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.
Tabby Lulham is the Creative Director at the indie company Axon Digital Arts in Toronto, Canada. Lulham’s entry into the industry was spurred by her love of games, with a particular drive to advancing educational gaming. Her education and training have given her some, but not all of the tools to accomplish her industry goals.
“My training is as a medical illustrator but I made a science game for high school students as my Master’s Research Project. I studied educational game design a bit during my Master’s and also learned programming. But I’m a scientist and artist by trade. So, I have been able to take some things from my prior schooling, but I had to learn a lot on my own.”
Lulham’s co-founders at Axon include her fiancé, all of whom are on the same page with her regarding sexism in the industry.
“I am really tired of games marketed to the teenage boy demographic and it’s, I think, part of our core mission to produce games with strong female characters (especially leads), as well as characters from a variety of ethnic and orientation backgrounds. We are interested especially in producing educational games, an area where (thankfully) the push is toward inclusiveness. You can’t hope to produce something that teaches a group without making an effort to include and represent everyone in the group. We think that extends to games for entertainment too.”
Lulham’s fiancé, currently enrolled in games programming coursework at college, is in a program starkly under-populated by women—1-3 women for every 100 students.
“They have a few female teachers but only in the lower years. A lot of these guys are just fresh from high school and I really worry that the lack of female students will only serve to solidify the belief that women are a) not interested in games and b) not interested in programming. It seems obvious to me that these guys wouldn’t have a clue how to behave in the workplace after graduating from a program where they have essentially zero industry-related contact with women (unless they are artists).”
Lulham’s exposure to women in the industry happened after entering it. The women in her local indie community have been enjoyable to connect with, but are predominantly artists. Visible female designers, at larger companies or independent studios, are something Lulham has yet to see. Though Lulham is new to the industry, she says she’d greatly appreciate mentorship in her field, whether as a mentee or a mentor. A handful of her Master’s classmates are traveling a similar career path, but Lulham wants to continue making local connections. Her coping mechanisms while negotiating a young career in games are “Massages, sleep, and occasionally childish bouts of Not Doing Anything.”
As someone producing content instead of consuming it, Lulham has seen different facets on industry conversations.
“I don’t think the industry is changing much now, but since I’m paying more attention now as a creator instead of consumer, I can see that this conversation about sexism and the other -isms is happening. I’ve noticed a lot of blog posts and articles sprouting up recently to discuss the issue. That’s really heartening. Then I read the comments and I kind of wonder if the industry will ever change.”
Whitney Hills is a designer at HumaNature Studios. She’s been a designer, writer, editor and producer while working in the games industry. Working for Microsoft, Double Fine, and indie studios, Hills decided on pursuing games in college.
“I’ve been playing games all my life. Junior year of college, it occurred to me that I might try a career in them—mostly because not enough studios are making the kind of games that I want to play, and I hoped I could alter that.” Hills entered the industry with an English degree six years ago, which she relies heavily on for her work.
The sexism she’s encountered as a designer is the pervasive treatment of women as possessing delicate sensibilities.
“One thing occurs most pervasively, and that pisses me off the most, happens when I’m in a group of male developers. One will say something crude or off-color, and then immediately look at me and apologize for potentially offending the Lady in the Room. I typically address this sort of thing by saying, preemptively or in response, the most vile thing I can imagine.”
Hills has a number of friends who work in the industry as game developers, some of whom are women. Though a female-specific mentorship was never something Hills desired, she’s enjoyed working with other female developers.
“Double Fine, in particular, employs a higher-than-average (but still low) ratio of women. They are all total ballers.”
Coping with work related stress involved making significant changes in Hills’ life.
“I quit my job and go to far-flung countries. At least, that’s what I did last year. Life’s short, and you only get so many hours before you’re dust. It’s important to me not to work for the sake of working, and only work to learn something new, or to contribute to a project I truly believe in. (Or earn money to buy the freedom to do my own thing.) So whenever I feel stressed on the job, it helps to remind myself that I’m making a choice to be there. There is always a choice.”
