Monthly Archives: November 2012

#1ReasonWhy Post #2

Someone (FluxxDog) asked me, How does this attitude towards women get perpetuated in the first place.

I have talked about this at great length, in a bunch of different places, so here I will gather my thoughts on it.

 

First and foremost, the “boys club” is a cultural thing. Back when games went from being pen and paper and board to video, the people who knew how to program, the people who were into computers and the things they could do, were predominantly educated white males. Remember, we are talking about the 70s.  In the 70s, the civil rights movement was still fighting for rights. Women are STILL fighting for the right to birth control today. Those of us born in the 70s and 80s tend to view these things as “ancient” history. They are neither.

So, when you have people who are into this new fangled thing called a “computer” but most of those people are college students and graduates in engineering fields, which were pretty homogenous, you are going to end up with a noticeable lack of diversity.

Of course, computers, and thus video games, became virtually ubiquitous over the next 20 years. But take a look at the turning point of where games went from being a hobby thing to being a money thing. You have guys who are making games as a hobby, and “publishing” those games by copying the .exe to a floppy, putting the floppy in a ziplock baggy with a hand made label. When they realized they could make money from it, they shifted from making things just to goof off to making things that would sell. When your audience is a bunch of hobbyist computer nerds, you make games that appeal to hobbyist computer nerds.

Don’t discount the cultural pressures on the sexes at the time either. I am 100% certain if not for my older brother, I would never have gotten into games and nerdy things. Even in the 80s, girls were being pushed towards gender roles. I remember being told that playing games was a “waste of time” and I should learn to do something useful, like learn to sew. I didn’t want to sew, I wanted to play games. Lucky me, my mother let me. This was in the LATE 80s and early 90s. Seriously, we are NOT past cultural pressure into gender roles. Look at Lego and Lego Friends. It’s RIGHT THERE on your toy store shelf. Walk up the aisle between action figures and Barbie.

So what happened as games evolved from Pong to World of Warcraft? Well, guys who made games and wanted to make money made games for guys who were willing to spend their money on “frivolous” games. Remember, the cultural norm for women was to spend money on clothes, shoes, and jewelery. Oh man, I suddenly remember in HIGH SCHOOL (96-2000) being asked by someone why I always wore t-shirts and blue jeans, since I could clearly afford “better” clothes because I was always buying books and games. THAT WAS 13 YEARS AGO.

Games were a luxury item. Consoles, computers, all of that, were things people spent their “extra” money on. And women generally didn’t have discretionary funds to spend on “useless” things like games. (I remember reading just a few years ago that young women were finally considered a worthy market with lots of money for marketers.)

So guys, making the games, made the games for guys. So when women came in and wanted to play, they would play games that were directly targeted at men. The art styles, designs, and fantasies portrayed in the games were all directly targeted at the people who were going to spend money on it. So why would a woman, who could care less about blowing shit up, want to spend the hard earned money she had on that kind of game? Even series like King’s Quest, designed by a woman, didn’t get female protagonists until the FOURTH one in the series. The second game, and the first game I remember playing, was all about finding your princess.

This created what designers call a negative feedback loop. Guys make game for guys, so only guys like games, so games only get made for those same guys. If you tried to break out of the mold, your game company likely went under. Even worse, these early games sold like crazy. Teams were tiny, and the development costs were low, so 4 people working out of a garage could make a game that sold 50k copies fairly easily. And there wasn’t marketing costs, publishing costs, etc etc, so most of the money made was profit. And what do people do when they suddenly get a ton of money? They go crazy. (Sex, drugs, and rock and roll!)

So you have this entire industry based on this history of being a boys club. Which means, even at the time, when women tried to push in they were met with rampant sexism. Only at the time, it was impossible to do anything about it. High profile sexual harassment lawsuits really hadn’t made companies afraid of them, and so women weren’t as protected. They were over looked, ignored, and treated like eye candy. So, of course, women didn’t want to get into that.

Again, cultural expectations are heavily at fault here. Even today, even in 2012, when I had my son, there were WOMEN who were appalled I was putting him in daycare to go back to work. Especially since my “work” was “playing video games.” (Oh and don’t even get me started on the whole “video games are a waste of time/only for kids” crap.) 2012. That’s right. How horrible was I for making video games more important than my son? If I am getting that now, how was it for women 20 years ago? *shudder*

The feedback loop kept going, and got the industry in a nice cozy rut. People don’t LIKE breaking out of their comfort zones. As it took more people to make a game, and cost more money, they started to not like taking risks either. Why take a risk and possibly not get your money back when you can make the same old stale game you have made 10 times knowing it will sell at least enough copies to get you your money back?

There are a ton of small things that all add up to this thought that it is better to hire men than women. If it’s all men, no worries about maternity leave or babies. If it’s all men, no sexual harassment lawsuits. If it’s all men, at least we will all agree on the design goals. If it’s all men, we don’t have to behave and this can be like our frat house from college, man weren’t those the good old days?

Sadly, it’s just true that for people who enjoy the kinds of things that lead to one enjoying games, that they will end up being more comfortable with people LIKE themselves. So for the super nerdy programmer who has spent a great deal of time only around other super nerdy programmers, it can be very difficult to overcome the social anxiety of dealing with people who aren’t like them. So when that guy is in the position to hire… he is going to hire someone he likes.

The problem just compounds on itself. Because the bigger the industry got, the bigger the money got, the bigger the boys club got. Games like Duke Nukem attracted a certain demographic of guys. Who then went, DUDE this is awesome. Then they looked at the frat house culture of the studio that made that game and went, HOLY CRAP I WANT TO DO THAT AND GET PAID. Women looked at it, and went, UGH. And walked on. Even further, the people who had the money to find games were generally rich, old, white males. They didn’t trust female lead startups. So they wouldn’t fund them. So they would fail. And then the funders would say, “See, I told you it wasn’t a good investment. I told you they would fail.” It’s a self fulfilling prophecy.

