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Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture studio co-founder calls for immediate action to improve diversity in games

Jessica Curry, BAFTA-winning composer and co-founder of games studio The Chinese Room, gave a rousing speech to close the 2016 European Women In Games conference, calling for greater diversity in games and female developers to stand up to discrimination.

Tom Quillfeldt

October 3, 2016

12 Min Read

Jessica Curry, BAFTA-winning composer and co-founder of games studio The Chinese Room, gave a rousing speech to close the 2016 European Women In Games conference, held in early September at the University of Greenwich, London.

To a room full of budding game developers, the majority of whom were young women from various game design university courses, Curry opened with the admission: “I left the industry very publicly and very emotionally last year due to an unholy trinity of a very serious illness, a very difficult—bordering on abusive—publisher relationship and sexism within the industry. It was a very bleak year for me.”

“What really confounded me, even as the head of a very well-respected and well-funded company, was that I still found the games industry to be such a brutal place and one that I simply couldn’t protect myself from.”

The aftermath of Curry’s 2015 blog post signalling her intention to leave the industry saw her inundated with thousands of emails and tweets. “Lots of people cared, and I heard lots of horrendous and upsetting stories from people about not only how women are treated in the industry, but how humans are treated in the industry.”

Sadly, this included tales of women being groped in the workplace as well as “a litany of micro-aggressions; things you feel embarrassed or ashamed to bring up but that make your working day not nice.”

“This year I’ve been thinking about… how we can all protect ourselves, protect each other. I truly believe we can thrive in this industry but it’s going to take some willpower, bravery and effort. It’s 2016 and it’s time for this to stop. I want everyone to feel like they’re safe and valued in the workplace.”

Full stop

“It can only stop if we all say ‘no’. I’m 43 and I’m still learning this.” Curry went on to recount a recent project outside the games industry which saw her made to feel “deeply, physically uncomfortable” due to the “unsolicited hugs, suggestive comments and invasion of personal space” by a man she was working with.

“I didn’t say anything. You can’t believe they’re saying it… you feel it’s too embarrassing to say anything. I felt really disappointed with myself because… the questions [I asked myself] blamed me for his inappropriate and, actually, illegal behaviour. I made a pledge to myself that the next time something like that happened, I would stand firm and not accept behaviour like that.”

More recently, Curry confronted a conference organiser exhibiting similar behaviour. “I think when you’re older, you’re strong and not traditionally feminine, it can really put people’s back up. You’re not being unfriendly or over-demanding... so I said to him: ‘you’re making me feel very uncomfortable’. He didn’t get it, he said I’d misunderstood him. I came to the conclusion that it didn’t really matter—I had stood up for myself and by doing so, I’d stood up for everybody in this room. It was about me giving myself permission to protect me the same way I would protect a friend or colleague.”

The “D” word

“It’s hard. We have mortgages, some of us have children, we don’t want to lose our jobs. We don’t want to be seen as the dreaded “D” word—as difficult. [But] this industry is not going to protect us. We have to learn to protect ourselves.

“What I suffer from, and a lot of women suffer from, is the ‘likeability question’—women are really afraid to be disliked by other people.” Curry shared another anecdote of a sound engineer she was working with, reverently gushing about the passionate, domineering temper of a famous male composer that had passed through the studio.

“About five minutes later I said: ‘would you mind terribly if you could turn the clarinet down, it’s a bit loud’. He rolled his eyes at me and turned to one of the producers as if to say: ‘bloody women, they’re so hard to work with.’

“What I did then was apologise, and what little respect he had for me at that point drained out of him—because I had lost my power. I gave him my power. What I should have said was ‘I know what I’m doing, I’ve been a composer for 20 years, please turn the clarinet down.”

Curry implored her audience to stop apologising when it isn’t necessary: “you have to stop being embarrassed about the fact that we are smart, strong, funny, talented, driven women.”

