In addition to leading Kitfox Games in developing games like Shattered Planet and Moon Hunters, Tanya X. Short co-founded Pixelles with Rebecca Cohen Palacios in 2012. Pixelles recently completed its IndieGoGo, funding its various free programs.
I'm tired of being asked about harassment and sexism. Nobody ever asks how to actually get more women making games, and being happy making games ... probably because they think it's a question that's too hard. It's a shame, because that's actually a question I'd have an answer for.
With the difficulty of the past year, it's important to remember: women of every kind are making games right now! Thousands of woman game developers, journalists, and critics continue to contribute to our industry and art form every day, providing their professional expertise in every role. And several organisations help keep it that way. Most notably perhaps, WIGI helps women in the industry grow their careers, and #1reasontobe inspires women to strive against adversity.
Countless smaller grass-roots programs don't make the news, but work continuously to change culture, from their neighborhoods outwards. Pixelles is one of these, and we are dedicated to helping women create their first game. Our dream is for everyone to make a game.
I've called this write-up “Gaming the System” because in a way, our strategy is all about min-maxing. With a minimum amount of effort, how can we maximize the probability that more women will spontaneously decide to create games?
Two years ago, I wrote about our first incubator, and one year ago I spoke at GDC about the entirety of the Pixelles program. In both cases, I implored community leaders world-wide to try our methods and let me know which techniques and philosophies worked for them.
So far, I have received only a few modest inquiries of interest, none of which seem yet to have born fruit. I hope that the reason for this is because up until now, we haven't been as loud and transparent about the ways in which the program has clearly succeeded. Behold.
Some of these are by necessity estimations and approximations, but even so, consider:
10,000 sounds like a lot, but as soon as you have a few hundred people involved in your community even tangentially, it's pretty easy. To get that approximation, I took the 35 alumna and Follow Alongs of the incubator -- most of them didn't know each other and none of them knew us 2 organizers, so that's already 660 new relationships. If each of them interacts with an average of 16 new game-creators, that's 10,560 new connections from which to draw support, encouragement, and game-making expertise -- note that 16 is a low estimate, given that 150 or so people attend each showcase, 480 chatter on Facebook, 200+ attend monthly workshops, dozens at game-jams, etc.
For better or worse, most of the impact is difficult to measure. One incubator alumna took charge of expanding the local games society to have a new kind of meet-up, and started a writing group for aspiring games writers. How do you measure that? +5 points, I guess?
Another alumna went on to win a competitive games scholarship and now works full-time as a designer at Ubisoft. How many points is that? Two alumnas went on to the Concordia University alternative games 'Critical Hit' incubator, one of which resulted in an award-winning crowdfunded game currently on tour, the other of which is now at Black Tusk in Vancouver. In fact, here are all of the games and events new Pixelles alumna have done in just one year:
None of these success stories include the third crop of alumna, which just 'graduated' a few weeks ago.
Plus, our mentors and mentees alike have personally taken me aside to say that Pixelles has improved their lives, professionally and personally. Part of it is networking – talking to other women both in and soon-to-be-in the industry bolsters their confidence in their own game-making abilities, and reaffirms that there is joy to be found in that work.
For some, it's not enough to know you can succeed in an industry – you must know that you can be happy in it.
Of course, it's not like we make these women amazing -- they were always amazing. We just helped shortcut them from game-curious to game-creator. In their applications, most participants spoke of planning to create a game "someday", but none knew when that day would be, without Pixelles to provide the spark of motivation.
And all of this for the stunningly low sum of approximately $5,000 spent to date. How?
What is it?
Pixelles has grown to organize three main activities:
An annual incubator, started from 2013, helping 10ish women each create their own first game, of their own design, in whatever tools they deem best. You can read a full write-up of that program's details here.
A mentorship program, introducing aspiring lady developers to learn from helpful professionals in their dream field.
Community-building events, such as game jams, monthly workshops and seasonal socials, to help connect new or aspiring game creators with like minds and supporters.
It is entirely volunteer-run, and both of the co-founders (myself and Rebecca Cohen Palacios) are professional game developers ourselves. Our sponsors have included EA/BioWare and the International Game Developer's Association, as well as several smaller local studios, universities, organizations, and businesses.
It's worth noting that while we restrict our incubator and mentee participation to those who identify as female (cis/trans), the game jams, workshops, and socials are open to any and all genders. We have many male-identified mentors that are extremely vocal supporters, as attendees and mentors, and (as I'll note later), this may be an important factor of our success.
Why So Successful?
Philosophically, we want to be the match that lights a contagious fire. We want to not only maximize the possibility that these individual women we work with make games -- we want them to inspire others to do the same*. We want making games to be something everyone does, not just an elite few that pride themselves on exclusivity.