But the culture slowly became more inclusive. Games got made that weren’t wildly offensive. Games got made that weren’t exclusionary. And Nintendo went, hey guys, let’s make games that *everyone* can play. Not only that, let’s make it EASY for everyone to play. Over time the number of women playing games increased. It’s now around 40%.  The number of women making games increased too! It’s up to 12%.

That number seems low right? It’s because the cultures of studios are affected by the personalities of the people who form them. By the collective personalities of the people who work there. If you have a Dudebro form a studio and hire a bunch of Dudebros… guess who is going to feel wildly uncomfortable, unwanted, and disrespected? The industry is still growing. I would say we are just now hitting the early 20s. Games, generally, are becoming more inclusive and becoming more artistic. But you still have people who cling to the old ways and thoughts.

The problem gets perpetuated by the fact no one wants to speak up. Even through the whole 1reasonwhy women STILL weren’t posting some things. They weren’t naming names. They weren’t naming companies. They weren’t naming games. Because it’s SUCH a small industry. Everyone simply knows everyone and chances are, you are going to work with people time and time again. Speaking up, causing a fuss, and shaming men for their treatment of women isn’t going to make it better, it’s going to get you fired, unable to get a job, and make you a target for even worse aggression or treatment. Look at what happened to Jennifer Helfer. Look at what happened to Anita Sarkeesian because she wanted to talk about tropes vs. women in games. Not the gaming community or developers, just within the games themselves. And you would think she suggested that all gamers eat babies, kittens, and puppies from the way people reacted.

Even if you are comfortable speaking up, even if you are brave, even if you are in a safe place, sometimes the shock is just too much. I was sitting in a meeting, with designers, producers, and publishing execs, when one of them made an extremely sexist comment. Not at me, but just in general. I looked at him in shock. I was so stunned someone would feel that way, much less say it out loud with a woman IN THE ROOM, I was literally speechless. I probably looked like a complete idiot for the rest of the meeting staring at him with my mouth half open in shock. Would you believe I was praised later for not speaking up and “causing a scene”? I pointedly informed the person that if I had been able to form words, I would have.

But nothing was said. He wasn’t told how inappropriate and wrong what he did was. So he has no reason to believe he shouldn’t do it again. People don’t say anything. I have had men tell me things said to me upset them, but when I am not around, many of them won’t speak up. People are also generally taught as children to play nice, don’t make waves, and just go with the flow. This leads to everyone being aware of the problem, but no one wants to talk about it. They hope if they ignore it, it will go away.

We can’t just ignore it. We have to confront it. We have to be willing to risk everything in the hope of making a change. Simply asking someone to stop. Simply saying “That’s not cool.” Being willing to say, “I would rather make indie games and eat ramen than work with someone who is going to treat me like crap. ”

By staying silent, by simply accepting the status quo, we are perpetuating the problem. We have to be willing to help and support each other. I commented that one of the most important things is knowing which studios are good ones. When looking for a job, look at these places. Toys for Bob, Double Fine, Telltale, 2k Marin… All great places to work, that are woman friendly, all right here where I live (all of which I can personally vouch for). Make the list of good and bad places. Be aware of the good people and good leads, then follow them. When these places make great games (and they have and will again) and people ask why, explain that it is the culture and awesome people working there. The rest of the industry will figure it out.

#1ReasonWhy

Monday, November 26th, a Twitter hashtag popped up on my feed. I normally ignore hashtags, but this one was suddenly being spammed by 4-5 people I follow, all of whom were game developers I followed. Even more noticeable, all were women. I discovered that someone, while having a conversation about sexism in the board game (pen and paper?) industry had started the hashtag as a way of connecting the various discussions she was having. Someone saw that she was giving reasons why it sucked to work in her male dominated field. The someone is a game developer, and as a female, could relate. So she started throwing her reasons into the ring as well.

36 hours later, there have been THOUSANDS of tweets, numerous blog posts, even a dozen or so game industry news posts, and yet another mentors list started up. All focused on ripping off the bandaid that has been precariously placed over the festering wound that is sexism in the video game industry.

I must say, I leapt RIGHT into it. Didn’t stop to think, and didn’t stop to worry, I jumped right in and shouted along with the rest. It never occurred to me that I might get in trouble with my work, despite the fact that it is exceptionally easy to figure out where and who I work for, mostly because, everything I would tweet about, doesn’t happen at my current job. Some women kept silent because the things they would say DO still happen at their jobs.

Really early in the discussion, a friend of mine, (white male developer) responded that it seemed like things were blown out of proportion and those sexist things didn’t happen anymore. Three hours later, he was tweeting that he was so sorry he had no idea, because the flood of women tweeting had grown so quickly and there were so many stories. Not stories of “heard from a friend” but each one a personal tale of things that have happened. Not ancient history, but RECENT history. GDC 2012 recent. This fall recent.

I wanted to recount some of my tweets here and then talk about what this all meant to me.

