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Taking on the challenges of being a mom in game development

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander talks to game developers who also happen to be mothers, about the challenges of balancing work and life, and finding success in a male-dominated industry.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

January 23, 2014

15 Min Read

Leanne Bayley wasn't sure which would enter the world first: Her game, Glyph Quest, or her first child. Just one month after leaving her job as creative producer at Plymouth, UK's Remode Studio so that she could relocate to be with her partner, fellow developer Alex Trowers, she learned she was pregnant.

What had been a relatively easy decision -- Brighton is a hub for game development in the UK and she expected she'd be able to find work nearer to her partner, or at least commute to London or Guildford -- had suddenly become complicated. Her pregnancy "pretty much mothballed" her chances for getting work in the game development industry, Bayley says.

"After that, the only replies to job adverts I had applied to, or even agencies I had sent my CV to, was that I would be kept in mind for future opportunities or to come back when I could return to work," she says. The implicit expectation is that game development should involve long office hours and crunch periods, and employers presumed an expecting mother wouldn't be up to it.

But games have long been Bayley's first love. Even before joining Remode, where she released six games, got involved in jams, and had the opportunity to wear many hats as a producer as a small studio, she worked as closely to the industry as she could, studying 3D computer visualization and animation at Bournemouth University and working as a store manager for GAME and Gamestation stores.

So rather than enjoy an unplanned, extended maternity leave, she decided to work on her own games, and plan a portfolio that would be ready for her return to work. When her partner lost his own job at Boss Alien, though, there was no other choice for the game-developing parents-to-be: "We decided to take fate into our own hands and go indie together," Bayley says.

"I wasn't going to let getting pregnant end my career in games development after I had really just started," she adds. "I just didn't expect to have to go independent to keep doing what I love."

The couple's spare-time project became "plan A," she says: Glyph Quest, a puzzle game for iOS featuring her art and his programming. It hasn't been easy -- there've been hospital trips at 3 a.m., backaches, pre-natal depression, and working close to the kitchen fridge in a tiny flat, but the game is on its way. [UPDATE: No baby as of press time, but Glyph Quest has launched on iOS, with an Android version to come].

"I couldn't get a job when I was looking, I wasn't desirable at the time, so now I'm an indie," she says. "It's sad that I had to go through all this to get here, and no doubt I'm not the only person who's given up with trying to fit a job description and gone it alone, but that's what had to happen."

Indie designer and illustrator Beth Maher also became a mom and a game-maker all at the same time. "All my personal identity has changed in the past couple years, which is still overwhelming at times," she tells Gamasutra.

Her situation in some ways is opposite to Bayley's: It was motherhood Maher planned for, and game development that came as a surprise. "I decided to learn how to make games because I had a miscarriage," says Maher. After her loss, she felt a need for something different in her life, and a new set of goals.

"I think I thought motherhood was going to be it for me, and when it didn't work out right away, it made me have to me seriously consider something that could fulfill me outside out of becoming a mother," she says. Not only did it turn out that games were that fulfilling thing -- but Maher had a healthy pregnancy immediately after publishing her second game. She's now the mother of a baby boy.

Designer Elizabeth Sampat, a mom of two daughters, works at Storm8 for a day job and does her own work the rest of the time. Her work in games began in the indie tabletop and pen and paper space. "Being a mom was actually really useful for self-employment in general: the needs of my two daughters gave structure to my day and pushed me to work as hard as I could in the time that I had free," she says.

"And when I got an offer to move across the country and be a lead designer on a Facebook game, being a mom was what helped me get over my fears of isolation, homesickness, and imposter syndrome," Sampat continues. "I knew a better life was waiting for my girls across the country, and in the face of being able to offer them that kind of stability, my own fears were meaningless."

As the youngest of four kids, Sampat never envisioned herself as someone who'd have kids of her own. For her, being the best mother she can be means not placing the identity of "mom" front-and-center. "I want to raise strong, independent, unique young women who feel comfortable being themselves, so the best thing it feels like I can do is to be true to myself," she says.

"As a result, I tend to be more honest with myself, because I know my girls are watching. When they ask me why I stayed late at work, or why I stopped being a work-at-home-mom, I answer them honestly about the passion I have for what I do, and why my work is important to me. I love my kids, and it was a really tough transition from 'indie' to 'day job,' but it keeps me honest. Not every gig is worth more time away from my family, and it's harder to slip into complacency when you've got an audience."