Curry cited Jennifer Lawrence’s response to the post-Sony Pictures hack revelation that she had been paid less than her male co-stars for her performance in the film American Hustle. Her reaction: “I was depressed and inspired and thought ‘my God, if Jennifer Lawrence gets this, of course I’m going to get this too.’”

“It’s not about becoming more manly and a bully. It’s about learning to become comfortable with a slightly uncomfortable truth which is that if we’re strong, professional, direct, decisive and unapologetic, we’re going to piss some people off. We’re probably going to piss some other women off!” That’s what we need to change: we need to not be seen as bitches for being strong… if we stop worrying and giving energy to this likeability issue, we’re free to be ourselves... our true selves rather than the women society expects us to be.”

Building an industry for all, not just Peter Pan

Curry, similar to other women in the games industry targeted by misogynistic elements among fans, has been subjected to significant numbers of rape and death threats via email and Twitter.

She finds comfort and inspiration in the words of a fellow developer, the outspoken co-founder of studio Giant Spacekat, Brianna Wu. Curry quoted: “...there’s this assumption that there’s a right path that will shelter us from the worst excesses of the industry—this is flat out wrong…. if you’re a woman reading this, you’re fine the way you are. There’s no single way to be a woman in tech. You don’t need to change, the industry does.

“When I think about the games industry, I conjure up a mental image of Nerf toys, male action figures on desks, comic books and all the accoutrements of boys that haven’t quite grown up… an entire business built on the image of a very particular person. It’s a system that is bliss for Peter Pans, but it’s not a system that spends much of its time thinking about the rest us.”

In discussing the Peter Pan archetype, Curry points out that: “I’m married to that person who loves first-person shooters. I’m not against it, I’m just saying diversity is so crucial.”

Network co-op

Curry expanded upon the idea, put forward by game designer Brenda Romero, that the young women in the industry should ask fellow developers for an hour of their time, offering an hour in exchange. “It has the potential to be the start of some great friendships and strong communities, both of which are key if we’re going to thrive and not just survive. So many women today have said it’s about powerful, nurturing, stable, caring, protective networks and that we’re all stronger if we exist within them.”

Organisations that she recommends developers experiencing difficulties to reach out to include BAFTA and the advocacy group BAME in Games, set up to address the issue of a lack of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people working in the industry. BAME in Games was established in June and highlights that BAME employment in the games industry dropped from 4.7% in 2012 to 4.0% today (versus 10% nationally, across all industries).

Despite the success of The Chinese Room, which was just this year nominated for 10 BAFTA Games awards (winning three for music, audio and voice actor performance), Curry confessed: “I still feel like I’m just surviving at the moment, not thriving. I didn’t really ask for help last year and I wish I had done. I wish I’d opened up more before I exploded, because I built and built and thought I could cope.

“Women have to be so strong within the industry, but it’s OK to say: ‘I can’t cope today. I got 20 death threats, four rape threats, it’s enough, I need to call someone.’” Referring to BAFTA Deputy Chair Anne Morrison’s assertion earlier in the day, Curry added: “being a pioneer takes its toll… last year really took its toll on me. It’s hard and it’s exhausting and it will impact you... find your networks and use them.”

Punctually praising one’s peers

A prominent voice in the industry for some years, Curry pointed out that she is fastidious about referencing those she quotes, constantly promoting and praising the work of colleagues whether they’re women or men. “If someone’s doing great work, reference their name, shout about them. A lot of women who write to me say that they don’t feel heard, they don’t feel seen and they don’t feel valued. Always think about how you can be signal boosting your colleagues and shouting about their achievements. [This could include] friends who inspire you or work that inspires you.”

Edge magazine came under fire from Curry for being a “sausage-fest”, with the result that aspiring developers reading the monthly title would see few or no female role models among its pages. “We joke at work about the fact that there hasn’t been a woman in the ‘Soundbytes’ section for 13 months—until Hillary Clinton made it in this month.” She criticises the magazine for failing to include a picture of Jane Ng in a feature of the game Firewatch, even though Ng was a leading artist on the game. “It may have been accidental, but we need to tell them they [should] be working harder than that.”