#1Reasonwhy

  • is that at companies you might have to sign a paper saying you won’t sue for Sexual Harassment, because their games are “mature”.
  • Because when you say something is inappropriate you are told you are being “too sensitive”.
  • because when a panel at PAX is about women in games, it’s about girlfriends who play games, not women making them.
  • because if I do an interview about being a game designer, everyone talks about how I look, instead of what I said.
  • is because at some companies, you have to worry about co-workers becoming overly attached, and getting fired because of it.
  • because old school devs/publishers still believe “shrink it and pink it” is how you target women.
  • because if I say something should be removed from a game because it’s offensive, I have to defend my position.
  • because during interviews it’s implied I will leave when I have kids.
  • is because parents expect boys to “goof off” playing games, but girls should do more “important” things like learn to cook.
  • I had a guy at GDC ask me if I was lost.
  • because when I play games, and guys find out I am a girl, they assume I am a lying guy, or just there for attention.
  • because when I wanted to play D&D as a kid, I was “weird”. (I did anyway.)
  • because when I say I am a gamer, people tell me “Farmville” doesn’t count. (I then link my WoW armory.)
  • is because if I bring up gender and sexism, I am assumed to be a man hater.
  • is because of things like the Frag Dolls, where guys only want women gamers included if they are “hot”. And that’s accepted.
  • because I once had an artist bait me by asking how he was supposed to make a character female without boobs or a bow.

At the time (really early in the trend) I thought I was listing off terrible things that people would completely disbelieve. Over the course of the night, I learned that my experiences, while bad, are no where NEAR the terrible some women have had to deal with. Not only that, but I was in such numerous company, that my tweets were lost in the sea of tweets that were nearly identical.

I often point to the Guildhall as the place that gave me all the tools to do what I needed in the video game industry and taught me what I needed to know to succeed. That is no less true when talking about sexism and how I should expect to be treated in the game industry.

While at the Guildhall, we had to work on team projects. During one such project the TortoiseSVN servers went out (our source control) and we had to pass the “latest” version of the game around on a thumb drive. One of the programmers offered up his thumb drive as it was big enough. When I popped the drive into my computer to grab the latest version, I discovered why guys *hate* using icons on Windows folders. There right next to our game file was a picture of a woman in a sexual situation. Oh yeah. That’s *exactly* what I wanted to see sitting in a ROOM FULL OF GUYS. Later, on this same project, a programmer put in placeholder art. Not that abnormal. The art was of a young (minor) girl pulling down her underwear with her butt towards the camera. All the guys on the team thought it was hilarious. Me, not so much. I ignored it, until I realized that it got turned in for a MILESTONE that way. WTH? Here was something, in a GRADUATE SCHOOL setting, that was going to have MY NAME on it, that effectively had a picture bordering on child porn! I was furious. So I went to the professor in charge of our team. Care to guess what happened? Absolutely nothing. I was told I was being too sensitive and that I better get used to it, because this was going to happen in the industry. This would lead to the LIST. The LIST is a list of guys in the industry I categorically refuse to work with. I would rather leave and make indie games as a starving artist than work with these men. (To be fair, a woman could be added to the LIST, but it hasn’t happened yet.)

A few terms later, I had my second experience with sexism at the Guildhall. The Guildhall at the time was a super intense program. You didn’t have time for an outside life, so you got pretty close to all your classmates. (Yep, I even ended up dating and marrying one of them.) One weekend we had a party, and I wore a tank top. Apparently, it was a bit tight. I had lost alot of weight at the Guildhall, so I was pretty happy with the way I looked and finally felt confidant enough to wear something that wasn’t two sizes too big. I later find out from a friend that one of the other guys at the school walked into my team’s room the next week and proceeded to start making comments about my shirt. He said things to the effect of that I “clearly wasn’t getting satisfied” and if I needed any help he was “more than willing to step up”. Lucky for me, one of the guys on the team (a sportsman type so he was quite large compared to all the other guys) stepped up and threw him out. (To this day, one of my favorite people.) Add another guy to the LIST.

When I left the Guildhall I started trying to get interviews everywhere. One of the first things I was told was “Oh it’s great, you’re a girl! You will get interviews JUST because they never see girls.” I really didn’t like the implication. Even further it was insinuated that I would likely get job offers *just* because I was female. I didn’t want job offers because I was female. I wanted job offers because I was AWESOME.

Here are some other things that happened, vagued up and out of chronological order. I got an email asking me about doing an interview one time, and the person on the other end thought it would be great to point out it had to be specially scheduled because they couldn’t take me to the normal interview place, a strip club. While on the subject of strip clubs, at GDC one year, I was standing in a group of people. We were all invited to an after party (omg awesome!) and then the person doing the inviting, stopped, looked at me, frowned and made a point of UN-inviting me. “You won’t like it, there will be strippers there.” (Ugh.)

As a female, playing and making games, guys tend to latch on. They have all had experiences with girlfriends who didn’t get gaming or even things like playing WoW. I already do. This makes it very easy for them to relate to me without having to leave their comfort zone. I expected to have guys ask me out or hit on me. What I didn’t expect was employers telling me to “be careful” in how I turn them down. One lead even went so far as to indicate that if I offended any of his guys when I turned them down, I would likely need to “update my resume”. I have had to learn to always bring up my husband in the first interaction at interviews and when meeting new people.

Oh interviews… what a tangled mess. Legally potential employers are not allowed to ask your marital status, age, or child plans. I have had an interview where the guy interviewing me asked if I had any questions about the company’s maternity policy at the end of the interview. When I indicated that I was not really worried about it, he smiled, laughed and said “Oh good. We don’t like hiring women about to become moms, they never come back from maternity leave.” Well, at least I know how you feel. I have interviewers who will make sure to call out during the interview that they work on “mature” games and that means I might see pictures of naked women or things that are “nsfw” and I need to be okay with that otherwise I can just leave now. One interviewer responded with relief when he found out I was married, as it meant I was “unlikely” to cause problems on the team.

Once you get past interviews, there are the inevitable HR interviews where you get to hear such lovely things as “What counts as harassment”, “How to deal with guys who ask you out”, and the ever lovely “You work in the game industry huh? That’s pretty brave. I guess you are used to this now.” Like the fact that it is prevalent makes it okay. Like because I knew it was like this when I got in, that means I just have to deal with it.