Curiously left out of the conversation

Last year there were a few major games, like BioShock Infinite or The Walking Dead, that brought fatherhood front and center, and much speculation on the aging of a generation of developers -- 2013 was the year of the dads, in many ways, with the role of some young women characters shifting from sex object to care object, from love interest to daughter.

"That was a weird thing," says Maher. "Like, gee, games industry, you mean women aren't just here for your enjoyment? They have lives and dreams of their own? That is totally new information!"

But mothers have been curiously left out of the conversation, and the industry continues to primarily operate on a set of cultural values that are unfriendly to their needs and disdainful of their voices. Bayley's fruitless search for industry work showed her just how much the industry presumes that crunch is some essential show of passion that fathers are able to commit to, where mothers must somehow be unable. No one holds a man's desire for family against his passion for games, but women who choose parenthood seem silently viewed as less-dedicated, she suggests.

"I don't feel it's a prejudice held exclusively in the games industry, but the fact that moms have to band together and defend that they can still be valid in this industry -- like Anna Marsh and the team at Lady Shotgun Games -- is upsetting," Bayley says.

Sampat worries about being taken less seriously by colleagues if she emphasizes her motherhood. Even though she's seen coworkers email in about working from home because of a sick pet, she's found herself hesitating to stay away from the office for a sick child. She says she sometimes feels anxious about having colleagues to her home, not just because of social anxiety or an instinct for the comfort of her oldest daughter, who is autistic. "Mostly because I worry that they're going to stop seeing me as a person and start seeing me as a 'mom,' the demure, sweet caretaker who only wants what's best for everyone and wants everyone to be happy." 

Women face enough assumptions in the industry already -- "but I live in constant fear of people mentally crossing out 'Elizabeth' and writing in 'Mom,'" she admits. "And that's on me."

Maher says her time is at a premium now, and she simply has less time to work: "I am still very new to this space, and I've spent most of my very short time in the industry being pregnant, and nursing a baby. I've yet to make any  money off of games, and so don't have any money for childcare, which means I'm hacking together things in my minute moments of free time."

She's tackling this challenge by doing more collaborative work and smaller projects, even though that means many things end up on hold because of collaborators' other commitments. And it's harder for her to attend events, since generally there's no childcare solutions prominently offered alongside industry gatherings. "I can't fixate, crunch, obsess on something to the detriment of my own my well being, and by extension that of my family," she says.

Talk of the "mom market" in games has always rankled Maher -- the disdain with which developers talk about some kinds of casual games "for moms," and presumptions about what kind of games moms like or should make. "Many moms play the games they do (casual games, Facebook games) because they don't have the time or the energy to do anything else, and they deserve better," she says. "And they certainly deserve not to be dismissed for it."

"Games culture has this elitist value judgement based on the kind of time people spend with games, how much time and energy they devote to them, how deeply they immerse themselves, and it's toxic," Maher continues. "Not everybody can do it. Not everybody should. It doesn't have anything to do with how much they 'love' games or how much of a gamer they are, and everything to do with opportunity and privilege." 

Sampat says she's "spoiled" relative to the rest of the industry -- she's been one of the main designers on Storm8's first midcore title for over a year now, longer than anyone else on the team. After being part of a small department working on a bakery game, a restaurant game, and a home-decor game (80 percent of the studio's overall portfolio when she first got hired), her boss asked her to apply her tabletop experience to the company's first strategy defense title.

"For my indie stuff, everything I make is intensely personal, and that makes me grateful for the work I do at my day job. I probably would be worried that I'd be pigeonholed as a 'mom who makes games about feeeeelings' if it weren't for the titles I've shipped at other companies," she reflects.

There's still more the industry can do besides addressing its prejudices toward moms: There's the pragmatic work of simply making games a place where the needs of all kinds of employees are considered. Says Bayley: "Being a parent shouldn't be a blot on our skills, abilities or passion for working in games, when being considered for a position it just shouldn't matter.  If I do start looking for a position in another studio I would like to know that I was on an even playing field, that my age, sex and status as a mother were not factors even looked at."

The mobile industry prides itself on perks, but Sampat says she was more impressed by finding free Tampax in an office bathroom than she was by all the catering and game rooms -- and giant slide -- that she found at one workplace. "Why would you mention beer pong tournaments in recruiting literature but not free Tampax? That is a serious perk," she says.

A broader view of parenthood in general would be constructive, she suggests: "Everyone talks about telecommuting and flexibility around being there for your kids and whatnot, but they only talk about this stuff in relationship to moms. You want moms and moms-to-be to feel comfortable in your office environment? Be cool about, and transparent about, male employees for taking paternity leave."

