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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.
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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.
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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.”