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This is a cautionary tale of accountability and toxic environments.
March 31, 2014
15 Min Read
Today I want to talk about accountability. I want to talk about how one person can crumble an entire environment. I want to talk about community.
Recently, after days of contract negotiations, I began participation in what was supposed to be a four day long competitive game jam which would be broadcast to YouTube. The description we were provided for this jam was simple:
"Green Label Game Jam seeks to provide viewers with insight into the technical and artistic process of developing a game, in the format of a reality competition show. We seek to do for indie games what “Top Chef” did for cooking."
The game jam was to be sponsored by Pepsi and produced by Polaris/Maker. There were a multitude of mysterious prizes to be won.
I was invited to be a member of a team by a friend of mine and together, with one other, we were set to spend the next four days in Los Angeles, California working on a game and collaborating with each other for the first time in our friendship's history.
I love game jams. I think that participating in a game jam is one of the greatest parts of game development culture and a wonderful way to truly foster creativity. In one space you can get a multitude of people together, all with different backgrounds/perspectives/styles/etc. You put them all into one room, let them pair off, and the result is a wonderful array of new and creative things.
To me, a lot of game development is the community that surrounds it. It's the people who get together to share ideas, meld those ideas into new ideas, and help build each other up.
I guess this is why I tend to associate with non-competitive jams. I view a game jam as an event where I can explore something I haven't explored before (be it a technology or an idea), work with people I've never worked with before, and try to create something with those new friends. Adding a competitive element to a game jam adds this extra component that each development team needs to worry about - and it just feels wrong to me. It feels wrong to pit developers against one another, and it feels wrong to ask developers to compromise their game for the sake of "winning". Game jams should be the one place where you shouldn't have to worry about compromising your vision. It should be a safe space in all senses of the word. It should be a place that you as a person feel safe as well as you as a developer.
From the beginning there were potential problems with the "Green Label Game Jam" (branded on set as "GAME_JAM"). The contract was full of corporate legalese. There were clauses about being allowed to misrepresent us in any way on any topic for "dramatic effect". There were sections barring developers from appearing on any form of broadcast media for a period of time longer than anyone should be comfortable with (honestly even any time was too much time). Many of the participants were the sole faces of their company. We, off the bat, would be risking our reputations - our livelihoods - to participate in this jam. We negotiated the contract as a group. We reworded the most egregious sections - but not before having to push back for days.
With trepidation, I participated in day one. Day one of what was supposed to be four days of jamming under slightly uncomfortable circumstances. In my mind, worst case scenario was that I would spend four days working on a game with some friends while being surrounded with green logos and sipping water secretly off-camera. I could deal with all of this if it meant I could work on something in a fun space and be filmed in order to expose more of the public to how game development works (though we all acknowledged in some way that it was probably going to be dramatized in a way).
So there I was, standing on stage waiting to be judged on a "mini-challenge" only marginally related to game development with lights shining down and the cameras rolling. I was underneath a Mountain Dew sign, watching a team win their Mountain Dew lawn chairs where they could sip on their brand new Dew Pack of Mountain Dew. We were all vying for a grand prize only slightly more insulting than the aforementioned lawn chairs.
The product placement and forcing of the brand onto us was over the top. I understand who was sponsoring it and where the money to produce this event was coming from, but when I am no longer allowed to have easy access to water in order to hydrate myself after sweating under bright lights for hours because it wasn't Mountain Dew, then we have a problem. I don't want to speak ill of Mountain Dew. They are a brand and they sponsored an event - it is 100% acceptable to slap their branding all over the place. It was the enforcement of shilling out our image to constantly and overtly push this beverage that made me uncomfortable.
Every prize for our mini "challenges" was a branded prize (dew colored lawn chairs, cases of Mountain Dew, etc). Even the grand prize - a year's supply of Mountain Dew, a trip to a Mountain Dew sponsored extreme sport event in Breckenridge, CO, and access to ID@Xbox - was so overly corporate and "bro culture", that it was just uncomfortable.
