TIFF Nexus' recent Women in Film, Games and New Media day played host to a number of perspectives on the roles of women in media and the unique challenges they face. It was also the stage for the unveiling of the results of the latest incubator session from the Difference Engine Initiative, a project of Toronto's Hand Eye Society aimed at attracting more women from multiple disciplines to game development.
Gamasutra previously covered the launch of the initiative in some depth, and spoke to Metanet's Mare Sheppard, who along with indie culturist Jim Munroe, coordinates the incubators. Sheppard joined the lineup of speakers at TIFF Nexus (along with me -- I had the incredible honor of keynoting) to present the newest round of young women participating in the incubator. For some, it was their first experience with games.
"After working in the games industry for a number of years, we were dissatisfied with its current state, but believed in its future," began Metanet's Mare Sheppard.
"We seek to plant the seeds of change, and offer the creative and talented participants a rich environment in which to grow," she explained. The DEI aims to offer those new to development a "crash course" in design in addition to mentorship and a supportive environment.
The program has since played host to a number of sessions, and like the Artsy Games Incubator that preceded it, it was engineered as a program that could be run by anyone, the better for it to propagate and spread.
"This is just the beginning," she said. "The DEI is an ongoing process, and we hope to continue the program."
The two incubators the program has seen have yielded a number of major lessons from which those committed to game making can learn, she says. However, "this initiative alone is not going to change the problem of gender disparity in the games industry… progress is not predictable or inevitable."
The fruits of the program need attention, cultivation and time -- and even then, success may be fleeting. "But I believe it's important to try and keep trying, and hopefully it's a good start," she said.
Sheppard was also joined by Ubisoft's Jade Raymond, who moderated a panel featuring the incubator participants. Raymond expressed her admiration for the work of the DEI and the support of local organizations like TIFF and WIFT (Women in Film and Television Toronto). She opened the discussion by asking the participants about their games and the ideas that birthed their focus.
With Dame Game, Zoe Quinn was inspired by the stylistic experimentation of webcomics, and creating a playable one was her goal. "I also wanted to make a game about nerds, more or less -- not the 'sexy lady nerd' you may have seen in various media; I wanted to have no… kind of overly-nerdy women," she described. Quinn hopes to bring some of the comedy of her stand-up hobby into her project.
Katie Foster has a background in computer science as well as animation, with a degree and postgrad in the latter field. She came to Toronto to discover 3D animation and expand her skillset by trying out coding as well. Her ambition was to create a game that showcased her art talent while teaching her about coding. She developed The Disappearance of Emily Butler, a point-and-click adventure game set in Newfoundland, where she was born. Having never experienced a game that embraced Newfoundland's folklore and history drove her inspiration.
Hannah Epstein describes herself as "a profoundly angry and disillusioned person who's really interested in folklore." Her game The Immoral Ms. Conduct is set up to use YouTube as a platform, and reflects her academic interest in folklore. Her Choose Your Own Adventure-style game intends to examine the idea of individual "prisons," asking players yes or no questions and evolving based on their answers. She wanted it to be able to be modified by players who can create their own answers when they are dissatisfied with the linear options.
"I haven't seen many video games, personally, about women busting out of prison," observed Raymond.
Recent grad Sagan Yee of Sheridan's classical animation program developed Icarus. It's based on the Greek myth of a boy who flies too close to the sun. "The thing that always intrigued me about that story was what happened before all the action parts of that story," she says of what motivated her reimagining.
What if Icarus were a slacker frustrated with his inventor father? She experimented with a female protagonist, but found that the character worked better as male -- even though his design was based on how she visualized herself as a high school student, with plaid clothing and hair veiling her face.
Cecily Carver made Adeline's Elopement, what she calls "the Victorian game." As a self-described "English literature nerd" who gets together with her friends to watch Masterpiece Theater, she wanted to make a Victorian-themed game that would appeal to her friends and make them laugh. She'd been reading a book called "The Romance of the Forest." While she didn't especially enjoy the book, it featured a character named Adeline who uncovers a complicated plot - while fainting all the time and being abducted a lot.
She thought it'd be hilarious and interesting, on the topic of women in games, to have a female protagonist that was the opposite of what a game protagonist is "supposed to be." Inspired by Thief, one of her favorite games of the 90s, she wanted to recall that exploration and stealth gameplay -- "except Victorian." The elopement concept came out of another piece of literature containing a heroine named Adeline, whose "entire life goes to hell" for the sake of her marriage.
