What It's Like To Be A Woman Making Video Games

What It's Like To Be A Woman Making Video Games

There's been a lot of anger creeping into my corner of the internet. Anger about the unequal or insensitive treatment of women and minorities, specifically within the game industry.

As a woman working in games since 2007, I've felt hurt, discouraged, and isolated by various forms of discrimination. Most of it came from people who were in no way intending to be hurtful. Anger does not accurately describe my true feelings, and so I don't feel angry.

Really, I don't.

Disclaimer: I've worked on many projects with over a dozen different studios. None of the following content is meant to implicate anyone in particular, and it is not a strictly linear narrative.

Story time!

Let's say you're a guy who's just entered the game industry right out of college. People joke about you being all young and fresh-faced, but then after a couple of months they get tired of the joke, or some new blood moves in and you're not the "young guy" any more.

Now let's say you're a woman who's entered the game industry right out of college. People joke about you being all young and fresh-faced, and after a couple of months they still haven't tired of the joke, and no other young women have been hired, so you're still the "young girl." Oftentimes you're the only woman in a packed conference room. Oftentimes you're the only one under 40.

What It's Like To Be A Woman Making Video Games

You work hard on several good projects, even though some people tell you or your boss that you're "unqualified" to work on them because you're "only 22." You travel to work with developers. Sometimes when you meet a new colleague and extend your hand to shake theirs, they hug or kiss you instead, after having shaken the hands of your male colleagues.

At some of these studios, there are literally no other women in sight. There's a women's bathroom, but the light is always off, because you're the only one who uses it, and you have to fumble for it in the dark. If it's nighttime and you're walking down the vacated hallway of a shared office building in an unfamiliar city to a bathroom only you use, you feel afraid you'll be cornered.


At some of these studios, there are literally no other women in sight.


Every year, you like to go to the Game Developers Conference because it's interesting and energizing. You're hanging out at GDC, conversing with a group of people, and you mention your love for Warcraft III. A male presenter looks at you incredulously and asks, in earnest: "You play games?"

Years pass. You're constantly meeting new people and working on new teams. You're not fresh out of college any more, in fact you're reviewed well and ranked highly, but you're still the only young woman in the room, and nobody's tired of the joke yet. Now, if someone wants you out of their way, they say you're "unqualified" because you're "only 24." Or 25. Or 26. When there's a decision to be made about who from the company will go visit a developer to discuss a new project, you are told that they really need to send "a guy's guy… Someone who can hold his liquor, drink a lot with the developers, and earn their trust." Definitely not you.

You have a nice window office. One night, you're working late. Most people have already gone home. A drunken coworker, also staying late, leans across the doorway of your nice window office and makes slurred conversation with you for about 20 minutes. He starts to make comments about your appearance. He's still blocking your doorway. You feel afraid, because you don't know how to get rid of him. Your heartbeat is fast; you glance at a big stupid corporate plaque on your desk and wonder if, in case of need, it could knock this guy unconscious. A friend drops by at the right time and the drunkard scuttles away, but after that, you feel anxious every time you work late.

You feel lonely, you feel like a novelty, you feel like a fraud. You feel like you don't deserve a seat at the table. You've had long hair most of your life, but you cut it short in hopes that people will take you more seriously.

What It's Like To Be A Woman Making Video Games

When you investigate new jobs, the men interviewing you ask how old you are. In one interview, the HR staff warn you that at their company, you'd better be able to "take a joke."

You've met a lot of great people, and you have a lot of friends that you like to work with. Sometimes you don't feel lonely or like a novelty, like when you're sitting around the lunch table, cracking jokes with your coworkers. You feel happy and included. But when one of your coworkers makes a joke that is crude, even though it doesn't offend you at all and you haven't even had time to laugh, he turns to you and apologizes, because you are the only woman at the table and your delicate sensibilities must have been affronted. You feel lonely again. You feel like you're not supposed to be at the table.

After that, when you meet new people in the game industry, sometimes you go out of your way to swear or say something off-colour as quickly as possible, so your new male acquaintances will feel comfortable and won't feel the need to walk on eggshells. You feel unnatural.

It's been several years since you were fresh out of college, but still, every time you meet someone new, the odds are good that they'll make a joke about your age, and even the people you've worked with for a while never seem to let it go. You beat yourself up for feeling hurt and defensive about it, because you know they don't mean any harm — except for the occasional person who makes it clear that they do.

