CW: Harassment, sexism, sexual harassment
In 2000 I wrote my thesis at a mobile games company. It was titled User Interfaces for Role-playing on a Mobile Platform. I still have it somewhere. It’s 150 pages long and is probably quite useless by now, considering that mobile interfaces have changed quite a bit since I wrote it.
In 2001 I was hired for my first job in the industry as a game designer. More truthfully, I think I was closer to a narrative designer, and I also did some production until the company hired one. Producer, that is.
At this time, game designers that were also women were… few and far between. I think there were even more programmers than designers in the Swedish games industry at this point. The office I worked at was a somewhat dude-y office, but most of my colleagues were real sweethearts. I found my best strategy for fitting in there. The office played a lot of Soul Calibur on DreamCast. Having a salary for the first time ever, I bought a DreamCast and Soul Calibur on a Friday, played the shit out of that game and 1went on to beat everyone consistently. Except one player. I could never consistently beat him, but neither could anyone else. So in my mind, the narrative that I belonged was firmly established. We also played CounterStrike and Quake, except nobody wanted to play Quake, because we had a Quake wizard at work, and he was just too good. I could only compete when we played split screen Quake on the DreamCast. Apparently I had an affinity for controllers even back then. Which leads me to this statement – the DreamCast controller is the best ever. BEST EVER. No other controller comes even close. Also, Shenmue, Phantasy Star Online and Rez. Rez in particular has a very special place in my heart.
If my first set of dude-y colleagues hadn’t been such sweethearts despite their dude-y ways, I wouldn’t be working in games now. I was one of three women in an office of somewhere around 12 employees, so fairly standard in the games industry. Sometimes, in retrospect, I wish they’d been horrible, so that I would have left the industry while I still could.
The company went belly up, and it was a situation that would repeat itself many times, until around 2010, when the Swedish games industry had established itself as 1. Stable 2. Growing. My first ten years in the industry were uncertain and wobbly, to say the least. I often tried finding jobs outside the industry, but I never managed.
I had a rude awakening in the next job I got. I knew that the industry wasn’t great, but I didn’t know how bad it would turn out to be.
Have you ever met someone who was said to be hired because the boss was interested in them? Well, at my next job I met someone who had that rep. The rumour was all around the office. Imagine having to live with that? Imagine having everyone looking at you as if that were true? 2
I got the usual “teach the n00b” stuff, but people were still decent, despite the rumours. This was however my first contact with crunch culture and with misogynist game ideas. Because the company went bankrupt, it was also first contact with being left behind while men I had worked with and had comparable skill sets to were snatched up faster than candy at Halloween. I felt like low quality candy in comparison. Candy Corn.
Crunch culture was bad. I was working as a level designer, and there were only three of us at the company. We worked 10 – 16 hour days and we were expected to. Because our economical situation was crap, at the end, we also went without pay for some time a couple of months in a row. Cleaning was cancelled. We had to bring our own toilet paper, and then one day we were let go.
The realization that I wasn’t treated quite the same as my fellow game designers came to light in a bunch of interviews that I did. I was interrogated – I’m not kidding – around games that I had played. My interviewers didn’t want to know what I knew about level design or game design, they wanted to know what happened exactly at that specific level in Spyro and if I didn’t know I had failed some weird initiation test. I had one interview that led nowhere but lasted for two hours. I honestly gave up. My colleagues had similar experience and competency as me. They had jobs within weeks. I went 5 months without any offers. So again, I almost left the industry.
I took a job as a teacher and weirdly enough did have my first encounter with sexual harassment. It was a kick off conference, overnight thing. I shared a room with another teacher, and in the middle of the night, two fairly high ranking people from school leadership came into my room as I was sleeping and tried to coax me into joining a party. One of them even sat down on the bed and started rubbing my shoulder in a… friendly way, let’s say. Fortunately, they had been let in by the person I shared the room with, and they wanted to go back to the party, so they all left after maybe 10 minutes.
I have never been that scared or uncomfortable in my life up until then.
Fortunately, that job only lasted a few months, with me realizing I am not teacher material. It was a happy farewell for me, because some of the students I had thought I was a total pushover and that they could get me to raise their grades just by making noise. I had to defend their grades (they never showed up to class, and never handed in assignments) to the leadership. Yup, same leadership that came into my room when I was sleeping.
These were also the same students that brought in Dead Or Alive posters of half naked women to class which they posted on the walls to provoke me. And, might I add, that I promptly took down. Having your competency as a game designer and teacher questioned by teenagers is a… special feeling. Not a good one.
I was offered another job. I moved on. This is when the real ugly shit started happening, and it was also around this time that I started talking at schools and universities, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I was one of two women on the team. From the get go, it was obvious that one of the programmers, the leader of the pack, had major issues with me. During my time there, the following shit happened:
- The team withheld information on multiple occasions. Sometimes to the degree that I couldn’t do my job.
- They often ignored me, or spoke over me in meetings.
- Implying that I was incompetent because I didn’t have all the information. Information that had been withheld from me. By them.
- Telling me, outright, that the only thing more despicable than game designers were QA.3
- Yelling at me (IN FRONT OF EVERYONE!) for completely inconsequential things that were usually based on a misunderstanding of my design docs. Their misunderstanding, not mine.4
- Telling me that my hair was ugly (I know, this is getting ridiculous, right?)
- Telling me that what I ate (Cup-A-Soup, I believe) was disgusting.
There’s more, of course there’s more, but I’m getting depressed just thinking about it, and I wanted to recite stuff that I have evidence for. I wrote all of these incidents down in my diary. I wrote diaries. I still do. This shit ends up in them.
The list goes on. If there’s a micro aggression out there available to use, they used them all on me.
Fortunately for me, my producer was great, and the job was super rewarding. I was also praised by the publisher we worked with as one of the most diligent and thorough designers they had ever worked with. The reason I bring that up is because it’s a trend. In all my interactions with avatars of the patriarchy, they have never been able to say I didn’t do a good job. Most of it’s been related to “attitude”. Mmmm…. Good old attitude. To be fair, I also made friends there. Weird and wonderful friends who I still remember and miss.
A short stint at another company outside of the gaming industry, but adjacent to it, later and I would end up in the clutches of triple-A. That’s Part IV of this sorry tale.
Next up is Part III which is a bit happier, because it goes into what a nuisance I made of myself in the Swedish gaming culture, and it also tells the story of my Gamer of the Year award and my honorary doctorate. PLOT TWIST! I have an honorary doctorate.
- I had Soul Calibur thumbs, meaning I played so much that the skin underneath the nails on my thumbs cracked, leading to a few painful days of bleeding anytime I pressed anything. Soul Calibur is dangerous folks. Don’t play it!
- It wasn’t me. Trust me. As I said previously, the patriarchy has thoroughly rejected me on that front, and I’m all the better for it. I’m grateful. I’m also pretty sure that if me and the patriarchy got into the ring together, patriarchy would win, but I would draw so much blood before being carried out on a stretcher that you wouldn’t believe. In other words, it’s probably best for both of us that patriarchy has kept out of the way in that particular arena.
- Let it be known that I love QA. You are what makes games worth playing. You help SO much in raising the quality bar of games. I love you all.
- ”How do you handle conflict?” “Very well, I think. I was in shouting matches with my programmers over nothing more than once. Oh, they started it.”