Tag Archives: Women in Games

Screen Time

“So Joyia, how are you planning on limiting your kid’s video game time? How are you going to keep him from playing your M rated games?”

This was a question asked of me by a World of Warcraft guild mate.

He didn’t like my answer – “I’m not.”

When I was a kid, my mom never limited my game time. We had a computer and an NES. Both were in the living room. Game time was limited only by one factor – is someone else using it already. Actually no, two factors, that one, and “Is your homework done?” My mother took a firm stance on kids should be allowed to spend their time how they want to. She had her own hobbies (including playing games). She didn’t have time to police ours and see if they were “worthwhile”. Once I had finished my chores (which were criminally few now that I think about it) and homework, I could do whatever I wanted. Sometimes that was games. But just as often it was reading, or writing, or talking to friends on the phone.

At the very least, at least she always knew where we were right?

Yes, people can get really sucked into video games, but they can also be just as obsessed over many other things. I read dozens of books every year. I spent at least a 1/4th of my childhood with a nose in a book. I was the only kid in my class in elementary school who wasn’t allowed to have books at her desk. Not even text books. I would read them instead of listen. (Though, really, wasn’t that the POINT?)

Further, I remember a girl in my elementary school who took a flute out to recess every day. The teachers tried and tried to get her into playing with the other kids, and she refused. All she wanted to do was play the flute. They let her because she said she wanted to be a flutist one day. They wouldn’t let me read, which was exceptionally annoying, despite the fact I said I wanted to be a writer. Fifth grade and we were already being judged by our activities. Here’s the thing though. That girl? Full ride to college on a band scholarship. Later she ended up joining some ridiculously hard to get into symphony in New York. At 11, she knew what she wanted to do and she didn’t let anything get in her way, not even well meaning teachers or parents.

I didn’t want to be a game designer when I was 11. I knew I liked games. I knew I liked books. I knew I liked making up stories with my friends. I knew I liked making up games to play with my friends. I wanted to make Calvinball. But no one, in all those years, ever told me making games for a living was a thing I could do. So yeah, at the time the hours and hours I sunk into playing video games was a “waste”.

What about now?

So we’re working on SSA, and we’re discussing what happens when one player does something like steal all the treasure in an area. They start discussing various solutions we could do as designers to fix this. I immediately piped up with “But we shouldn’t. That’s a real life problem to solve.” A few blank looks and I clarified – “If your brother steals all the loot, you punch him. That’s the POINT of playing games in local multiplayer. But more, we shouldn’t change it because it allows the players to game the system. You can power level characters if one can collect all the loot and exp. It also makes the game more of a mad dash.”

In the end, we sat down and played the game, local multiplayer, just like kids would. It was less than 3 minutes to the first “Hey! THAT WAS MINE!” and about 5 minutes to one player letting the other one die to get loot. Within 15 minutes, a huge crowd had gathered around the two players with much good natured jokes and laughter. We didn’t change the system. Let them fight over loot.

I am not sure I would have thought this way, if not for the experiences of playing all those games with my brother. All those local multiplayer games with my friends. I was also the kind of kid who would hook up two controllers to cheese the system and give myself help. I have two WoW accounts NOW just for that purpose. I always buy both versions of each Pokemon game, so I can trade between them.

Well, that explains the time limits… as long as homework is done, I don’t care. Maybe it will be his passion. Maybe it won’t. But there is no reason to enforce my hobbies and desires on him. He’s his own person, let him spend his time how he wants.

But what about M rated games?

Again, my mother never limited the books I could read. If we had it in the house, I could read it. I remember picking up a Stephen King book at 12. I tried to read it. Oh man was it DULL. I also remember watching R rated movies. In the living room. That was the thing about having the tv/console/computer in the living room. You couldn’t do anything without everyone seeing. It was amazingly good at limiting what I would try to watch or play. My mom would come in and say something like “Oh that’s gross, I don’t want to see that.” And switch it to something else. There was never a “You can’t play that.” It was always, “This isn’t appropriate for the family room.” Then a few times we had candid discussions about sex, drugs, and such, so that she knew I knew what was safe, what wasn’t, and how to deal with those situations. At no point was the line between reality and media blurred.

