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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.
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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.
GamesBeat: Did it feel, at the time, like The Sims or Maxis was almost a foreign object in the middle of the video game business?
Pearson: I think Maxis continues to feel a little different. [Laughs] I’ve talked to people on other teams. I’ve worked with other teams across the studio. Everyone has their own special magic that makes them what they are. For Maxis, it’s that diversity for us. It’s the variation of what makes up our teams.
We always feel a little bit like outsiders, but I think any team would say that, to an extent. You build your own culture. You build your own set of what motivates you. That’s what makes your games different, regardless of if you’re making a shooter or a Sims game. The Sims games continue to have that special flavor because of that diversity, just as Battlefield has a specific flavor because of the way its teams are.
GamesBeat: Then it became a sort of magnet, as it got really successful.
Pearson: I think so. For players, there’s something about The Sims that continues to draw them to it, over and over. It resonates with everyone in a different way. It’s something you can identify with. It’s not the same as — my husband plays lots of games. He likes different experiences. I’m exploring a thing, I’m blowing up a thing, whatever it is — we like to play those types of games. But they resonate with you on a different level of enjoyment. The Sims resonates with you in a way like, “I may have done this in my life” or “I could do this in my life.” There’s a different chord that it strikes. So it does have a pull toward a different type of audience.
A common misconception about The Sims is that it’s more of a girls’ game. It’s not. We have a really diverse audience that’s quite balanced between men and women. I think it’s because it resonates with those real stories and real lives. I love it when I can go home and talk to my parents — who don’t play games at all — and say, “Hey, let me tell you what I did in The Sims today.” I’ll tell them some funny story about how my Sim went on a date, and then she ended up breaking up with the guy, and somebody yelled at her. They understand what all that is, and so there’s a connection immediately. It’s a franchise and a game that speaks beyond normal gaming boundaries. Everybody gets a story about that.
GamesBeat: It seems like a magnet inside the studio as well, drawing women to come work on it.
Pearson: It definitely appeals to women developers, because it’s a different style of game. It has a lot more player influence. You’re directing your Sims to do all sorts of different things, a huge breadth of possibilities. It absolutely has drawn in women for that reason.
It’s drawn in a lot of other developers for that reason. A lot of people in our studio, a lot of men who come in out of college, played SimCity as kids and they love what Maxis is about. Or they grew up playing The Sims and they love what we’re about. It’s drawn both aspects, but there’s definitely an appeal to the types of stories we tell with The Sims that draws the women of the world. We encourage that.
GamesBeat: Given where you are in the industry, how do you look at the gender issues around us? You have a view that’s a little more elevated, since you’ve been in gaming for so long. You’ve watched this become, at different points, a hot-button in the industry. It seems to me that game industry feels like it’s behind a lot of other industries as far as bridging the gender gap. Movies and TV addressed these things earlier in their history than the game industry has.
Pearson: It’s an interesting cause-and-effect problem. Which one changes first? I do think that, in the Sims studio, we feel like we’re trying to push that boundary as much as possible. We’re constantly making games that appeal to more than just women. We’re not just a girls’ game. We try to make sure it’s something that both men and women can enjoy.
By using that as a tool to speak to the player, we’re trying to invite them to understand that games are for more than just boys as well. There’s that stereotype of guys sitting in a basement playing games, but it’s so much more than that. The gaming audience includes way more women than ever before. The Sims has been at the forefront of that, and we continue to try to encourage that as much as possible.
The way we try to continue to push our games out makes a difference there, trying to show other people that this game is for anyone. You can get what you want out of it. There’s an opportunity to enjoy it in a different way. I think you’re starting to see more of that in other games as well. But it’s a combination. You have to push against the bias that games are just for guys, as well as the bias that game development is just for guys. They go hand in hand.
We want to push against both of those things. We have a lot of influential women leaders on The Sims. We try to take part in GDC talks and the events that happen around those types of conferences. EA brings a lot of people to do chats here. We try to get out to the game development community and talk about this at a broader level.
GamesBeat: You can feel happy about how much progress has been made, I suppose, but you can also feel frustrated about how far there is to go.
Pearson: It’s true. I like to feel happy, personally. I like to see the progress that’s been made. As I mentioned earlier, I relish the opportunities to talk to the next generation of women that are coming up through school and encouraging them to go this route.
It’s a very hot topic now, encouraging women to do math and science and be more involved in engineering and science and computer science. Gaming is a great way to get that through to them, because so many more women are playing games now on different platforms and in different areas, whether it’s The Sims or so many other things. They’re getting more familiar with games as an entertainment medium. There will be a higher level of motivation to be involved in that in some fashion. It’s cracking open that door a bit each time, by exposing it to more people and more women in particular and saying, “Hey, there’s this whole industry here.”
