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The No. 1 ‘reason to be’ at the Game Developers Conference 2014: Diversity

Above: Brenda Romero delivers her opening remarks at the #1ReasonToBe panel at the Game Developers Conference 2014.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Follow all of GamesBeat's coverage from the 2014 Game Developers Conference here.

SAN FRANCISCO — The #1ReasonToBe panel at the Game Developers Conference 2013 was generally understood as a panel about gender concerns in the video game industry. Panel organizers Brenda Romero and Leigh Alexander made it clear through their slate of speakers for the 2014 edition of #1ReasonToBe that the panel is about diversity in the video game industry, which goes beyond concerns only about gender.

Romero’s opening remarks were a reminder as to why gender continues to be one of the highest profile issues in the conversation about diversity, however. “This morning, it’s shitty to wake up to Twitter and see that someone got groped at a party last night,” said Romero, referring to news that someone had been ejected from harassing women at a GDC party thrown by Sony the night of Wednesday, March 19. “It’s been a good year, but we’re still going, and we still have further to go.”

The discussion about the role of women in the video game industry has slowly built up steam over the last couple of years. In 2012, furor over booth babes, often-scantily clad women at expos and conferences whose purpose is to entice people to check out a company’s display, at E3 came to a head. Female developers felt booth babes created an atmosphere in which men assumed that women staffing booths couldn’t possibly be game developers, or that women developers weren’t taken seriously when they identified themselves as such. Female video game journalists were dismissed as being incapable of playing their E3 demos. These were not new problems, but in 2012 critics decided they were tired of dealing with these problems silently.

Understanding #1ReasonToBe in the context of gender issues specifically is understandable, considering the panel’s origin as part of this larger conversation about the role of women in the video game industry. In late 2012, a conversation began on Twitter about why there weren’t more women in the video game industry. The tweets were tagged with “#1reasonwhy.” Video game scriptwriter and narrative designer Rhianna Pratchett acknowledged the importance of that question, but she wanted to reframe the discussion with a new hashtag, “#1reasontobe,” to discuss all the reasons why it was important for women to push through the barriers to entry and be a part of the video game industry.

A picture of Warren Spector, Richard Lemarchand, Brenda Romero and John Romero at the GDC 2014 "triple-A academics" panel.

Above: Four triple-A developers working in game development programs for students

Image Credit: Dennis Scimeca/GamesBeat

The #1ReasonToBe panel at GDC in 2013 became a lightning rod not only for those discussions but also a spur for all the other conversations about the lack of diversity in the video game industry which people had been having for years without any public sense of acknowledgment. Those conversations have grown louder and more frequent since GDC 2013, and this year an entire advocacy track was opened to host them.

“It is a fact that some of us, by virtue of our identities, our bodies, our experiences, feel less safe here than others, and feel less wanted here than others” said Alexander in her opening remarks. “We feel less understood, and there aren’t always the infrastructures in place to talk about who we are. This is something that needs to change because games are amazing. Game making is amazing. Writing and talking about games is amazing.”

“Earlier this week, Brenda showed some slides of some other veteran game developers when they were children, folks like Harvey Smith or Amy Hennig, playing with ray guns and towel-capes, building with blocks, dressed up as heroes, dreaming of the future,” said Alexander. “And I look at the space that we’ve built for those kids to live and work in. I want that too! I want it for all of us, and for our kids. We all deserve it. This cannot be a space where only some people can come and are invited to play and dream, and others are not.”

For the 2014 edition of #1ReasonToBe, Romero and Alexander put together a selection of speakers that made it clear the conversation they want to support is not only about women. It’s about the challenges faced by anyone who isn’t white, straight, and male who wants to work in the video game industry.

Failure to recognize one of the most influential MMO developers

Laralyn McWilliams, the former creative director of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Free Worlds and now the chief creative officer at The Workshop Entertainment, taught herself to code in high school and created her first text adventure game when she was 17. She spent nights playing games in her dorm room in college, and she  took a secretarial job after graduation because she didn’t care what she was doing during the day as long as she was playing games at night.

It wasn’t until McWilliams saw Myst in 1993 that she realized what she was missing by not being a game developer. She taught herself better scripting in Macromedia so she could make puzzles, and then she learned StrataVision 3D, coded a demo, and sold it to MicroProse. She followed this by starting her own company in 1994. And when people asked her what it was like to be a woman game developers, McWilliams would answer “Well, there’s never a line for the women’s bathroom at GDC.”

McWilliams is a 20-year veteran of the video game industry, and yet while she was flying to San Francisco to Los Angeles for GDC 2014, in an airplane packed with game developers who seemed to recognize one another as someone going to the Game Developers Conference, no one was asking McWilliams about her experience. “And then it dawned on me that as a woman in my 40s, I’m in deep cover. I’m completely outside the spectrum of anyone they would ever consider to be a game developer,” she said.

McWilliams was inspired to begin addressing the challenges faced by women in game development because she noticed that women developers today were having to deal with “an extra, special, bonus helping of bullshit,” referring to the vitriol directed at female game developers through social media, on top of all the challenges that McWilliams had to deal with 20 years ago.