I've spent a lot of time over the last year learning how to be true to myself. I've been learning how to listen to who I am and consistently try to base my actions on what I feel is right and what I feel represents who I am as a person. Here I was participating in an event that, by it's very nature of being competitive, stands against everything I feel about game jams. Here I was selling out my integrity to participate in an event where I had to pretend to love Mountain Dew more than any other beverage in the world (I don't even drink soda, FYI). I was pretending to laugh at gamer jokes. I was clapping at prizes I couldn't have cared less about. And most of all, I was just not representing myself as me.
This was uncomfortable enough for me to consider walking out. At that point - as I was still negotiating certain points of the contract - I had no contractual obligation to be there. I could leave and take my integrity with me. What kept me there were the other developers, and the people who worked so incredibly hard to put this entire thing together. This was not a small production. There was a film crew, a set crew, a staff, producers, directors - and the other developers. Everyone had put so much into this - how can I throw it back in their face and say "Sorry, I'm not a corporate sellout"? Okay, I'll deal with it. I'll make fun of it under my breath and off camera, I'll power through. At the very least, there will be a show about game development that maybe some non-developers will watch and be interested in. Maybe we can educate people about the amazing culture that is indie game development. Maybe there's a redeeming factor to this.
I can deal with that. I can deal with selling out to have some fun with my friends.
What I can't deal with is supporting what happened next.
You can literally trace back the entire crumbling of this show to one individual - Matti Leshem, CEO of Protagonist, a Brand Energy company. Here was a person who, from the get-go, rubbed me the wrong way - he and I were definitely different people. He is the one who headed up removing even un-labeled water bottles from being allowed on our desks. He is the one I heard asking around if there was any way that we could drink the water out of empty Mountain Dew cans.
He is also the one who asked my team the following question:
"Do you think you're at an advantage because you have a pretty girl on your team?"
All love to my teammates as they declined to engage. But, after pushing more - he got a rise out of me. He got me to, with an embarrassed and flushed red face launch into a statement about how his question is indicative of everything that is wrong in our industry in terms of sexism. That no, we weren't at an advantage because we had a woman on our team - we were at an advantage because I'm a damn fine programmer and game developer. We were at an advantage because my skills allowed us to be at an advantage - not my "pretty face".
He had the audacity to approach me later and explain that it wasn't personal. This wasn't a personal attack on me - he knew this was a sensitive topic in the industry and wanted to address it.
Well, you know what? It was personal. You sat there and overtly questioned my skills, my intelligence, my life. It was so personal, that I can't even wrap my head around the fact that someone could even pretend to believe that it wasn't a personal attack.
And, on top of that, it was a completely inexcusable way to address the issue of sexism in games. You address this by having a rational conversation about the nuances of how it feels to be an underrepresented part of an industry that you love. You address it by making a marginalized subset feel safe. You address it by allowing the minority to feel like they have a voice - a voice that is being listened to. You don't address it by shoving cameras in a woman's face and insinuating that the only reason she was brought onto a skill-based competition was because she was nice to look at.
In addition, I'm trying to participate in a friendly competitive game jam. I'm not here to stand on a soapbox and discuss sexism, this isn't the venue for it. It's a venue for being a corporate sellout, sure - but this is not where I am going to engage in a discussion about sexism.
I spoke with my team, and as a group decided to not engage any further lines of questioning about the women participating in the jam (out of the 11 people participating, there were two women. This means that there were two all male teams and two teams with one woman each). We wouldn't give him the rise he was looking for out of us. We were there to power through and make a game.
So there I was - at about 99% capacity of what I could deal with in terms of corporate bullshit and sexism - and then the final straw. The two all male teams were questioned in a similar fashion:
"Do you think the teams with women on them are at a disadvantage?"
That was it.
I cannot be a part of something that, in any way, feels like this is an appropriate way to expose game development to the world. The other teams also declined to engage, but the very notion that this is something that could potentially be written into a story - the notion that it, even if disproven throughout the entirety of the show, would even be addressed is what completely did it in for me.
