Sex, Lies, And Game Development

The IGDA retweeted a G4C link today which had a pretty provocative tagline: “For aspiring female game designers, is it worth it to take on “the beast of sexism”?” The link lead to a thoughtful, pensive blog post by Parsons student and aspiring game designer Mohini Dutta about her experiences and concerns regarding sexism in the industry. I will preface this by saying I have certainly been blessed in my career, and while I’ve had to deal with some serious sexist bullshit on my way to my dream job, I’ve had it better than many. Being lucky in this regard brings with it an amount of privilege I must be aware of in these discussions, and it is vitally important that I acknowledge that.

When I read things like this, though, it breaks my heart:

Can there be more commercially viable game genres than the ones “aimed at teenage boys”, and can commercial game culture ever truly embrace diversity? Will GameLand ever truly want me?

(emphasis mine)

I’m not going to address the despairing over more commercially viable game genres, because that’s already been addressed by social games companies, casual game companies, the makers of Brain Age and Dance Central and a host of other smash hits that may not come immediately to mind when you think “Gamer,” but are smash hits nonetheless. It’s that last sentence that bothers me the most.

I’m going to tell a story. It might get me in trouble, but what the heck, I’m going to tell it anyway.

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a (tabletop) game designer. The idea of writing my own game never occurred to me; the pinnacle of my ambition was to write for my favorite game franchise. I was incredibly active in the online community for that game (where the company liked to pick up freelancers), I wrote a ton of homebrew content and I networked with the more high-profile writers for the line— ones who were known for taking noob freelancers under their wing, recommending them to the company, and getting them their first bylines. I watched guys I’d known for years pass me by and get what I’d been working twice as hard for. I’d post new material on the forums and fans would go nuts for it while the people who worked on the game would comment on how cute my icon was. But I put up with it, I thanked them, I smiled, and I kept trying to get them to look at my stuff. I made it known what my goal was. I figured “This is what it takes. This is how all my (male) friends got into the business, and I can do it this way too.”

Finally, one day, the writer most known for helping people get into freelancing IMed me and said he had an important question. I thought for sure this was my chance, after three years of work. And he asked me: “I was talking with [other developer] and we got into an argument: are you my fangirl, or are you his?”

And that’s when I left the game and the community.

But, like I said on Twitter, I never once asked myself if GameLand would ever want me. That question was irrelevant. I wanted GameLand, full stop, and nothing else mattered.

(By the way? Three years later the same company flew me in to interview for a position as a full-time designer on a way meatier project. There were a huge amount of sexist hints that made it clear to me I wouldn’t want to work there, and we mutually decided it was a poor fit. But walking through those doors was a great vindication.)

So what happened in those three years? And how did I end up working where I work— with two other freaking amazing female designers and a host of people from all backgrounds and perspectives? The most important thing I could ever tell anyone wanting to “break into” the industry, anyone who wants to know if it’s worth it or if they will find kindred spirits who get what they’re doing and why.

I made games.

I didn’t ask for anyone’s permission. I made tabletop games, because that’s what I could make with no coding experience. I made games I wanted to play— games that were fun and challenging and niche and occasionally autobiographical. I blogged about my trials and errors, I gave back to the community as much as I got, and… yeah. I made games.

That’s the big lie. There’s no “breaking in” to game development. Waiting for your break is like standing outside of a public library waiting for someone to invite you in. If you have the love and the drive, you can walk through that door on your own.

As to whether it’s worth it, well, that’s up to you and how badly you want it. I will say some of my best and most popular/successful work was inspired when someone pissed me right the fuck off. I think I’d be a crappier designer if I were male— not so much because of my different life experiences, but because I would have been exposed to fewer stupid assumptions about who I was and what I could do, which means I would have been less angry and less inspired as a result.

Up until this point, the “you” has been a generic you, but I’m going to go ahead and address Mohini: there are a hell of a lot of amazing female game devs out there, maybe more than you think. People are looking “beyond hardcore gamer demographic” now more than ever. And you know what? Every female game dev I’ve met has been amazingly generous in time and spirit.

I bet if you took that step, you’d be surprised by the welcome you’d get.