Liz Danforth has been working in the games industry since the 1970s. Currently working assignments on Wasteland 2, Storybricks, and for the French publisher of the Tunnels & Trolls line, Danforth has worked as an editor, writer, designer and illustrator. Danforth is a Renaissance woman—she’s worked on video games, tabletop role-playing games, card games, board games, game modules and fiction. Her first game-industry publication was in 1976.
“Don’t think a year has passed since that I’ve done nothing for the industry, though some years have been more productive than others. I had something of a life-meltdown in the first decade of the century, and didn’t do much for awhile. That’s been turning around the last several years, as I get back into my stride.”
Danforth was an active science fiction and fantasy fan in college; the local SF/F club put her into contact with hobby gamers playing games such as Risk, Regatta and Diplomacy.
The answer to your question-as-phrased is that I absolutely love doing work I enjoy and getting paid for it. For me, the industry made that possible.
“They introduced me to the wargame hobby as a hobby, although I’d always played a lot of games with my family growing up. One of those gamers was Ken St Andre, who designed Tunnels & Trolls as the second-ever RPG in answer to “This new D&D thing has some cool ideas but why does it have to be this complicated? And so damned serious?”
Danforth’s work on Tunnels & Trolls started her on the tabletop part of her career.
“Because T&T was published through Flying Buffalo Inc, I eventually was hired as staff artist and later as productions director for the Blades division of the company. Rick Loomis, head of FBInc, allowed staff to freelance on the side, so I learned the ropes and, over time, I worked for just about every major and most smaller companies that were doing interesting products.”
Has has your prior education been applicable to your work in the industry?
Her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology came with a minor in Zoology; her undergraduate studies is often applied in her illustrative work.
“In university, my focus was on animal behavior, human culture, and physical anthropology. All those have given me a well-grounded and pretty wide-ranging overview of the natural world and how people have related to it and to each other through history and prehistory. That all goes to use whether I’m drawing space aliens with explicable anatomy, or creating a secretive and conspiratorial band of undead thieves, or rebuilding a post-apocalyptic society in the desert.” Her master’s degree in information sciences is utilized in her part of her part-time “day job.” In 2008, she was able to marry her interests in gaming and library science.
“In June 2008, I was asked to serve as one of about a dozen “gaming experts” for ALA (American Library Association) when they received a million dollar grant from Verizon Foundation to “measure the impact of gaming on literacy skills and build a model for library gaming that can be deployed nationally.”We followed that up by funding 10 libraries across the nation to institute innovative gaming programs for teens where little or nothing like it existed previously.” From May of 2009 till last December, Danforth wrote for the Library Journal, the industry publication for the library profession, as their games and gaming blogger and columnist.
“Libraries were just becoming interested in games when I started—the ALA initiative raised eyebrows—but many libraries and their stakeholders were a bit at sea about what and why. I could speak knowledgeably as both librarian and gamer, and as a passionate advocate for the manifest benefits of games and gaming. I’d like to think I successfully put myself out of a job there: games are now almost as common a library service as Story Time, and in fact the programs have expanded far beyond where we started.” To whether her library science training affects her work in the games industry, Danforth stated
“I know that research does not begin or end with Google or Wikipedia.” As an outgrowth of her library science training, Danforth is passionate about ethics and equal access to information, and values lifelong learning as part and parcel of her work in the industry.
“It’s a catchphrase common in education and library circles, but it’s a reality I find common in the industry—and it should be, for people to be successful in this business. Everything gets put into the brainpan for use at the right opportunity.”
Danforth’s career in the industry has contained occasional personal encounters with sexism, sighting her colleagues as less sexist than most random strangers on the street.
“I am fully aware that other women have had terrible experiences but I personally have encountered little that was meaningful or wasn’t readily dismissed.”
Early in Danforth’s career she dealt with the occasional booth patron who thought she was a “clueless booth babe,” an assumption she would turn on its head over the course of conversation. She’s also addressed the “delicate sensibilities” stereotype.
