GDC 2014
Women Belonging in Video Games: #1ReasonToBe

Rowan Kaiser | 25 Mar 2014 20:00
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At around 5pm on Thursday evening, game designer Deirdra Kiai apparently decided to blow the lid off of the Game Developer's Conference. In the final presentation at the #1ReasonToBe panel, Kiai launched into a speech that managed to combine raw emotion, systemic analysis, personal history, and a universal empathy, triggering a standing ovation and, as I noticed as I walked out, a whole lot of tears being wiped away. "Imagine what I could have done had I been encouraged and not ignored!"

Coming off of four nominations for the game Dominique Pamplemousse at the Independent Games Festival awards, Kiai's frustration had resonance, but it was their personal story that made the speech so powerful. Kiai recommended a kind of empathic queer subjectivity, where every individual player of games could be their own "target audience," and where the problem of deviating from the normal straight white male nature of game development led to a crushing alienation. "Making games is easy. Belonging is hard....I could make a million games with the energy that trying to belong takes out of me."

But the speech was also a celebration of the power of games. Kiai goes by "Squinky," a reference to a silly fake name that the hero of The Secret Of Monkey Island - one of Kiai's inspirations - could give at the start of the game. And Kiai realized something about themselves while playing an online game that allowed for a player's gender to be hidden - a realization which led to a change in their dress, and the preferred use of "'they' even though it's grammatically incorrect."

Doing this was an act of personal courage as well. The charismatic fire with which Kiai delivered the speech was a rejection of their described fear of backlash for being not-normal in game culture. "The more I'm seen, the more likely it is that the 4chan trolls will come after like they have ... everyone I like and respect." I hope a standing ovation in one of GDC's biggest presentation halls indicates Kiai would have some insulation from that kind of cybermob if it does strike, but it would be far preferable for Kiai's story to be heard, and their ideas taken to heart.

For the #1ReasonToBe panel as a whole, this was a transitional year. Last year's panel took place a few months after the explosion of the "#1ReasonWhy" hashtag discussion on Twitter. The discussion examined why women were under-represented in the game industry, by women and other groups stated their #1 reason to stay in the industry and make games. Last year's GDC panel used that discussion as a direct focus. This time, as co-organizer Brenda Romero explained, the aim was for celebration alongside people telling their stories. She also noted a huge change in the GDC audience's interest, saying that her first "Women in Games Roundtable" took place in a "closet" or something near to, while this panel was in a room she'd termed "The Barn."

Panelist Lauren Scott is still a student at UC Santa Cruz, but she's worked on several notable titles, including the acclaimed relationship/conversation game Prom Week. In her presentation, she provided another inspiring story. "Up until elementary school, the games industry was entirely black and entirely female," she said, referring to her younger sister being her partner in gaming. But when she was five, her father, who worked at Oracle, apparently anticipated the trouble she might have when she started encountering the wider world of games and gamers. So he programmed a game for her, with she herself as the star, which Scott - visibly choked up - said helped her know that a black woman could be the main character of a game no matter what else came next in her life.

Laralyn McWilliams, an industry veteran who realized she'd had a career making games since 1994 when she made a slide on the subject, discussed the changes she'd seen in her time, and the changes she herself had undergone. Her #1ReasonToBe in the game industry was "Every day matters," a realization she had after fighting cancer in 2012. This led her to quit a job making a game where quality and monetization were opposed, for one thing, but also to speak out against sexism. "As a woman you used to feel like a lonely lonely unicorn" in the game industry, but now it's like the unicorn from Harry Potter, shown as a murdered corpse.

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