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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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