One day a coworker leaves an unsolicited, romantically-charged gift on your desk where everyone can see it. You didn't ask for this, and you feel deeply embarrassed as you hide it away out of sight.

On a new project, a certain lead wants to be the only one allowed to communicate with the developer so he can "manage the relationship." You're on the team, but miss his memo and send a short, friendly email to the developer that says you're looking forward to working with them. In response to this violation, the lead writes a very long email with an absolutely volcanic assessment of your personal failings — including your age — and emails it to your boss, the project's producer, and two other coworkers that you like and respect. Your boss shows you the email, then sits with you and comforts you while you sob in an empty conference room for half an hour.

Over the years, other people's words and actions pile onto your shoulders. You feel enormous pressure to pretend that nothing bothers you, because you don't want to give others more power to hurt you, or upset people you care about or make them feel uncomfortable.


You feel that the things that hurt you would never have happened if you weren't female, and on a certain level, you feel that you deserve it.


So you don't say anything, you try to ignore it, and the result is an ever-present sense of isolation that chills your enthusiasm and makes you defensive.

You feel that the things that hurt you would never have happened if you weren't female, and on a certain level, you feel that you deserve it.

Many of my female colleagues have similar stories. Some of these experiences made me feel angry when they happened. If similar things have happened to you, or to someone you work with or love, you've probably also felt angry.

The psychologist Thomas Gordon posited that anger is never a primary emotion. It is a secondary emotion, experienced after an earlier feeling. He says that anger is:

...a posture deliberately and consciously assumed … for the express purpose of blaming, punishing, or teaching a lesson. … Whenever you get angry at another you are putting on an act, playing a role to affect the other, to show him what he has done, teach him a lesson, try to convince him he shouldn't do it again. I'm not suggesting that the anger isn't real. It is very real and makes people boil or shake inside. I am suggesting that people make themselves angry.

So I want to submit that what we ACTUALLY feel is fear, disappointment, isolation, sadness, resentment, and self-doubt. Anger is just the outermost layer, like an onion's skin. You have to peel the first layer, and then the next, to find out what's buried at the center.

When I see rants and accusations about who did what and why it's very bad and why they need to change and stop being very bad, right now, I feel annoyed and frustrated because I know the only result is that everybody's gonna feel just a little bit more uptight. How do you feel when someone assumes a posture of anger toward you? Does it make you more or less inclined to listen to them?

Most people have good hearts and really DON'T want to offend. But when men feel terrified of offending the women they work with, it only contributes to our sense of isolation and inequality. And when particularly motivated and well-intentioned people try to champion my problems and become an Ally in the Great Struggle for Equality, they risk assuming there's a problem when there is none, and reminding me to feel isolated and powerless in moments when I was just fine. They are often the ones who tense up at the lunch table first and express hope that I wasn't offended by something. Their efforts make me uncomfortable, and I wish they'd simply listen.

So let's everybody peel our onions, and name what we're actually feeling, and what we've actually, personally experienced. It's a much stronger position to start from, because you can't debate feelings the way you can debate arguments or comic strips or abstract principles.

Peel your onion. And then talk.

Disclaimer, part II: Over the past six years, I've had plenty of good times. I've met kind, supportive, creative people, and made friendships that I treasure. Thanks to all of you.

Illustrations by @Lechooga.


Whitney Hills has worked in games since 2007 and has shipped over a dozen titles. She currently works as an independent game designer, writer, and consultant. She tweets as @whitney. This essay was originally posted on her website, Dead Reckon. Re-published with permission.


Comments

    Well said.

    Most people have good hearts and really DON’T want to offend. But when men feel terrified of offending the women they work with, it only contributes to our sense of isolation and inequality. And when particularly motivated and well-intentioned people try to champion my problems and become an Ally in the Great Struggle for Equality, they risk assuming there’s a problem when there is none, and reminding me to feel isolated and powerless in moments when I was just fine.

    Couldn't have said it better myself. I've been trying to make people aware of this for years. It's fine to support others, but don't try to fight their battles for them. It just disempowers them and sends the message you don't think they can look after themselves.

      It's fine to support others, but don't try to fight their battles for them. It just disempowers them and sends the message you don't think they can look after themselves.

      There's a good episode in Scrubs season 3 I think that touches on this topic.