Talking to a kid and interacting with them on a constant basis really helps. So I hope when my kid gets old enough to play games, he plays them with me. Skylanders is a great family game. So is Minecraft. (As an aside, I do not look forward to telling him that Creepers – aka Booms – are not fluffy little friends like he thinks right now.) If he wants to play a game like Skyrim, I will let him, where I can see, in the living room. There will likely be discussions and conversations about the difference between reality and fantasy, but I have faith in his ability to learn. Also kids tend to be very self limiting on “adult” things.

In the end, I think my biggest issue with saying “I will limit your access and time to games.” is that not only was mine not limited as a kid, but how hypocritical would it be for me to say, “Sorry you can only play for an hour each day,” when I will be playing for at least 2-3? Yes, I will probably do the same thing as my mom and say, “I don’t want to see that on the living room tv, so different game.” but otherwise, I don’t really think I have a leg to stand on about playing too many games. Do what you want, as long as you are responsible and take care of your chores/work, then your free time is your own.

A different kind of crunchy mom

It never really occurred to me I should be writing about being a game developer mom. I am a game developer and a mom, but these two things don’t really seem to overlap very much in the public eye. Recently on Twitter, I made a comment to a friend about being a mom in game development, and she replied with surprise, as she rarely talks to other moms who make games.

At first, I thought this was rather odd, I mean, there are tons of moms who make games! But then I stopped to think about the people I work with and have worked with. Um. Well. I mean, none of my companies can be accused of hiring lots of women, but some are over the average (13% female workforce). And yet, I have never worked with another mother, unless they never talked about it. (I even interviewed at a company, that after a while, the guy got me to admit that I wasn’t planning on having kids anytime soon, and his response was “Oh good, you women have a habit of quitting when you have babies.”)

I have worked at a company where just as I started, a producer left on maternity leave. She didn’t come back when it was over. As this was in the middle of a death march of a crunch, I really couldn’t blame her. 60 hour weeks with an infant? You must be crazy.

I guess I am crazy. I got pregnant right as TfB geared up on Giants right after shipping Spyro’s Adventure. We had a 1 year turn around time for Giants. I knew it was going to be rough, but as long as we shipped in June, we would be fine, as I was due in July. No worries. Except for the tiny detail of “Games almost never ship on time.” It wasn’t too difficult, working on Giants. My studio is pretty stress free, friendly, and people worked to get my stuff done first “just in case”. In the end, I shipped my kid the same week we hit submitted. I worked right up until the Friday before my due date (the next Tuesday). I didn’t do this because I was told to, or asked to, but rather because I love my job, I love my game, and I really love the people I work with.

When I first got pregnant, it was always known I would take a few months off, then back to work and back to Skylanders. I never thought of leaving my career to stay home with my kid. I had worked very hard to get where I was in the industry and was very lucky to get a job at TfB working on a game I loved. No way I was going to put that on hold for 5 years. So I found a daycare within a mile of my office, signed Tiny Pittman up, and went back to work exactly 3 months after I left to have my son.

So what is it like being a game dev mom? Weird. But I expect many women feel the same in other fields. I really think though, crunch is the source of my biggest problems with being a game dev and a mom, and likely the reason I don’t find many others.

First, before I had my kid, I only remember one incident of a parent responding to crunch. At one company, we were in the middle of mandatory 60 hour weeks, including 2 late nights. One of the men who sat across the office from me would Skype his kids at home to say good night on the late nights. It was cute, and I really felt it meant a great deal that he was trying. Someone said something to him once about “being a good father”. Then, this very nice, generally calm man, snapped at the commenter with a very harsh “If I were a GOOD father I would be at home putting my kids to bed instead of here working on this stupid game!” It may have been stress, it may have been dissatisfaction with the way the project had been handled, but clearly this person was wildly unhappy about missing his kids, and no one even knew until that moment.

