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'Making games is easy. Belonging is hard': #1ReasonToBe at GDC
'Making games is easy. Belonging is hard': #1ReasonToBe at GDC
March 20, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

March 20, 2014 | By Alex Wawro
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More: Serious, Business/Marketing, GDC



Brenda Romero, a veteran game designer and program director at UC Santa Cruz, opened this year's #1ReasonToBe GDC panel by paying tribute to the genesis of the #1reasontobe and #1reasonwhy conversations that spread across social media in 2012 and continue to inspire discussion about how to build a game industry devoid of discrimination, harassment and sexism.

Those conversations are still necessary.

“It’s shitty to wake up and find out that someone got groped at a party last night,” said Romero. “It’s not okay." She went on to point out that while the industry has come a long way in a few short years, we still have work to do.

Panel cohost Leigh Alexander, an experienced writer and speaker who also serves as Gamasutra’s editor at large, stepped to the podium to share memories of her first time attending GDC and how she struggled to acclimate to the culture of the industry.

"Some of the things that made it so hard for me to exist here were not my fault," said Alexander. "I began to see the subtle messages that a male-dominated, heteronormative and often ruthless game industry sends -- from its products, to its culture, to its unspoken rules -- about a gal like me."

Alexander found compatriots in the industry who helped her address those feelings of alienation, but she also found friends who were being actively hurt by systems within the industry that actively promote discrimination.

“Who wants to take the system apart?” asked Leigh, and the audience answered with raucous cries, applause and fists in the air.

“Knowing about what Brenda has been through helps me understand that what I’ve been through is a shared experience that isn’t my fault,” said Alexander.

Alexander says some members of the industry still feel less wanted, less welcome, and less safe than others because of who they are or how they identify themselves. Alexander lauded the game industry’s achievements in building spaces for people to play, but reminded the audience that those spaces still aren’t equally welcoming to everyone.

The industry has changed -- it has evolved from the one Alexander joined all those years ago, but she acknowledges that we still have plenty of room to improve.

“At least now I can admit my humanity to a packed room full of game developers, and nobody is going to tell me to pipe down or get back in the kitchen anymore,” said Alexander. "Try it, I fucking dare you! We are not alone here.”

“My one reason to be is to be here for each other.”

All the right reasons

With that, Alexander ceded the podium to the panel's first speaker, Laralyn McWilliams, who serves as chief creative officer of The Workshop. McWilliams, a veteran of the industry who has worked on everything from Full Spectrum Warrior to Free Realms, first found her way into a computer lab because of her desire to meet the boys who worked on the Apple II machines inside. She stayed because of the worlds she discovered within the screens, but struggled to feel welcome in the game industry.

McWilliams found herself making tough choices when developing free-to-play games that were both fun and profitable, McWilliams moved over to the Workshop and started to think about how to express herself in the industry.

“You’re meant to make games to express yourself,” said McWilliams. “It’s why you’re here, and I don’t mean here at GDC — I mean here on Earth.”

That’s her one reason to be a game developer — it’s her dream to make games, and during the panel she pledged to keep discrimination and negative treatment — from sources both within and without the industry — from keeping her from pursuing her dream.

Lauren Scott, a game designer and student at UC Santa Cruz, stepped up to share her vision for the industry. Scott claims she fell in love with games at an early age because she was made to feel welcome and empowered. Scott shared the story of how her father, a programmer who played games with his children, inserted a photograph of her into a PC game when she was 5 and made her feel as though it was possible for a young woman to be the hero of her own game.


“I want to be a part of helping other people realize the truth, the undeniable truth within themselves, that they can and do belong here.”
“I want to be a part of this industry that I have loved since I was a very little kid,” said Scott. “I want to be a part of helping other people realize the truth, the undeniable truth within themselves, that they can and do belong here.”

Scott is convinced that game makers are the renaissance people of our age. In her eyes, developers are contemporary polymaths who can combine elements of art, science, design and social sensitivity to create beautiful machines. But she took pains to remind the audience that it's not okay to abandon the industry -- veteran game makers, especially those who identify as women or members of minority groups, have an obligation to stay involved in the industry and share their wisdom.

Anna Kipnis, senior gameplay programmer at Double Fine, shared her childhood growing up in Kiev. Playing cards with her father piqued her curiosity for game design and the power of games to enrapture and unite players with their systems.

Kipnis was inspired when her childhood friends, playing a simple game she’d made up, started coming up with their own variants and new ways to play. To hear her tell it, playing and collaborating on games together made her feel as though she could lead her friends to explore new worlds together. Now, more than ever, women need to promote themselves as leaders.

“We need to show the industry that women are capable game creators known for masterworks in the games medium,” said Kipnis. She admitted that she hadn’t actually tried to create her own game until very recently, when she challenged herself to pitch a game, Dear Leader, as part of Double Fine’s most recent Amnesia Fortnight game jam.