“When I see that kind of bullshit getting in the way of someone doing here what they’re here to do, getting in the way of someone fulfilling their purpose, it pisses me off. In fact, it fills me with rage,” McWilliams said. “I know sometimes that the bullshit feels overwhelming, and it does to me, too, and we can’t just be silent. I’m done doing that. We can’t roll over. We have to stand up, and we have to speak out.”

If people see themselves in games, they may see themselves in game development

Prom Week is a 2012 IndieCade finalist.

Above: Prom Week is a 2012 IndieCade finalist.

Image Credit: UC Santa Cruz

Lauren Scott is a game designer and a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She’s graduating in June with a double major in computer science and business management economics. She’s worked on a research game funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and the Independent Games Festival finalist Prom Week. She’s also written an interview series called “On the Border” for The Border House blog, a website that promotes inclusive journalism.

Scott never doubted that she belonged in the video game industry.

“I’ve been playing games for a very, very long time. Since I was a little kid there was always a computer in the house, but I’ve always had a partner in crime, my little sister Simone,” Scott said. “I always had someone to play Pokémon with, someone to play Super Smash Brothers with. And up until elementary school the games industry was completely black and completely female, all gamers.” The audience laughed at the joke, but Scott’s point was that if someone is not given reason to doubt whether or not they belong in the video game industry, they never will.

Her father was a coder at Oracle. “He was immersed in the tech world. He saw the games that were coming out, like Duke Nukem and Doom, he saw the types of people who were being attracted to tech and to games, and instead of resigning himself to the fate of having two young black girls and resigning himself that a young black female protagonist might not come around for many, many years, he took the tools at his disposal — and made this.”

Scott showed a screenshot of “Lauren’s Alien Game,” which her father made between 1996 and 1997, coded in Java and in which Scott was a character. “At 5 years old, I saw myself in a game. At 5 years old, I knew that a young black girl could be a character in games. It completely silenced any voice in my head that I would ever have that would say I couldn’t be into or in games.”

Scott’s story was a moving metaphor of how the environment established by the game development world influences who does or does not try to become a part of it, and she wants women to join the development industry to serve as mentors. “Studying under Brenda has been transformative in the way that I look at games and the way that I make them,” said Scott.

“You talk about females and minorities being super, super-rare [in the video game industry], another thing that’s rare are veterans,” Scott said. “And a female, minority veteran, try finding one of those and I’ll match you a unicorn.”

Women need role models in lead creative positions

Dear Leader

Above: Dear Leader is a game that Anna Kipnis pitched at Double Fine Productions.

Image Credit: Double Fine Productions

Anna Kipnis is a senior gameplay programmer at Double Fine Productions, a noted developer (and now publisher) of adventure games. She grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, where as the oldest child she often entertained the other children at dinner parties, so she thought up games for them to play. Her father was a fan of card games, and so Kipnis also learned to use a deck of cards to create and test game ideas. When Kipnis played Super Mario Bros. for the first time, she knew she wanted to be a part of creating those kinds of worlds.

“There weren’t very many girls interested in making games, and computer science really seemed like a boys’ club,” said Kipnis. “But luckily, when I was going to school, I could draw inspiration from women like Brenda.”

She has historically worked as part of a team on other peoples’ creative visions, but during the last round of the Amnesia Fortnight events at Double Fine, she pitched her own game, Dear Leader. Amnesia Fortnight enables the audience to vote on which pitches are approved for development. Now Kipnis is running the making of her own game, and she wants other women to follow suit.

“We need to make it part of the narrative of the games industry that women are capable game creators known for masterworks in the games medium,” said Kipnis. “To my fellow women developers: Let’s continue the tradition of women game creators and give young girls some more names to think of as they grow into game developers.”

The system is broken, and game designers make systems

Associate Professor Colleen Macklin of Parsons: The New School delivers her talk at the #!ReasonToBe panel at the 2014 Game Developers Conference.

Above: Associate Professor Colleen Macklin of Parsons: The New School.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Colleen Macklin is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Design and Technology at Parsons: The New School and the director of the Prototyping Education and Technology Lab, which develops games for experimental learning and social engagement. Throughout her talk, Macklin ran footage taken from cameras focused on escalators or entrances to rooms at GDC, and she asked the audience to glance at the video from time to time and notice the patterns. Most of the people onscreen at any given moment were white and male.

“There are moments when you’ll recognize someone or something that breaks the pattern. These are kind of the moments I live for,” said Macklin. “[It] makes it feel less homogenous, brings in more variety. So today I’m going to actually describe some things that I think we can do to break that pattern more often.”

Macklin is concerned about patterns of speech. When Meggan Scavio, the general manager of the Game Developers Conference, was interviewed by GamesIndustry International about GDC 2014’s advocacy track, Macklin read the comments on the article and found worn-in patterns among responses from male game developers as to why there aren’t more women in their companies.

“Yes, the people we employ to make our games is highly discriminatory, but the discrimination is all to do with their ability to perform the task at hand,” read one comment. “There are not many female engineers or programmers because that doesn’t interest most females,” read another. “I just think video games is something that appeals more to guys than girls,” read a third comment. These are simply false propositions, old ideas that get recycled over and over again by men who don’t want to take a cold, hard look at the reality of gender inequality in the video game industry. Laralyn McWilliams, Lauren Scott, and Anna Kipnis are not isolated examples.

