Eight Female Game Devs Reflect on Breaking Into the Industry, Overcoming "Negative Stereotypes"

Almudena Soria, Halley Gross, Laila Shabir, Siobhan Reddy, Jacinda Chew, Jing Li, Mena Soto,Lerika Mallayeva_Split - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Joseph Taraborrelli
Studio heads, developers, art directors, narrative leads and more from across a variety of game companies share their thoughts on building virtual worlds and advocating for the industry.

"A few years ago when I was entering the U.S. border, the [customs] officer asked me what I do for a living. I told him, 'I'm a game designer.' The officer frowned at me and said, 'My son is addicted to video games and he's not studying. Why are you making things like this?'"

That's Jing Li, game designer at Pixelopus, recalling a memory ahead of International Women's Day, as The Hollywood Reporter gathered the voices of a group of gaming professionals to speak about diversity, both within game storytelling and amongst creators themselves. Understandably, Li was "shocked and frankly a little scared" when that interaction occurred.

"I told him a lot of games are actually designed to have a positive impact on kids," she says. "For example, I've worked on educational games that teach second-grade kids math and English while having fun. I also told him about our recent game, Concrete Genie, and how it could teach kids to overcome bullying and negativity. Eventually he stamped my passport and then he said, 'I will look for games like that for my son.'"

The theme for International Women's Day 2020 is "an equal world is an enabled world." For the video game industry, equality — particularly gender equality — is on the minds of many leaders. "Having more women in the industry could increase variety in game ideas and perspectives, which will help games attract a wider range of audiences and eventually help games become more mainstream," says Li. 

When asked to summon a list of video game titles from recent memory, most gamers probably won't list something as out-of-the-box as a feminist visual novel that falls in the category of "erotic," from an indie creator such as Christine Love. Though unavailable to participate in this story, the statement on her website provides a relevant description of her work: "I write games with too many words in them about women and queerness and technology, and I believe strongly in the power of cuteness." There, she also expresses her mission: "Love conquers all games." The creator was recently seen at PAX West, introducing three narrative games to the community. 

"Everyone brings a bit of their world into their work," says Jacinda Chew, studio art director at Insomniac Games, which is still riding the wave of success from 2018's Marvel's Spider-Man. "That's why diversity is so important," she underlines.

"We should be striving to get the smartest, most innovative people into our studios," says Halley Gross, narrative lead at Naughty Dog, the game developer responsible for titles such as The Last of Us and Uncharted. "To do that, we need to be welcoming to all people, regardless of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity."

"There are a lot of talented artists, programmers, analysts and other experts among women," says Lerika Mallayeva, managing director of DevGAMM, a conference for gaming professionals in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. "By welcoming them, we make the hiring wider and easier."

For Almudena Soria, lead animator at Naughty Dog, the inclusion of women is necessary because "[we] have different ways of thinking, our experience in life is unique — we go through many things that men do not. We will be able to find new formulas, new looks, develop more diverse characters, tell different types of stories."

From the perspective of Mena Sato, director of business development at Japan Studio (a production and development arm of parent company Sony Interactive Entertainment, responsible for games such as Shadow of the Colossus), there are a number of women already working in the industry, but the public may not realize it. "I think we have more women than ever before, but we need to do a better job at spotlighting the various talent and for ourselves to be a better advocate for women in gaming," she explains. "We need inspirational people who are game changers but also women in every corner of gaming that say, "We are here and we are making things happen!"

Sato points to Connie Booth, vp product development at Sony Interactive Entertainment — not to be confused with the equally intrepid actress from Fawlty Towers who shares the same name —  as someone who fits the aforementioned description; a real game changer in the industry. "She makes it seem normal for women to be in gaming," says Sato.

At DevGAMM, Mallayeva has noticed an increase of young women in the industry. "We have a volunteer program where young game development professionals or students from game development schools [typically aged 18-23] can help one day at the event and get a free pass to attend another day," she explains. "Last year, the number of volunteer applications reached a 50/50 ratio between men and women. It means, if they stay in the game industry, it will soon balance out."

In response to a question about the benefit of inviting more women into the industry, Siobhan Reddy, studio director at Dreams developer Media Molecule, throws it back with a query of her own: "What have we got to lose?" She adds, "Surely, inviting talented people who have traditionally not felt welcomed is a good thing. It's like asking — what do we gain from inviting smart and creative people to the industry?"

Meanwhile, Laila Shabir, founder and CEO of Girls Make Games, an organization established in 2014 to encourage girls to pursue gaming careers in paths like design, content creation and engineering, notes that, "On a human level, everybody deserves a shot at their dreams."

This group of women have been playing games for decades and, despite working in the industry themselves, still feel the impact popular characters had on them today. "I loved Grace Nakamura [from the 1993 point-and-click adventure game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers]," recalls Chew. "Grace was an Asian American, like myself, and was smart and capable."

"Growing up, I really loved Chun-Li from Street Fighter," says Shabir. "She's so incredibly strong and powerful! She was also the first-ever female character in a fighting game." These days, Shabir sinks her teeth into League of Legends, where she plays as Ashe, a character whose in-game quotes include, "Do not confuse mercy for weakness."

Soria grew up playing a lot of graphic adventures, noting that there weren't many playable female characters at the time. "Guybrush Threepwood from Monkey Island was one of my favorites," she says. These days, Ellie from The Last of Us is her favorite video game character. "She's real, she's complex, she's conflicted."

Reddy, meanwhile, didn't have any video games during her childhood. "You don't need to have played games since you were a teeny child to be a games maker," she emphasizes. "The medium is so broad."

Looking ahead to the future of character development in games, Gross acknowledges the benefits of seeing "more strong female characters" in games, but notes, "Often, in an effort to craft 'strong female characters,' these woman are made too perfect — impossibly strong, impossibly heroic, without any need for growth or change. I believe the more we can allow our strong female protagonists to have human flaws, to display resilience rather than perfection, the more our players will be able to relate to them."

Gross emphasizes the potential for growth and the influence that working in games can have. Asked what the industry can do to eliminate the need for young women to convince their families to let them pursue gaming, she responds with, "Remind them that they don't need to ask for permission to be who they want to be."

At Naughty Dog, Gross works alongside a number of female developers including Ashley Swidowski, Alex Neonakis, Emilia Schatz, Soa Lee and, of course, Soria. "Their work is inspiring and is pushing the whole industry forward," Gross says. 

Shabir routinely meets parents who want their daughter to learn coding at the Girls Make Games summer camp, but who don't see gaming as a viable career option. "Sometimes it's fear, sometimes it's lack of knowledge," she says. "For non-gaming, non-tech savvy parents, it simply comes down to how the industry is shown in mainstream media, and how headline after headline furthers the negative stereotypes about both video game consumers and developers." She expresses the need for school career counselors to be well-versed in professional positions within the gaming industry, as well as the media to reintroduce video games as a social good.

While the group recognizes that progress has been made toward representation and equality, especially with companies like PlayStation and Xbox making diversity a priority, they are also aware of many issues that the industry continues to face, from employee discrimination to the lack of stories told from a woman's perspective to games being taken lightly by mainstream media. However, their vision for the future is overwhelmingly positive. 

"I've always believed that games are not only a medium of entertainment, but also have the power of storytelling, educating and making an emotional impact," says Li. "Being one of the only mainstream mediums that's interactive, gaming could mean so much more and we can help it reach its full potential." 

"Having successful women visible and vocal in popular media would help families see that girls can do anything they want," Soria says. "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do anything because of your gender, sexual orientation or your race. Be passionate and work hard, stay focused, take steps to make it happen. It may be hard, but if you really want it, you can make it happen."