I got my first taste of the #1ReasonWhy hashtag late last Monday night as I traveled back home to New York City. The bus ride from Baltimore had been quiet and I was attempting, unsuccessfully, to pay down the sleep-debt I’d accrued across the Thanksgiving vacation. After hours spent in a lackluster half-napping daze, the NYC skyline came into view; I took a full two seconds to appreciate it before settling down with my Twitter feed.
First the conversation started with #1Reason, as in “One reason why more women don’t make games.” Initially on my feed I was mainly seeing it from a few sources, including @filemina (Filamena Young) and @twoscooters (Elizabeth Sampat). Within 12 hours the responses had absolutely exploded: #1Reason morphed into #1ReasonWhy and spawned both #1ReasonToBe and #1ReasonMentors.
The outpouring dominated my social media channels for the better part of the week, and along with the rest of the game industry I read the heartbreaking stories of women either run out or elbowed out. I read about the horror of being accused of sleeping your way through the ranks and experiencing such strong backlash that it makes you question your abilities, walk away from your own blog, and wonder if you should just quit. Nods to the systemic problems in the game industry or gaming culture at large were disconcerting, but not as powerful as the descriptions of specific instances of unadulterated sexism.
Existing in an actively hostile environment does a number on your mental and emotional well-being. First you learn to be afraid, and you get used to the fact that you’ll almost surely never not be afraid. Your fears are mostly skulking and nameless: that you don’t really belong, that you’ll never be talented enough, that you can’t catch up because everyone else got a secret head start on you. Managing your fear consumes time and effort, but if you don’t do it sooner rather than later, it will grow unchecked through the reaches of your brain: a creeping rot that chokes the goodness out of everything. The tales of overt sexism in the #1ReasonWhy discussion are the most powerful because they show us that our fear is valid. These are the memories of fear realized, moments of enormous pain all coiled down and spring-loaded into a 140-character sucker punch.
Reading #1ReasonWhy is something like spending time with a friend when she turns to you and says, “Want to see something pretty fucked up?” just before showing you a scar you’d never known about. Here is a person you care for because her hopes and dreams run parallel to yours, and here is an indelible mark upon her living flesh where she ran up against someone’s No, You Can’t (Because You’re a Woman). Whether that No was intentionally malicious or grossly unqualified or merely negligent might change the shape of the scar, but she’ll carry it through the rest of her life all the same.
As these women – friends, strangers, and personal heroes – bravely stepped forward to share their stories, I realized that I’ve been miraculously well-shielded. This will be my third year in the game industry, and yes, I’ve acquired scrapes and bruises along the way, but no one ever told me I couldn’t do this. No one in my life ever looked me in the eyes and said that I couldn’t make games. And more still, that would not have been enough. A lack of vocal No’s didn’t guide me down this path; it took a lot of people deliberately and repeatedly saying Yes.
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Maybe not the first Yes, but the one that vaulted me into my first games job came in August 2010.
I was entering my final semester of undergrad at NYU and I still had no clear indication of what kind of career I wanted to pursue. For a while I thought that maybe I’d go into advertising because I liked the idea of blending creative work and data analysis. Sure, I’d written an average of four pieces on games per semester, and yeah, half of all my projects had revolved around games, and okay, I’d thoroughly loved every course I’d taken that’d had a section on games. So what? I couldn’t make them, especially not professionally. It wasn’t practical. Where would I even start?
As the questions of what I wanted to do after I graduated began to roll in, they brought a rising tide of anxiety along with them. Accepting that this might be my last real chance to test out unpaid or underpaid internships, I forced myself to sit down and get real about my passions. Whenever I shut the “practical” side of my brain up long enough to be honest with myself, I knew that my heart was in games.
Being honest with yourself about what you want isn’t always an easy thing to do and it seems to get harder in direct proportion to how much you want it. Suddenly you understand that you could very well fail, and the thought of failing at something you care about is almost unspeakably painful. Knowing this, and knowing that the alternative of ignoring my (secret) desire was far worse, I began researching development studios around NYC. One of these studios was FreshPlanet, where I applied for a marketing internship. They also had a listing for a game design internship, but I felt too unqualified to even bother applying for that.
