While the achievements of the games industry as a whole receives attentive coverage, the individual careers of women in the industry does not. Industry Spotlight is a four part series, profiling multiple women across table-top and video games, offering a candid look at their work and experiences.
Erin Hoffman is a lead designer at Loot Drop; a 13 year veteran of the games industry, Hoffman’s entry into games was accidental.
“A member of my online writing group told me that there was this text-based online game that I had to play (Gemstone, by Simutronics) –I tried it, didn’t like it, then tried another Simutronics game, DragonRealms, and completely fell into it. I applied to be a developer my senior year in high school because I loved the idea of creating new places in the online world, and they hired me. I didn’t realize until years later that people actually made game development their full-time careers—I did it because I loved it.”
Hoffman’s educational background includes a dual degree in philosophy and electronic art, with a minor in cognitive psychology. While her computer science classes informed her understanding of platform and medium capability, the rest of her studies provide a strong underpinning to her work.
“In a way games are about communication—communicating emotion and meaning to the player through systems—and having a background in the humanities gives you a broad palette from which to pull experiences and symbols, the better to reach people.”
Hoffman has encountered sexism during her career, addressing it the way many of her peers have, “with a sharp tongue and the cultivation of friends,” and adds that more insidious is the “chilling effect” that prevents women from being in decision-making positions.
“It’s taken the industry decades to even realize that women can be an incredibly lucrative game audience, and even the investors can’t be happy about this—but they’re almost all 40+/w/m, and they’re naturally going to invest in areas that they feel more comfortable with. So the road for women playing games, not to mention working on them, has been a rocky one.”
Hoffman explained her perspective on sexism in the industry going beyond incidents.
“I don’t think that sexism in the industry is about a particular moment so much as it is about the system that the industry creates. When you have an environment that repels women, for whatever reason, you have a self-perpetuating cycle that will repel them more as time goes on.”
Hoffman jumped into the industry with role models, not mentors. “I scoured my way through online articles and primarily learned by doing.” Hoffman has had a number of female role models in the industry, including Brenda Garno, and mentors others in her field. “I have two off-and-on design apprentices that are just getting their first jobs in game design and I’m extremely proud and fortunate to know them.” Hoffman is a member of several organizations for women, but negotiates complex sets of professional worlds.
“…because I’m both an author and a game designer (not to mention an “activist”, apparently), I’ve always felt suspended between these two worlds and so never fully “inside” either.”
Hoffman has a number of friends she can communicate with when feeling stress from her professional life, noting that not all of them are women. “I think one of the dimensions of being a woman in a very masculine industry is that you tend to have more male friends than female.” Though game play has also been a source of stress relief, Hoffman has found addition ways to deal with her stress away from her desk.
“I still do play games for stress relief occasionally, but not as much. I use cooking as a form of meditation. You can always tell if a dish has been meditatively prepared when you eat it. I have a “stress relief” mp3 list that I play loudly in the car (it has a lot of Pink).”
The changes Hoffman has seen in the industry since starting her career are manifold.
“It’s much, much broader than it used to be. I think there are demographics of players that we aren’t even aware exist yet, micro-markets that a boutique game developer could make a good living serving. That’s my hope, anyway. My job security seems way higher than it’s ever been before, but that could just be seniority. There are college students graduating with two or three games already under their belts, which is intimidating and fantastic. There are groups like The Border House that eloquently discuss issues pertaining to gender and all sorts of underrepresented demographics in games. There are feminists interested in games in particular, and educators who now take the field seriously.”
Eevi Korhonen, originally from Finland, currently works as a junior product manager at Wooga in Germany, a company that makes social games for Facebook and iOS. A year into her career in games, Korhonen’s answer to her entering the industry was poignant.
“I always wanted to do something creative, something that would make others laugh, cry, feel something. And I’ve always loved playing games, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me that making them could be a viable career option.”
When Korhonen did an exchange year, attending London South Bank University, she enrolled in a Game Cultures course. She says the course was a life changer.
“I realized that making games is something I’m good at and something I enjoy immensely. I love making games, because it challenges me in me so many ways. It’s creative, it’s a puzzle, it’s about team work and about learning and discovering new and interesting ways to entertain the players. Plus, easter eggs. I’ve always wanted to make something with easter eggs.” Her degree in English Translation has been applicable to her work, both as a proof of skill and leading to knowledge of roles outside her own.
“It’s always nice to have an official and reliable piece of paper that proves that I can talk and write English. I also dabbled a bit in localization, which helped me understand the complexities of localization from the translator’s POV.”
Korhonen has never encountered sexism at the office. Wooga, her employer, has a number of female employees; Korhonen says they’re trying to grow the number. Outside the office, she’s seen and experienced sexism in industry culture.
“I do follow gaming news and blogs, so the problem hasn’t escaped my attention. It makes me sad to think that as an industry we’re still pushing away so much talent, because the women feel that the environment is hostile towards them or worse – that they never discover their talent because they think that making games isn’t for women.”
Korhonen copes by doing her part to educate and encourage women to enter the industry, believing in “Strength (and visibility) in numbers.” Her most vivid—and to date only clear—encounter with sexism personally in the industry was at a recent games conference.
“I spotted a famous game designer in a remote corner talking to a group of people. I managed to quickly introduce myself, but before I could talk to him further I ended up talking to other people in the group. I was patiently waiting to find an opening to resume the conversation with him, but then I noticed in my peripheral vision that he was checking me out with lecherous “head-to-toe” look. Several times.”
Korhonen left the conversation without speaking to him further, expressing frustration that she has to worry about being judged by looks or gender instead of her talent.