This desire to be "viral" (given to us by our original funders, Feminist in Games) drives all of our decisions and is at the heart of our strategy. We're grass-roots and local because we service the unique needs of Montreal. We host our incubators in both French and English. We take local public transport (or lack thereof) into account when choosing venues. We reach out to local universities and businesses. Montreal is vital to Pixelles.
Recently, a game developer wrote to me, asking what I felt contributed to Pixelles' success – what factors might improve our chances, either versus other programs or in other cities. I had to admit I wasn't certain.
Without having tried to run this program in other cities and countries and communities (hint hint, dear reader) we may never know for sure. But common sense does point to a few important factors.
Our programs are always free for participants, and scheduled to suit a 9-5 workday. We want our programs to be accessible to all kinds of women, not just those who can afford it. We also try not to require owning a laptop, as much as we can. It's been important to our success that everyone feels they can participate, if they want to – the only thing that can stop them is their own decision. As a result, we have had all sorts of women participate! Academics, programmers, artists, writers, composers, a choreographer, a therapist, etcetera. The games these women make likewise reflect their diverse backgrounds, each with their own appeal. This is partially made possible by local sponsors who have venues they offer for events, in exchange for a logo or shout-out here and there.
Diverse participants. Not just artists and programmers -- costume designers, ecologists, dancers, mothers, accountants! We get a lot of applicants to our incubator, and we try to include as many different passions and backgrounds as we can. We don't ask for ethnicity or socio-economic status, but instead ask, "What are you into?" and try to make sure as many unique perspectives as possible represented. This way, with each program, we're more likely to have reached more communities and impacted more lives! We're happy to see that the rest of our programs (none of which are as limited) become similarly diverse as a result.
We encourage others to suggest and lead events. When someone offers to help now, I ask them, “Well, how do you want to help?” Sometimes this results in yet another fantastic mentorship opportunity... another game jam, workshop, or network formation! I have seen other organisations carefully guard their activities and leadership and branding, but for a grass-roots program to go viral, it is absolutely necessary that members feel like they can create their own contributions. Increasingly, we delegate more and more responsibility to those who can manage it, which allows our power to grow exponentially with each new organizer.
A truly incredible, positive response from the local community. The primary mysterious but undoubtedly influential aspect of Montreal is that the developers here have always supported Pixelles. Whether they're AAA, indie, academic, hobbyist, or even just students, the first question I was asked in 2013 was always, “How can I help?” Honestly, at the beginning we didn't have much to give them to do. But I eventually realized that “random game dev #82” is a precious resource for aspiring developers, giving rise to the idea of a mentorship network. That positive energy has continued growing, lifting us up when we're exhausted and making everything just that much easier. The need for more women to make games has resonated with every fragment of game dev culture in Montreal, and I do wonder how many other cities could have such a robust and diverse support network.
We keep on going. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Our first incubator successfully helped 13 women create their first games, and everyone was happy and proud. Since Rebecca and I both work 40 hour minimum weeks already, it would have been easy to call it done. But we both decided this was something we cared about; so although some weeks are less Pixelles-busy than others, over the years, hundreds of hours of additional organization gets done. A few minutes here, a few hours there, and everything is that much improved. As they say, just showing up is half the battle.
We keep improving. Every time we host an event, we ask ourselves and our participants how we can do it better. Sometimes this takes the form of a questionnaire or informal survey or just a casual post-mortem during the clean-up and following days. But the questions are almost always the same – did we achieve our goals? How can we do better next time? Even an event that's a smashing success can usually be improved in some way... and it's our job to figure out how, to make sure that those few hours and dollars we spend are increasingly effective.
*At least once. We don't all need to be game creators in our hearts and careers! Video games aren't the point of human life on this planet, as far as I know. But most kids write a poem, write a story, draw a picture, and many in North America create films, as part of their education. Until every human I meet yawns and says, "Yeah, games, made one of those already," our art form suffers. It's a tool missing from their creative toolbox, and a potential voice missing from our landscape.
So you're on board? You see what great things we've done in just 2 years with Pixelles, you agree with (most of) our philosophies and want to do Something Good with this new energy and hope?
I think lots of people are on the verge, and more need to act. Of the thousands of page-views our IndieGoGo has had, 64% are from the United States, yet only 11% of the donations are American. To me, this means North America is ready for lots of Pixelles-esque programs to spring up, tailored to the needs of their locale.
If I were you, I'd check my local community for already existing organizations and, if they exist, ask how to help. Dames Making Games, Black Girls Code, Ladies Learning Code, Voxelles, anything!
If there isn't one, or they don't want your help, start your own! You can contact me or Rebecca anytime for copies of our materials and syllabus-of-sorts, or ask us any questions you might have. Here in the comments, on Twitter, or wherever.
Just start. Don't wait. In even one year, a few new game-makers can really change their community.