'Games were supposed to be a fun career choice. Now I'm afraid I'll get murdered'

Game developer Brenda RomeroBrenda Romero / Wikimedia, CC‘There are many people silenced this year’: Game developer Brenda Romero.

At this week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, a panel of distinguished game developers and critics gathered for a very popular panel, the third annual #1ReasonToBe — as in, “the number one reason to be” a woman who works in games and technology.

The goal of #1ReasonToBe is to focus on their accomplishments and amazing experiences.

Last year, the panel reduced the audience to tears before concluding in a standing ovation, and became the talk of the event.

This year, people lined up before the doors opened, and the crowd filled the large auditorium.

“I hope to do more to just live, I hope to thrive,” says Elizabeth LaPensee on her experiences as a Native American woman in video games.

It’s a common sentiment, lately. The rise of harassment campaigns like the infamous GamerGate scandal makes women scared to make games or work in technology at all, and we hear more and more about women quitting technical jobs over it. Those who stay find themselves unwilling or unable to speak up for fear of losing their jobs, or worse.

“There are many people silenced this year,” said panel moderator and game developer Brenda Romero.

#1ReasonToBe at GDC 2015Matt WeinbergerGame developers, designers, and critics discuss their reasons for staying in the industry at GDC 2015.

In a powerful segment called the “Empty Chair,” Romero displayed anonymous comments made by people too afraid to speak up publicly, while the room stood completely silent. For example:

  • “Games were supposed to be a fun career choice. Now I’m afraid I’ll get murdered.”
  • “I used to check twitter for fun. Now it’s fear.”
  • “There isn’t a woman alive who doesn’t have to worry about this.”
  • “I don’t draw attention to my femininity in order to survive as a developer. I disguise it with tomboyish behaviour and silliness. I am neither.”

Audience members and panelists alike could be heard crying.

Professor Constance Steinkuehler of the University of Madison Wisconsin talked about how she managed to sneak a toy gun from the massively popular game, “Portal” into the White House during her time as a policy advisor for President Barack Obama — as well as helping shape the Obama Administration’s policy on video games and gun violence.

“You can play the games that you want to play, and I can play the games I want to play, and that’s called free speech,” Steinkuehler said. “I can make the games I want to make, and you can’t stop me.”

Wargaming at GDCMatt WeinbergerProspective game developers line up to meet with Wargaming recruiters at GDC 2015.

That’s the reason to be in video games, for ProfessorSteinkuehler: It’s free speech, pure and simple.

The next panelist, EA Creative Director Amy Hennig, discussed her love affair with old-school arcades and the Atari 2600, which eventually faded. She went to film school instead, and her dream was to become a cinematographer. But she was told that it was for men only and to find another career.

She never gave up, and eventually took a job at Atari making a game for its Atari 7200 game console to help pay for her tuition. And while the game wasn’t great, it made her consider a real career, working her way up in the industry, and doing a little bit of design work for EA on classics like Desert Storm and not-so-classics like Super Nintendo’s “Michael Jordan: Chaos In The Windy City.”

Her career continues to take off, with stints at major studios like Crystal Dynamics and Naughty Dog. Most recently, she led creative direction for the “Uncharted” series, and now she’s back at EA working on a Star Wars game.

For Hennig, her main reason to be in the games industry is that it’s presented continued opportunities and rewards for her, thanks to her tenacity.

“These things are not the game industry,” Hennig says on the GamerGate controversy and the harassment that centres around it. It’s not a man’s world, she says, and it’s important to fight that perception.

Sela Davis, a software engineer with Microsoft, spoke on her experiences as a child who made games on her ZZT computer who then went to the Rochester Insitute of Technology for Information Technology, only to take a break and go into creative writing, metalsmithing, and eventally a stint at SAP before going back to finish her degree.

“I wasn’t happy in art, and I wasn’t happy in tech,” Davis says on what led her to go back to RIT and learn to really make games.

Her career in games started to take off. Soon, she ran up against impostor syndrome, made much worse by the fact that she was often the only woman in the room. Not feeling like you fit in with everybody else in the room can eat at your confidence.

Davis’ one reason to be in the games industry is that it needs more people who can feed each other’s energy.

Adriel Wallick, the independent game developer better known as ‘MsMinotaur,’ also touched on her own experiences with playing games. Video games were her escape when she was lonely, and she used it to bond with friends.

“They let us do lots of things,” Wallick says.

Eventually, her interest turned to programming, and she built a rudimentary text adventure. Later in her life, she discovered the independent video game scene, and started building small projects in between punching the clock at her day job. Soon, she connected with Boston-based game studio, Harmonix. Along the way, she found she got a lot of respect and support and mentorship from the games community.

“It’s allowed me to be a part of all these communities who have made me feel like family,” Wallick says of her number one reason to love the games industry.

Finally, Katherine Cross, a Ph.D candidate with the City University of New York, where she studies online harassment.

“Boy, have I ever been given a case study,” Cross said, referring to GamerGate, to laughs.

Cross took an academic approach to her presentation: On paper, women are in the industry, working as critics and coders; engineers and economists. The gap in understanding why harassment is a big deal, Cross says, comes from not understanding that the Internet is real life, where people do business and present the work that matters to them. That’s why harassment matters, because it interferes with and scares people away from a space that really matters.

When faced with the wrath of GamerGate herself for discussing the subject publicly, Cross said there was only one thing to do: write about games more. Cue a standing ovation.

And so Cross’ reason to be in games is to be part of a community building new, interesting forms of criticism that tackle issues of sex and race in the gaming world. To create a world where people understand why the Internet and video games matter, and so aren’t threatened by women in the field. Change is being made, bit by bit, by people writing on the frontier.

“I study games because they matter. Because gamers matter,” Cross says.

The overall message is that women are here, playing video games, writing about video games, and making video games, they care about video games as much as any other gaming enthusiast, and they’re not going away just because of a hashtag. In fact, games critic Leigh Alexander announced she’s launching a new website called Offworld just for criticism and interviews from and with women and minorities in games.

“I am here to stay, and there’s nowhere else I would rather be,” Cross says.

Once again, the #1ReasonToBe panelists each recieved a standing ovation.

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