When I first joined, I had played games as a kid, but I never thought of them as something anyone made. I just assumed that they magically arrived. When I went off to school, I went to art school, and I was planning to go into movies, because I figured that was what you did with art-school stuff. I had a bunch of friends in game development and game design majors, though, and I was like, “Oh, right, games — that’s cool.”
I went to my first GDC, and I realized that games were doing everything movies were doing, but you could play them. That was awesome. It was a little lightbulb for me. I think we’re trying to connect those dots a bit more, so that people can understand that games are made by all sorts of interesting people, and you enjoy them. There’s something there that people can be a part of, that women can be a part of just as much as anyone else.
GamesBeat: What are some things that you think have helped push this progress forward, whether big or little? Things that happen on a daily basis, or things that happen on a larger scale?
Pearson: From a development standpoint, I love the fact that in our studio, and in the way the studio’s represented to the rest of EA, our top leadership ranks are all women. Our VP of the studio is a woman. My executive producer is a woman, and other leads on my team. Within EA, that sends a message about how important that can be.
Within games, other games are making a lot of progress as well, with stronger female protagonists and characters. The Sims has always pushed a completely genderless world, so to speak. Any female Sim can do anything a male Sim can do. I love that about The Sims. You can pick any character you want and push them to tell these amazing stories. The only difference is how they use a bathroom, I think? [Laughs] That’s it.
We’ve even gone so far, in The Sims, to let male Sims get pregnant. We really try to even up that playing field. Which is great, because it sends that message about gender equality. I feel like other games are trying to push that as well, which is encouraging. We hit it on both fronts, which makes me excited to be part of this studio and part of The Sims.
GamesBeat: How do you make some of the decisions around things that affect the perceptions of gender in your games? I think of things like how much nudity do you use in showers and stuff like this? On some level, parents may feel like this is a game for kids, but it has nudity and sex. All these things are part of real life but aren’t necessarily shown in games. How do you decide what to include and how to handle it?
Pearson: For The Sims, a lot of it has to do with this core set of brand values we’ve defined over time. The Sims is an optimistic view of life. It’s a lighthearted take on reality. It’s still a game. We’re not striving to be a photo-realistic simulation of everything about life.
For that reason, there are certain conceits we’ve historically made because it’s just “Sims-ey.” We use that word all the time. Some things are Sims-ey. Censoring them in the shower, for example, is a choice that we made ages ago, and it’s remained true, because it supports the line drawn between you directing these little people in the world and them having some amount of privacy from you. It’s a Sim’s way of telling you, “Hey, this is my private space. You can’t see here.”
As for other decisions about how we decide what we’re showing or not showing – how we pick clothing, for example – all of that is approached equally across the board. We say, “Hey, we’ll make skimpy bikinis for girls because everybody wants those. Well, guys totally need Speedos, too.” We support both, because we want to support all types of stories.
It’s fun to get into those conversations. The male pregnancy is a great example. We had that in Sims 2. It’s one of those things we all laughed about, but we’re like, “Why not? We can do that.” It was funny to tell the story from that point of view and give people more space to do interesting things and push their Sims in different directions.
GamesBeat: Where do some of the players come in and push you further in other directions? Do they make you think more about some of these issues?
Pearson: One interesting anecdotal example. In The Sims 4, we’ve introduced a lot of body modification. Something that gets harped on in games a lot is boob sliders. They’ve been quite a point of contention in other games. Well, what we find interesting about our audience is that we’re very mixed. We introduced these sliders for body shapes, and the women in our audience are way more excited about the boob sliders than our male audience. They can re-create themselves and people that they know. They wanted that control to be able to make different body shapes. It just means different things in The Sims, and I appreciate that.
We’re saying that this is about creating anything you can imagine, about telling any story you can imagine. Our tools mean different things. It’s kind of a subtle jab at everything else, but I like it. It’s a subtle point. For us, this tool is important, because it lets you build who you want to create. The arguments against other games have always been, “It doesn’t really matter, because it’s clearly just gratuitous.”
It’s fun to see our super-vocal community coming out on the boards and saying, “We need more boob shapes! We need more butt sliders!” All right, guys, we’re working on it. And it’s not because they’re looking to make crazy-looking characters. It’s because they’re trying to realize actual replications of people they know, or of themselves. That’s really cool.
