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Step Back Into The Light

Being a developer is different now versus ten or even five years ago. Between angry mobs and bitter colleagues, it's easy to lose yourself to anger--to live in darkness. It's time for us to step back into the light. I believe that together, we can shine.

As we close out 2016, I’ve got a lot on my mind. I suspect we all do. I started this blog post over a year ago, and I’m just now finishing it. I hesitated to start it, hesitated to write it (hence the procrastination) and I’m sure, as I press the Submit button in a few minutes, I’ll be hesitating again. That’s the climate we have now: one of hesitation to speak almost without regard to what you want to say.

In 2014, I spoke at GDC’s #1reasontobe. It was a tough talk for me, and not just because I’m an introvert and a fairly private person. It wasn’t even because it was the first time I’d ever spoken about some of the issues we face as women in game development. It was tough because I spoke about my personal experiences facing darkness. 

Writing the beginning and middle of that talk may have been difficult, but writing the end was easy because I knew exactly what I wanted to say. It had been in my heart for months. It was on on my mind later that same year, as our industry waded through #gamergate. I think about it every time a developer comes under attack, whether that’s from angry players or a fellow developer. I’ve considered it a lot after the recent U.S. election, too.

It keeps coming to mind because being a game developer is distinctly different now versus ten or even five years ago. Things have changed.

The World Hasn’t Changed… We Have

I’ve watched game developers and companies interact with our players for twenty-five years now. It’s hard to pinpoint when things started to shift, but what used to feel like a sometimes challenging conversation now often feels like a field strewn with landmines and pockets of outright combat. You never know when a comment on a forum or on Twitter--or even on your private Facebook account--will become the centerpiece of the next Imgur+MSPaint red circle conspiracy theory that goes viral.

I’ve seen it called “the rise of the mob” many times and I’ve even called it that myself. Within that mob, though, are individual people: people who agree with whatever the mob happens to be yelling about today even if they don’t agree with any kind of broader agenda. It sometimes includes people willing to make meaningful threats--and in a few cases, carry them out. 

That’s all new. Even in the heat of some of the worst game-related controversies of the past, individual developers didn’t feel physically threatened or continually harassed. I know many developers who chose to drop out of social media and sometimes even out of all player-facing activities just to avoid the potential mob. Developers whose jobs require public interaction often feel trapped and helpless.

Before you think it’s just that something’s changed with our players, I should mention that I’ve seen interactions between developers shift as well. As a part of my #1reasontobe talk, I said being a woman in games used to feel like being a lonely, lonely unicorn, but now it sometimes felt like being the stranded, wounded unicorn in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. And I said that well before #gamergate. What used to be mildly contentious discussions suddenly became open warfare.

Women and otherwise marginalized individuals aren’t the only ones feeling like they're under attack. Developers working on adult or “violent” games, developers working in free-to-play, developers working on games for women and kids, developers in early access… I’ve heard folks across the spectrum share the same sentiment of feeling under attack from their peers. Instead of offering true critique, we're often more likely to simply reject each other’s games including making assumptions about bad creative intent. 

It goes beyond our games though, and into our daily work lives. People are less willing to even begin conversations about “controversial topics” in game development. I’ve been told directly, for example, that talking about my experiences as a woman developer is “off topic” for a game development group discussion. I think that stems less from an attempt to shut down discourse and more from sheer dread over the chaos that inevitably erupts when that discourse occurs.

It’s Not Them Versus Us: It’s Us Versus Us

So it’s not just players--it’s all of us. We live in a time where everything is translated into opposing groups, into wrong and right. We’ve become instantly accusatory when anyone steps over the shifting line of acceptability. We’re losing the ties that bind us as developers and as players. And we’re banding together in ways that encourage us to deepen those divides rather than try to bridge them.

