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.
- 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.