Women in the game industry: activists, innovators and community builders
We are accustomed to women, people of color, and the LGBT+ community to be underrepresented in the gaming industry. But there have always been minorities of one type or another occupying this space from the proto-coders of the first consoles to executives of big game corporations of today. While that population certainly hasn’t grown in the same way as demographics of players have, the video game industry is ambling its way to diversity. But since more and more women are enrolling in game design programs than ever, it is on its way to change even faster. And in the meantime, let’s celebrate some established women!
Are we going to use the first and main target of Gamergate, the Internet-based 2014 sexism explosion that reverberated onto such sites as Breitbart as our first strong lady gamer example? Yes, it is true, my friend. Zoë Tiberius Quinn became atypically famous as a game designer due to tired, reactionary, misogynistic reasons we do not have to explain here, but you can certainly discover in the coverage and op-eds on the matter that continue to this day.
Quinn’s first project is called Depression Quest, a text-based browser game that, like much of her work, is free-to-play. The interactive story puts the player into the position of someone living with depression, a character that attempts to balance relationships, job and other factors with a realistic treatment of the illness. It won several awards in 2013 as a unique entry that seeks to humanize and spread awareness of a mental illness that is so common, but taboo to discuss in public, or even with friends and family.
Not only has she continued to develop games with atypical subject matter and a very particular voice, Quinn launched Crash Override, a network for online abuse victims. The network works with victim personal accounts, tech companies and lawmakers to change policy and culture to create safer digital spaces. She has written a book, also called Crash Override, released in 2017 about her personal experience during Gamergate, as well as her subsequent activism.
The currents of the contemporary game industry are carrying us towards more female executives in game companies, game developers as well as women protagonists and strong characters within the games themselves. But women have always been making games since they were invented, though many of them were hidden behind pre-internet opaque company policies or forgotten in time.
Joyce Weisbecker programmed games in 1976 for the Studio II console released by RCA, which never rose to the prominence enjoyed by contemporaries Atari or Magnavox. Nevertheless, Weisbecker was one of the first video game coders, using a technology that her father had begun to develop in 1969. As described in Fast Co. Design, Weisbecker continued that work, and “ended up being the earliest known female developer who wrote video games and got paid for it.” She wasn’t on staff at RCA, but was an independent developer whose skills were developed as her family had a personal computer at home - a shockingly rare situation back then. The first titles she programmed were Snake Race and Jackpot, and later created Speedway, a simple racing game where the cars were represented by rectangles.
Speaking of Atari, Rebecca Ann Heineman was the first person to win a national video game contest - the National Space Invaders Championship, sponsored by Atari. In the 1980s she programmed adventure games for the computer and Super NES, including titles such as Dragon Wars, Wasteland and Bard’s Tale III (considered the best of the Bard’s Tale series). Unlike many of the coders that influenced the nascent computer and video game industry, Heineman has remained within it as a senior engine programmer at Ubisoft Toronto, and is a member of the Microsoft Kinect team mentioned in her interview with Gamasutra in 2010. In the interview she also describes her experience transitioning from her former life as William Heineman beginning in 2003, how it affected her career, and other aspects of her continual presence in the developer landscape.
Kim Swift was lead designer of Portal, her first title at Seattle’s game company Valve, which has since risen to great heights as a developer and launched the game platform Steam. Portal was a game changer in all senses of the word when it was released in 2007, showing the viability of digital distribution for unique, shorter play titles. With a physics-bending game mechanic where the player solves puzzles with the aid of a gun that shoots portals onto most surfaces, this game was selected by MoMA as one of 14 for its permanent collection, as documented in her entry on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 of 2012. She also was lead designer of Left 4 Dead, a survivalist cooperative first person shooter, then joined EA’s Motive Studios as design director.
Rounding out our selection of female game influencers is Laura Teclemariam, a sports title software engineer and senior product manager for EA., Laura Teclemariam senior product manager for EA. Since sports gamers are such fans of multichannel and multi-platform, there is a tremendous amount of data that players create. According to Teclemariam in an interview with BlackEnterprise, EA’s approach is similar to Amazon. Shoppers have a relationship with Amazon that has a tremendous value for the company, and Teclemariam’s team builds out conversations with players to cultivate that at EA. “What we are doing is really understanding behavioral science, and managing and targeting our players, [and] they end up saying, ‘I feel like I really have a relationship with EA.”
Showing that the industry isn’t just a man’s game is more important now than ever. Not only does it close the gender disparity, but it glosses over the very real process that is underway in the video game industry. Greater diversity means a wider spectrum of stories being told, and this artform is one of the best possible ways of spreading such stories.