Gary Gygax, biological determinist and creator of Dungeons & Dragons, once told a reporter for Icon magazine that “gaming in general is a male thing... Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.”
He’s wrong, and on several levels. But his absurd pronouncement has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least at face value. The women who contributed to the new essay compilation Women in Game Development, out July 1st by CRC Press, heard Gygax’s sentiments echoed both in their heads and in game publishes’ conference rooms. Many felt first-hand the effects of big gaming companies pushing their games to boys, a marketing tactic popularized around the mid-80s. But despite all the Gary Gygaxes who told them No, get out, they did it, and they’re helping others do it, too. Their book is an attempt to break the ouroboros-like cycle of toxicity that pushes women out of the game industry.
Women in Game Development is a compilation of 31 essays by women in the game industry, from community managers to hardcore coders, for women who want to enter the game industry. Essays by game professionals like Jane Ng (artist for Firewatch, Spore), Brianna Wu (founder of Giant Spacekat) and Megan Gaiser (former CEO of Her Interactive) describe the often circuitous paths that led them into an industry that is famously hostile to them. Chainmail bikinis aside, women only constitute 22 percent of the game industry, according to the International Game Developer’s Association; Only 5% of respondents argued that the game industry doesn’t have a bad rep, and the most cited reason for that rep was endemic sexism.
Despite the fact that most of these women had been gaming all along, the authors in the book describe feeling like “interlopers” or “cultural colonialists” when they stayed after school in the computer lab or asked to join a local multiplayer game. Myst, Monkey Island, Donkey Kong, and–against Gygax’s proclamation–Dungeons & Dragons, were not only fun ways to pass the time, but crucial parts of their identities. The book contains story upon story of these women erasing their womanhood, gaming in secret, overcompensating to prove their worth, and remaining silent when their D&D characters were threatened with rape (reportedly, a common experience among female tabletop gamers). Their identity as game-players had become mutually exclusive with their gender.
For many, it was easier not to be seen as a woman in gaming at all. It was easier to be the least-possible-resistance versions of themselves in gaming spaces.
Karisma Williams, now a senior UI/UX designer at Microsoft, crafted an online identity that completely erased her gender and race, so her online friends would assume she was male and white. Laralyn McWilliams, now the chief creative officer at Skydance Interactive, did everything she could to avoid mention of her gender when, in college, she was the only female operator on her campus’ enormous VAX computer. Later on in her career, when male counterparts would say things like, “I hope this goes better than the last time we had a woman in the producer’s meeting,” McWilliams would write off these moments as minor inconveniences that come with a job, like relocating or crunch time.
Kari Toyama, Steam hardware support lead, hid her ballet lessons from her male peers. Erin Hoffman-John, co-founder of Sense of Wonder Games, described her “knee-jerk rejection of Girl Things” like makeup and her mission to “out-boy and boy set before me.”
Kimberly Unger, who has spent 20 years in the game industry, learned to code in middle school. “At 12 years old,” she writes, “I was looking for a place where I didn’t have to argue every single time just to be allowed to play.” In 1983, Unger coded her first game based off Dragonquest. It won first prize in a local competition, but soon after, she was told by a number of male peers that the award was completely undeserved. She stopped spending time in the computer lab. After pursuing an English degree at University of California, Davis, Unger got back into computing. She studied online on forums and chatrooms, never identifying as a woman. She taught herself. Unger is now the CEO of Bushi-Go, a game publisher that puts out bite-sized video games.
Essayists like Unger are helping to explode the presumption that gaming is a male thing in two steps: Cutting through doubt–their own and their peers–and making the game industry more welcoming to women. These stories of self-actualization are thrilling, and exactly the kind of precedents that needed to be on the record.
A glaring aspect of the problems women face in the game industry is that there simply aren’t that many of them working in it. Half of gamers are women, according to the Pew Research Center. You wouldn’t know it by looking at game publishers. Men constitute seventy-five percent of the game workforce. On the design side, that percentage is much higher. Pay gaps in ten tens of thousands run rampant, according to Gamasutra’s Game Developer Salary Survey. The perception that gaming in general is a male thing is because there are men who want it to be. The women of Women in Game Development fought against this perception—not this “reality”—both inside conference rooms and their own egos.
