It's expected that, in 2015, the games industry (both mobile and console combined) will make $91.95 billion worldwide. The majority of that revenue will be generated by AAA games — those with the highest quality and biggest budgets. It would be difficult to find even a non-gamer who couldn’t name a handful of AAA games.
What a non-gamer might not be able to do, however, is name one of the indie games in this large, ever-flowing stream that's flooding the market. The existence and growth of the indie game scene has meant greater insight into a wider array of experiences and more opportunities for play. These games have been helping to fill the gap between AAA high fantasy and real life.
When skimming through the results pages of an internet search asking “Why AAA games don't offer enough representation,” one would move through a chorus of gamers and non-gamers crying out about diversity, asking, Are these billion-dollar-budget games bad for the spirit of gaming?
Many will say yes, pointing specifically to the lack of female experience and representation in storylines, or the marketing that favors male gamers.
It's clear that huge strides have yet to be made within the game industry — though the number of female developers has nearly doubled between 2009 and 2014 (according to annual surveys conducted by the International Game Developers Association), men still outweigh them 76% to 22%. And developers themselves agree: In a 2015 survey, 48.8% felt there was not equal treatment and opportunity for all in the game industry.
Catt Small, Aileen Z, Del Northern, Jane Friedhoff, GJ Lee, and Julia Keren-Detar are six women out of the 22% — they are indie professionals in UX design or game development, here to talk about making games, each having made her own or contributed to a small indie team. They make it a point to say that they don't like being asked to represent all women in the gaming community because no single woman can speak to everyone's experience.
More than anyone telling them who they cannot be and what they cannot make, it's society's instinct to identify who women are and what they can make that they find most disappointing.
Some are used to speaking in a group like this; others seem a little anxious to be out from behind the computer screen. They all, however, seem relieved to see one another.
What got you all into game design and coding?
Del Northern: I feel like it wasn’t really a decision, since I played [games]. I was always into games, and they started me drawing, so, that’s always what I wanted to be. Of course in college I took a turn, not so much a turn, but deciding exactly where I wanted to go. I thought, I’ll try fashion design, graphic design, mainstream illustration, things like that...but no, what my passion is, is games!
Jane Friedhoff: I started playing games when I was really young with a lot of my family, and I don’t remember the exact moment, but I remember realizing that people made this, right? They were making worlds out of nothing — out of code. And so I got really excited by that. By this idea that, like, I can make my own worlds out of code! And I remember being really, really small, I was playing some little game where the assets, like the images of the characters, were stored in bitmaps, and just in some file you could play with. So I would draw my own characters in these bitmap files, and they would be loaded into the game, and it was just, sort of, a snowball effect from there. I just started making my own little games, like little text adventures, and just sort of seeing the worlds I could build through code. It’s really exciting when you make a game because you create this — magic circle is the term — where the world is sort of different. It’s this separate, special world where the rules are a little bit different, and our attitudes toward each other are a little bit different, and magical, crazy things can happen. It’s really addictive to find yourself creating a magic circle and seeing things emerge from that.
Aileen Z: I think I got into it when a friend showed interest in it, and he introduced to me to the idea that I can take classes to become a programmer and make games. Because that thought never crossed my mind, that I could do that, and that was when I was in elementary school. So I went through the route of picking computer science in high school, and then computer science in college, and I think that gave me an advantage, having that knowledge in high school, especially in college, because it made it easier to fit in with that culture. I got to advance a class instead of just being put into a class with the regular beginners, so that really helped with my choices to become a game developer.
How is game creation an outlet for you?
Jane: For me, and the kinds of games I like to make, I’m really obsessed with play. And I’m really obsessed with getting people together to behave in funny, or interesting, or ridiculous ways — to get people to perform with each other. When I play ... with my friends, half of it is [just] playing ... but the other half is coming up with more ridiculous, but funny, trash talk. There’s a special atmosphere you have together.
I made a game called Scream ‘Em Up where, to move your ship, you run around, and to shoot from the ship, you have to scream into your phone. People were “trying to get the highest score,” but really what they were doing was running around and screaming with each other and slamming into each other and having a good time. It’s similar with Slam City Oracles. Yes, technically it’s about getting the highest score, but it’s also about creating all this crazy chaos and making your partner laugh. For me, the real payoff is seeing people in this magic circle performing for each other or doing silly and ridiculous things that they might not have done otherwise.