What I hadn’t known was that Eric Zimmerman, the professor for the Intro to Game Design course I’d taken earlier that year, was one of FreshPlanet’s two Creative Directors. I didn’t realize it until I got an email asking if I’d like to come in and interview for the game design internship instead. During the interview Eric told me that he’d seen my name come up and that since I’d been a promising student, he’d taken the initiative to nudge me in a different direction. His suspicion that game design was what I really wanted to be doing was, of course, 100% valid.
Things worked out. I started interning at FreshPlanet within the month, went through a proper trial by fire, proved myself. Right around graduation I was extended an offer for fulltime employment, and I won’t ever forget a brief conversation I had with Eric a few days after accepting. “So you’re officially a game designer now,” he said with a smile. “Doesn’t it feel good?”
It felt like having a childhood’s worth of blurry half-formed dreams being brought into focus. “Yeah,” I said. “It feels really fucking good.”
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The rest of what follows is going to be one big list of the people who have touched my life, who have reached out and said, unequivocally, Yes in some way. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Naomi Clark, for being an amazing mentor not only regarding game design, but also for stepping in more than once to help me navigate situations where I was in way over my head. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with her on a few projects and I’ve always walked away from the experience feeling like a stronger designer.
Mathieu Nouzareth, for believing in my capabilities not only as a designer, but also in writing and delivering client pitches. Working closely with him gave me the opportunity to build business skills that are valuable for any young professional.
Charles Pratt, for indulging my whim to write a blog series about entry-level game design and host it on the NYU Game Center site. I’m really proud of how Will Work for XP turned out, and I think it’s a solid resource for helping aspiring game makers. Without his encouragement I’m not sure I’d have followed through with it.
Matt Dominianni, for hand-picking me for my current position with NBCUniversal and following up each step of the way to really make sure that it’d be the right fit for me. Transitioning from a startup to a media giant was more than a little terrifying and I wouldn’t have taken the chance without his guidance.
Wade Tinney, for being the first person to ever tell me, “Let me know if you’re ever looking for a job.” It was over vegan pizza at PRACTICE 2011, and I’ll always remember how utterly (and happily) shocked I was that a founder of a game studio would say that to me.
Shane Liesegang, for entertaining a rambling email where I asked him about quest design for Bethesda. His answers were honest and incredibly helpful and most importantly, not discouraging. They stemmed from a baseline of, “It’s hard but you can totally do it if you’re willing to work.”
Lindsay Morgan Lockhart, for entertaining an even more ridiculous rambling email that was literally based around, “Does fanfiction with 1000 daily unique hits qualify as resume material for games writing?” Answer hint: maybe.
Matt Boch, for being outrageously inspiring and courageous in his efforts to promote design that recognizes and is sensitive towards the intersection of gender and play. His talk about Dance Central at PRACTICE made my heart nearly burst with admiration. He also never fails to be the absolute best party conversationalist.
Scott Jon Siegel, for helping me realize that even people much cooler and more successful get bouts of impostor syndrome and not to listen to it. Also, for being a role-model that greets life with a sense of good fun and an open appreciation for weirdness.
Lizzie Stark, for introducing me to LARP and specifically Nordic LARP with Mad About the Boy. I probably would have passed on it, even as such a rare and fantastic opportunity to inflate my nerd cred, if she hadn’t personally told me to go for it.
Darius Kazemi, for answering what I’m pretty sure were all-too-typical 101-level questions about HTML5 game programming. Even though I’m guessing it was on par with asking a game designer about becoming an “idea person,” he provided tons of resources and zero eye-rolling… from what I could tell!
Richard Lemarchand, for letting me talk his ear off about Dragon Age and Alistair and emotional intelligence after his lecture on developing Uncharted 3 at the NYU Game Center. When we ran into each other again some months later he remembered both my name and what I was working on, and as a young designer that simple gesture of compassion was unbelievably affirming.