“I once had a southern “good ol’ boy” try to defend my honor and my delicate ears from hearing indelicate language which, I sharply pointed out, was something I was fully capable of doing if I was in fact offended (and I wasn’t), and as a stranger he was completely out of line to poke his nose into an amiable conversation between friends.” The most blatant encounter with sexism she’s had personally came in a business conversation.
“Probably the most egregious sexism event I ever had was a purveyor of art prints at conventions who, when I asked if he was interested in carrying my work, made it evident that he’d consider it more seriously if I’d have sex with him. I didn’t, he didn’t, and it had no impact on my career.”
When it comes to work, Danforth doesn’t shy away from addressing sexism when it’s occurred during assignments.
“In one of my current projects, the Storybricks toolkit for MMO design, I’ve raised my voice on several occasions to address my dismay at stereotypic female character concepts. It isn’t a realistic “look” they’re initially aiming for, in gender or role to be carried out, so the guys on the team are falling into some default conditions for male and female characters alike. Since I’m not in the thick of things there, it isn’t a lot I can do more directly than I have.”
Before she entered the industry, Danforth didn’t see women visible in games.
“It was an emphatically male industry when I first encountered the business. I recall my breasts were openly stared at the first day I came onto the floor at Origins back in the late 70s, which even then I found laughably pathetic and rather sad. But I was a young 20-something, slimmer than I am today, and that wasn’t uncommon in society at large. It didn’t stop me, it didn’t put me off, and in terms of the big picture it didn’t really matter.”
For young female gamers, “Women in Gaming” panels may feel new, but Danforth remembers their early start.
“I do recall one of the very early “Women in Gaming” panels at, I think, a GenCon one year. It seemed like everyone of the female persuasion who was actively working in the forefront of the industry as something more than a shipping clerk was on that panel … all five or six of us. Most were editors (me included). One was the marketing director for her company. I was, as I recall, the only person with design and development credits to her name. Things changed a lot over the years, and my credits list is miniscule compared to the least active of the regular designers out there today.”
Danforth’s approach to work-related stress has evolved over the course of her life.
“I address the root causes if I can, and kill pixels when I can’t. I’ve learned a lot of lessons in how to live my life, over the years: things like “get enough sleep.” Sleep is, in my opinion, as essential as oxygen and lack of it just as deadly to one’s health and well-being. Step away from things that cause more harm than benefit. Know what you want and work hard for it, but be flexible in how you get there.”
In her decades spanning career, Danforth has watched games explode in popularity.
“Gaming is emerging as one of the world-changing activities that we can’t begin to see the end of right now. According to the Pew Internet and American Life studies related to gaming, virtually all teens play. Half of all adults play at least weekly. Like most large things, mainstreamed gaming has both good and bad aspects. I think the good aspects will far outweigh the bad, but there’s plenty of both. Bottom line, everything has changed since I started working in the industry.”
Danforth plays the MMO World of Warcraft, which came online in 2004, and is often blanketed in the same reputation is many online games. Danforth’s feelings about online games are nuanced.
“I get the sense that most online competitive gaming is a sinkhole of misogyny, sexism, and homophobia. The adrenaline rush of ganking and being ganked in real time brings out the most vicious expletives, the most virulent hatreds, and the most extreme incivilities. But to assume that’s what is truly important about gaming is like assuming computers and the internet are all about hackers, viruses, keyloggers, and Nigerian widow-spam.”
The hobby and the industry have grown to include new opportunities during her career, a development Danforth enjoys.
“I am honestly happy to see other women enjoying the hobby I enjoy, contributing to it and demanding it be better than before. The hobby continues to grow, the opportunities to play or work on something I enjoy continue to expand, and none of those are bad things.”
This wraps the fourth and final segment of the Industry Spotlight Series. Feel free to go back and read the first three installments! You can leave questions or comments about this segment or the series below.
Correction Notice, 6/2012: The date of the release of the World of Warcraft MMO has been corrected to accurately reflect its release date.