GamesBeat: So you have more elevated discussions of issues than a lot of games have.
Pearson: [Laughs] I’d like to think so. We have lots of conversations about how to emulate realistic body types. How do we emulate realistic relationships? We talk about a different level of stuff than sometimes people may think.
It’s a fun part about being here. There are obviously different experiences, when you talk to a woman on the team or a man on the team — the things they remember growing up and the like. Maybe a woman remembers being a girl and having her hair braided. We think, “OK, is that a moment we want to have in The Sims? How would we do something like that?” It’s nice to have all those different story inputs, so we can figure out how to better represent the breadth of life that everyone wants to enjoy in the game.
GamesBeat: Gender issues came up a couple of times in the last year in big ways. Anita Sarkeesian did her video series, talking about tropes in stories for video games. She brought up one interesting subject about The Last of Us and how even if you see Ellie as this fantastically realized character in the game, she still fits into a certain pattern of having to be rescued by the man in the game so many times. It’s one more story that fits this established pattern, that women in games are always there to be rescued. How do you feel about some of these discussions that have been happening?
Pearson: The conversation that’ll continue to occur is going to be part of moving things forward. Even coming at it from all these different angles, making it a topic that people are aware of and thinking about continues to push it forward. You do see parallels to this in the TV and movie industries. I happen to be a big follower of Joss Whedon, and he gets comments about this all the time — “You have such strong female characters.” His point is, “I’m going to keep doing this until people stop asking me why I have strong female characters.”
It’s the same kind of thing you see in the game industry. We’re going to run into that for a while. We’ll put these kinds of women in games and we’ll talk about it. Games are inching toward being more interesting and more diverse, which is wonderful. At some point we’ll get to where people don’t talk about it anymore. It won’t be about whether a character is a man or a woman. It’ll just be about whether they’re interesting or not.
The conversation continuing to occur is an encouragement that we’re going in the right direction. Hopefully people just keep pushing that envelope.
GamesBeat: The interesting thing about the Naughty Dog guys is that they said they were surprised about how people dwelt on the notion that there’s this sexist storyline in the game, because they tried so hard to realize the women in the game. They’re not unaware of the issue, but they’re trying to make something different from what people had seen before. The response could be, well, they shouldn’t have been surprised. Maybe somebody on the team who was there might have pointed that out before they started down that road. I don’t know.
Pearson: It’s an interesting line. There’s a level of — if you push too hard to not do a thing, you might be perceived as doing it anyway. The balance is hard to strike. I appreciate people trying to push that line. It’s important that we keep trying to get to that place where it’s just about interesting stories, and it isn’t a question of whether, because a woman did one thing or another, it’s just the same old story. I hope that we can continue to get better at that.
GamesBeat: There was also the Twitter discussion, the “Reason to Be.” What was interesting there was that it didn’t seem to be sparked by anything in particular. There was just an expression of dissatisfaction with the state of things, the gender gap, that we have a long way to go.
Pearson: I have a lot of friends who were involved in following that, a lot of women I’ve worked with throughout the years who are now at other companies. It’s still a very challenging environment out there for women in game development. It’s still a hard club to get into for any developer, let alone women trying to get in. The amount of women out there trying to get into the industry is still pretty low, so our representation isn’t as high as we’d like it to be. That’s why we’re trying to encourage younger girls to come up through those ranks and learn more about the industry.
It’s going to take time for people to break some of the patterns they’ve followed for so long. It is an exciting industry to be a part of, and it’s a very challenging industry to be a part of. That’s true for men and women. Because women are still a lower percentage of that group, though, there are some challenges that we face on the whole that are a little bit different.
It varies from company to company, just like you were saying. Some people think it’s great. I think the Sims studio is one of the best places for that balance right now. I feel very lucky to be part of this studio, for that reason. I feel very supported. I feel like I’m part of the whole. We do a great job with what the women in our studio do and what our game does.
I could absolutely see how, at other companies, it’s a different culture and a different way of working. When I first joined QA here, the QA department was dominated by men who wanted to come in and play games. I remember having a conversation where someone said, “Are you going to be okay, being the woman on the team?” It surprised me, because I was like, “I play games with guys all the time. What do you mean?” But it definitely is something people are conscious of. Those challenges have not gone away yet. We’re still working toward that.
GamesBeat: There’s this Internet culture thing that invades quite often, too, where sexist and racist attitudes show up in multiplayer games. You’re listening to chatter and people go out of their way to talk like that on purpose.
Pearson: Just to stir up trouble, yeah.
