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Video games have a problem when it comes to the inclusion of women in game design and the depiction of females in video games.
It’s not quite like the 1950s. But women in positions of leadership like Lyndsay Pearson, the lead producer of The Sims 4 at Electronic Arts’ The Sims studio, are still a rarity.
The Sims Studio is an island of diversity in an industry that is sorely lacking when it comes to gender balance — but it still lags. The percentage of women in EA’s The Sims Studio, based in Redwood City, Calif., is just 20 percent. That’s high for most game studios, but it’s nowhere near parity, given the population and the roughly 50 percent female audience of The Sims games.
Some may view the gender-balance issue with frustration, while others may see so much progress in characters like Ellie in The Last of Us or Jodie in Beyond: Two Souls in 2013. Like it or not, women like Pearson are role models. So we asked her about that. Here’s part one of our interview with Pearson.
GamesBeat: How did you get your start in the game industry?
Lyndsay Pearson: I started at EA in 2002. I came in through the QA department. My friends had told me, “Don’t tell anyone you like The Sims. They’ll make you install it all the time.” But, of course, I loved The Sims, so I came in to the QA department for the Sims and started working with the dev team, getting to know the way that they worked. I started collaborating a lot with the developers and moved my way into production on the first Sims game.
I had a chance to work with a lot of the different disciplines, to figure out where I wanted to go. I ended up in the production realm. There were lots of great influences for me. One of the first producers I worked with was a woman named Melissa Bachman-Wood, who was a senior leader on the team at the time. She was a great influence, showing where I could go and what I could do. I had a chance to work with someone I still work with today, Shannon Copur, who’s been on The Sims for, I don’t know, ever? I was able to work closely with her and learn more about The Sims.
In production, I had a chance to work on UI, to work on content creation — a little bit of art here and there. My background is in art, but I came in through the production track because I enjoy working with all the different people across the team and all the disciplines. Since then, I’ve worked on all the expansion packs and base games — Sims 2, Sims 3 — and currently, I’m the senior producer on The Sims 4. I’ve just worked my way up the production leadership chain, and there have been lots of great influences along the way, which is one of the wonderful things about this studio.
GamesBeat: Was EA your first video game job?
Pearson: It was. I started right out of school. Before this, I was a waitress at Outback. [Laughs] Very exciting. The Sims has become my family. Working at Maxis was where I grew up and learned how to be a professional. I love being able to learn so much from that culture over time — how this studio works, how it’s balanced and managed.
Being able to keep that going forward and be a mentor for other new people — with EA now, I get a chance to talk with the interns and the co-ops. They bring a lot of student groups to encourage them to stay with computer science or engineering or things that might be useful for creators here. It’s particularly nice to be able to talk to young women, to have them come through and talk about what it’s like to work in the games industry. It’s not just all engineering. There are lots of aspects to game development that you can be a part of.
We have female representation across the board. We have artists, engineers, producers, marketing and PR partners. It’s nice to be able to talk to these girls who are just thinking about what the future might be and say, “Hey, all these cool things are open to you. There are all these opportunities in games. It’s a fun world to be a part of. There’s always something new.” Even in The Sims. Especially in The Sims. We have a very active audience that talks to us all the time, so there’s always something fun to engage in.
GamesBeat: Was Luc Barthelet the lead back then, or was it Will Wright when you started out?
Pearson: When I joined Maxis — this is when it was still based out in Walnut Creek [not Emeryville, its current San Francisco Bay area location] years ago — Will Wright and Luc were very important figures in the studio. I had a chance to get to know each of them a little bit. I was a very low man on the totem pole when I started, obviously, as an assistant producer. But the influence that they had across the studio was felt a lot.
What was exciting about The Sims in the beginning was just how open the studio felt. It’s still true about Maxis today. We have leadership and a hierarchy like any other company, but everyone feels invested, from any QA person up to the senior execs. The fact that it’s so open — anyone can talk about good ideas and where they’re coming from — is a cool part of our culture here. I haven’t seen it at a lot of other places. I like that about how we work.
GamesBeat: The Sims started out as something totally different. Was it more gender-balanced from the start?
Pearson: The Sims started as a very architectural simulation, actually. It was about building houses. The Sims existed solely as a feedback mechanism to tell you how well you built your house.
The female leads at the time — Kana Ryan was one of them – suggested, “What if the Sims were more than that? What if it was about their stories? What if they had to get jobs, had families, had friends? How would that change the dynamic?” This completely changed the feel of the game, and turned it into what we know today. It’s the basis for what we’ve been building on all these years. The balance of the female leadership at the time brought in this totally different flavor that wasn’t part of the game originally.
The way that we continue to maintain that balance across the studio now leads us to a good approach to The Sims. We’re telling stories about life. Everyone has different experiences to add to that. The women on the team bring in some experiences. The men have different ones. I always like to reference one of our designers, Ray Mazza. He has some of the best ideas for women I’ve ever heard. [Laughs] But it’s great that we have that balance. We all get to talk about it together. We all get to riff on each other and build this cool experience that you wouldn’t necessarily get if we didn’t have that mix.
GamesBeat: Then you get into one of these interesting questions — was it a diverse team just because it was The Sims? Like, if you were working on a shooter, I imagine Maxis might have looked like a lot of other studios across the industry, where it’s mostly men on the team.
Pearson: It has a lot to do with the culture of the studio. The culture of Maxis has encouraged a diversity of gender, a diversity of backgrounds. We encourage people to come at it from all sorts of angles. That helps us better make the games that we make.
The Sims and the other products in the Maxis family have a very specific feel to them. They’re more open. They’re more creative. They’re about stories. They’re about life, about a different slice than other games take. A lot of that comes specifically from the way that we’ve built this diverse culture. We have people that are all passionate about what we’re doing, and we all want to create these tools and experiences for our players.