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Interview: Angry Birds Stella Lead on Gender Balance

Since the infamous cut from Assassin’s Creed Unity at E3, there’s been a growing debate about the place of women in our industry. Seeing a high number of female executives at Rovio, I interviewed Angry Birds Stella lead Heini Kahu about gender balance.

Ever since the infamous female hero cut from Assassin’s Creed Unity was announced at E3, there’s been a growing debate in gaming media about the place of women in our industry. The underlying problem seems to be that, although women are now playing games about as much as men, decisions at top video game companies still predominantly lie in the hands of male executives.

When I visited Rovio headquarters in Finland, I was struck by the surprisingly high number of female executives in charge at key decisive positions over there. Earlier this month, Rovio launched their Angry Birds Stella spin-off, which is all about female heroism. Cause and effect?

To try and find out, I recently took the chance to interview Heini Kaihu, Head of Studio at Rovio and Project Lead on Angry Birds Stella.

- When glancing around offices in the Helsinki headquarter, Rovio seems to be more inclusive towards women than it is the norm in our industry. Is this a conscious thing? How did it start?

> Heini Kaihu: To be honest, I see it is only common business sense. If we make games with the female audience in mind, it makes sense to have people from that target group participating in the game development. Our inclusiveness towards women can also be due to our focus as a games company being the mobile casual games. Also the fact that as an entertainment company, we do have departments where women employment is traditionally more common, and then the internal job rotation makes it easy for female talent also to switch to games area. Maybe there is also something in the gender neutrality of the ICT industry that has resulted in the Finnish gaming and start-up scene to be very natural places for women (e.g. the first chair of IGDA Finland and the current vice chair are women) This is also seen from the job applications, the ratio of women applying to e.g. game development positions is greater among Finnish applicants than those coming from abroad.

- What practical steps were/are taken to increase the ratio of women employees in the company overall, and in usually under-represented categories such as for example development?

> Heini Kaihu: In terms of who do we hire, we always go for the best talent and fit for the position, regardless of the gender. As part of the fit is also candidate’s own interest and experience in the social & casual gaming area, where women actually stand out. Whereas men usually have their background, experience and own interest in more hard core gaming. A lot of talent also comes in through our own networks, and other companies e.g. Nokia has trained a lot of great female QA and project management talent.

- What extra steps does Rovio want to take to make female employees feel at home in their company, going forward?

> Heini Kaihu: In my opinion and personal experience, two biggest factors here are both fully supporting you in your current role work and related career ambitions, and at the same time giving you tools to balance your work and personal life so that you don’t have to choose between career and family. Even though the latter is hugely important, the first factor easily gets overlooked, and in my opinion it is in most cases even more critical to support and build career paths for talented young female who enter the industry. 

- How many people worked on the Angry Birds Stella game in total? How many women? How many men?

> Heini Kaihu: The core team is 13 people out of which 3 are women. 

- And when considering Angry Birds Stella cross-media project at large (animation, consumer products, books)?

> Heini Kaihu: In-house at Rovio, the gender ratio in Stella animation projects is close to half and half, with a handful of more men. The books side of Stella has a majority of females working on it and the team that’s responsible for different visual aspects of the Stella brand is again very equal, with slightly more men.

- In your opinion, how much does it impact the design of a project to have women in lead positions rather than all men? Can you share specific examples that illustrate this well?

> Heini Kaihu: I think it comes down to personalities of leading styles. In my own experience I’ve seen women tend to be a bit more inclusive and analytical when it comes to decision-making, they gather data and opinions from around to support their decision making while still keeping the overall vision. This doesn’t mean men couldn’t lead the same way, but I have seen that it is easier for them to lead based on their own strong vision only. But as said, this is based on my personal experience and it can be a very company-specific thing, depending on what kind of leading culture is embraced.

- How much does it impact the design of a project to have more women on board than traditional?

> Heini Kaihu: For the past years I have only worked on projects that have both women and men, so I personally consider that de facto way of working. For me, it is the other scenario that requires a bit more thinking, how to make sure you have a balanced representation of different views and opinions, if e.g. your target group is not fully represented by the team itself. So even more effort should be put into user focused design with different tools, e.g. user testing, focus groups, etc. throughout the project.

- There were still many men working on Angry Birds Stella – how important is it to keep them on board?

> Heini Kaihu: More important than the gender composition of the team, was that they were excited about the opportunity to create something with the female audience in mind, and that they shared my vision about inclusive design. Project leads have backgrounds from the Rovio projects that have equal gender split in player base, for me, this was a great starting point as it tells that the team knows how to design games that attract wide audience, both female and male players. This was also a starting point for Stella game, we wanted to have a game that is grounded on female targeted brand but that attracts both female and male players.

- Rovio CMO Blanca Juti insists in her communication that Stella’s positioning is “Female heroes for the entire audience, not just a game for female consumers.” Which steps did you take to ensure that Angry Birds Stella doesn’t turn out to be a pinkified ghetto for girls?

> Heini Kaihu: As mentioned earlier, our goal for game design was to create a game that while having the female gamers as main target group, would also attract male players enjoying casual mobile games. In terms of ensuring we don’t fall into pink & shrink clichés, one driving design principle was to value gameplay experience over the theme. What this meant was that if an idea springing from the brand and the story around Stella and her friends didn’t translate into a world class game experience, we would not try to force it in. An example of that was that we were prototyping swingshot as a replacement for slingshot mechanic, but the end result was “only” good, not perfect, so we decided to keep the slingshot. Another example of a similar design decision are the Stella characters’ superpowers, they all have new powers that are at least as strong and useful than the powers of the classic flock. For that reason we also changed Stella’s power, instead of blowing pink bubbles, she now has the capabilities of a parkour street artist allowing for more strategic gameplay. It’s also worth noting that the game is not easy, it’s actually quite challenging. So instead of creating a watered down version of a good slingshot game and decorating it with girly graphics, we wanted to create a game that we can feel proud of. And a few weeks before the game launch, I feel we have accomplished that.

- How do you feel about the Assassin’s Creed Unity female character cut that made so much fuss at E3? How do you feel about the excuses that Ubi Soft states in defense of the decision?

> Heini Kaihu: My personal opinion is that as long as female characters are seen in the industry at large as a feature that you add to the game if the budget and the schedule allow, there is something seriously wrong in the industry. I’m not saying that by retro-fitting female characters to every game is a solution either, but rather have games with strong female characters as active, playable characters built to the core of the game and its story. I hope that as more and more women gamers emerge with mobile gaming, also the traditional AAA productions realize that there’s huge market potential and you should really take that into consideration, if not for philosophical reasons, for business. 

- I heard the original internal tag-line for the Angry Birds Stella project was initially “Pink on Purpose”: can you elaborate a little bit more on the thinking behind that code-name?

> Heini Kaihu: Even though we decided not to go with that, we have a similar tagline we are using: “Pink is not a color, it’s an attitude.” That stems from the fact that we believe girls and women can be powerful in their own terms, not by turning into boys and men. An example of that could be Pink Helmet Posse, a group of three little girls who skateboard in their pink helmets and tutus, and aim to be professional skateboarders when they grow up. This is the attitude we want to foster and communicate with Angry Birds Stella games and the whole brand.

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