I also want to really point out, companies are not afraid of screwing women over as much as men. There is a weird double standard. I got paid HALF of what my male counter part did at a studio once. Why? Because I was hired on a temp basis, then when I wasn’t temp anymore, they didn’t have the money to pay me what I deserved. Lovely. I was also once informed, to my face, that a position I was promised, wasn’t being offered to me, because they needed it to offer to a guy they were trying to recruit. They had to offer him that position and not mine, because “he had a family to support” and needed a full time gig. Apparently I didn’t. Like I didn’t have student loans or rent to pay.

On the subject of looks… I am not “hot”. I am a overweight by at least 20 lbs. But I do have red hair (point in my favor), though I always wear t-shirts and blue jeans. Specifically MENS t-shirts. Why? Because when I branched out and wore baby doll shirts and fitted t-shirts, I got hit on, told I was being inappropriate, and actually had guys say, to my face, things about my breast size. Yay. Oh and what’s on the shirt matters too. I wore a Penny Arcade shirt that says “I’d tap that.” with a Magic the Gathering tap symbol on it. I was pulled aside, talked to about my “inappropriateness” and forced to change. All the while guys were in the office, ON THE SAME DAY wearing “Rogues do it from behind” and “How big is your sack?” complete with WoW bags on it, t-shirts. I did an interview about breaking into games, what a designer does, and what it’s like being a girl in games. It was put on YouTube. Every female commentor talked about my stories and asked questions. Every male commentor talked about my looks and the face that I was wearing a Team Fortress 2 shirt. They were not complementary on my looks, unless they liked redhair, then they were WILDLY sexual and inappropriate. I wore out YouTube’s report button that day.

The worst part about the whole looks thing is that it leads to situations where, I as a woman, am uncomfortable looking at women who have been put on display for the sole purpose of sex appeal. Ie – Booth Babes. Penny Arcade does alot of things wrong, but this one, this one they got RIGHT. But if I complain about the poor woman shoved into the skin tight latex outfit, I am told I am just “jealous” because I am ugly. Yeah that’s it. It has nothing to do at all with the fact that I am here to work, not have sex.

Oh and don’t even get me started on Fat, Ugly, or Slutty. That’s a whole other animal in gamer culture that needs to be exorcised and banished.

One year at PAX they had the Frag Dolls on a panel talking about Women in Games. I took it to be a “women making games” which yeah, my bad, but even a “women playing games” would have been better than it turning into the Frag Dolls preening on stage in skimpy outfits, talking about how they got paid to learn to play the games they play, and how they love beating guys. Oy vey. So much wrong I couldn’t even sit through it. I wouldn’t care about the skimpy outfits if there had even been one doll who was over 130lbs. Or if the implication that the majority of them were hired THEN trained to play video games. Or if I hadn’t realized that the point wasn’t to appeal to women who played games but rather to appeal to MEN who played games by creating a false image of super hot gamer girls who just want to find a nice nerdy guy to play games with. To this day I can’t hear or see them without feeling my stomach churn.

When talking games with guys, it gets really offensive. And sadly, they have NO IDEA. I have a Nintendo bag I use as a purse. I have had male gamers ask me, while POINTING AT IT “Oh, do you play video games?” No, I just like the yellow stars… WTH?!? Or when I go into a new Gamestop or my local one gets a new employee, and I walk in, the guys working there always flock to me, and ask if I need help. When I say no, they hover. Then comment on everything I look at. (Although, I must admit to a sense of great pleasure when these unknowing men find out I make games, and the looks on their faces… it’s priceless.) Fortunately I have managed to break a few Gamestop employees of this habit by informing them that not only do I know games, but I make them as well. They tend to remember that.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I talk to a guy about playing games and they automatically assume I mean Farmville or Bejeweled. (Although, let’s be fair, some of those Farmville players are HARDCORE.) I roll my eyes and wait for the conversation to get interesting before pointing out that yeah, I played x, y, and z games. I beat the first two and hated the third. Oh, why yes, I DO play WoW. What level is my character? haha, silly boy… I have ONE OF EACH CLASS AT 85!* (*except warriors, and she is 80 because… god they are boring to play.) Not only that I am top DPS and occasionally heal in my raiding guild. (Again, the faces are PRICELESS.) I have video games from the PS1 era. I beat Suikoden WITH ALL THE STARS. Legend of Zelda – Check. Ocarina of Time? – Check. Baldur’s Gate? KotoR? Morrowind? Castlevania? Eternal Darkness? Heroes of Might and Magic? All check. (Oh and I could go ON.) Don’t compare gaming pedigrees with me. I got sent home with a note from school because I insisted Xyzzy was a word thanks to Zork. My FIRST MEMORY is of the end of King’s Quest 2. Oh and here’s a comic, that really illustrates this point.

Really oddly, some guys in the game industry seem to get really defensive over NOTHING. I was once asked which of 4 female characters I liked. I assumed that the guy doing the asking really wanted my opinion, and asked because we were attempting to target children aged 10-12 of both sexes. I looked at the four character designs, admitted that they were all pretty good, but this one, this one was the best. I pointed the one out. The girl in the drawing was standing up straight, with her shoulders squared, in a very heroic stance, and appeared to be about 12. Her hair was long, and in a ponytail. She looked like a strong interesting girl. Boom. The artist pointed at another one and said it was his favorite. The character was quite a bit younger appearing, around 7 or so. She had her finger in her mouth, her head tucked shyly, one foot turned with her toes dug into the ground, and pig tails, with big ass bows. She was looking coyly up at the viewer, with her body turned slightly to the side. It was by far the worst of the 4 sketches. I pointed out the character was too young, and the bows were a big turn off (not even mentioning the annoyance of her super shy stance). He actually said to me that he knew better and he knew girls loved bows. It took ALL MY STRENGTH not to point out that ONE of us HAD BEEN a 12 year old girl (and actually much more recently), MAYBE we should listen to her input. It was at this point I realized, he didn’t want my input. He wanted to needle me. He wanted to “push that button” and see how I would react. Not even.

