I’ve been a game developer for half my life. People change over time, as the waves of years wash over them. The years affect everyone differently: they can smooth your edges or create new sharp points. I realized recently that more than the years have changed me: I became aware of how much I’ve changed just because I’m a game developer. I became aware of just how narrowly we define what a game developer “should be,” of the very specific holes into which we try to fit pegs that start out gloriously organic and vibrantly colored, and how we whittle those pegs into diminished, acceptable shapes.
I remember describing the feeling to a close friend a few months ago. She was shocked--she said she considered me comfortable with myself, very aware of who I am and where I belong. I was shocked too, in the way you can be surprised when you step back and understand the way gradual paint strokes can accumulate into profound differences over the painting as a whole. I think it escaped my notice not just because it was gradual but because I love my work, and I love games.
My realization started with a blog post by a black female Google engineer. Called The Other Side of Diversity, it discussed her experiences over her years at Google. Early in the blog post, she talked about how she changed to fit in.
My coworkers walked on eggshells in my presence, so I did my best to make them feel comfortable around me so that I would be included. I laughed at their terribly racist and sexist jokes, I co-opted their negative attitudes, I began to dress as they did... I did everything I could to make them feel like I was one of them, even though I clearly was not.
It worked. I was included. I began getting invited to team lunches. They let me in on the jokes they made about our only other teammate who refused to assimilate and was ultimately ostracized for it. They shared their life experiences with me. I was “one of the guys.”
As I continued to read, I felt a growing discomfort.
I once again donned the uniform to fit in. Jeans, “unisex” t-shirt, Timbuk2 messenger bag. I stayed late playing multiplayer Battlefield, I quickly learned a bunch of classic rock songs so I could play Rock Band and Guitar Hero with the team, I don’t like beer so I went out to beer taverns and drank water. I remember asking if we could do other outings that didn’t include beer and getting voted down. I continued to lose myself for the sake of being included amongst my coworkers.
Well, that’s not me, I thought defensively. I love my work. I love shooters. I’m just about as dedicated a Rock Band player as you can find. Not me at all. And then I got to the bullet points.
- I feel alone every day I come to work, despite being surrounded by people, which results in feelings of isolation.
- I feel like I stick out like sore thumb every day.
- I am constantly making micro-evaluations about whether or not my actions will be attributed to my being “different.”
- I feel like my presence makes others uncomfortable so I try to make them feel comfortable.
- I feel like there isn’t anyone who can identify with my story, so I don’t tell it.
- I feel like I have to walk a tightrope to avoid reinforcing stereotypes while still being heard.
- I have to navigate the expectation of stereotypical behavior and disappointment when it doesn’t happen (e.g. my not being the “sassy black woman”).
- I frequently wonder how my race and gender are coloring perceptions of me.
- I wonder if and when I’ve encountered racists (the numbers say it’s almost guaranteed that I have) and whether or not they’ve had an effect on my career.
- I feel a constant low level of stress every day, just by virtue of existing in my environment.
- I feel like I’ve lost my entire cultural identity in effort to be part of the culture I’ve spent the majority of the last decade in.
It was a sudden, sharp awakening. Even as someone who’s enjoyed a successful, long career in game development, I could tick off most of those boxes.
I thought about the individual moments, then--the pebbles that come together to form a beach, rounded and softened by the waves. I remembered the publisher meetings at strip clubs, and the whispered awkward debates about whether to even tell me about them. I remembered going to bars after work even when I didn’t want to drink, because that’s when my team was supposed to “bond.” I remembered the uncomfortable glances after someone told an off-color joke to see how I responded--to see if I’d pass the “test.” I remembered when I finally adopted the game designer standard of jeans, sneakers and a teeshirt. I remembered the forced laughs over lines like, “I hope this goes better than the last time we had a woman in the producer’s meeting.”
Suddenly those moments and many more like them stood out not because they happened, but because their happening changed me. I thought back to the time before game development. Who was I? What part of me was really… me?
Your Experiences Are Off Topic
In the months before I read the blog post, discussions of women in game development heated up around the internet. They heated up in my social circles too, because after so many years in game development, most of my friends were fellow developers. The conversation erupted on Facebook, on Twitter, even in person. These were my colleagues, my peers--their opinions meant a lot to me... so much, I slowly realized, that I had for many years curbed what I was willing to say to them. Specifically, I spent my first twenty years in game development carefully avoiding the topic of my gender.
It was a little over a year ago when I started to speak very quietly, very pragmatically about the experiences of women in game development. The backlash was clear and immediate. Those discussions were unwelcome and were met with open hostility from some colleagues. At one point, I was told directly that any discussion of women’s experiences in game development was like debating religion and politics--it wasn't just divisive, it was “off topic” in a game development group. I said in response that I thought of myself as a game developer first and a woman second. When those words left my mouth, I was stunned: not just because I’d said them, but because in that moment, I meant them. I felt gutted, by the clear exclusion of my colleagues and by awareness of my own complicity.
It’s still hard for me to talk about now, because this rejection came from people who were my peers--my friends--in those social circles for ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty years. It made me think about how much I had unconsciously decided what aspects of myself I was willing to expose. I hadn’t talked about being a woman. I hadn’t talked about other things, too. Over time, not showing or discussing those aspects eroded them until they ceased to exist. The years had gradually worn away my unique shape, and turned me uniform, logical, round, the correct shape to better fit into the hole of “game developer.”