In a field that is hostile to them, one option is for women to leave. Lean Out, published last year by O/R Books, is a similar compilation of essays by women in tech. But, in many cases, these women opted out in favor of better lives. Incessant sexual and emotional harassment, along with imbalanced wages and constant doubt over their skill eroded these women’s mental health, according to the book’s essayists. More toxic than the microaggressions, many attested, is the culture in which apps like 2013's Titshare (“an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits”) and events like DefCon’s “Hacker Jeopardy (a stripper named “Vinyl Vanna” removes her clothes in conjunction with correct answers) are both acceptable and appreciated. So, they left tech. Fuck it, some said. I’m not dealing with this shit anymore. They were sick of toning themselves down, of being people other than who they wanted to be, simply to accomplish a job.
I wrote a positive review of Lean Out last year, but Women in Game Development convinced me that that the Fuck it attitude isn’t going to change the game industry. Self-care is important, and people shouldn’t have to tolerate endless abuse. Yet if women leave the game industry, then there are fewer women in the game industry. If there are fewer women in the game industry, the culture will be that much less welcoming to female newcomers. Women in Game Development attempts to solve this problem by humanizing how essayists struggled with the ubiquitous view that “Gaming in general is a male thing” in both personal and professional contexts.
The book’s apparent target audience of aspiring women game developers can feel niche, though sidebars in the book explain common themes like “Imposter Syndrome” and “Crunch” that make it accessible to more uninitiated readers. So much of Women in Game Development describes the minutiae of these women’s childhoods, mental processes and circuitous career paths. That richness of detail perfectly befits its goal to change an industry. The young, female game-lovers this book is marketed to are exactly the audience that will soften the game industry toward female-identified aspirants.
One of the most hard-hitting essays in this book was Megan Gaiser’s. She’s Principal of Contagious Creativity, former CEO Her Interactive, the company that developed the Nancy Drew video game franchise. And she was promoted to CEO the same time that, she said, “game publishers deemed girls to be ‘ungameworthy’” and refused to publish her first Nancy Drew game:
One publisher asserted as common knowledge that girls were computerphobic; that technology, math, and females were a bad combination... Our tagline we used at the time was, “For girls who aren’t afraid of a mouse.” Another advised, “If you’re going to make games for girls, make ‘em pink and they’ll come.” We made them “unpink.” They came and kept coming. We then changed our tagline to, “Dare to play.”
We had presented the publishers with an amazing opportunity to create an entirely new market and revenue stream—but they were unable to see past their entrenched ways of doing business. As it turned out, there were a lot of females in the world! Their loss was our gain.... We ignored the naysayers, took a risk, and self-published with a tiny e-tail startup called Amazon. Game sales took off. The New York Times dubbed us the “UnBarbie” of computer games. Suddenly, the front door swung open.
We went from zero revenue to $8.5 million, sold over 9 million games, won 29 consecutive Parents’ Choice awards and were the #1 PC adventure franchise in units, outselling Harry Potter, Myst, and Lord of the Rings for seven consecutive years.
Gaiser ends her essay with the Gloria Steinem quote, “Don’t think about making women fit the world. Think about making the world fit women.”
Women in Game Development was not a book intended to unify women in games under some prescriptive narrative of abuse and success. This was not a book intended to express a single-voiced feminism for women in games. The views of the authors may vary, but their essays are unified by a common element. Many start with the writer’s first gaming experience, her relationship to her family, her misgivings about gaming at all. Those beginnings establish much-needed precedents for the emotional and professional ups-and-downs incoming women will face when entering the game industry.
Bringing in women to design strong female characters, criticizing design decisions that could alienate women and fostering a culture where women don’t have to be anything other than themselves to game will make girls more comfortable identifying as game-lovers. And, if those girls decide to make games, they will hopefully face fewer hurdles than the essayists of Women in Game Development.