Alex Leitch is nothing short of infuriated by the frustration of biking in the city, so she developed Psychlepath, an incredibly hard video game that tasks players with navigating an average Toronto sidestreet without dying. "I wouldn't have made this game if I hadn't been in the hospital twice in three years as payment for trying to ride in the city of Toronto," she said angrily.
Raymond asked Yee and Carver to discuss their backgrounds in animation and how it affected their decision to try game development. "I think I saw animation more as a tool that would help me build the eventual product of games," Yee says. "I always had a sneaking desire to build a game; in animation school, I think about 90 percent of my peers were playing a game at some point or another… but that wasn't me. I didn't really identify as one of those people who gamed. I just thought it was an interesting medium... it was a challenge that I wanted to get through."
"One of the misconceptions around the DEI was that every one of us came to it as a blank slate, programming-wise," she added. "Prior to doing this, I had fooled myself into believing that I couldn't make a game, because I had this idea of coding and programming as [having] to memorize huge amounts of mathematical algorithms."
Carver, on the other hand, has a computer science degree and worked as a programmer for several years, mostly writing "really really boring" database applications for banks. "The interesting thing is that while I think that did help quite a bit when I was working on my first game, I had experience in how to think through the kinds of problems that come up when you're coding."
For her, the challenge was art, which she called "really intimidating and difficult... as a reminder that coding isn't the only skill that comes into play when you're making a game or trying to do something creative with technology. …Making game art, I found incredibly difficult: But if I can do it, so can you."
One theme the women discussed was the unique challenge of learning to collaborate in a group with other women. Girls that identify (or are identified by others) as geeky or experimental when young -- particularly amid the challenging social dynamics of high school -- may grow up with a distinct mistrust of other women, with whom it's common to feel out-of-place during those formative years.
Foster reported that a friend tried to discourage her from working closely with other women under the expectation that there would be competition and backstabbing, but instead what she found was a lot of support. "There was anger, but it was positive," she said of the group dynamic. "It was super supportive."
"As women in an industry that's dominated by males, it's important for us to feel supported and that we can achieve something." She emphasized.
Epstein said she aimed to be as angry as possible in the hopes of finding like-minded individuals. "I went to meetings every week hoping I could win… and for some reason, every time I went in with something, I was ready to have an edge, yet everybody was really warm and welcoming."
Raymond asked the panelists if the experience inspired them to work with other women. Leitch, who went to a girls' school, says the experience of DEI reminded her how great it is to work with other women. "The hard answer is how," she adds. "And that will be an interesting question to continue forward, because certainly all-girls' education can work."
Through her experience in games, Quinn was inspired to start her own female-focused organization, Dames Making Games, and her experience with DEI has shaped how she wants to move forward. "The sense of community within these six women… really helped kind of make it feel possible and more workable, especially with the mentoring." Dames Making Games now runs socials to invite women from experienced to curious about any aspect of gaming to network. Her upcoming "Jamuary" event will invite new members to mentor each other and make games with a less-structured, more do-it-yourself approach.
In closing, Raymond asked the panelists about what's next: Will they continue making games?
"I would like to see an all-girls game company come out of these sorts of things that does not necessarily emphasize the fact it is an all-girl game company," says Leitch. Carver said she would describe DEI As "life changing" and has gone on to make two small, simple and "characteristically ugly" games.
Yee is going to "take a break" for a little bit in order to spend a year teaching English to Japanese students, but called the DEI "an amazing, life-changing experience; I'm really glad there was this sort of infrastructure that… can sort of lead people who didn't know about [game development] previously to discover it for themselves."
Epstein is currently working on her first feature film : "I've found a platform and a community for a certain kind of expression that if I ever do come up with a good idea I can channel it into this world, now," she says of games.
Foster is enjoying the aftermath of her game's response and hopes to continue with its storyline. "I realized how easy it is and how accessible it is, and how much I really enjoy it… I definitely want to continue making games, especially this game; I want to continue along the storyline."
"It's absolutely changed my life as well," says Quinn, who makes games full-time now. "I went from not knowing what I was doing and doing random art disciplines to finally bringing them all together," she enthused. With the further opportunity to join the indie scene and welcome other women in, she finds herself in a strong community.