That moment really stuck with me, because I knew that’s how I would be. I was already cranky at working 60 hour weeks because it cut into my WoW time. How would I deal when it cut into my kid time? I talked to my husband about it that night and pointed out, we really needed to make sure our “crunches” never synced up. So at least one of us would always be able to watch the kid and the other could crunch. He is also in the game industry, but fortunately, always at different companies.

That’s a fear I have. I love working in the game industry, but it’s brought me all the way out here to California. My family, and thus my kid’s grandparents, are 3000 miles away. There really isn’t such a thing as 24 hour daycare around here, and even if there was, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. So on each project, I work in fear of hearing those words – “mandatory crunch”. You can mandatory all you want, but if me or my husband can’t watch the spawn, there is no one else. His daycare is open from 7am to 6pm. That is my availability to work. Period. He’s 20 months old, I can’t exactly bring him into the office. But regardless, that is a constant distant worry that hangs out in the back of my mind.

That’s without even taking into account how not spending time with my kid affects me. Right now my husband and I are separated, so every other weekend I have the spawnling. In our big push for a milestone recently, I came in on the weekends I didn’t have him. I worked 3 weekends, and every other weekday night. I managed to keep up, but it was exhausting. And not seeing my kid made me sad. When I did see him, I was tired mommy, not fun mommy. I was “here’s a quesadilla for dinner because I am exhausted and can’t make you something more nutritious”. It’s rough on families. I am not sure if it was working those weekends, but since that usually don’t bother me, I think it was not seeing the spawn, and it made me depressed. I wasn’t able to work as well, and I was noticeably unhappier to my co-workers. Even worse, there were people who commented that I wasn’t there every weekend. They weren’t my lead, or even in charge at all, but there was clearly resentment that I had not been there. My lead is understanding, and never batted an eye, but what about others? Now, whenever I interact with that person, their comment colors my view of them.

Being a parent is all about time management. I have to plan everything and make time for everything. Showers, food, shopping, everything takes time and everything has to be accounted for. If I want to raid in WoW, it has to be with a guild that understands I can *only* raid from the time we start to our set end time. I can’t go 15 minutes over. If I could, I would have already planned it. We have done this on a few occasions, and every time it has lead to me and the kid being late to work the next morning. So having someone else come in and tell me how to spend that time is going to be a huge burden. Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with this at TfB (all overtime has been voluntary and at a time of my choosing), but I can see very easily where it would quickly drive a woman to find a different job.

Say what you like about gender stereotypes, but in the almost 2 years since I had my son, I noticed that generally I am the one to give him a bath, clean his room, do the shopping, clean dishes, do laundry, pick up toys… All of this time spent doing things. Not to say my husband didn’t help, but the balance of chores was skewed towards me. When I work overtime, all of those pesky chores don’t get done. That’s the first thing to go. So the dishes pile up, the kiddo’s room looks like a tornado hit it, and there is a huge pile of clean clothes that managed to get washed but no way in hell they will get folded and put away.

To add to the already absurdly small amount of free time, I am a game designer. One of the things about being a game designer is you really need to play games. It helps you learn how other people are solving problems, cool things they are doing, and probably helps you make your game better. But with time already taken with work, chores, kid time, and husband time… that leaves how much for games? I don’t play nearly the number of games I should, and all to often now I just watch some let’s play videos, since I can do that while playing WoW.

When I complain about lack of time, people *love* to say, well yeah but if you didn’t play WoW, look how much time would you have! There are definitely some problems with that. First, WoW is what keeps me sane. It’s my stress release and brain dead time. It’s my hobby. I don’t watch tv unless I am playing WoW. I don’t watch movies unless I am playing WoW. WoW is why I still have friends I talk to more than on Twitter. People always say you should make sure to take time for yourself. Well, there it is. WoW is my one hobby I always hold on to. I quit a Wednesday night job I had teaching just so I would have more time for my kid and NOT have to drop wow.