I’ll repeat a few things from that 2014 #1reasontobe talk because I believe they’re important to make quite clear: 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t discuss challenging topics. Discussions begin to build bridges over gaps that threaten to become chasms if left open long enough. I fundamentally believe people who encounter roadblocks on the game development path should absolutely bring up those roadblocks--and support each other in trying to take the roadblocks down. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t speak out on the issues that affect us. We absolutely need to keep bringing up the “controversial” topics and working for change. We’ll never make progress unless people speak about their experiences openly and honestly. We also need to better support those who stand on the front lines, leading the way forward.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry. I get angry too sometimes--furious, in fact. Anger can be a powerful force for change.

The Hungry Darkness

But when we let anger and negativity define us--when it’s all we think about, when it’s what comes out whenever we open our mouths--we’re living in fear and darkness

I know what it feels like to have darkness threaten to consume you. I’ve had cancer twice and now I’m facing it a third and final time. It’s incurable and while I’m lucky enough to be in a clinical trial that’s working, it probably won’t work forever. In fact, it could stop working tomorrow. I’ve looked into that hungry darkness for many long, sleepless nights. So I know how exactly how hard this is when I say: we must make a conscious choice to step back into the light. 

When I spoke at #1reasontobe, I had one reason for encouraging other women to step back into the light. Now I have three reasons, and it’s not just for women--it’s for all of us.

The Darkness Hurts Our Games

I’ve watched developers come under attack when they try to gather feedback on what’s working or failing in their games. When they make changes for any reason--to improve revenue so their company has a chance to survive, or even to improve the experience for players--they meet derision, review brigades, and sometimes even death threats. Change is an inherent part of game development, which always hinges on discovery. Fear of potential negative response to change stifles our innovation.

We’re even become afraid to build or release certain kinds of content. I’ve heard that expressed across the board, from developers who omit something in their game because they’re not sure if it would offend a certain group, to developers who worry that socially progressive content will provoke attacks on their company or fellow employees. It's much easier to choose the safest answer… which means as a medium, we never change. Living in the darkness means we never grow.

In response to this pressure, I’ve watched developers openly attack critics. That’s certainly true for professional critiques and game review websites, which in some development circles are entirely dismissed as “worthless” or “biased.” It bleeds over into our player interactions too, because the players who mob and yell and threaten make us simply mute the whole channel. It’s creating an environment where we don’t listen to feedback from any source--not from professional critics, and not from our players. 

This darkness and pessimism can even start to infect the games themselves. I’ve watched games get more and more serious, more and more dark. Bright, happy, positive, uplifting, transformative games are few and far between, at a time when our players desperately need optimism and light--and so do we.

The Darkness Hurts Our Industry

A part of the changing climate includes debates over how extensively you should manage your game’s community--or even whether you should manage it at all. Between Twitter, Reddit and Steam, we’re seeing a new wave of low-moderation communication channels. These channels have higher penetration than we had with traditional forums, and yet most moderate voices get drowned out by brigades from just a few individuals who want to see the game (or developer or company) burn. Controversy storms that arise can now increase in size and scope to the point that they directly affect the livelihood of developers and even whole studios. If we don't find ways to moderate these discussions and keep them on point, focused and honest--which includes harsh critique of our work--they'll become unworkable and we'll fall even more out of touch with our audience.

Even beyond that, anything that was once a challenging conversation is now a fiery deathtrap, to the point that many people have begun avoiding those conversations at any cost. Try bringing up the topic of women in game development at the lunch table or the concept of a non-straight AAA lead character while your team’s waiting for the coffee pot to finish a cycle. It’s true even for people trying to talk about things that actually happened to them personally--their real life experiences. Our colleagues are trying to talk about the things that make them want to leave game development altogether out of frustration, and we're not listening. The current climate makes conversation about these important issues difficult and often impossible, and the fresh new voices we desperately need move yet another step closer to finding a different line of work.

Before you dismiss this as being about "identity politics," it’s not just social issues that have become absurdly combative. Bring up crunch, pay levels, relocation to specific cities, unions, voice actors… the list of topics that burst into instant controversy just keeps growing. If we don’t break this cycle and start talking to each other again, we’ll become even more siloed, more angry, and more stubborn, and our teams and companies will suffer.