22 Responses to “Sex, Lies, And Game Development”

  1. Meguey Baker says:

    Well said! Especially this line: Waiting for your break is like standing outside of a public library waiting for someone to invite you in. If you have the love and the drive, you can walk through that door on your own.

  2. Vince Webb says:

    Cool post! :Can there be more commercially viable game genres than the ones “aimed at teenage boys”, and can commercial game culture ever truly embrace diversity?: Everything I’ve witnessed in the indie game scene suggests to me that gamer experiences are becoming more and more diverse and less tied down to the traditional ‘rules’ of gameplay. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic but for me, sites like restore my faith in a more balanced future industry (both in terms of gender and otherwise

    Just my impression, but I came to games late and I’d be interested in seeing if anyone shares this view.

  3. william says:

    That’s a hell of an anecdote you’ve got there <:/

    Some wise-guy other other once said of writing "ask yourself this: do you want to write books or be a writer?".
    I think people talk about "breaking in" in the sense of "getting published on tigsource" or "actually making money out of game development". I've never managed to do either, and perhaps I never will, but I think I'll keep making games nobody plays ;)

    • Elizabeth says:

      That’s the thing though, William. When I was making (and self-publishing) these little games, and I got my first job interviews, and I thought SHIT! What do I put on my resume? I’ve been taking shit jobs so I had more time to make my games! It took a friend actually reminding me that the games I made counted, and were why I was being offered the interview in the first place. It is incredibly easy to de-legitimize the games you make on your own, but you’ve got to fight that urge. Take yourself seriously and other people will, too. :)

  4. Jack Everitt says:

    I’m just like, wow, what a great post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. It’s not just women who think they need to break into the industry to make games – I’ve lost count of the guys I’ve met (or interviewed for design positions!) who say they want to be game designers but hadn’t made any games (tabletop or no) or even videogame levels. For (*&^’s sake, make a card game or a level in Little Big Planet or N or something. The sky is raining tools with which we can make games.

  6. Britt Fuerst says:

    Interesting read, and great advice for aspiring designers of either sex.
    I’m an artist, and so far all the designers I’ve worked with have been male, which is sad. But I think that the industry is finally realizing the value of different perspectives with the advent of social and casual games. Hopefully that’s just the beginning!

  7. NW says:

    I have this sneaking suspicion I know exactly what company you’re talking about. And if I’m wrong – man, it sucks that the tabletop industry tends to want to limit itself in dumbass, oppressive, offensive ways.

    Glad that you persevered.

  8. Tati says:

    Hi! How do I buy Murderland? Do you accept Paypal? I’ve been looking for your e-mail or Twitter but couldn’t find them. Thanks!

  9. Everything in this article could apply to indie filmmaking, too: sexism, no place for women, sexual harassment on set, etc. I’m an actor, writer, and filmmaker and I had to make movies for anyone to give a shit about me in any of those ways.

    Make your own work. The rest will follow. Good article!

  10. Evan Torner says:

    The existentialist commandment for us to become what we do rings true here.

    The issue is when we continue to idolize only the AAA game titles and the top sellers, which only get there through the evil churning engines of corporate finance capital…. which is male-dominated and misogynist, by the way.

  11. Tom Hall says:

    Good article. In the future, I look forward to half of game developers being female. And the industry can finally grow up.

    Great point about getting in. Make games. Finish ‘em. You’re in.

  12. Shannon R says:

    I think part of the issue is that, since working on games is such an awesome field, people that work in games get institutionally shat on anyway, because the companies know that people will put up with it just to work in games. And then to get additional crap because of your gender? For a difficult, competitive area to get into? For not very good pay (probably extra bad as a female), and terrible hours? Just for the opportunity to work in games. I’m not saying it isn’t totally worth it for some people, but it is an important thing to weigh when you’re just starting out. It’s an industry that has one GIANT positive in it’s corner, and a whole lot of little negatives, that throwing on an extra load of sexism could tip the scales, especially if you aren’t up to the task of playing Suffragette at work.

    Grain of salt: I grant that, because of my field (user research) most of the real video game job options are at very large companies, as usability is not necessarily something small companies can afford, certainly not internally. And working at large companies in general increases the feeling of being institutionally shat on by people who don’t know your name. But, anyway, just a different perspective.