      Well-rounded discussion and exploration of the issue make this one of the better and more poignant reads Kotaku has done on the subject. It's a complex problem that's only trivialised if you try to simplify it out of anger. It seems like for a change, it's a gradual learning experience for both men and women, fraught with problems. It just takes an exceptionally clear head like this to really move forward.

      Great article.

        A slight correction, mainly just to give proper credit, this wasn't done by Kotaku, it was only re-published by them.

    No crust plz. K thx.

      Ummmm what?

        He's making a joke about the author needing to go back into the kitchen and make him a sandwich, but with no crust.

          Yeah. Poor taste. But I'm bored.

            So go do something somewhere else. It was in poor taste. It wasn't funny or clever. It didn't add to the conversation in any way.

            You make yourself sound like that guy who thinks it's hilarious to yell "penis" in a shopping mall.

      You must have known, when you wrote that, that people were going to think "ugh, there's that guy being a sexist douchebag", right? No-one could possibly lack the self-awareness required to not know that.

      So, you know. Why do it? What sort of person wants to be considered an asshole?

    Just wondering whether a woman working in the gaming industry is really a lot worse off than a woman working in, say, the commerce industry. I've heard a lot of similar stories from my fiancee who works as an auditor, and a lot of scenarios in the piece can definitely apply to non-game related jobs too. Sexism at work is unfortunately a common problem, but articles like this one make the gaming industry sound so much worse than other industries. (Maybe it's true, I wouldn't know....)

    Last edited 13/09/13 1:40 pm

      Apart from the GDC bit, most of this could easily come up in stories about I.T, finance ir a lot of office jobs. What would be nice to see, is having brought a voice and shed light on the issue, that maybe the games industry will be the ones to improve conditions and set an example for the other industries.
      We can only hope.

        Indeed. This doesn't seem isolated to the gaming industry. Also to be quite honest, I've heard of much, much worse stories.

        The problem, from what I can understand is, mostly, that it's still a male dominated industry. The overall article circles around feeling isolated and occasionally threatened. If I was a male in a female dominated industry -- my minor capacity to feel feelings aside -- I imagine I too, would also find myself feeling isolated/alone and/or, if not threatened, at least intimidated.

        The last female I discussed the issue with (long time ago), said she pretty much dropped her IT courses for Arts courses simply because she was one of three or so females in most of her lectures.

        In the coming years as the younger generations reach university, I'm betting the university courses will see an increase in female attendance. This gives rise to a large amount of females entering the industry. Once this has happened, I'm betting the majority of the problem will pretty much go away.

    While I acknowledge that it must be difficult for a woman to build her career in ANY male dominated industry, some of the points raised are more to do with things in general, rather than specifically the 'games development' sector.

    A lot of it just sounds like dumb guys, sexist, loud mouthed, pushy, over bearing, wanker, asshole guys, of which I am loathe to say are EVERYWHERE, even in industries that you would think are more female orientated; like fashion (I work in fashion and there are asshole guys everywhere, especially in sales). These people, when put in a position of power often abuse it, promoting people that are friends over people that are better for the job, talking down to people, throwing their weight (and opinions) around for no other reason other than to assert their dominance, perpetuating systems that keep them is place, even if it's not for the good of the company.

    It sucks that someone has had these experiences, but i wouldn't attribute them to specifically the games development community, unfortunately it happens everywhere.

      Sure. But we're gamers, and this is a gaming news website. Let's fix our corner first, and then we can go in and help sort out the others.

        I think it's more a case of some men learning how not to be assholes. I don't think it has anything to do with 'games' or 'gamers' at all aside from the fact that the industry is predominantly male, so there are a lot of these douche bags. These assholes need to learn how to interact with women better in a general sense, so it applies to all male asshole across all walks of life.

      It sucks that someone has had these experiences, but i wouldn't attribute them to specifically the games development community, unfortunately it happens everywhere.

      It totally does. Dare I say it can be worse in other industries. I've been working for 10 odd year and I still get 'teased' about my age and being the 'young one'.

      It also doesn't seem like the people involved in the story did it with malicious intent, so it's also a case of how people perceive what others say and choose to interpret it.

      Where I work, we have a lot of senior managers that are females. Perhaps I'm lucky because it's a very equal opportunity place. Plus from personal experience I found it heaps better when I had a female boss.

        Where I work all the high up managing directors are all guys (and they're all related) who don't like hiring men as heads of department because:

        a) They say they are more likely to put up a fight for something they believe in and challenge the directors opinions (however absolutely f*cking ridiculous and borderline retarded these opnions may be).

        b) They don't have to pay women as much.