The Darkness Hurts Us

There are practical as well as emotional concerns here. It seems self-evident that living in fear and anger isn't healthy from a mental perspective. Living in that state makes us physically ill, too. Those of us who’ve done extended death-march crunches (and who hasn’t?) can tell stories about the effect it had on our families and ourselves. In fact, stress has been directly linked to these illnesses and more:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Hypertension
  • Immune system ailments and susceptibility to viruses and bacteria
  • Auto-immune disease
  • Insomnia
  • Cancer

Living in darkness and anger makes us soul-sick too. When you live in that world of absolutes, that world of controversy where everyone’s always yelling, it leaves no room to let people grow or change. Mistakes drive our personal growth but being attacked for them makes you risk-averse or, even worse, make you double down and deny your mistakes.

In fact, the darkness and anger encourage you to hide. It becomes easier to conceal yourself, to conceal any way you might be different from “normal game developers.” We’re not pegs, but when faced with this kind of subtle (and sometimes open) hostility, it often feels easier to become one.

And when the day comes that you can’t stand to hide anymore, when you can’t bear to be a peg shoved into a hole that never fit you, you burst up and out of game development altogether. I’ve watched friends walk this path and years later, they still talk about games with the same light in their eyes as when they were developers. Now that light is tinged with regret. They gave up work they loved because they couldn’t live in the darkness anymore. We lost their voices. I very much don’t want to lose yours.

Stepping Back Into The Light

So how do we move forward? We make the conscious decision to step back into the light.

Sometimes that’s easy. Find things that bring you peace and joy. Be stubborn about finding time for those things each day. Whether it’s reading a book, tending your garden, watching a movie with your partner or child, working out, or meditating--find something that lets you disconnect for a while. Take the time to take care of yourself.

Reconnect with your love of games. Go feed the horse that brought you here, then go on a nice, long ride. It might be a wild gallop through your favorite action game, or it might be a peaceful trot through a story-driven adventure game. Remind yourself why you're passionate about games and the kind of play experiences that shaped you as a developer. Rekindle your inner fire.

Often, though, stepping into the light takes work. It takes conscious effort. It takes a persistent refusal to give in to the darkness.

When it comes to communicating with players, it takes conscious effort to stay reasonable, but it’s worth it. Try to stay open to discussion as long as you can, and then disconnect if you need a break. Block or mute trolls but try not to let them color your impression of your players as a whole--they genuinely don’t represent the average player, and neither does the instigator who posted that one rabble-rousing Steam review. Remind yourself that their passionate arguments come from a passionate love for games--often a passionate love for your game.

The same is true for interacting with our colleagues and peers. It takes a conscious effort to remind yourself that we’re all here because we love games and very much want to make them great. We may arrive at that goal via different paths, but our destination is the same. We can disagree with each other with respect. We can accept our peers’ critique with equanimity--and that critique can be given with equanimity as well.

Most important, we need to start talking to each other again. We need to start listening to each other again. We need to believe that every person brings a new point of view and a new voice, even if we don't agree with everything that voice may say.

We Can Shine

We fill our games with whatever’s inside of us. Who we are comes out in our work. How we feel becomes a part of the worlds we build. I believe that’s true even for those of us working on large teams. If we stay in the darkness, that’s what fills our games. We can't let that happen: we must change.

I believe our games have the power to change lives. Every game has that magic, from the smallest to the biggest. We can make games with meaningful content, and we can make games that are fun diversions: both matter and both become important parts of players’ lives. We can make games that encourage our players to be more open, to discuss more freely, to step into the light. But those games can’t come from a place of darkness. We have to make the conscious choice to step back into the light and let that light fill our games.

We fill our teams with whatever’s inside of us too, and our online communities. We’ve all seen how infectious the darkness is. It often just takes one tiny seed of anger, which sprouts and climbs and grows until it blocks the light for the whole team--sometimes for an entire company. Don’t be that seed. Be the person who greets that seed with patience and understanding, who converts the seed's anger into positive action. Help your teammates and colleagues move out of the darkness along with you.

It’s time to work for change, and change starts within each of us. Let’s start the new year committed to stepping back into the light as individuals, teams, and an industry. I believe in games, I believe in our players, and I believe in us. I know that together, we can shine.


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