Siobhan Reddy, Studio Director at Media Molecule, Qantas Australian Woman of the year, one of the 100 most powerful women in Britain as named by the BBC. Former resident of Campbelltown. Former writer of complaint letters to Channel 9. Seller of Doc Martens. Lover of dogs. Loser of mobile phones. She is also invisible.
“I have a really unique story,” she says.
Siobhan Reddy might be the most important Australian person making video games right now and she’s right about one thing: she really does have a unique story.
This. This right here is Siobhan Reddy’s worst nightmare.
In front of a journalist. Speaking words. Having those words recorded, scribbled down. Siobhan Reddy would rather be anywhere else than here.
More specifically Siobhan Reddy would rather be in her studio, in Guildford, England, surrounded by creative people making creative things. She would rather be helping those people create. She would rather be invisible.
“I always worry that I’m going to say the wrong thing. Once I start talking I find it difficult to not talk!”
But Siobhan has to talk. Part of her understands that. It’s all the BBC’s fault. Being named one of Britain’s most powerful women and the QANTAS Australian Woman of the Year in quick succession tends to change a few things. It forces a person to evaluate the scope of their influence and how they are using that influence. “It was a bit of a kick up the butt,” says Siobhan.
For years Siobhan sat on a BAFTA community. She looked at the surveys, she became bewildered and depressed. The facts were clear: young women were showing zero interest in becoming a part of the games industry. “They weren’t seeing people like them in the games industry,” she explains. They weren’t seeing people like Siobhan Reddy.
Siobhan knows she can no longer be invisible.
Nowadays you can make the drive from Campbelltown to Canberra in under three hours (faster if you play loose with speed limits) but when Siobhan Reddy was a girl, sat in the back seat en route to another family visit, it took far longer. She killed time fighting over a lone Donkey Kong Game and Watch with her brother. It was the first time Siobhan remembers coming into contact with video games.
But Siobhan was never all that interested in games growing up. She defies that easy narrative. She remembers playing Monkey Island, remembers the presence of consoles in her home in Campbelltown. She just doesn’t necessarily remember playing them.
Her history is a little different: scattered memories of Doc Martens and strangely coloured shoe laces. Trips to the theatre. Music, fanzines and under age gigs. Bands you’ve never heard of.
“I was a bit of an oddball really.”.
Siobhan channeled her energies in multiple different directions. She became interested in theatre, later she would become obsessed with theatre. She became engrossed in the local music culture, did work experience at the legendary Phantom Records, one of Australia’s first independent record labels. With a wide-eyed enthusiasm she bashed on a keyboard and filled out databases. “People were like, wow, she really loves this?”
“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.”
Siobhan found herself engaged in interests she couldn’t reconcile. There was her Fanzine, ‘Tick Tock’, scattered with interviews of her favourite bands, political pieces and a rant about a cancelled under-age gig. Then at one point, with the help of an enthusiastic tech and design teacher she decided to take up video production. Before she knew it she had landed a spot at Film School in Melbourne and found herself completely overwhelmed. Was she ready to commit? Was this the one singular path she wanted to take?
“It was,” Siobhan pauses, “an interesting time.”
Siobhan made, at the time, an insane decision. She quit the job she loved. She rejected her place at Film School. She packed her bags and moved her entire life over to the UK, determined to make some sort sense of the multiple strands of her life to that point.
She was 18 years old.
“I don’t remember the moment,” explains Siobhan. “I just remember it happening.”
England was tough. It rained. A lot. It was cold. Previously Siobhan had the time and financial freedom to explore her different interests. Now she was struck by a very real need to simply survive. To pay rent, to buy food.
“That was probably good for me,” she says. “Really good. I just had to get jobs and start working. I had to figure out what I wanted to do, but I realised that to do things you had to have some stability in your life.”
Someone — a friend — suggested the games industry.
The games industry? Huh? Siobhan had been toying with the idea of working in theatre, of getting into film. She had a vague interest in interactive technology and the web, but video games? Donkey Kong? Monkey Island? She had begun to sort of play games with the PlayStation One. Somehow the idea clicked.
“I remember that it suddenly felt exciting to try that and do that,” says Siobhan. “Film, music, art, interactive tech. Games tied everything together.”
It was easier than Siobhan could have possibly imagined. She found a job and applied for it. She was amazed when she got an interview with Perfect Entertainment — the studio behind the Discworld games — and bamboozled when she was given the job.
“That,” she says, “was the beginning of me working in the games industry. I was given a chance, I was given an opportunity.
“I’m really lucky. Everything that’s happened to me in my life. I’ve been so lucky.”
“I have a really unique story. I’ve always worked with women.”
First there was Luci Black, a Scottish woman from Dundee. She hired Siobhan at Perfect Entertainment. Then, when Siobhan arrived in London to work at the studio, she quickly discovered the CEO of the studio was also a woman — Angela Sutherland. Eventually Siobhan’s career would take her to Criterion and the Burnout franchise, where she would work alongside Fiona Sperry, who co-founded Criterion with Alex Ward. Siobhan has always worked with women. That’s partly why she found it so easy to remain invisible.
“People talk to me about there not being women in the industry, but I never had that experience,” explains Siobhan. “And I never had to deal with people being sexist, unless it was behind my back. I’ve never experienced what other people have experienced. I think that comes from working with studios that have women.”