She copes with on the job stress through communication and relaxation. “I usually talk to my boyfriend, who also works in the same company but in a different team. If it’s a design problem (which it is most of the time), I can get some new ideas or feedback from him. Also, I try to go to the gym regularly to help blow out some steam. There’s a sauna there, which can be amazingly relaxing after a long day.”
Though Korhonen has never had a formal mentorship, focusing instead on establishing her network and career, she applies her personal affinity for helping others to students looking to break into the industry.
“We got some really active female students in our university and I try to keep in touch with them, give advice and notify them about career possibilities. So guess you could say I mentor them.” Before entering the industry herself, the amount of women making games that Korhonen saw had been limited.
“There are a couple of awesome and very visible women in the Finnish game industry, but outside that little circle I didn’t hear about many games women. Brenda Brathwaite (or Garno nowadays) was one of the first ones I learned about…), but sadly I still know and hear way more about famous men in the industry.”
Korhonen’s observations of the changes in the industry started by noting that the rise of social and mobile games began before her entry into games.
“I still feel like the rest of the industry is looking down its nose on social games, but I think it’s getting better. I still wait for the day when mainstream media could discuss gaming without making it sound like a) source of all the troubles in our society (especially the violence) b) something strange that only lifeless weirdos do, but guess that’s going to require bit more growing up on both sides.”
Andrea Schmoll wears multiple hats at Broken Rules, a game studio in Vienna, Austria. Doubling as Head of Communication and a Game Designer, Schmoll has spent seven years in the industry. Gifted with a Euro Schneider PC at ten by her father, who wanted to give her a “proper” machine and not one for gaming, is described by Schmoll as a “noble idea” that didn’t work.
“As soon as I got my hands on the first games I was hooked.”
Schmoll studied Theater, Film and Media at the University of Vienna. She credits her education’s coverage of story arcs and dramaturgical timing as coming in handy for a number of projects. While looking for a second part time job during her time at university, she came across an ad for Rockstar Vienna, a video games company that was based in Vienna.
“They were looking for a Usability Game Engineer. I didn’t think I had the skills but had nothing to lose, so I applied. And got the job. And found myself right in the middle of my former 11-year-old girl’s daydream of being a game developer.”
The level of sexism in her workplaces has been low; Schmoll’s experiences with press and consumers has been far worse than encountering sexist or stereotyping comments while on the clock.
“…one encounter with the press left a very bad taste in my mouth. A German online magazine collaborated with our company and promised to cover us and our game on their site. When they came over they also asked if I was interested in being available for a short interview. I was surprised because all the others being interviewed were the respective leads. I wasn’t a lead. In fact, I was one of the last people to join the team. Still, I agreed and was faced with the biggest farce. My boss and I were faced with questions and comments that were filled to the brim with sexism. “Women don’t like to play FPS games.”, or “Women can’t move in 3D environments.” and “ Women can’t run amok because they’re brains function differently.”
Schmoll, with her boss sitting next to her, tried to politely explain what they were asking weren’t questions based in fact, but avoided argument with the interviewer. After wrapping the interview and photos, they waited for the publication of the article.
“When it came online, we were all very surprised. The headline said “Gamer Girl creative mind behind MMO”, followed by an interview I didn’t give. Or, most parts of what was written down didn’t come from me. The photos? Doctored. Instead of my nine-inch-nail hair pin they gave me a ponytail. And a longer neck. And colored all my black shirts. The comments underneath the article were even worse. The primarily male audience knew that the game had to suck – coming from a woman. I was blamed for the horrible game mechanics and game elements that came from the game designers (I was doing level design for this project). And 90% of them wanted to rape me.”
Schmoll’s spectrum of experiences also contain positive notes.
“I was very lucky to have met a wonderful game developer a few years ago during my first trip to San Francisco. She’s been a great help and it’s wonderful talking to her about design and games. Timezones are a bitch, though. Whenever I have the time to discuss a problem or ask a question, it’s in the middle of the night in San Francisco, or vice versa.” Schmoll works when possible to help other women and young girls enter the industry, and notes events like “daughter’s day,” which gets young women ages 11-16 into companies for a day have utility for those young women.
“Those companies are primarily tech related or have a high rate of male employees. It’s a great opportunity to show young girls that there are women in technical jobs, that those jobs are actually fun and also gives the opportunity to find out what’s required for getting into the industry.” Schmoll’swork in Vienna puts her in a very small, underrepresented group—women working in the games industry. Schmoll says the population of female gamedevs there is alarmingly small. “Only about 5 women work as a developer here in Vienna. There might be more but I’d be surprised if there are more than 10.”
The stress of Schmoll’s job was small at the time of the interview—she cited her projects outside work as her more noticeable sources of stress.
“Those are work-related (like organizing the STAG conference – Storytelling and Games) but happen in my free-time. Which is quite bad, since I do not get enough down-time for myself. From getting up in the morning to going to bed at night I feel like I am always giving 100%, never getting any rest, which leads to unbelievably lazy weekends, which do not really help, but also don’t make it any worse.” She avoids social media, checking texts and e-mail whenever possible on weekends in an effort to get rest. “Get out, get some air, do some gardening, read, as long as it’s not connected to any sort of project or work.”
As Schmoll’s career progresses, the changes in the industry that she has noticed start with the number of women within it.
“I’ve noticed more and more women in the industry. Strong and impressive women, who are working on amazing games. More and more join the conferences each year. What’s sad is that all of them have one or more stories to tell about being confronted with stereotypes and sexism.
On the other hand, more and more male developers distance themselves from this behavior and even become “feminists” themselves.”
Next week is part four in the series. Want to share your thoughts about this installment? Leave a comment!