Gamers also tend to assume that “feminist” is a bad word. Feminists hate men. I am a feminist. I don’t hate men. In fact, I know a metric TON of wonderful, intelligent, fascinating, and amazing gamers who are men. I married one of them. What I want, isn’t games made for women only, that’s just as bad as games made for men only! I want GOOD GAMES that do not alienate me as a woman and player. That’s it. That’s all I want. I want my opinions and input listened to when working on a team. I don’t want to be ignored because I am a girl. I don’t want my ideas invalidated because I am not the target audience. I don’t want to have to play a male.

The more I read the twitter posts, the sicker I felt. Also, let me just make one really important statement.

IF ANYONE TOUCHES YOU INAPPROPRIATELY CALL THE COPS. DO NOT TAKE IT. CALL THE COPS IMMEDIATELY. Okay? Good.

Really early, while still at the Guildhall, I got to meet Brenda Braithwaite. (Now Brenda Romero.) I have followed her work, mostly because, HEY LADY DESIGNER, there aren’t many of them and I wanted to learn from her. I couldn’t wait to see her tweets and she did not disappoint. The one I was really waiting for was this. It is brought up all the time that women aren’t very visible in the industry. NOPE. AND THEY AREN’T GOING TO BE UNTIL YOU STOP REFERRING TO THEM ONLY IN RELATION TO THEIR HUSBANDS. No offense to Romero, but of the two, she has the better portfolio. Why is it a woman with DECADES of experience is so instantly linked to a guy that she just recently (this year) married? Should I expect this? I married a programmer. Hell, he even has a twin brother who is also a game programmer. There are Pittmans ALL over the place in the industry. Should I expect to always be linked to them? Even though it’s arguable that my most popular game has done better than my husband’s most popular game?

I began to feel really really lucky. Yeah, I have had some bad experiences, but I wasn’t afraid to talk about them, like some women. I have a LIST of guys I will never work with, but I haven’t had to leave a position yet. And my current job, in 2 years I have had ONE moment that could even make it into this conversation and it was a perfect example of how things should go. There was a line in the dialog that really smacked of casual sexism. I bought it up with the writer that it needed to be removed. It was. Bam. Later, talking to someone about how nice it was, they were confused as to why the line needed to be removed. “But, it’s being complementary?” As if boiling down a woman’s value to a numerical value was okay, as long as the number was high. Once I made that statement, the awareness washed over his face, he looked a bit shamed, and that was the end of it. In one moment, I spoke up, and I know for a fact, I made my game better. This seems like a good time to say, hey guys I have worked with that don’t cause all this… thanks. Thanks for accepting when I say something isn’t cool, you stop. When I say something needs to be cut or adjust to keep from alienating women, you accept that I might be right and we work together to adjust. Thanks for 90% of the time making it a non-issue. (Does anyone else find it ironic that my most positive experience in the Industry is at an Activision studio? Activision gets alot of wildly undeserved crap. I love working for them and I would recommend them as an employer to anyone. Class A company, all around.) Thanks to my lead, for when I told him I was pregnant, and expecting right before we were supposed to ship, his only response was “Oh that’s great! Congratulations! (I will admit, I didn’t expect that. My maternity leave went so smoothly. I had such fears and worried about it. But not only did my company completely rock through my pregnancy in supporting me, but also made my transition back so seamless it was surreal.)

As a side note, I wonder how many other women have noticed that the presence of a woman on the team tends to reign in a large amount of this without even trying? I heard about a studio’s culture before starting, then once I did, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. A lead actually made the comment that it seemed like some of the guys were too embarrassed to make their inappropriate suggestions and comments when I was there. My existence cleaned up the locker room.

The whole thread of tweets started to get really depressing. So many women, with so many of the same issues and problems. Then so many men, both non-empathetic and trolls, showing up to make comments or attacks. I finally started having to block people on Twitter. There were good tweets too. Good things came from this. Awareness, another mentor list, and other hashtags that detail all the awesome things in the industry. But at the end of the say, even when we got gaming press, we also got tons of people who were simply unable to understand WHY this was such a big issue. “The majority of gamers are men, so all games should be for men.” “Why don’t you just go make your own games?” “Why not just get another job?” “I have never seen it.” I can’t even respond to these, because I know, regardless of how logical or founded my argument is, they are looking at it through their male lens, from a place of privilege. Unless they take the time to try to understand what it is like in my spot, my shoes, my body, they will never understand. Thank god for all the male game developers I know who took that time. Who made the effort to break out of their comfort zone. Who are so much better than the middle ground. Huzzah.

Here we are, 4000 words later. Sexism is alive and well in the game industry. Is it getting better? God yes. May I introduce you to Chell and Glados? Have you seen the Transmogrification feature in WoW that lets you get rid of or create skimpy outfits? Have you played Skyrim and seen that there is NO DIFFERENCE between men and women protagonists? Have you played XCOM and seen both male and female NPCs in positions of power? (Your squaddies are even allowed to be women!) Have you played Dishonored where men and women are treated fairly in the world and the leader is an Empress? Did you see Mirror’s Edge? Did you notice the new Lara is actually mostly covered (though we still need to work on that whole sexual assault fiasco) by logical clothing? (Not a game, but MAN, did you SEE BRAVE?!?! Yay Pixar!) I have worked at a company for two years and have gotten used to not having to deal with these problems. I have met men in the industry who are just as feminist as I am. It IS getting better. We aren’t there yet. But every year, we get closer to games that appeal to everyone, and we get closer to having games that women can love and relate to. And every time a game is released that appeals to all audiences, not just WASPs, we are including more fascinating people. People who will bring interesting ideas. People who will make our games EVEN BETTER. At the end of the day, that’s my goal. To make the BEST game possible. I don’t care where an idea comes from, if it makes my game better, GOOD. I am not leaving. I love my job, and even with all the grime, I am not going anywhere. I have made games I want to play and I intend to do that until they nail shut my coffin.

