Fifteen years of adventure; BioWare writer Ann Lemay on life in the industry

Mass Effect 3. Image provided by EA BioWare (Montreal.)

By night, games including World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, occupy some of Ann Lemay’s time. By day, she’s a writer in the games industry. Starting her career in 1997, Lemay’s worked a broad cross-section of industry jobs: Community Manager, Graphic Designer, Game Designer, and as a Game Writer. Since August 15th 2011, she’s been employed with EA BioWare (Montreal). Before her career in games, Lemay had completed a B.A. in Art History, which armed her with essential skills she’d need in the industry.

“Being able to organize vast amount of information? Priceless. Also, a yearlong stint in telecom as an information architect is beyond useful when it comes to tracking script/dialog variables, eh! Wire-framing is my best friend.” While working on her second B.A. at Concordia, Lemay taught herself web coding. She describes her ability to understand and track the numerous variables and conditionals BioWare writers handle as an invaluable skill rooted into that self-taught skill.

 

Her love for computer games met a moment of perfect timing—Lemay was ready to start her job hunt when Ubisoft founded their studio in Montreal.  “I was fortunate in that Ubisoft was also looking to hire regardless of pertinent industry skill, aware that they were basically going to be training up their first generation work force.  We were, all of us, very lucky to be part of a group of people who got to enter the industry without specific videogame experience and were trained on the job.”Coming into the field, Lemay, an avid adventure game player, was equipped with female role models, among them Jane Jensen of the Gabriel Knight games, and Roberta Williams, who worked on titles that include King Quest series and Laura Bow games.

Lemay has now been working in the games industry for fifteen years; she’s watched the conversations about prejudice and privilege evolving across that time.  Early in her career, she witnessed and personally experienced the types of industry sexism women are still familiar with. From the basic ignorance born of privilege to conscious sexism, little support existed for women in the industry. Addressing sexism via anti-discrimination policies was something the industry had to develop. Until policies about discrimination and sexual harassment were put into place, coping with a hostile work environment was ignoring it to the best of one’s ability and trying to move on.

“Early on, there was little to no support for women in this regard in the industry. Later on, sexual discrimination initiatives were set up and I had the chance to rely on those at least once—but it is telling that the person with whom I had problems was still allowed to be the one to evaluate me when the time came for annual reviews.” Other women at the same company had equally difficult times attempting to see their cases heard fairly.

“While I’m seeing definite improvement from how things were years ago, anti-discrimination policies (regarding many various –isms) are still dependent on the personnel involved. Most folk I know who have had to deal with reporting such matters, men or women, have worries about backlash with reporting something depending on the factors and people involved.” Then and now, not speaking out about discriminatory barriers encountered in the industry is in part about self-defense: you can’t be trolled and harassed if the information isn’t out there.

While the support for those dealing with sexism has evolved and increased, women taking active roles in mentoring—a cultural and educational boon for those with effective mentors—has been  increasing. Though other female developers were in the industry when she started, Lemay describes them as “…distant, quasi-mythical figures.” Whether a woman started in games decades ago or yesterday, access to mentors remains an issue. Lemay had the drive and ability to flourish sans mentor, working with colleagues and seniors who supported her and treated her as a capable developer, while others were less able to do the same.

There were fellow developers and seniors who treated me as a developer first and foremost, and supported me as I sought to learn and improve my skills. There were some who didn’t—who were stopped by the “wall” of my gender.  Still, someone believed in my enough to give me a chance at being a writer in 2004 (hi Gary!) and to this day, I pay it forward as best as I can.” That crucial moment with a supportive mentor provided Lemay with her current outlook towards mentoring.

“I’ve been making efforts to encourage juniors in the field and people wanting to join the field since. I haven’t been making this a gender specific effort; anyone approaching me, I’ll try to assist and support as I can. But—whenever I get the chance to help a women break in the field, or improve her lot in the industry, I am glad I get the chance to do so.”

Mentorship, to Lemay, is not about teaching someone about a trade. Mentors are aware of how the field works, proactively reaching out and helping others through the social and political structures of companies and projects, who can sympathize when it all feels like too much, and offer their support.

“I’ve tried to do this, to instill better communication and networking among writers, and just people in general, when I could. Invariably, people respond to this—you have to take the time to reach out to another human being and assume the best. The results are far more often positive than not.” Lemay believes in creating an industry culture that welcomes women, fosters mentorship, and addresses both gender and privilege.

“It’s important that we have more visible women in the industry. It’s important that there are more women in the industry. There are far more men aware of issues of gender and privilege today than there ever were when I started, but the more women are visible in our field, the more women not in our field will perhaps believe there’s a place for them here among us. I’d like to see our numbers increase, and both visibility and mentorship opportunities will help in this regard.”

 

Lemay’s found a number of other women, from companies she’s worked at and outside them, who have a unifying attitude of sticking together and being supportive. This has become particularly apparent in the social media age. “Twitter has made this phenomenon truly without barriers, as well—and I’m very, very appreciative of this.” Though many can point to social media as a way to keep in touch with peers, Lemay was firm that it could be utilized in a meaningful way. “Twitter in particular has made social connections across the industry so much easier. It’s amazing how simple it is to connect with others and establish ties with, via Twitter. Professional networking too, yes, but socially—it’s an amazing platform in that sense, and I can’t overstate how integral it’s been to my experience in terms of reaching out to others in the industry, over the past few years. “

 

With a network of peers in a high-stress field, Lemay’s handling of work stress is aided by her own workplace, where a culture that enables communication can lead to problem-solving. But the passion of her coworkers helps just as much.

 “Yes, we have deadlines and—as with the rest of the game industry—loaded work schedules. But I’m working with people who, across all departments, are invested in the narrative on every level. I am also working with people who are highly respectful of their colleagues on every level—it makes everything about my job so very awesome, I can’t even begin to tell you how much.”

 

Slowly, but surely, the games industry is evolving. Though the culture of the games industry itself contains people who accept privilege and prejudiced attitudes, toleration of such behavior is no longer widespread, and active questioning of such entrenched perspectives is growing.

“I’m seeing a huge change in awareness among devs (gender irrelevant) regarding prejudices of all sorts in the industry, today. Things have changed and progressed, among developer—far more people speak out now.”

Outside the professionals present in the industry are those training and studying on their way to entering it—some of them students Lemay has had the pleasure of teaching.

“I had the chance to teach a class for the Champlain college, a few years ago (wow, time flies!). It was an exceptional experience for me, and one of the things I remember clearly was how hungry to change things my students were. I know the realities of the industry can make this hard on people sometimes, but I hope they still have this drive today. They made me think our industry has a good future.”

About l

L is a freelancer currently working as a writer, editor, journalist and game designer. She hauls a suitcase decorated in stickers as she blogs, travels, and tours. She makes her home in Washington, California, and wherever the tour stopped last night. You can follow L on twitter (@lilyorit )

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