Macklin is concerned about the patterns that prevent women from speaking at industry conferences. When Paolo Pedercini observed that the Independent Games Summit at GDC this year had an all-male lineup, he kicked off a heated debate. Supporters of the IGS pointed out that there were women in the Summit, but they were all part of the Indie Soapbox session in which each speaker gets just five minutes at the podium. People involved with the Summit claimed a lack of quality panel submissions. Women whose talks were rejected began to speak up. It was another, familiar pattern.

“Observing [patterns], though, is just a beginning. I do think we should open our eyes and observe them and talk about them, but I think we actually need to do something in response to break them,” said Macklin. “We’re designers. We’re talking about systemic issues, and we design systems.”

“The advocacy track is a start, but let’s make sure it doesn’t become a backwater for these kinds of issues. It helps us give voice, identify, and hopefully break some of these patterns … but if this panel is successful, if the track is successful it will eat itself. It will be the cause of its own obsolescence, and let’s hope for that in the future,” said Macklin. She wants the community that has gathered around the #1ReasonToBe banner to support other events such as the Queer Games Conference, GaymerX, and IndieCade East, which Macklin cited as one of the most diverse conferences she’s ever attended.

Diversity is at the edges, and anyone who wants to promote the cause of diversity in the video game industry needs to expand their networks and make connections to those in the edge spaces. “It’s important to take chances and let new people in,” said Macklin.

Making games is easy. Belonging is hard.

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!”

Above: Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!”

Image Credit: Deirdra Kiai Productions

The panel ended with a presentation by Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai, who is the creator of the indie game Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!” It was nominated for four Independent Game Festival Awards this year. Kiai does not use gender pronouns to describe themself, and it was through playing the browser-based role-playing game Echo Bazaar, which is currently titled Fallen London, that Kiai came to embrace their identity.

“As I created my character, I discovered that, along with the standard man and woman options, I could also choose to be a person of mysterious and indistinct gender,” said Kiai. “When I realized that choosing that third option felt more right than anything, that I didn’t have to be a defective woman or a defective man but just myself, something inside me just unlocked. Slowly but surely, I started to dress and present differently, so that when I looked in the mirror, I started to see someone who looked more like how I felt. I started to embrace the use of singular they. Who cares if it’s grammatically incorrect?”

A running gag in the Monkey Island series of adventure games is various characters lying and saying that their name is “Squinky” by way of hiding their identity. Kiai chose to adopt that moniker as her nickname, and right after finishing her undergraduate degree, they got a job in the game development industry working for Ron Gilbert, who created the Monkey Island franchise.

Kiai found making video games much easier than trying to fit into the industry as a developer. They were neither one of the guys nor one of the girls. They were invisible. “And it’s not just true of me; it’s true of all manner of us who don’t fit a certain young, thin, white, femme, able-bodied heteropatriarchal beauty standard,” said Kiai. “The double-bind of, if you’re hot enough, you get to have your hard-earned accomplishments diminished, and if you’re not hot enough … well, you’re defective. Disgusting. Completely irrelevant. Heads, they win. Tails, you lose.”

Kiai pushed their way into the video game industry for fear of disappearing if they didn’t. “I became one of those outspoken angry feminists everyone loves to hate, daring to say out loud all the things everyone else was silent about, because they didn’t want to burn any professional bridges,” Kiai said. “The one they always privately claimed they agreed with, except, you know, ‘We still want to be marketable to gamers.'”

“I became their scapegoat. I was willing. I was young, foolish, and had nothing to lose I didn’t last in the industry very long, as you can probably imagine,” said Kiai. “I was pushed over to the margins, where I quietly worked alone on my own projects, desperately struggling to find my voice. They could exclude me all they wanted, but they couldn’t stop me from making games.”

Dominique Pamplemousse was a way for Kiai to express frustration with binary conceptions of gender. “I don’t think anyone can fully be described by a gender or a race or a sexuality or any other limiting category. I think there are as many target audiences as there are people,” said Kiai. “One day, I want to see a game industry that understands this. I want to see a game industry that tells its young and up-and-coming developers that their stories are valuable, that their unique creative voices are worth cultivating.”

Kiai believes that things are starting to change, in no small part due to the number of artists, critics, and academics who are gathering at panels like #1ReasonToBe or at other conferences and events. That said, Kiai’s game did not win any of the awards for which it was nominated, and rather than being upset by this, Kiai was relieved.

“The thing is, being recognized for awards like the IGF means being seen. And being seen, when you’re a person who looks like me, is a double-edged sword,” Kiai said. “The more attention and notoriety I get, the more I start wondering when all the 4Chan trolls are going to come out and get me. Like they’ve done to, oh, pretty much every single person I like and respect in games. I’ve already started to see them pop up on Steam. I know they’re just trolls, and I’m just supposed to ignore them. But honestly? I’m terrified.

“Maybe it’s better to be invisible. I know invisible. I can live with invisible.”

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