Kipnis took pains to point out that female developers avoid leading games for the same reason male developers do — they aren't interested in taking on the responsibility of leading a project.

But we need more female developers to be recognized for their work, and that means more women need to be proactive about pitching and leading game projects. An easy way to encourage this, suggests Kipnis, is to foster a studio culture of collaboration, creativity and acceptance where everyone -- from the programmers to the administrative staff -- feels comfortable playing games and sharing their ideas with the team.

Doing so encourages everyone -- but especially women or anyone who might feel themselves unwelcome -- to do what matters most in this industry: make games.

"To my fellow female developers, I say let's continue the tradition of women game creators, and give young girls more names to think of as they grow into game developers," said Kipnis.

Colleen Macklin, an associate professor at Parsons The New School of Design, opened with a simple statement.

“My number one reason to be in this industry…is that I like to make new friends,” said Macklin, who went on to talk about how we can take steps to make it easier for more potential new friends to feel welcome in the industry.


"We're designers -- we're talking about systemic issues, and we design systems."
Macklin suggested that entrenched patterns of representation in the game industry have a chilling effect on diversity. She pointed out that the lack of women speakers at this year’s GDC — and the lack of female attendees in the GDC 2014 show floor footage that she left playing on a screen behind her — revealed those patterns and offered hints on how to break them.

"We're designers -- we're talking about systemic issues, and we design systems," exclaimed Macklin, who suggested that developers should look upon GDC -- and by extension, the game industry as a whole -- as a prototype in need of some serious polish.

Macklin went on to share suggestions for developers and industry members seeking to build a more diverse industry. She recommended that GDC organizers add more design talks from a more diverse group of speakers, and look to other events like GaymerX and IndieCade for ideas on how to improve the Advocacy track of GDC talks.

“You may not run a conference — most of you don’t — but you may run a company, and even if you don’t run anything, you should demand these things,” said Macklin. She encouraged developers to seek out new friends at the fringes of the industry, make industry events more welcoming, lower barriers to entry to encourage more people to apply and share their perspectives, and more.

“Let’s burn down this panel!” exclaimed Macklin. "Let's infiltrate the established pattern and change it. Let's start prototyping and making our field a place where we all want to be."

To close out the panel Deirdra Kiai, renaissance game maker and creator of the IGF Award-nominated

“Making games is easy. Belonging is hard.”
Dominique Pamplemousse in "It's All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!”, shared the story of how they came upon the name “Squinky” while playing The Secret of Monkey Island and discovered a piece of their identity in games.

But despite Kiai's devotion to game making, they found it difficult to fit in with the game development community.

“Making games is easy. Belonging is hard.” said Kiai, suggesting that no matter how draining and exhausting game design can be, the struggle to fit into the industry is even worse.

“If you are hot enough, you get to have your hard-earned accomplishment diminished,” said Kiai. “If you aren’t hot enough, well, you’re defective. Disgusting. Completely irrelevant.” It’s a heads-they-win, tails-you-lose scenario, according to Kiai.

“Games were never about me — they were always someone else’s story,” said Kiai. “I couldn't make games about myself, because I didn’t know who I was. How could I? I’d never seen myself anywhere, so I didn’t know I could be represented.”

Kiai said they felt forced to try and fit into the role of an angry, outspoken feminist because they didn’t know how else to express their opinions in an acceptable way. They found themselves exluded, pushed to the margins of their community, and confused about their identity -- until they tried to create a character in Fallen London, a browser-based RPG.

When Kiai found that choosing the third gender option — a person of mysterious gender — felt more comfortable than trying to identify with either a man or a woman, they found some degree of freedom from gender stereotypes in the design of a game. “I started to embrace the singular ‘they’," said Kiai. "Who cares if its grammatically incorrect?”

Kiai decided to express their frustrations with gender by making a game, Dominique Pamplemousse, and they want to see a game industry that encourages people to make things that are authentic, that feel true to their creator, that are weird.

Kiai’s passion for games was palpable. Their closing remarks, delivered at a pitch loud enough to echo out into the halls of the convention center, sparked a standing ovation from the crowd that lasted nearly a minute and brought the panel to a close.


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Comments


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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Rebecca Richards
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Fantastic, emotional, powerful panel. Deidra brought the house down. The group hug from the speakers at the end just underscored the power of their words.

Thanks to the writer of the piece for accepting Deidra's terminology. I had some great chats with them this weekend. I sincerely believe that games have the power to truly change - something I don't see in the rigid structures of Hollywood.

Juliette Dupre
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Thank you to these speakers for being so generous with their personal stories. It was incredibly inspiring and I was honored to be there to hear them.

Thank you to all the people in the audience with me who chose to recognize the relevance of these issues. I was thrilled to see men and women of all types of backgrounds. The games industry is ripe for positive change, and this panel did an amazing job of pushing that just a bit further along.


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