Curry stressed that men also play an important part in this regard: “I have an amazing, incredibly supportive network of men who shout about women’s achievements all the time.” She cited her husband and co-founder of The Chinese Room Dan Pinchbeck, Honeyslug’s Ricky Haggett and composer Austin Wintory (Journey, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate). “It’s so much easier to be a man and not care, so I’m always really impressed by the men that do.”

Competitive multiplayer

Admitting that it may be an unpopular view, she pointed out that women respecting other women was an important part of improvement the overall situation: “we give so much of our power away—and it isn’t always men taking it. You only have to look at women’s magazines to see how much we give away. [There’s] so much self-hatred that is peddled to us and we’re all victim to it.

“We need to stop judging other women—on their weight, their food choices, their clothes.” She recalls that, as a working mother, she has been chastised both for working whilst raising a child and not working enough despite being a parent.

Quoting one of her mother’s sayings, Curry added: “men make all the big wars, women make the small ones. We have to elevate ourselves. We can be our own worst enemies, our own worst critics.”

Diversity beyond gender

Echoing a sentiment from the conference that “diversity makes us all better people and better colleagues—and we’ll make better games.” For Curry, the importance of diversity stretches beyond gender, to age and disability among other things, hence the studio’s games align with its stated aim to increase the diversity both of themes and characters in video games.

“We made [2015’s] Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture because we wanted to make a different kind of game. We have an African-American heroine who’s an astrophysicist in the 1980s, [facing] awful racism in a Shropshire village.” Referring to a disabled character, Lizzie, Curry said: “I was really touched because I knew that my husband [Dan Pinchbeck, the game’s writer] created her as a love letter to me. He said: ‘I’ve written this amazing woman and she’s got some issues with her leg. She’s really strong though, she holds everything together’. I knew that he’d written that about me—that was lovely.”

Having a degenerative disease greatly exacerbated the buildup of stress that Curry suffered whilst completing Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, she explained, adding that The Chinese Room works with video games charity Special Effect, which helps physically disabled gamers enjoy their preferred hobby through custom-rigged controllers.

Curry also pointed out that several characters in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture are pensioners, something rarely seen in video games. “Age is another massive form of discrimination in this industry,” she added.

Time for change to get its skates on

Taking a sterner line, Curry asserted: “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s not going to get handed to us—we have to be bold, brave and energetic. So I’ve told myself to suck it up. I spent all of last year saying ‘it’s not fair’: how Sony treated me; it’s not fair being a woman in the industry; it’s not fair getting death threats first thing in the morning. I’m going to have to suck it up or just bugger off.

“Every time I’m going to leave the industry and I come to an event like this, I think: ‘I can’t leave because there are amazing, talented, passionate, inclusive people within this industry’. And every time someone leaves—and I know lots of women that are leaving—it feels like a defeat. So I’m going to try and stay around for a bit longer.”

“Lots of people have said ‘things are slowly changing’. Fuck that. I’m impatient. I know we have to take micro-steps and that it’s one day at a time but it’s 2016—it’s time for real change. The games industry can be what we decide it’s going to be. We have the power to change it. We have to be courageous, stand together and support one another.

“We have to treat other people with dignity and be strong for those who can’t be strong for themselves. If you’re strong, young, energetic and passionate, you can look after elderly disabled people like me! Because I’m running out of energy with an illness that takes a toll on my body [although] I’m not handing over the mantle, I’m not going to stop.

“The sad fact is that there are a lot of people in this industry that don’t want us here if we have a vagina.”

Closing with a quote from novelist Ayn Rand, Curry said: “‘The question isn't who is going to let me, it's who is going to stop me.’ What I say to you all is let’s become unquestionably unstoppable—and let’s do it today.”

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