GamesBeat: Sarkeesian got all kinds of death threats for saying what she said. If you’re the parent of someone who is going to be in the middle of that stuff, you don’t wish that on them, or on anyone. It seems like there’s something wrong here that has to be fixed. I don’t know exactly what is going to solve those different kinds of problems.
Pearson: We talked about it a bit earlier. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem, on both sides. You need to encourage women to be a bigger part of the industry and a bigger part of games. Those complement each other. The more women that are interested in games, the more will be interested in making them. The more women come into making games, the more they’ll influence games.
We need to come at it from both sides. We need to keep pushing our games to be appealing to both men and women and understand that people of any gender will play a game if it’s compelling, if it offers something new and different for them. In the industry, we want to keep encouraging women to join dev teams and engineering teams and PR teams, because they can influence the types of games that are out there and change them from the inside.
Unfortunately, it’s going to take a while. It’s not like you can run out and hire a bunch of people and change games right away. It’s a slow process. I see encouraging things happening, just as much as I see the really harsh realities that are still out there. I happen to be a very optimistic person. It’s probably why I love The Sims. I feel like we’re still moving the way that we should. Any time we get the opportunity, we should continue to push it and encourage breaking down those limits and making a better gaming experience that appeals to everyone, and a better industry to be a part of.
GamesBeat: There also seems to be more diversity of viewpoints among women in the industry, like women in eSports, who seem to be perfectly at ease and at home beating men in games that tend to be dominated by men. It seems like there are a lot of points of view that you can have.
Pearson: A lot of that just comes down to individual personalities and individual approaches to the types of games that they enjoy, or the types of competition they’re willing to be a part of. There are differences like that between people all over the place. Plenty of men I know are super uncomfortable with aggressive eSports, because they don’t like losing. [Laughs]
I think it has a lot more to do with finding the game you like and being passionate about it and being part of that culture, regardless of your gender. Hopefully that culture is willing to accept that. I think we are seeing more of that. Like you said, a lot of women are doing fine in eSports. I’ve seen lots of women in MMO guilds that do well. It’s out there.
More and more, we’re getting the recognition that the gaming audience is broadening – that a lot more women are involved, and they’re just as engaged as anyone else. That’s great. I hope that continues to be the case. Games really are for everyone. Everyone likes different stuff.
GamesBeat: Game design itself can be interesting as far as affecting change. Robin Hunicke was suggesting this feeling-focused game, where you think about the kind of emotional state you want to create in the gamer and then work back from there to design your game. You wind up with things like Journey, which she produced, if you take that approach. I would think that you would also wind up with games that a broader group of people like.
Pearson: That’s an interesting way to think about it. With The Sims, we think of it in terms of stories. What stories do we want to let people tell? But it’s very related to what she’s talking about.
Say I want someone to be able to tell the story of the sister and brother that got separated and found themselves back together. How do we do that? Then we approach the game design that way and say, “Oh, well, we would need to do this and the other thing.” We enable putting those pieces together in interesting ways.
The Sims has historically been used to tell all sorts of stories. With The Sims 3, we had the blogger that told a story about the dad and his daughter living homeless out in the world, how they dealt with that. It was called “The Story of Alice and Kev.” It was very heartfelt, a deep story that he was telling using the game as a tool. We didn’t sit in a room and specifically talk about how we could design features for that story, but the question was and is, how do we approach this to let you create feelings and connect with characters in a way that you might not get from something else?
Feeling is absolutely a part of it. Story is absolutely a part of it. Emotions and how a player connects to a character are part of it.
GamesBeat: You could build a sort of sandbox for making anything possible, but you could also create a directed story that carries a message with it.
Pearson: You could. The Sims is definitely more in the sandbox realm, because we want to let players put together a story on their own. It’s one of the things that’s most powerful about The Sims. But you can also give them those little hooks to push them down a particular path, to give them somewhere to start and see where it goes.
GamesBeat: Are there things you would still target that you feel like need progress, things that are facts of the game industry right now?
Pearson: That’s a big question. How would I fix the industry? Some of the things we’ve mentioned here — targeting more representation from women at conferences at talks, hearing from more women in development in the venues that people traditionally look at for gaming, that’s one way to make sure we’re surfacing that point of view. I would love to see more conversations about strong women as characters, and not because they’re women, but because they’re interesting characters.
I’d love to see more people find a way to open the conversation outside of their comfort zone, to encourage games or teams that feel like they’re more traditionally male to reach out to the women in their audiences and acknowledge that they’re there. They probably are. It’s a big challenge to tackle. I don’t have all the answers.
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