Becoming A Cultural Fit
More recently, there was a similar article: The Video-Game Industry Has a Dress Code, Driven By a Lack of Diversity. I saw it make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. I saw derision from many of those same peers whose opinions had shaped me over the years. "That’s so stupid--there’s no dress code. I wear what I want," those mostly white male colleagues said. “There are no rules other than ‘please wear clothes.’”
They missed the point. When you're already nearly perfectly round and a good match for the hole in which you want to fit, you don't sweat a few differences. You still fit in that hole so gracefully, so naturally, that you can sport your few minimally unique edges or your slightly off shade with pride, as a badge of honor. I don’t blame them for not seeing it: when your peg easily fits in the hole, it’s easy to assume that the hole fits everyone, or in fact that the hole doesn’t even exist.
If you have a shape that's not an easy fit, though, you become aware of anything that calls out those differences. It might be wearing dresses or makeup. It might be having a picture of yourself and your same gender partner on your desk. It might be the cross you wear around your neck on weekends but never at work, or choosing not to say the real reason you can't work on Friday nights or Saturdays is because it's the Sabbath. It might be the way you wear your hair, carefully straightened or dyed. It might be going to the bar down the street and nursing a beer when you don't like drinking and you want to go home. It might be avoiding a mention of your birthday, rooted in the knowledge that you’re older than the people with whom you work. It might be the nights you crunch, even when your family needs you and even when there’s no significant work for you, because if you don’t the rest of your--mostly single--team will bond without you.
And we must fit in those round holes. Sometimes it's even right there, in the job description: "we want a cultural fit." We say it bluntly, literally. You must be one of us to succeed. Our definition of acceptable shapes permeates our workplaces to such an extent that it's even in our hierarchies and job titles: you’ll make your way up the ladder from assistant to full to senior to lead. Not everyone enjoys or has the skill set to lead and yet as they gain experience, that is the only hole we provide for them. Fit that hole or stagnate.
This reckoning of your differences, these judgements of your shape that doesn’t quite fit their expected hole, isn’t always overt. In fact, most of it’s not even intended. It’s off-hand, subtle, unconscious. Regardless of intent, it makes you remember your differentness and strive to minimize it.
What Have We Lost?
It seems weak, this carving away at ourselves to fit in someone else’s definitions. I hate the fact that it happened to me. I’m stubborn and most of my friends would never think I’d change my personality or habits just to suit someone else. It can pass notice because the change is so gradual. Much of it is subconscious, taught to us by time and trials. Think of it as our unique edges and shapes being worn over the years of making ourselves fit. Jam that interesting peg into a round hole enough times, and it becomes more round--and less interesting--even that wasn’t anyone’s goal.
While these realizations have been very difficult for me, I’m logical, pragmatic. The past is the past, and changing myself is entirely within my power. If I want to reclaim those lost aspects of myself, I will. I’m not writing this for me, or even for the other interestingly shaped and colored pegs out there. I’m not writing this because I wonder what I’ve lost over the years of conformity. I’m writing this because I wonder what our teams and games have lost in the aggregate, over the many people worn down across so many years, just to fit our communal expectation of “game developers.”
Perhaps this sameness, the endless rows of round pegs fitted into round holes, is what leads to the sameness in many of our games, where stubble-jawed white men run endlessly down brown-grey corridors. I love those games. I don’t want them to go away. I don’t even want them to change. And they won’t--finding ways to encourage uniqueness among our colleagues means those games will be joined by additional interesting, colorful variants. It means our teams and companies will become more interesting and colorful too.
You may think this doesn’t apply to you or your studio--after all, studios are as different as people, so an oddity in one might find an easier fit in another. You may sit next to a glorious iconoclast. Ask her if she’s ever felt pressure to conform, and she might honestly say it’s never mattered to her or, depending on her personal experiences, it hasn’t even happened to her. It doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for someone else at that very same studio.
It's remarks made about what she’s wearing or how someone so pretty will have no trouble finding a job. It's off-hand jokes about his religion being bullshit, or who "wears the pants" in her family, or when he’s going to retire. It's invitations for her to speak at conferences... only about being a woman and not about her area of expertise. It’s driving everyone toward lead roles as the only progression regardless of personal interests or skills. It’s the work conversations that happen every evening in the bar that make him choose between his team accepting him or being home with his family. It's the way everyone who’s different is lumped together as if the fact that you share the same color or or a similar shape makes you the same. It’s the assumption that people talking about how their individuality affects their game development experience is somehow unrelated to game development.
There's Nothing Wrong With Who You Are
I’m not asking for those who work alongside me in game development to change who they are: there’s nothing wrong with who you are. That’s the whole point. There’s nothing wrong with any of us.
I’m asking for you--for all of us--to open our eyes to the pressure we put on our colleagues to conform, to change their shapes, to become uniform, round, interchangeable pegs. I’m asking you to notice when it’s happening, and find a way to counter the pressure with encouragement. Speak your mind, go out to the bar, dress how you’d like--be who you are. But be aware of how your choices and your studio’s choices may affect others, so you can find ways to encourage them to be who they are, too.
When they speak their minds, take a moment to listen. When they pull away and seem to feel excluded, find a way to bring them into the conversation. Review your org charts and hierarchies to find a path that doesn’t have to end in being a lead. Have different kinds of social events, and explore different ways people can work any extra hours needed. Discuss how you can include more voices in your meetings.
Each unique voice adds to a whole that’s more interesting, more creative, and more fun for everyone. Every one of those voices matters, because we’re not uniform. We're not interchangeable. We’re not pegs.