  13. Erin Hoffman says:

    Great post, Elizabeth. <3

  14. Kevin Prier says:

    I agree most with the idea that it doesn’t matter if gameland wants me. I want games… Period… It’s the reason gameland exists. It’s not a clique of cool or whatever. Putting it there makes it like playing sports or cheerleading or something. They don’t need to want me. Great line about the public library too.

  15. Mohini Dutta says:

    Thanks for sharing that story, and responding to my post Elizabeth. This is indeed a great time to be starting out in the field, I guess my apprehension comes having had similar experiences to the one you wrote about in film-making, which is what I did before games. And the frustration that comes from being aware of, and just having to sit back and accept it, to grow. That said, I am incredibly fortunate to have started out within the indie community which is very supportive and progressive. I hope that when it comes to it, by speculations are just unfounded and the change continues. Great post.

    • Elizabeth says:

      The great thing about the games industry, as opposed to the film industry (I was a screenwriter in another life) is that culture varies so much from game type to game type and studio to studio. Working with the European classics nerds at my first digital game job was pretty welcoming, and with my second job— other than one crazy lead designer on another team telling me the reason I didn’t think his game was fun wasn’t that his game sucked, it was because I “Play games like a man and this game is made for women,” sexism wasn’t the problem. And of course, Loot Drop is some kind of weird utopia where we have conversations about makeup in the whole-studio chat channel. Of course, AAA Console games are a completely different beast with their own challenges and their own sexists— so it becomes a matter of figuring out which type of game fulfills you the most while pissing you off the least. But GameLand as a whole will love you, I promise. :)

  16. Tavis says:

    Best part about Kickstarter – more than not having to spend seven thousand dollars to figure out if anyone wants your tabletop game, or being able to make experiences and products both drive the same creative act – is that it forces you to rock out with your cock/cunt out.

    I demo’d Adventurer Conqueror King at a NY gaming meetup that was full of IOS startup companies and had stage fright like I’d never experienced before. These were real gaming companies that make money, right, so the question “will GameLand want me” seemed to have teeth. But my last PowerPoint slide was the graphs from Autarch’s crowdfunding experiences, and when the demo that blew my socks off with AI procedural generation I don’t know how to do had raised 75% less than we did, it shoved my face in the fact that procedural generation games using human intelligence are valuable too.

  17. David Berg says:

    Hey Elizabeth, cool to hear what you’re up to these days! I’m clearly way late to the conversation, but if you wouldn’t mind answering, what was your link between “I designed some sweet tabletop RPGs” and “a digital game company will look at my resume, get interested, and hire me”?

    Luke Crane recently expressed (here) that he found RPG design to be no help at all in breaking into digital games, and this is something I’ve heard elsewhere, so I’d love to hear more about how you bridged that gap.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi David,

      There’s no link and my experience and conversation with industry people has been the exact opposite of what Luke describes. I have no coding experience, no pedigree other than my self-published indie RPGs and have been working successfully in digital games for almost a year now. Every industry person I’ve talked to has talked about how tabletop RPG designers are great for balancing XP and the game economy, that the math skills are really highly prized, and that being able to pull out the probability to abstraction is another big thing. And this is not just social games companies, but AAA console companies as well.

  18. David Berg says:

    Interesting! Thanks for sharing that; it’s a little counter-intuitive to me.

    I get why such skills would be prized, but I’m fuzzy on how tabletop RPG design demonstrates them. Do any good examples come to mind? (Alas, I still haven’t played Blowback! But we probably know a lot of the same indie games.)

    Honestly, I can’t tell whether I lack those skills, or whether I just take them for granted! I mean, I can look at a dice pool mechanic that gives you more dice for winning and fewer dice for losing, and go, “Look out! First person to fall behind will never catch up! Better make a small dice pool be GOOD for something too!” — but in videogame land, I don’t know whether that qualifies me to run the show or to fetch coffee.

    Please pardon the slew of questions. Whenever I see an RPG-related success story, I get very inspired and very curious!

  19. David Berg says:

    Hmm, apparently my technical skills are insufficient to properly reply directly to your post…


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