        They actually told me that. To my face. Which is total bullsh*t to begin with, but it also means i'll never get promoted because I'm a guy. Great.

        All this on top of the daily inappropriate comments and actions towards the female staff. Great huh?

          Whoa, that's total bullshit. Doesn't sound like a good place to work in that sense. :(

          I've never had a bad female boss, ever. But male bosses, they've come in all sorts of ranks on the asshole meter.

    Nice writeup Whitney!

    what we ACTUALLY feel is fear, disappointment, isolation, sadness, resentment, and self-doubt.

    I'm a guy and I feel the same. In my case it's more to do with not feeling like I'm in the right industry (not in gaming).

    Even though I've been working for 10 odd years, I still get called 'the young guy' and the issue of experience is thrown around too. So I don't believe this is an issue isolated to females or the game industry.

    Many of the things you wrote above apply to other industries and indeed to both genders. Besides perhaps the hand kissing. :P

    make games for u no one else but yourself, sex shouldn't change how the person feels about making games just be happy about what you have made.

    Last edited 13/09/13 2:35 pm

      It's worth reading more than the headline, you know.

    A great article and one that brings up a very important point. While it's important to ensure that females are not mistreated and discriminated against in the workplace, it's also important to not go to the other extreme and start treating them as fragile and delicate creatures that might break from a single incorrect move or word by you or others.

    It must be hard. Over time every action can become something that makes you feel self conscious. I completely understand this. I think whenever you really need a overbearing self-confidence to not let this get to you.

    You can tell because at first when people make that sexist joke it might offend you and later on when someone makes that sexist joke, it offends you that they apologise too fast assuming you cant take it. It might sound like a paradox but this shows exactly how over time it slowly chips away.

    Great article, I work in the media industry (I'm in radio, but I think this applies to TV as well), and I feel that both fields have the same problem of being a male dominated industry (which is ironic in media, being that half the industry is targeting the household grocery shopper, which is predominantly women.) One of the best things I think a girl can do to overcome this issue is to work hard to kick arse at what you do. If you can do that, the nay-sayers will be proven wrong and learn their place.

    I was studying in a gaming university, and actually quit because of experiences like this. If any of the guys brought up a sequence of problems with a game idea, it was helpful to know so they could fix it, but when I did I was labeled a bitch. Jokes were either made with leers at me, as if daring me to challenge their appropriateness, or with endless appologies afterwards for being so thoughtless. Every female in my year level was in the last ten (out of around 90) to be picked for a final year project.
    People acted like complimenting our looks, often false, allowed them to get away with wrong doing, or meant that we weren't allowed to complain or comment on things. I won't even go into the backchat that happened. Unfortunetly this is a problem that develops in the colleges and universities and then carries on into the industry and has mostly stripped me of any will to work in it any more.

    Excellent write-up.

    If it's any consolation, the experience is almost exactly the same (both positive and negative) when you're a young male in a female-dominated profession (down to the spear counterpart of the hair thing - having had short hair all your life, you grow it very long to try and fit in better).

    Probably the only differences are that your professional development gets held back because any work involving manual labour (unpacking boxes, climbing shelves, moving furniture, any shopping that involves carrying more than one bag of stuff, etc.) is "men's work", and as the only male under 40, that means you. Any questioning of this is evidence of a "poor attitude" and "typical of men" (which is ironic when considered against "the other assumption" about a male working in a female-dominated profession). And, in almost any situation in which there is a potential risk to female staff (working late, talking with angry/aggressive customers, travelling, any work situation involving alcohol, etc.), it's assumed you're actually Superman in disguise, and so must accept these tasks because your testicles make you invulnerable to all forms of physical harm. Ooh, and my favourite is that deeply hurtful and offensive remarks must be met with absolute stoicism, becuase you have no feelings to hurt - the sight of a single tear or tremor leads to the obvious conclusion that you are mentally unstable and a potential threat to all your female co-workers, and must be quarantined - pretty much literally - lest you hulk-out or go postal or something.

    My conclusion is that being an arsehole is a deeply human thing - it knows know barrier to race, religion, colour, intelligence or gender.

    EDIT: Disclosure - obviously my profession isn't a games one directly, but it is an "allied profession", I guess. We get panels at PAX and (with a little effort) can go to E3 and stuff.

    Last edited 14/09/13 6:23 am

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