So I decided to find out… how do game dev dads do it? How do they deal with the time issue and how does it connect to crunch? So I asked the guys I work with that I know I have small children. With varying degrees of gratefulness, relief, and awe, they all replied that it was their wives. Their wives kept their kids, home, and everything running smoothly. The dads who worked every weekend, their wives picked up the slack. A few expressed to me their worry at missing their families, but that was just the way life goes. A few implied, if not outright said, well, that’s the way the world works. (My feminist voice in my head screamed for blood, but I kept her quiet.) Much like in every other field, it seems as if the wife is expected to pick up the slack and tend to the family and home when the husband must work overtime. When I talked to a few women in the industry, sans kids, about how they would handle it, one replied, and I quote “That’s why I am not having kids until I am ready to leave the industry.” !!!

During one particularly long crunch at another company, they offered free laundry services. The employees could bring in a bag of dirty laundry and a few days later get back a bag of folded clean laundry. Someone joked, oh hey, it’s like having a company mom! I replied that it would actually be far more useful to have an onsite daycare for the hours of crunch. Everyone looked at *me* like I was crazy. But really: then employee could work, non-employee could get all the housework done, and there wouldn’t be that slightly squicky idea of someone touching your dirty underwear.

What about single parents? I asked a single dad in the industry. If he has to work, his ex-wife gets the kid more than her share and gets angry at him. So sometimes the kid spends time with his family. Lucky he has family in the area. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to work.

Here’s another strange thing about this whole situation. Perception. I get in to work most days at 8:30. I only take a 30 minute lunch, then leave at 5:30 (my kid’s daycare closes at 6). That’s 8 and 1/2 hours every day. Most of the office gets in at 10. (When our core hours start.) One time, during a Friday afternoon break fairly soon after I came back from maternity leave, someone commented that I was one of those “6 hour a day workers”, with a laugh, then said they wished they had a kid to give them a convenient excuse to leave early every day. I nearly punched him. With a glare I pointed out that despite the fact that HE rolled in at 10:30 every day, didn’t mean everyone did, in addition to being a hourly employee, I clock in every day too, would he like to review my calendar to check I work more than he does? He apologized, and has never made such a comment again, but how many other people think this way too?

When I left for maternity leave, I left on a Friday. Our game went to cert the very next Friday. I missed 5 whole days of the project, in a time when the only people actually making changes were the programmers and only for vital progression or cert bugs. About a year later, talking about being pregnant and shipping the game, someone replied, “Well, yeah, but you left like 2 months before we finished.” My response: “WHAT. THE. FUCK.” I had to correct him too. When did we cert? When did I leave? OH RIGHT. 7 FREAKING DAYS. In his mind, I had been gone “forever” because I was out 3 months. (The 3 months between cert and ship actually.) People’s sense of time skews when it’s not them. But these perceptions matter when everyone is tired, overworked, and stressed.

My experiences are just mine, but I can very easily see women not being willing to put up with it. My kid is absolutely the most important person in my life, and if not for my sheer level of stubbornness and extrovertedness, I seriously would have considered being a stay at home and professional WoW player. Is this one of the reasons we have so few women in the industry? How do we fix it?

Well for one, schedule and scope our games better. All too often work gets re-done or wasted. Leads and Publishers want more than they are willing to give time for. May the producers who build the gantt charts and FORCE the studio to get it to fit within the time frame find eternal joy. (My favorite producer was the one who drew one out, it showed we had 6 months more work than time, and said, “Okay, no one is leaving until it works.” 3 hours later, a very weary set of leads left the room with a workable schedule that did NOT include crunch.) Second, seriously, consider onsite child care. First off, child care is the *most* expensive thing when it comes to having a kid. My child care is almost as much as my RENT, and I live in California. If a company could get me onsite cheap child care, I would do everything in my power to keep that job. I’d take onsite child care over every other perk I get at a company.

I plan on writing more about being a mom and a game dev, but this is where I had to start. The one thing that makes it super difficult to be both. The one thing that would make me leave the industry. I love my job, but my kid wins.