Catt Small: I’m really interested in how people can interact with technology and the worlds it can create. For me, I make my games really just to express something, whether that’s a really weird thing — like, I’m interested with what we can do with cultural stuff like twerking and things like that. I’ve made games about breakups. I’m making a game now about dressing up and going outside and just what that’s like. I’m really just interested in small parts of how we live, but also just making really whacky stuff, because both are really areas that are ripe for creation.
Are the programmers (the coders) the most important people in game development?
Julia Keren-Detar: Depends on the team. Some programmers can do it all. I think that programming is very important, because it’s sort of how you create it. It isn’t if you use different engines, but usually, in a lot of games and teams, the programmer has the most say, because they can make it work. But that’s also changing with these engines too.
Jane: It can also be really flexible, because programming informs art informs programming — so everything kind of bleeds into each other. So for Slam City Oracles, it was just me and an artist, Jenny Jiao Hsia, and I had the basic gameplay mechanic down, and I was talking to her, slamming on things and making them fly all around. So she ran with that and put out art that she felt fit the theme, but a lot of her art was informed by game mechanic, so she was like, “Listen, I think the levels should be really modular, should almost all be like little Lego bricks and should go together based on this size because then the physics will work out in a particular way and will make these really good explosions.” So, it’s the kind of thing where my design influenced her art influenced the way that I set up the level. On bigger teams, it’s often very siloed, but on smaller indie teams, you can really have a lot of bleed, which is really fun.
What's the most important element in making a game successful?
Julia: I think it’s the experience. If you’re making an experience where you want to tell a story, then your most important aspect is that story. If you want to have an experience where you want to transform somebody into the shoes of somebody else, then you need to create a really good experience that does that, that transforms somebody else into another person’s experience. If you want a game based on a mechanic that seems fun, then that needs to be the mechanics of it. It’s completely different. It depends on what the game’s goal is.
Catt: The cool thing about games is that people approach it from a lot of different areas. Some people just really care about creating evocative art; some people really care about creating intense stories; some people just want to make mechanics that are really awesome, and really different. And there’s space for all of that.
Del: The games that I want to make aren’t necessarily about telling stories about women — I’d love to do that, but I also just want to make games. I just happen to be a woman, so it’s one of those situations where I don’t want to make it just about talking about social issues. I just want to make a game, and I want you to come to me about making that game.
Catt: I’ve felt a certain kind of pressure to stick to certain kinds of games. I do personally feel a pressure to make games that are very narrative based and that are about the female experience, because that’s something that a lot of people expect from a person — a woman — who is making games. But I don’t think that should be the limit. I should be able to make shooter games and all random things.
Del: Just because I’m a woman or a person of color doesn’t mean I have to make a game that’s based on the story that I have. I should be able to make a game with whatever story I want.
GJ Lee: Some time ago, I would sit in front of my computer, and I would think, should I be making these kinds of games about my experience as a woman or whatever, because all this stuff was happening, and I’ve felt kind of weird not making those kinds of games, but I just do what I want.
So you don't necessarily prefer making games about being a woman, because then you’re still adhering to societal rules?
Julia: Another interesting thing that happens is at expo shows...
Jane: Oh god…
Julia: ...and people are like, “Can I talk to the developers?” and you’re like, “Hi!”
GJ: And then they grill you. They are asking me all these questions trying to get me to not have the answer. They really want me to not be able to answer, and that’s really weird.
Jane: I was at a conference that I won’t name, and I was showing a game that I had worked on with my boyfriend who is also a game designer, and we were at our booth, and he had a handheld console, and I had a handheld console. We were both there, and there were people lining up to talk to him while I stood over there with my handheld console, and no one was coming over to me. Eventually I had to be like, “Y’all can play over here! I’m the level designer, I programmed all the enemy AI that you’re fighting against!” And it was just so hard for them to come over and do that.
So what style game do you think most women prefer to play?
Catt: It’s up to personal preference. A lot of people have played, and I myself, have found tons of enjoyment from [shooters] and other kinds of games that other people consider classic types of games — or stereotypical kinds of games. I also completely love puzzle games and rhythm games, and I think one thing that is always really helpful is representation. The more that women of different kinds see themselves in games, the more likely they may be to actually partake in them.
Del: Part of the problem on both sides, when it comes to games that girls would like, is, instead of “What games do girls like?” it’s “What games are girls supposed to like?" It’s more what people project as things that women are supposed to like. I feel like a lot of times, girls who are impressionable in that sense, think, I shouldn’t like these games. I should like these games, so these are the games I’ll play because I’m a girl and that’s what I should like, and it’d be weird if I didn’t.
Are mainstream games being created for women?