Thank you as well to all the amazing women who took the time to share their stories and experiences. Who didn’t keep silent. Who didn’t ignore the situation for fear of reprisal or attacks. Huzzah.

I will leave with these two tweets I made before the #1reasontobe hashtag got started.

#1reasonwhy you should be a girl designer anyway? Because every time you speak up and stop unintentional sexism, you MADE A GAME BETTER.

#1reasonwhy shows it is important to work with people you like more than on a game you like. You can survive bad games with the right peeps.

The Secret World – It’s all true…

“It’s an MMO, set in the Modern world. Conspiracies like the Illuminati and stuff, it’s all true. And the Secret World is spilling out into the real world. That’s where the player exists.”

That was the first description I heard of the Secret World. It was at least 3 years before the game came out. I was interested.

“It’s like Lovecraft, Poe, and Stephen King had a love child, and they made a game about it.”

OMG, this game is going to be awesome. I started to follow the game voraciously. Every tidbit. Every video. Every screenshot.

When the game finally launched in June, I had already made my pre-order of a lifetime sub. I not only wanted to play this game as much as I could, but also wanted to support it as fully as possible.

The intro tutorial quest was very… odd? Discouraging? Combat felt odd to me, and I really didn’t like the aggro mechanics. But I persisted.

And boy was I rewarded. If you do nothing else, get Secret World and play through Kingsmouth. It’s the first “zone” of the game.

Kingsmouth is a small coastal town that feels very New England. There are mines, junkyards, the shipyard, the old forest, and even a small municipal airport. The first thing that really struck me about the town, just on the surface, was how well a “real world” location actually felt to run through. As someone who started playing WoW when ground mounts weren’t available until level 40, I am well aware of what it feels like to run through MMO games. The town made sense, and the more I moved through it, the better I understood it. Normally I am one of the first ones to call games out for being “jogging simulators” where you are forced to backtrack over and over again. It took me about 4 hours to realize I had run back and forth across this small town at least a dozen times, and it STILL didn’t feel old. It just felt good moving through the world, jumping over trashcans, fences, and barricades.

Then I found it. The best quest ever put in an MMO. Funcom wanted to make Secret World different. They wanted it to be unique. And they succeeded 100%. The quests in Secret World are broken down into Main Story Missions, Action Missions, Investigation Missions, and Side Missions. Main Story are obviously varied missions that move you through the game’s main plot. This actually works quite well for keeping a coherent lore thread. Action Missions usually involve alot of killing. That’s fine, although I will get back to combat in a bit. Side Missions are pretty much fedex or fetch quests, nothing really standout. Investigation missions are what makes this game so.much.better. than all the rest.

The Secret World comes with a Google browser built into the game. Why does it need it? Well obviously, they didn’t want people alt tabbing while doing investigation missions. The Kingsmouth Code was the first quest where I really began to understand what Funcom had done. Most games, when presenting the player with a puzzle, include the answer in the game. In most modern games, the answer is 2 feet from the player at all times, outlined in yellow, and so simple even a 10 year old can get it. The dumbing down of games is a holy war I don’t want to get into, but regardless, Myst wouldn’t make it today, purely based on the insanity of the puzzles. Secret World went the complete opposite direction. Not only was the answer not in the game, but they actively expect you to use Google. (Best part, one of the NPCs responds to you and says “I don’t know! Google it!”) You have to pay attention to the most minute of details in the world. They will give you hints that really only get you about halfway there. Don’t know Latin? Better just keep a Google Translate tab open.

At one point in the quest you are given this clue: “Time is the province of Kings and Gods. The hands of time point to truths written by kings in the words of God. The path is open to the enlightened.” That’s it. I immediately looked around for the clock. Sure enough, there’s a clock with the time set at 10:10. I am a bit sad to say that it took me another 20+ minutes to figure out the next part. Did you already? Words of God. The Bible. Kings 10:10. Of course, this verse talks about a woman giving talents to King Solomon… How does that apply? It just gets more convoluted from there. In the end, the entire quest chain took me about 2 and 1/2 hours. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Seriously though, Kingsmouth Code (and by virtue it’s extension, Digging Deeper) are amazing quests. Almost worth it alone, if you can get the game for $20 or so. The other investigation quests are just as fiddly, deeper, and mind bogglingly obscure. (Do you know who composed the Four Seasons? Cause if so, you are going to do better than most.) The best part is, unlike games like Myst, where the puzzles are just obscure, the investigation missions in Secret World are all based on fiddly niche knowledge. Do you know where old churches list the hymns you will sing that Sunday? Do you know how to translate Morse code? Do you know how to dig into a company’s website to find info on their employees? When you know the answer, you quite possibly feel like the smartest person in the world. When it takes you three hours to figure something minor out, you feel like the stupidest person in the world. And it’s ALL AMAZING.

The game holds up through the second zone, the Savage Coast, but after that it starts to go downhill. The Faction Missions you get every so occasionally are superb and well worth the time, but once I hit Blue Mountain, it was like smashing into a wall. Which brings me to my big complaint.

