 'Elizabeth' and writing in 'Mom,'" she admits. "And that's on me."

Maher says her time is at a premium now, and she simply has less time to work: "I am still very new to this space, and I've spent most of my very short time in the industry being pregnant, and nursing a baby. I've yet to make any  money off of games, and so don't have any money for childcare, which means I'm hacking together things in my minute moments of free time."

She's tackling this challenge by doing more collaborative work and smaller projects, even though that means many things end up on hold because of collaborators' other commitments. And it's harder for her to attend events, since generally there's no childcare solutions prominently offered alongside industry gatherings. "I can't fixate, crunch, obsess on something to the detriment of my own my well being, and by extension that of my family," she says.

Talk of the "mom market" in games has always rankled Maher -- the disdain with which developers talk about some kinds of casual games "for moms," and presumptions about what kind of games moms like or should make. "Many moms play the games they do (casual games, Facebook games) because they don't have the time or the energy to do anything else, and they deserve better," she says. "And they certainly deserve not to be dismissed for it."

"Games culture has this elitist value judgement based on the kind of time people spend with games, how much time and energy they devote to them, how deeply they immerse themselves, and it's toxic," Maher continues. "Not everybody can do it. Not everybody should. It doesn't have anything to do with how much they 'love' games or how much of a gamer they are, and everything to do with opportunity and privilege." 

Sampat says she's "spoiled" relative to the rest of the industry -- she's been one of the main designers on Storm8's first midcore title for over a year now, longer than anyone else on the team. After being part of a small department working on a bakery game, a restaurant game, and a home-decor game (80 percent of the studio's overall portfolio when she first got hired), her boss asked her to apply her tabletop experience to the company's first strategy defense title.

"For my indie stuff, everything I make is intensely personal, and that makes me grateful for the work I do at my day job. I probably would be worried that I'd be pigeonholed as a 'mom who makes games about feeeeelings' if it weren't for the titles I've shipped at other companies," she reflects.

There's still more the industry can do besides addressing its prejudices toward moms: There's the pragmatic work of simply making games a place where the needs of all kinds of employees are considered. Says Bayley: "Being a parent shouldn't be a blot on our skills, abilities or passion for working in games, when being considered for a position it just shouldn't matter.  If I do start looking for a position in another studio I would like to know that I was on an even playing field, that my age, sex and status as a mother were not factors even looked at."

The mobile industry prides itself on perks, but Sampat says she was more impressed by finding free Tampax in an office bathroom than she was by all the catering and game rooms -- and giant slide -- that she found at one workplace. "Why would you mention beer pong tournaments in recruiting literature but not free Tampax? That is a serious perk," she says.

A broader view of parenthood in general would be constructive, she suggests: "Everyone talks about telecommuting and flexibility around being there for your kids and whatnot, but they only talk about this stuff in relationship to moms. You want moms and moms-to-be to feel comfortable in your office environment? Be cool about, and transparent about, male employees for taking paternity leave."

"Make sure women know that the men are taking off at 5 p.m. if their kids are sick, too," Sampat continues. "Don't pitch this stuff as 'stuff for the ladies,' pitch it as stuff for parents and encourage its use, so that women see that there are no invisible repercussions. You can run the most progressive company in the world, but no employee joins up after living their lives in a vacuum. A lot of companies talk a big game, but company culture is a far different thing. Show parents they're safe."

"The things that will make it better for moms will make it better for women (who regardless of  their parental status tend to fulfill the societal role of caregiver), will make it better for everyone in society," agrees Maher. "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."

"Maybe that looks like unions for triple-A, but as a freelancer, an indie, I need societal change," she adds. "Thankfully here in Canada we have universal healthcare, and that's a huge help actually. I'd like to see universal childcare next, frankly.... It's cheaper, safer, better for families and better for the economy to have more women and men able to pursue what they want."

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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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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.