I will not put my face and my "stamp of approval" on something where this is even a question. No, we are not at an advantage because we have women on our team and no, we are not at a disadvantage because we have women on our team. We all have advantages and disadvantages because of our varying skills and strengths. Having the audacity to be a woman does not hinder nor help any of these things. Being a woman simply means that we are women.
After airing our grievances with the production, there were four of us who immediately dropped out. Me and the other woman as well as one person from each of our respective teams. The rest tried to salvage what was there, but the four of us were out. None of us could reconcile being a part of something that would hire someone like Matti. Whether he is asking those questions as a representation of his personal thoughts or simply as a way to poke and prod to make 'entertaining drama', I cannot be a part of a culture that believes that this is an appropriate action on any level.
I do want to stress how wonderful mostly everyone else involved in the production was. As we made our decision and explained everything to those in charge, we were supported 100% for our decision. This has nothing to do with Maker, Mountain Dew, Pepsi, Polaris or anyone. This has to do with Matti Leshem and people like him.
However, I want to talk again about accountability.
Yes, he was not an actual employee of ANY of these companies - but he was there. He was a part of this. Somewhere in the chain of command, he was hired as a contractor to have control over this project. Someone out there vetted a person like this and thought he was a good person to work with.
Just as this person needs to be held accountable for his actions, so do those who agreed to work with him. It is unclear to me who made that decision, but someone did. He may not work for any of these companies, but he was still there. I want everyone involved in this to understand that who you hire and who you work with is, in some way, a reflection of who you are. When you choose to work with a person and allow that person represent your brand in any way, you damn well better make sure that that person's beliefs and actions align with yours.
After we left the show, the producers, content managers, and countless others involved in the production of the series tried to work through a way to get us back to finish the jam. Though many of the immediate concerns were addressed (e.g. Matti was removed from the project) and they offered to completely restructure the event, the point remained - there was once a person there who destroyed everything. There was a person involved on this project who felt that it was appropriate to humiliate, embarrass, and harass. Our trust was broken and we were done.
The day that followed was a constant stream of the production team offering up new ideas on how to 'fix' the situation. Each offer was slightly more desperate than the last, as it came to light throughout the day just how grim their situation was. This was Polaris's first large production after Maker was acquired by a much larger corporation - and it crashed down in a spectacular ball of fire.
People were about to lose their jobs.
Not the set crew, they were fine, they had nothing to do with this. But the people responsible for hiring those who ultimately destroyed it - they all contributed to a toxic environment, and they should be held accountable for that.
While something like Train Jam, to me, embodies every single aspect of game jams that I find to be special - the "GAME_JAM" embodied everything that I find to be wrong and abhorrent about how people view us as game developers. I came into this event expecting to make a game, show people a glimpse into game development, and possibly have some fun. Instead, my intelligence, my legitimacy, and my integrity were all pushed and questioned. We, as developers, were being treated as desperate stereotypes, and we, as women, were treated worse than that.
Despite all of this, there was a wonderful thing that happened. That community that I hold so dear banded together. As individuals, we were insulted and hurt, but as a group we were able to stand up and support one another in a way that I truly appreciate.
Our night, once the production was officially deemed dead, consisted of hanging out, forming new friendships, reinforcing existing friendships - exemplifying the environment that should have existed all day.
Some developers began to devise ideas on how to film a game jam that would properly capture the spirit of game development. Some developers discussed potential future game design ideas. Some developers simply played games.
No matter what everyone was doing, however, we were all in this together - sharing, collaborating, talking, and creating.
There were many other people at this event - however, we all have varying degrees of how we can talk about this (mostly for legal reasons). Because we are all individuals with different backgrounds and experiences, we were all affected in unique ways. I've listed below links to the people who were present and have written about this in some capacity:
This was originally published at msminotaur.com/blog/?p=187
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