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?
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.