Five Female Developers Turning the Tables on the Gaming Industry
At the Game Developers Conference this year, more women than ever participated on panels and talks. Here’s what they said.
In the wake last year’s Gamergate affair, a meticulous and damaging campaign targeting female game developers and their supporters, this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco is celebrating the work of women in the games industry. A number of panels and talks focused on gender diversity, while others provided practical advice on hiring and retaining female employees. Microsoft’s Women in Games event, held every year during GDC, celebrated the ongoing contribution of female talent across the industry’s disciplines. And though the numbers are still woefully unbalanced, for the first time in GDC’s history, this year’s conference saw a record number of female speakers: 184 women versus 744 men, the highest of any GDC to date. In the spirit of celebrating women’s ever-growing contributions to the gaming world, here are five female game developers helping to turn the tide.
Game designer, producer, and developer Robin Hunicke served as executive producer on the award-winning game “Journey” and is the co-founder and CEO of video game studio Funomena. Hunicke’s experimental games focus on ideas and feelings not often explored in video games, like one’s personal connection to other players, the nature of time, and even what it feels like to be a flower petal carried by the wind. Her next game, announced last December, is being developed in collaboration with “Katamari Damacy” creator Keita Takahashi for the PlayStation 4. The game, called “Wattam,” explores a world in which toys come to life. At this year’s GDC, Hunicke took to the stage at the Microsoft Women in Games event to discuss her role as an ambassador for women in the industry. “Diversity in the games industry did not become a problem just in the last year,” she said. “It has been a problem in our culture for a really long time. And it will not be solved in the next year, but every single day, doing the small things that come naturally to us. That’s how we can make a difference.”
Photo of Colleen Macklin by Joi Ito via Wikimedia Commons
An associate professor in design and technology at Parsons The New School of Design in New York, Macklin makes experimental games focused on social engagement. She’s made games about Twitter, climate change, and public opinion. There’s also “The Metagame,” a card game about cultural debate that encourages active discussion of ideas in the current zeitgeist. Although Macklin has been making experimental games for over a decade and is considered one of the game’s industry most vocal advocates for women and gay rights, she says she often struggles with what’s called impostor syndrome: a continuous feeling of unworthiness. “Traditionally, it was perceived as an ingrained personality trait, like being raised too humble or something,” Macklin said at this year’s GDC. “But it’s actually a reaction to your environment. I’ve wrestled with this syndrome for most of my life, whether as a young professor, or starting out in games and feeling unworthy. I still feel like a n00b most of the time.”
Robinson is not a traditional game designer, per se. She’s the executive director of EyeWire, a crowdsourcing science game made in collaboration with Princeton University, currently played by some 175, 000 people around the world. The aim is to map neurons in the brain, a time-consuming activity that would normally take more time and resources than are available: according to Robinson, it currently takes around 50 hours to map a single neuron in the brain. Now, with the help of a 3D puzzle game available online for free to anyone who wants to play, gamers are helping neuroscientists chart synaptic connections. EyeWire launched a few years ago and is now played by gamers in over 160 countries. “It’s everyone, from students to grandmothers,” Robinson said in a talk at this year’s GDC conference. “Our top player is a bus driver from Egypt.” Robinson’s team is now entirely focused on making other video games with the aim of crowdsourcing different scientific problems. “There are not enough neuroscientists in the world to make a dent. Wouldn’t it be something if the gaming industry came to the rescue?”
Photo courtesy of Siobhan Reddy
Co-founder and studio director of Media Molecule, the U.K. studio behind the hit PlayStation game “LittleBigPlanet,” Siobhan Reddy has long spoken about the need for gaming to diversify. “We have a duty to make sure that there are women in the industry,” she told the Australian Times in 2013. “It would just help us make better games, more interesting games, more diverse games, new genres, and new stories.” Reddy was Qantas’ 2013 “Australian Woman of the Year” and in 2014 was named one of Forbes’ “10 Powerful Women in Gaming.” Reddy and her team are currently working on a sequel to the 2013 mobile platform game “Tearaway,” about a world made entirely of paper. The game won several BAFTA awards in the year of its release. An expanded follow up, called “Tearaway Unfolded,” will be released for the PlayStation 4 later this month.
Writer and story designer Rhianna Pratchett has worked on numerous titles in her long career in the game industry, including “Mirror’s Edge,” the Overlord games, and “Heavenly Sword.” She most recently served as lead writer on Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. (She’s back writing the sequel, “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” slated for release later this year.) Pratchett has always spoken publicly about video games’ ability to tell powerful, unique stories that shape players’ worldview. She was also a powerful voice in the #1ReasonWhy online debate surrounding sexism in video games, coining the sister hashtag #1ReasonToBe. The campaign featured women’s positive experiences working in the game industry in order to encourage more women to choose video games as their career. In support of this sentiment, GDC has hosted a #1ReasonToBe panel supporting female voices in the industry for two years running. Pratchett also dabbles in writing fiction, comic books and screenplays, and is currently co-writing a British television show based on the Discworld fantasy novels written by her father, Terry Pratchett.