Julia: There’s a whole industry called — I guess they’re still called "casual games" — and it’s mostly, well, it used to be Facebook and now it’s [mobile games]. People were like, "What would women want? Oh! Matching candies, and getting married, and life events online! Having babies!’"— all this stuff, and you’re like, wait, what? That is happening less and less now, but I guess the good thing is I see so many different types of people playing [them] who aren't women. The other thing that’s kind of interesting, and I don’t know if it has anything to do with the game industry or just the general cultural constructs around it, but these games are sort of considered to be not really games. So there’s a lot of that kind of, like, what are casual games? Lots of gamers or people who call themselves gamers will be like, oh, well those aren’t real games. And then people who play them will say that they’re not gamers, like, if you look at their play log they’ll be playing like 12 hours a day and that’s like a gamer…
Julia: It’s kind of this weird sort of space.
Del: I’ve seen a lot of situations too when people talk about those games — like I was at [a conference for game developers] and I don’t remember which game it was, but it was, you know, a mobile game, and [everyone] was like, "Oh, I like having a game that I can say my girlfriend can play or my mom can play," and it’s like, no, your mom and your girlfriend can play any game they want! You know? And so, it’s sort of like, "Oh, this is not a real game…” Like it’s a game not for real people, and it’s like, no, [casual games] are just as much of a game as any other game...
Why do you think it is that women aren’t naturally a part of the consideration when “regular games” are being promoted?
Del: I think it’s because of the media, because it’s been like that for so long. I mean, I guess it did start out, you know, as mainly a male thing…
Catt: It was marketed as a male thing forever.
Julia: It actually started out pretty gender neutral, and then in the '90s or the late '80s, it started to get bifurcated where it’s like, nope, boys like video games…
Del: And little boys…
Julia: ...and little boys like video games and men like programming and men like computers and girls don’t really want to be a part of any of this computer stuff even though that used to be a woman’s job — a woman’s role, right?
Julia: In the '60s and '70s, the women were the programmers.
Everyone: Oh yeah!
So what advice would you give to a girl wanting to get into the industry?
Del: Just do it!
Jane: I would also say there are multiple ways of being in games which is nice. You can really gun for AAA, or you can really gun to be an indie superstar, or you can do something else. So that’s really nice that there’s not one particular way you have to be in games. Find a community of people who will support you and mentor you. Sometimes it’ll be women, that’s great, and sometimes it’ll be men. Some of my greatest mentors have been men… Some of my best friends are men. [laughs]
Del: I know plenty of men!
Jane: I would also say you don’t need to be an expert before you’re done. I feel there is a lot of pressure on women. I would code things, and I’d be really self-conscious about it and whatever, and sure, eventually you want to get to a point where you’re talented at coding (if that’s what you want to do), but the more important thing for me — and a lot of dudes helped me realize because they weren’t so weighed down with this — was just make a thing. Just making a thing — even if, under the hood, it's terrible and horrible garbage.
Catt: Two other things: You don’t just have to make games. You can make anything you want. Like, I’m half in tech and half in games, and sometimes I feel really guilty because I’m not only focusing on making games all the time, but that’s completely fine. You can make whatever you want. The other thing is that it’s really important is that you need to really understand what it is that you want to make. Identify the things that are important to you. It’s not about other people; it’s about you.
Jane: Bouncing off that, I feel like it’s really easy to come to games later in life and feel like, “Ugh, if only I had done computer science, then I could whatever…” and for a while, I felt that way too. I wasn’t the perfect programmer and therefore I would never be a good game designer, but what I realized is: 1) It’s not necessary to be a perfect programmer to be a good game designer, but also, 2) A lot of the things I was doing instead of computer science enriched my practice in other ways. Like, the times that I was studying art or feminist literature or this, that, and the other thing, whatever, just made the games that I made better. The things that make you different from other designers are actually your assets. It’s hard to feel that way sometimes.
GJ: I see it very similarly with art. There’s room for everybody, and if you’re worried about categorization, that’s someone else’s job. You need to embrace that process itself. Embracing the process is really important. The act of making it is why I’ve continued doing what I do. If I were going to go back to being a kid, I was like that kid who would draw things on walls and be like, “Mom, come look!” I kind of retain that still.
Del: You’re never going to be as good as you want to be. It just solidifies that games are art, and people need to realize that — the media needs to realize that. It’s the same as writing, or making a movie, or drawing a picture. You just add some code to it.
These women are literally changing the game! Intel is also working to change the game by putting diversity in tech first.
Photographs by Spencer Bergen / © BuzzFeed