‘This Is Not A Medium That Excludes You, It’s A Medium That Is For You’: Cherie Davidson On Women In Games

‘This Is Not A Medium That Excludes You, It’s A Medium That Is For You’: Cherie Davidson On Women In Games
Image: ACMI

It’s not every day you get to have a chat with somebody that’s been heavily involved in Australia’s indie game industry in recent years like Cherie Davidson.

As David mentioned not long ago, ACMI’s Code Breakers: Women In Games exhibition is happening right now at Yarra Ranges Regional Museum, and aims to showcase the work of Australian women in the games industry. The exhibition features playable demos, from indies to AAAs, and is a great look into how women have made their mark in the industry.

One such Australian woman in the games industry who has her work showcased at the exhibit is Cherie Davidson. Davidson is a game developer and teacher in game development, with a portfolio including work on Dreams, Intergalactic Space Princess, Paperbark, Tearaway Unfolded, Wander, Necrobarista, and Untitled Goose Game. She’s also lectured and tutored game development at RMIT University in Melbourne, and was a judge and speaker at Freeplay Independent Game Festival in 2013, becoming the event’s first-ever Jury Chair only two years later.

To learn a little more about Davidson’s experience in the industry and how she works, she and I had a little chat.

So what made you want to get into game development?

Davidson: If I take it all the way back to high school and primary school, one of my earliest memories is drawing Sailor Moon, just drawing her all over everything I owned. And the longest time in high school I was like, “I’ll go be a physicist, I’ll do some proper serious thing.” But I was still drawing her all over everything I owned. So when I saw that RMIT offered this degree called digital art and it had to do with games, I was like, “This seems really interesting.” I went to the open day, a couple of open days, and I was like, “This looks really cool actually, I want to do this.” So, I went and applied for it, I got in, felt really quite at home there and did a digital art degree, and while I was doing that I realised I loved programming.

We had some programming electives we did, and because I loved that so much, I went and did a second degree in programming and somehow then I ended up working as a programmer and producer, which has just been a really interesting and incredible pathway.

How’s your experience been so far in the game development world?

Davidson: It is incredible. I just can’t imagine working in anything else. I feel like a lot of devs say that. It hybridises these creative, interactive, ludic experiences with these really technical problem-solving elements. So you get this work where every day there’s a new problem to solve, and at the end of it or even during it right, you play-test your game. You see these people who are playing something that you’ve made, that your team has made, and are having this unique experience they wouldn’t have anywhere else. So it’s just super rewarding.

You’ve got quite the juicy portfolio with the past, working on games, like, Tearaway Unfolded, Wander, Dreams and Intergalactic Space Princess, what are you working on at the moment?

Davidson: At the moment, I’m actually really excited to say, and it’s still very much in pre-production, but I’m working on maybe my own thing, which has been something I’ve always dreamed of doing. I’m working out how that looks and how that works and taking all that experience from those projects and from other projects like Untitled Goose Game and Necrobarista, and I worked at Mountains for a while too. So from all of those experiences, taking that and applying that into this new project, and this new studio, which I’m founding.

What have been some of your favourite moments while working on those games?

Davidson: Oh, that’s a tricky one.

I know it’s hard to pick favourites. I’m sorry.

Davidson: Intergalactic Space Princess, it was definitely when we went to pack some of those and we showed the game and there would just be like, so many girls and so many people who didn’t fit into the rest of the game culture but were really into games, sitting down with the game and just smiling and just seeing something in it that they hadn’t seen elsewhere and finding some part of themselves in that story. I think that is the most incredible experience.

You’re not only a game developer but also a lecturer and tutor in game development at RMIT. What’s your experience been teaching the game developers of the future?

Davidson: Teaching at RMIT, and teaching in general, is just as rewarding as making games for me. It has a similar interactive element. You’re sitting down with someone asking, ‘What are you doing? How are you doing it? How are you achieving it?’, and problem-solving together. Watching students, particularly underrepresented genders for the first time, get their hands into code and get their hands into anything technical they thought they couldn’t do before, and now they’re achieving it, incredible. I keep saying incredible, but it just is.

So what exactly is your goal when developing games? Or in other words, what do you aim for in terms of what people get out of playing the games that you make?

Davidson: When I approach making games, I always come at it from an emotional experience perspective, so I’m really interested in people experiencing some connection to the world and the characters and the systems you’ve created that they wouldn’t experience in any other medium. Something a film can’t do, something a book can’t do. And even though we’ve had video games for 50 years, there’s still so much to explore, we have just got the tip of the iceberg in what games can do. So that’s where I approach it from. I’m just like, what can we do with this medium?

Like a ‘how can we expand it and turn it into something more than it is,’ kind of thing?

Davidson: Yeah. And just tell human experiences through it. There’s so many games where you’ll play them and it’ll be just the first time you really are able to empathise with an experience that isn’t your own. And the more we can demonstrate that, the more we’ll have games in, for example, a high school classroom being studied in literature. That’s the goal.

The Australian games industry is packed to the brim with not just great indie games, but indie games that are actively trying to teach the player about the world around them or even about themselves. You’ve worked on quite a few titles of this ilk, but what have been some stand out titles for you?

Davidson: I’ve been honoured to work with so many talented individuals and teams over the years. Paperbark by Paper House comes to mind as particularly special to me. I began working with the team after returning to Melbourne from the UK and it’s such a delightful and authentically Australian game about a wombat trying to find a new home – it really resonated with where I was at that time. For a time, I also co-directed Intergalactic Space Princess, one of my projects in Code Breakers. Although the game’s tone is all sarcastic teenage fun and magical realism, it was a very personal project for Izzy and I as we wanted to create a feminine coming of age story for the next generation.

So how does it feel being featured in the Code Breakers: Women in Games exhibition?

Davidson: I’m so excited that the exhibition is in the Yarra area, because I grew up in that part of Melbourne, so it’s like coming home. It’s come full circle. Just down the street, there I was, drawing my little Sailor Moon sketches. And now the idea that there could be kids going to my school who can walk up the street and they can see an exhibition that shows them all these incredible women and this incredible work and the diversity of games that can be made, wow. So I’m really excited the exhibition exists. I’m really excited about the people who’ll be seeing it and the educators who’ll be seeing it, and the way that’s going to influence them and just tell them, “This is a space that you can take up. You can belong here. You can be here.”

What advice do you have for women wanting to break into the industry?

Davidson: For women wanting to break into the industry, know that you can do it, know there is space for you, know that this is not a medium that excludes you, it’s a medium that is for you, and find your friends and your allies. Lean on your sisters and your siblings. If one person is negative at any point in time, they’re a hater, ignore them, move on. You have a hundred allies for every person like that.

It’s hard to deny Cherie Davidson’s impact on the modern Australian games industry, considering just how much involvement she’s had in many of the indie and AAA titles we know and love. If you’re keen to check out her work as well as the work of many other talented women in the industry, Code Breakers: Women in Games will be at the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum from 5 March to 15 May 2022. Exhibit entry is free, and you can find out more about it at the YRRM website, and ACMI.

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