Gender in Video Games

When asked to discuss this topic, I generally gravitate towards Women in the Game Industry, as opposed to Women Gamers. Today I did an interview for an article on gender and how it relates to women gamers, touching on the assault behavior towards women. It’s a complex topic. So too is women gamers and women developers, but in my mind, they are all interconnected and form a cycle.

The Mythical Unicorn

Any female gamer can tell a story of at some point where being a girl who plays games has attracted the wrong sort of attention. The belief in the rarity of women who play and enjoy mainstream video games perpetuates this myth and the responses. Start with a lonely guy that seems to be unable to find a girl who understands him. He likes books, movies, and video games. He meets a girl he thinks is cute, asks her out, and discovers that she couldn’t care less about these things that make up a majority of his passions and hobbies. She cares about clothes, shoes, celebrities, and makeup. Poor guy. Now he meets the one girl in his sphere of acquaintances that does like the things he does. She plays video games, she argues who is better Picard or Kirk, and she, miracles of miracles, revels in HIS knowledge of such topics. Queue the love at first geek scene. And suddenly this girl possibly has a problem. For some reason, lack of attraction, already taken, etc, she doesn’t want to date Lonely Guy. He tries to ply her with gifts, but despite the prevalent belief that women can be bought, it doesn’t work.

What is she to do? Break his heart? Be mean? Try to be nice, but knowing it is going to be awkward and likely will just “string” him along? It sucks for the girl. All she wanted was a friend to argue lore with! And unfortunately the skew of males to females makes this an incredibly common occurrence. Because of this women are more likely to attempt to hide their identity. By hiding their identity the problem is exacerbated and female gamers appear to be more rare than they really are.

We are not a mythical unicorn. Attend PAX Prime or PAX East and this will completely dismiss the belief that gamer women are rare. There are plenty of us running around. We just don’t like to tell people because they get stupid over it. Once I decided I would no longer hide my female status from WoW friends, I discovered something very surprising. Not only did “outing” myself lead to other girls being willing to do the same thing (it was quite a shocking day) but also we were able to develop friendships through our common trials and tribulations. According to various websites, though their numbers are speculative and not backed by Blizzard, it is believed that 1 in 5 WoW players is female. That’s alot of girls running around Azeroth.

The Greater Internet Dickwad Theory

Once people get on the internet, realize they are anonymous, they suddenly become a different person. Much like the Invisible Man changed radically when he realized he would no longer be punishable for his actions, so too do people on the internet believe they can say whatever without repercussion. This leads to XBox Live speak, Trolls, and all other number of wildly offensive things being said over public channels that would *never* be said to someone’s face.

Because of this truth, women often find themselves at the receiving end of extremely offensive behavior. I once had a guy in WoW tell me “Shut up b*tch. I will find you and I will rape you.” I recoiled in horror from my computer. It didn’t matter that this person had no idea who I was. It didn’t matter that I knew he had no way of actually hurting me. The fact that he would even physically be able to type that to a possible woman was appalling to me. I reported him, ignored him, and immediately left the guild (who’s leader responded with “well that’s just the way he is”).

For the most part however, I see these things as a new form of saber rattling, boasting, or puffery. It is a way for them to swing about their manliness. And just like in real life, I can be bothered by it, or I can ignore it. In WoW I generally ignore it and the player depending on what they say. On other sites I protect myself by having over protective security settings.

A Woman in a Man’s Field

Of course, my view of these social interactions is viewed from the eyes of a game designer. I work in a predominantly male industry. The last figure I read was 13% of the video game industry is female. This has been mathematically accurate, or lower, at every company I have worked at. Other than Guildhall women, of whom there are many, I have only met TWO other women designers in the industry. I spend most of my time with males.

The thing that always gets people is how much different I think than other designers, and they have problems realizing that most of my variant viewpoint comes from being a girl. It is different on this side of the fence. It gives me a different lens through which to look at games.