Combat and the over abundance of choice. In Secret World you don’t pick a class. You pick a weapon. You earn AP points, which you can then spend to get skills in any weapon you want. There are 9 possible paths right from the beginning. I picked Blood, as it appealed most to my Warlockian nature. Turns out, you can’t solo as Blood. In fact, you really can’t do anything as *just* Blood. So I had to go back and pick up another weapon. So I snagged Shotguns (seems like a solid choice yeah? Zombies + Shotguns == always fun!). Only shotguns, being short range, really didn’t fit in well with my ranged magic. So then I switched to Blades. How? Well, in Secret World, you can’t respec, you just need to earn more AP. So they let you redo quests you have already done, and you get the same reward. I just had to go back and re-grind Kingsmouth’s quests until I could level my Blades skill up to match the monsters in the area I was fighting. The thing is… as much as I loved doing the Investigation Quests, they weren’t the quests you could re-do. It’s the Action ones… which require you to kill things… which I was having trouble doing… which is why I picked up a new weapon… which I couldn’t use effectively because I didn’t have the AP… that I needed from the Action Missions. Oh dear. For you WoW players out there, imagine getting to level 50, as a priest, realizing you really want to be a Shadow Priest instead of leveling Holy, and instead of just respecing and changing some gear, you have to go back to Westfall and relevel from 10 to 50 to gain access to your Shadow Spec. Seemed like a great idea on the surface. Fails in reality.

Once I got my blades up to skill level, I noticed something very disheartening. I was mowing through enemies like one of those oversized lawn tractors. Blades was *significantly* more powerful than Blood or Shotguns. Enemies I barely beat by the skin of my teeth before were dying from a single slice of my katana.

I never really appreciated the balance that goes into WoW class design. Yeah, I can argue that my warlock does twice the work of mages for half the dps, but in the end, I rarely feel as if I am just completely playing a wasted class. I felt that way with Blood vs Blades. The options seemed so numerous at character creation, but in reality they were few, you were just very likely to pick the wrong choice.

I am currently at the Egypt zones (having a child really cuts into the gaming time), and starting into them, but I can already tell the slow degrade of polish through the second two Solomon Islands zones is going to continue through the game. It’s very clear they worked very hard to nail the first zone, Kingsmouth, and as a result the other areas did not receive as much love. The Faction missions, which are scattered based on how much overall experience you have earned are clearly in the Kingsmouth polish category and do some really amazing things. (The first one sends all three factions to the same location, but each tells a different side of the story. And each are scary on Silent Hill levels.)

The Secret World doesn’t hold your hand. The community tools like Wowhead and Wowinsider don’t exist. Figuring out powerful solo specs requires a great deal of work and number crunching, as opposed to just stopping by Elitist Jerks. It’s a game that makes you work for it. In some ways that’s good. In others, it makes you realize how much WoW has spoiled us as gamers (I am looking at you Random Dungeon Finder). It makes me realize that any MMO that wants to compete with WoW can’t compete with WoW at launch, they have to compete with WoW as of today (or rather the day the competing game wants to launch). And that is an exceptionally tall order.

On the up side, it costs me nothing to take long breaks between playing. There have been small content patches, with bug fixes and new quests, every month. The game will keep getting better, and I will keep coming back. The Secret World is just as engrossing and enthralling as I had hoped. It just doesn’t feel like an MMO. It feels like a single player game. The social aspects weren’t vital to the game. (In fact some of the missions required solo instances and thus actively prohibited group play.) I can’t wait to see where they take it. I can’t wait to see plot threads picked back up and extended. And I can’t wait for more Investigation Missions.

Secret World is one of my games of the year and very much worth the initial investment, provided you can give it the time to play through Kingsmouth during your free month. Watch for sales on Amazon or Steam, and pick it up for under $30. The first zone is worth that much.

Game of the Year

Whew, has 2012 been a good year for games.

I made a joke that Dishonored was my game of the year, that wasn’t worked on by a Pittman. (There were two games released in 2012 that had Pittman input.)

Then I realized, that’s actually a really good list to make. My games of the year:

 

Contenders:

XCOM Enemy Unknown – Turn based strategy

Dishonored – First Person Sneaky

Diablo 3 – Hack and Loot

The Secret World – Lovecraftian MMO

Borderlands 2 – Shoot and Loot

Skylanders Giants – Collect and Loot

Mists of Pandaria – WoW Expac

*Skyrim – 2011 MSRPG (Massively Single player RPG)

 

At least for me, these were the big games I played in 2012. There a about a dozen more I bought and simply didn’t have time to play.

I can immediately cut Diablo 3 (see my Random rants) and Mists of Pandaria. I love MoP. I think it is my second favorite WoW expansion. BUT. Despite the fact that it does radical things, I play that game more than any other, and it is super fun, it’s just secondary to the other games on the list.

I cut Giants because despite the fact that I really do believe it is one of the most amazing games of the year, it is *my* game, so that’s unfair.

I cut Borderlands 2 because despite it being my brother in law’s game, it too is very random like Diablo. It also has some pretty heavy design flaws. And I hate Handsome Jack.

Skyrim is included because despite playing it quite a bit at the end of 2011, I really got into it during 2012. God, such a good game. But it is 2011… It shouldn’t even be here, although I did want to bring it up.

XCOM is glorious. More blog posts to follow about it, but mostly, this one doesn’t win because of horrid UI, poor explanation of the importance of satellites, and good lord, could the end have been any more abrupt?!?

This leaves me with Secret World and Dishonored. Both are *really* fantastic games. Either choice is a good choice. You should take the time to play both. Secret World is so glorious in so many ways. Dishonored is beautiful and so well designed.

But in the end, Secret World feels like it should have been a single player game or perhaps a co-op game. Not an MMO. I feel like making it an MMO, while totally the kind of game the genre needs, made the game weaker.