Regina Buenaobra, for being the first feminist game developer and possibly even the first feminist gamer that I ever followed on Twitter. Also, for reaching out and introducing me to more of the GDC Conference Associate community when I found out I’d been accepted as a volunteer for 2012. She made me feel like someone was looking out for me. Because she was.
Tami Baribeau, for maintaining The Border House, the first games media outlet of its kind that I’d ever come across. I still remember the day that she put together a “Women in Games to Follow on Twitter” post that I made the cut for, which felt like a milestone in itself – and then suddenly my favorite feminist-friendly games folks started following me too!
Stephen Totilo, for allowing me to write about a subject I cared about for a major games publication like Kotaku, after I sent him a fiery email telling him I vehemently disagreed with one of his personal pieces. He handily earned my respect.
Mitu Khandaker, for telling me I was brave when I desperately needed to hear it.
These are the more established men and women who have given me a sturdy Yes, something I could stand on when I needed to keep my head above the water. I look forward to learning from them and mining them for advice in the future.
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And while mentors and experts do the work of lighting the way, it’s equally important to recognize the power that my peers have had in propelling me forward. The road would be truly cold and lonely without the following people to walk it with me – all of whom are exceptional feminists and allies.
Jayme Figueroa, who I met in a course on videogame culture before either of us had jobs in the industry. He was possibly the first person I ever confessed to that I wanted to actually, really, no, for real, work on games as a career. He looked up at me over what might have been our seventh round in an obnoxiously loud bar and said, very clearly, “So do it.”
Rob Meyer, who pretty much loves the games I hate and hates the games I love, and is the most seriously not-serious person I have ever known. He’s got a positive distortion field that makes you feel like you’re 100% capable of tackling anything you put your mind to, and that he’ll be swearing and complaining in solidarity right along with you.
Mohini Dutta, who I butted heads with frequently while on the same team for a game design and pitch competition. We had two wonderfully and infuriatingly oppositional approaches to the project, which made for a few tense moments but also meant that in the end we created something strong and walked away with a cash prize. Working with Mohini was my first experience collaborating with a wildly different designer and I still can’t thank her enough for the crash-course in teamwork.
Alex Lifschitz, who I met one night on Twitter as he mocked a stranger that was harassing me, and then roughly a year later sat on my couch and listened to me blurt out a host of insecurities. “How does anyone think I know what I’m doing? How do they not see that I’m almost totally clueless here?” He met my whining with one of the best reassurances I’ve heard so far: “Just think of it as training with weights on.”
Haitham Ennasr, whose boundless cheer and empathy can improve any rough workday. Whether by fate or blind luck I’ve found myself paired with an awesome coworker with a well-cultivated design aesthetic and the gentlest soul I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Katya Hott, who invited me to do a couple of video reviews of games created by kids using Gamestar Mechanic as part of a course in game design. It was a privilege to be able to give feedback to young game designers and it was a great reason to get better at recording myself!
Dylan McKenzie, who bears the brunt of all my inquiries regarding the NYU Game Center and who has gone above and beyond to create an enriching environment for students interested in game development. Between the lecture series and the other events that I’ve attended and benefited from, I know a great deal of them would never have happened without his dedication.
Grant Reid, who has supported me and encouraged me to follow my design curiosities wherever they tend to crop up. He’s my first line of defense whenever I’m feeling woefully unsure of myself and he’s also been my biggest cheerleader, even when – especially when – I’m busy being all malcontent and grumbling with my head under a pillow.
The thought of continuing to grow and learn and create alongside you folks, whether closely or from afar, stretches the limits of my capacity for hope. Please, stop for a moment and imagine the industry that we’ll shape together in the decades to come. Do you feel that impossible optimism, the hard edge of unyielding enthusiasm? Yeah, we got this.
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And lastly, to my parents. Thank you Dad, for letting your 4-year old daughter sit on your lap while you played DOOM. Thank you Mom, for telling me that if someone hit me on the playground, I had every right to hit them back. Thanks for every time you opened up a path for me to pursue my dreams, and for teaching me how to temper my spirit with just enough steel to make it through.