Siobhan worked hard. With women. She worked incredibly hard as a woman, as a games developer, learning her craft, honing her craft. That was her focus. Issues of diversity didn’t seem pertinent, the games did. For years, Siobhan describes herself as simply “being in the zone”.
“I wasn’t thinking about these issues,” she explains. “I just wanted to learn.”
But as Siobhan advanced in her career those issues became increasingly pertinent.
Siobhan eventually left her job at Criterion to co-found Media Molecule. She became Studio Director. She sat on a BAFTA committee and saw first hand how young women perceived the games industry. It was, as she put it, “depressing”. Every survey stated the same thing: young girls didn’t think the games industry was for them, it was an industry for men. They were being discouraged, by peers and by teachers. The role models these young girls needed to see were invisible. Siobhan, as Studio Director of a successful video game studio, was invisible.
“Then the BBC thing happened, and the QANTAS thing happened. It was a bit of a kick up the butt for me to try and become more visible. I hate, hate, hate it!” She says. “I’m very comfortable being in the studio. That’s my favourite place, hopped up on coffee!”
“But I would hate to feel like there are teenagers out there, who might be similar to me, who might not necessarily be into games, might not be sure what they want to do — and they just need to see somebody that’s gone through it.”
This is why Siobhan Reddy is sitting here, right now. Fielding questions. She hates, hates, hates it. This is her worst nightmare. But now she must become visible.
At Media Molecule, Siobhan Reddy is part of band. But she doesn’t like the idea of being a frontwoman.
“Bands are a little bit chaotic, but they have that shared intent.”
Siobhan enjoys the metaphor; she’s used it before. When discussing Grand Theft Auto V she paid tribute to the huge technical achievement it obviously is, but mentioned that it wasn’t the kind of game she would have been comfortable making. “I wouldn’t work in a band making music I hated,” she explained.
That conversation was part of a broader discussion: why did Rockstar not make one of its three protagonists a female?
It’s a question that Siobhan herself was familiar with, a question she asked herself whilst working on her own video game. When development of Media Molecule’s breakthrough title LittleBigPlanet was completed and the game finally hit shelves, Siobhan sat down to play the game and she cringed.
Sackboy. Sackboy. Sackboy. Something wasn’t right there. Where was Sackgirl? Why was Siobhan constantly being referred to as a male player? Media Molecule simply assumed its players would be male. Unconsciously. Perhaps subconsciously. It frustrated Siobhan.
“I felt like that mistake was my responsibility.I cringe when I think about how I didn’t catch that.
“I thought to myself, ‘I never want to make another game where we don’t address our female audience.”
Cinema has the Bechdel Test. It’s simple: does the film you’re watching have a scene where two women are talking to one another about something other than a man? If not, there’s a very likely chance that movie has a gender bias.
But what is gaming’s Bechdel Test? Some have suggested this: does the video game you are playing assume the player is male? If so, then we might have a problem.
At some point during the development of Tearaway, Siobhan asked herself the same question. Does my video game assume that I am male?
Tearaway’s main character was Iota. A male character. Why was Iota a male character, Siobhan wondered. Was Tearaway a male specific story; was a male protagonist the only option for the story the team was trying to tell?
“When we really got to the discussion of ‘who is this character and what is their story’, it became clear to me that there wasn’t a specifically male story. I thought, we just have to create a female main character, even if it’s just the female version of Iota. For me it was important they were both there.”
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Also important was the choice itself — providing players with the ability to choose how they were referred to.
“That’s important. Sometimes these things just require a little thought.”
‘A little thought’. Siobhan had more thinking to do. She asked herself one more question: why did the team only create a male protagonist to begin with? Why not create a female character? Siobhan realised it wasn’t the necessarily the result of any overt chauvinism, simply a force of habit. That in itself was a massive part of the problem.
“It was important for us to then think, ‘we’re making games for all people’. I always want us to have that discussion and be clear on why it is we’re doing these things.
“Sometimes it’s just a case of saying, ‘hang on, why are we doing that?’ And if the answer is just, ‘well that’s the way we’ve always done things’, then maybe we have to talk about that.”
Siobhan once wrote a complaint letter to Channel 9, only she doesn’t remember writing it, she only remembers the reply. Buried in photographs and memories she can only partially recollect, was a crumpled up piece of paper addressed to Siobhan Reddy.
“I was like, ‘I don’t remember writing this.”
The year was 1988 and a nine year old Siobhan Reddy had a big problem. Gremlins had been showing on Channel 9, but it was shown way past her bedtime so she couldn’t watch it. Clearly this was an issue that had to be rectified. And if someone was going to address this problem it might as well be Siobhan.
“I read these things now and again and I’m like, ‘what the hell was going on with me’!”
Siobhan would rather be invisible, but when there are important issues to address — be issues of diversity, cancelled gigs or rogue TV scheduling issues — Siobhan is willing to make herself visible, against all instincts to the contrary. That’s important. These issues are important. Gremlins, when you’re a nine year old oddball, is important. Diversity, Siobhan says, is important.
Siobhan has a nephew and he wants to make video games. He’s already applied for a job at Media Molecule. He’s 10 years old. Siobhan has a niece, but she’s not so sure.
“I really just hope that one person can get inspired by what I do,” says Siobhan. “Even if it’s just my niece!”