So Dishonored, you are my GOTY for 2012. Until I go back and play Lego Lord of the Rings or Darksiders 2 and realize they were so much more fun. Then you’ll get bumped.

And that’s my silly little GotY post. 🙂

Dishonored – Look Up.

Full disclosure, I haven’t finished Dishonored yet. I just finished Lady Boyle’s Party. There will likely be spoilers up to that point in the game. You have been warned. (Edit: Now I am up to the part AFTER Dunwall Tower.)

I missed Thief, System Shock, and System Shock 2. I watched my husband play Bioshock, but when I tried to play it myself, I was terrible at it. I am bad at shooters, and trying to play shooters on the xbox just makes it worse. I was excited for Dishonored and decided to play it on my pc, so I wouldn’t have the added difficulty of trying to target on the 360.

The first thing that struck me and echoed within my little heart was the plague. The city of Dunwall, where the game takes place, is being ravaged by a plague. And someone mentions rats. I am obsessed with all things bubonic, and so having the black plague alive and well in your steam punk game is like the icing on the cake. LOVE IT.

True to it’s heritage, Dishonored is a game designed to fulfill the fantasy of being invisible. Maybe not actually invisible, but essentially so as you move through the world unseen and unheard, with only unconscious bodies and missing valuables in your wake.

I dislike negative feedback loops. If a designer makes the game harder because you failed, then all they are doing is supporting the player failing again. This is especially bad if the player isn’t certain of WHY they failed. In Dishonored the core game revolves around the player sneaking about without being detected. There is a negative feedback loop though, that if you are detected, more guards are called, alarms sound, and generally you get detected by even more things.

In Dishonored you don’t have to play non-lethally, but the game is designed to push you in that direction. It even states in the loading tips that the ending is better the lower your chaos score. (More killing == higher chaos.) So the ending is different (better) if you play non-lethally.

I object to the way they did this. If you are creating an immersive sim, and put the player in the role of an assassin, then you cannot punish them for being an assassin. Giving the player the option to play the way they want to play, then punishing them for playing the way they want to play is just absurd. I really wanted to be the death from the darkness Corvo. I wanted to shoot bolts and drop assassinate every one of those stinking corrupt guards.

Someone asked, Is it really a punishment to have two different endings? When the game specifically calls out one ending as “better”, then yes, it is. (I have also had the ending spoiled, so I know for a fact they strongly apply a moral stance to each.)

Okay, MAYBE it’s okay, in a game where the moral choices and stances are very clear cut. KotoR could do this because there was a clear line between Sith and Jedi. As a Jedi, you weren’t punished for killing Sith characters. They are the bad guys after all. Sure the argument could be made you are just as bad as they are for killing them, but in killing them you save how many thousands of lives? Of course, the secondary problem is that you can’t tell you are saving thousands of lives. In fact, it’s very difficult to say who you are fighting for in Dunwall. I mean, Emily, sure, but after her? The whole city seems to be a loss. So few people even remain, and none of them are without blame or corruption.

The problem with the negative feedback loop and the moral push is that it leads to the player feeling like they have “screwed up” and need to start over. I had already completed four missions before I understood “Chaos” and how it affected the game. I soldiered on, despite the fact that I now strongly felt like I was playing the game “wrong”. I decided to try a few low Chaos missions. I may have succeeded, I don’t know. After two missions where I barely killed anyone, I was still High Chaos, and it was taking a great deal longer to play each mission. Add to this the fact that all the cool toys in the game are lethal… *sigh*

Not only are they using a negative feedback loop… but also all the best powers and weapons are un-usable. I mean, you can’t even summon rats, because they might eat the guards you knocked out. Resigned to the fact that I would have to play the game again, trying to do it as low chaos,  I simply went on a blood bath during the next mission. But even that feels wrong. I just charged in the front door, gun a blazing, and killed everyone. I wanted to be stealthy, but to be rewarded for my stealth. I wanted to be able to kill indiscriminately, but not be punished for it. In the end, this ONE thing ended up pushing me to either extreme of playing and neither is fun for me.

Regardless, I have enjoyed Dishonored immensely. It’s great fun blinking around the level. The world is deeply interesting and every nook and cranny is filled with interesting things and people. It’s worth every penny, and a fine addition to any gamer’s collection.

I almost forgot! The Heart. The Heart is the crowning achievement for Dishonored as far as I am concerned. I have always hated items that a designer adds to make the game more “interesting” by adding a “useful” item they have to switch to occasionally, usually switching it out for a weapon. However this always happens in combat games. So you are swapping a VERY useful weapon for a very unuseful NON weapon. (I am looking at you Ocarina of Time… I haven’t forgotten the Lens of Truth…) When I was presented with the Heart in Dishonored, I immediately groaned, and then switched off it, and thought of it no more.

My husband reminded me the next day that if you have the Heart equipped though, you can point it at people, use it, and it will tell you secrets. What kind of secrets? OH ALL THE BEST KINDS. I equipped the Heart in the safe house, and started pointing and clicking. Next thing I know, I am constantly switching my weapon and magic out for the Heart. It was like a lore stream I could turn on and off at all the best times. It was such a cool item, I was annoyed later when playing another game (Skyrim) that it *didn’t* have a similar item. I want to know everyone’s secrets. But the Heart is a perfect example of how to tell extraneous narrative. It works seamlessly with the world and allows the player as much or as little narrative as they choose. Absolutely genius.

Some other amazing high points of the game: Each assassination target has a “non-lethal” way of being dealt with, most of which feel strongly of poetic justice. So many paths through each level, it’s almost impossible to find them all. Powers and abilities that are just fun to play with on their own, in an open space. The levels also have minor changes and adjustments based on the chaos level, which is cool, except that it creates that negative feedback loop.