In my current game, we have a small number of female characters. I began attributing female characteristics and names to a few of the androgynous characters in an attempt to “pad” the number. Very soon after I noticed the guys followed my lead. Without a word they were willing to accept these characters as female, despite never having thought so before. When I pointed it out to a senior designer, he laughed and asked what did it matter? I pointed out the large difference in the number of female characters to male and he looked quite surprised. It never even occurred to him to think about equality in terms of sex among the characters. Needless to say, he even agreed it should be more balanced and made a point to start “female-izing” the androgynous characters.

Add to this the fact that at many of these companies I get to have “the talk” when I start working there. As if I haven’t been dealing with unwanted attention from guys for half my life. As if I don’t understand that if things get even remotely awkward I need to run, not walk, to my supervisor and nip it in the bud. As if I haven’t already had to have the conversation once where I was pressed on why I missed work and turned bright red as I explained menstrual cramps to a male. In fact it has become a rather large warning sign when I start at a new company only to find that they have a 3 hour presentation to go through about this sort of thing. Great, I can expect this to be a problem. (As a side note, there was no such talk at my current company and it was all I could do not to caper with glee.)

One step further, having to work on a game that has a woman in a metal bikini. People think it’s odd when I sigh at games that only include the mother, maiden, crone archetypes. Or the groan inducing things like in Uncharted 2 where every woman in the entire game is after Drake like he is coated in sex pheromones. They say, “But you play video games, you should be used to it. If you don’t like it, don’t make games with it in there.” I like having a job. I also like making games. You don’t always get to chose the projects you work on. It also confuses the guys I work with when I say, “Why can’t she be more like Lara Croft and less like Daphne (the princess/hooker from Dragon’s Lair)?” They immediately respond with “Lara Croft is exactly the stereotype you complain about!” A strong, brave, adventurous female that doesn’t spend her time chasing men but rather chasing history? Make her boobs as big as you want, she’s still awesome. And she is capable of having a relationship with a male that doesn’t assume sex.

The Cycle

The problem with all of these things is that they form a negative feedback loop. Women don’t play games because the traditional response of how to make a game for girls is “Pink it.” Women then don’t become game designers because they don’t play games, so it isn’t a career field they want to get into. Women aren’t the ones designing games, and so games don’t get made with women in mind as a valid market.

Add in that women and men view fun differently, seek different forms of enjoyment, and create different goals in games and the fact that it is hard for a guy to understand why his game idea didn’t appeal to women becomes very clear. There are not enough female protagonists in games. EA proved that games with female protagonists didn’t sell as well as games with male protagonists. I was stunned by their lack of ability to see that if you only have 20 games with female protagonists and 200 games with male protagonists, then it should be obvious that the male protagonists have had more chances to be in good games that sell well. Not to mention a female protagonist isn’t going to help if the game isn’t fun to women. They are still targeting a male audience and it is easier to connect with a protagonist of the same gender.

Why do MMOs have a better balance of men to women than other games like Call of Duty? Does it have anything to do with the ease of entry into MMOs? Or the ability to customize your character? That the design supports more cooperative play as opposed to competitive play? That MMOs are more social in a positive way than CoD? Or is it simply that the initial induction into an MMO, like WoW, is usually a hand holding one by a significant other, and this play style is supported, as opposed to CoD where it is a huge liability to play is such a manner?

I am a girl. I play games to the point I more than consider myself a gamer. I design games as a career, with the hope of making an enjoyable experience for everyone who plays my game, not just the target audience. I prefer to play a game I can take at my own pace. I prefer to play a game where I can play a female. Does this make me any different from any other gamer? Not really. Do I get treated differently because of the accident of my birth and my love for things outside of my social norm? Definitely. Should I, and do I want to be? Not at all.

The gender gap is closing. The social mores are shifting and games are slowly becoming mainstream. Every day some kid is turning 18 after a childhood of playing games and they aren’t chucking their Xbox just because they are an adult now. Every day another gamer family has kids or gets pregnant and plans how to raise their kid in the tradition of games. These issues will pass after time. And it will get better. After all, every year I have been in the industry, that percentage of female developers has gone up.