"Make sure women know that the men are taking off at 5 p.m. if their kids are sick, too," Sampat continues. "Don't pitch this stuff as 'stuff for the ladies,' pitch it as stuff for parents and encourage its use, so that women see that there are no invisible repercussions. You can run the most progressive company in the world, but no employee joins up after living their lives in a vacuum. A lot of companies talk a big game, but company culture is a far different thing. Show parents they're safe."

"The things that will make it better for moms will make it better for women (who regardless of  their parental status tend to fulfill the societal role of caregiver), will make it better for everyone in society," agrees Maher. "Crunch needs to die. Employers need to learn to care for their employees outside of profit margins. People need to be allowed the time and space to be human, really."

"Maybe that looks like unions for triple-A, but as a freelancer, an indie, I need societal change," she adds. "Thankfully here in Canada we have universal healthcare, and that's a huge help actually. I'd like to see universal childcare next, frankly.... It's cheaper, safer, better for families and better for the economy to have more women and men able to pursue what they want."

"Flavors of bullshit"

More inclusivity for mothers working in games might help the way the experience of motherhood is portrayed, suggests Sampat. "The way popular culture portrays motherhood is bullshit. We've gotten better, more varied maternal stereotypes in recent years, which means we have different flavors of bullshit now," she says. "I don't know, maybe a lot of guys making media are more influenced by other popular portrayals of moms than they are by their own wives, so we get these copies of copies of copies."

"My motherhood is intense and personal and it's buried deep in the core of me. It's the kind of thing I don't share, which of course means it probably influences every game I make in ways I don't even see," she says. "My indie games are always about things that make me feel vulnerable, and I'm at my most vulnerable as a mother -- but on the other hand, I'm 32, I'm still working through my feelings about being someone else's child and sister too."

Sampat's tabletop game, Deadbolt, is "basically all about creating intimacy and honesty between people," she explains. "It's the first game that I've made that I've thought, you know, I want to play this with my daughters someday. I told my best friend that if I die, he gets Deadbolt, and he has to play it with the girls when they're old enough. I want them to feel like they can be vulnerable, and to understand that there will be a world of love and acceptance waiting for them should they choose to be vulnerable. In that sense, Deadbolt is about motherhood, I guess."

Maher suggests Portal is in many ways "a very good mom game" ("it's also just a very good game"). She also points to Merritt Kopas' Conversations With My Mother ("it's little, but it's beautiful"), and notes the foster-motherhood of Beyond Good and Evil's Jade. "I hope we get more games about moms," she says. "I'd like to see a year of the mom game; I'd like to see moms portrayed as strong, heroic, wise, conflicted, self-interested, talented, selfish -- anything but nurturing or nagging, which seems to be the only two personalities they're allowed in much of media."

In her own work, she and her friend Soha have sketched a small game called Sprout, still in progress, about a single mother-creature living inside vintage photo albums. "We made it at a Mother's Day game jam last year at [Toronto's Dames Making Games] -- little things like that could change things, slowly."

After Glyph Quest, Leanne Bayley is already thinking about games she can make that her child will enjoy. "I think a lot pf people get into games because they have a game in mind that they want to make, and mostly it's a game that they want to play," she says. "Becoming a parent changes how you look at and think about everything so I think it's a natural evolution that I'm now thinking about games we can make for kids. I'm even playing more games for children -- I've been playing a lot of Toca Boca lately!"

"I hope we can make games that the baby will enjoy playing and learning from as they grow up, and as they become interested in creating and learning new ways of play themselves," says Bayley. She's inspired by collaborations between adults and kids (like the popular "Axe Cop" comic), and hopes the new addition to her family will join their parents in the joy of creating.

Sampat's oldest daughter, age 10, recently started expressing a wish to become a game designer, after some collaborations with her mom. "It just scares me to death," she admits. "I can't even voice why, because I love being a designer, and I couldn't imagine doing anything else. All I can think of is that you always want better for your kids, you know?"

She's a strict teacher, too: "She'll want to prototype a new board game and I make her write a game design document first. She's ten and I have her writing specs before she's allowed to bust out the posterboard," Sampat says. "But she's made a bunch of Twine games, and she's learning GameSalad and Javascript, and as much as this isn't what I want for her I'm so proud of her I could burst out of my body sometimes. I'll be cleaning up her drawings at the end of the night and find a diagram for a new Ilomilo level that actually looks playable, and I'll melt."

"All I really want is for my kids to grow up to be their own people, so if this is what Gwen wants, I'll support her. But if I want better for my kid, I guess it's my job to make it better."

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About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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