Inside industry sexism: Q&A with a former female BioWare employee

First: How this came about

Last month, I wrote a post about the lack of options to play fat female characters in video games. The genesis of that post came from the fact that I’d recently started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic again, and was irritated all over again that you could play a fat male character, but the fattest female character option looked like… well… me. (And despite what internetbros like to tell me, I am definitely not fat.)
In the comments on that post, Leslee commented about one aspect of her experience as a former BioWare employee who had briefly worked on SW:TOR:
I worked at Bioware-Austin on SWTOR, and I know exactly why there is no option for a fat female character. When I worked there (2010-2011) the ratio of male to female employees was so bad that they converted one of the women’s restrooms to a third men’s room to accommodate all of the guys. (I cursed under my breath every time I had to hike all the way across the entire building to use the bathroom.)

There wasn’t a single female artist on the animation team (that I remember).

At the age of 43, I was one of the oldest employees who wasn’t a manager. ALL of upper management was male.

When the majority of a studio’s entire creative team is young (under 30) and male, the potential for realistic representation in female characters is significantly decreased.

Since Leslee volunteered to answer further questions, I contacted her privately to talk about the possibility of doing a Q&A about her experiences – since it’s not often that I get to see an honest account of what it’s like dealing with industry sexism as a female games industry worker. What follows are my questions and her answers about her experiences in the video games industry.

(Full disclosure, I have Leslee’s permission to make this a patron-supported post. In fact, I initially proposed doing this as a freebie.)

Q&A

How long did you/have you worked in the games industry? (Are you currently working in games now, or did you switch fields?)

I spent about a year, total, working in the games industry.  First at Bioware-Austin, then at Stoic.  Both were short-term contract positions that were problematic for a variety of reasons. Sadly, after these experiences I decided that the games industry was not a good career choice for me at this stage of my life and I retired shortly thereafter.

What was it like working in such a male-dominated environment? Were your supervisors supportive of your concerns, or did you feel you would get penalized for voicing your honest opinions?

The honest answer to the first question is: tiring.  I’ve spent the majority of my adult life working in male-dominated fields. I spent 4 years on active duty in the Army. A year doing contract archaeology. 7 years working as a land surveyor and autocad operator.  I’ve been the only woman – in the field or in the office – more times than I can count. So on my first day at Bioware, as I take a tour of the building and see the disproportionate amount of male heads sitting behind monitors (at that time it was at least 90% male), my immediate reaction was, “Ugh. Not again.”  So, what was it like working in such a male-dominated environment?  Annoying, disappointing, tiring, and way too damn familiar.

Were my supervisors supportive of my concerns?  Well, that probably would have depended upon which one of them I asked. During the later part of my time at Bioware I had 3 different bosses at the same time (all men, of course), and it was never entirely clear as to who was my direct supervisor.  Since they frequently contradicted each other, I never bothered to express my concerns to any of them. It didn’t seem worth my time.  There was also the issue of age and experience. I was considerably older than 2 of my 3 supervisors and that factored heavily into my lack of confidence in their managerial abilities.

Did you ever experience harassment or any other sort of gender-based discrimination, or did you hear of instances of it happening within the company? How were such complaints generally handled?

I didn’t experience harassment. I experienced prejudice, bias, condescension and devaluing. I often felt that I was discounted because of my gender.  During my second week on the job a friendly but utterly clueless coworker said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but since you’re a woman, how much experience do you actually have playing video games?” (He was a bit taken aback by my answer of, “…since the Ford administration”.) One coworker became openly hostile to me when he discovered (accidentally) that I was being paid $2 more an hour than he was.  Another, who had initially been friendly and helpful towards me, became distinctly unhelpful and dismissive after discovering that I was married.  One of the programmers refused to respond to any of my email questions, despite the fact that Ineeded his answers in order to complete my own work. I finally had to enlist a sympathetic project manager (also male) to intercede on my behalf and get the information I needed. He literally dragged the programmer over to my desk and forced him to answer my questions!

I was never aware of any overt sexual harassment toward my fellow female coworkers. The few times that I had the opportunity to speak to any of them (usually in the bathroom), our collective attitude was one of long-suffering weariness and exasperation.

Did you ever try to speak out against issues of sexism within the company? If so, how did that go over? If not, why not?

Oh yes. I did not hesitate to point out the fact that I was almost ALWAYS the only woman at every meeting I attended.  Or to speak up whenever I heard someone make a sexist comment at me, or near me.  For the most part, the reaction I got for my overt feminism was begrudging recognition followed by some variation of “That’s just the way it is in the gaming industry.” I think a lot of people knew it was a problem, but they saw it as an intractable one.  To be honest, after the years of blatant sexual harassment that I suffered while working in construction, what I experienced in the gaming industry felt tame by comparison.  It was still annoying as hell, but at least no one was groping my ass.

After BioWare, what was it like jumping into a tiny, bootstrapped startup?
 
After Bioware I briefly worked for Stoic, a game studio created by 3 ex-Bioware employees.  This was also a problematic work environment, but for slightly different reasons. I was the only woman in an office of 6 people, and our “office” was a shack that was part of a historic farmers market located behind a bar. We called it the Goat Shack.  It had no running water, but plenty of dirt, dust and dead roaches. Once we lost electricity for a day because a (probably intoxicated) patron from the bar had accidentally hit the front of our office with their car the night before, taking out our electrical box.

I think that on some level my coworkers derived a sense of pride by working in such “rustic” conditions, as if it was a testament to their frugality as a startup, or to their dedication to the project. But having already spent time in the military, I found these conditions to be less than appealing or conducive to productivity.  When the level of dirt on the floor (and on my desk, computer, etc.) became unbearable I convinced one of the developers to allow me to hire a cleaning service – for which I took responsibility for myself and was reimbursed by the company afterwards.Problems quickly arose at Stoic, due mainly by the fact that my role and responsibilities were never clearly defined.  Some of my coworkers would express annoyance or irritation whenever I asked them a question, but I was never clear on who I was supposed to ask. One of them became openly hostile towards me when I asserted myself too strongly in an effort to get a particular objective completed.  When I tried to talk to him privately, he accused me of being “too critical and opinionated”.  He immediately deflated when I pointed out to him that being critical was a defining characteristic of doing QA work, but I was never able to reestablish rapport with him afterwards.

Tensions finally came to a head when some of my coworkers discovered that I had publicly criticized another game on an online forum for its poor representation of female characters and its male-only protagonist. Both coworkers separately wrote me private emails, chastising me for my comments. They felt that my comments reflected badly on them because the developers of the other game were their personal friends.

How was working at a startup similar to working for BioWare?

In some ways, Stoic felt like a magnified version of Bioware.  The lack of clear supervision and direction was significantly more problematic when the entire company was only 6 people. The isolation I felt at Stoic was increased a hundredfold. I had no support and no allies. I lost track of how many times I was locked out of the office because my coworkers would go to lunch without me and forget that I was in the bathroom. (The restrooms at Stoic were in another building.)

The combined experiences of working at Bioware and Stoic made me realize that my 25+ years of working almost exclusively in male-dominated environments had finally taken its toll on me. As much as I enjoyed working on video games I felt that my time and energy were better spent speaking and writing directly about gender inequality, rather than experiencing it myself on a daily basis.

Based on your experiences and where you see the industry heading, what would you say to women interested in getting into the game industry? Would you advise them to choose another profession?

I would strongly encourage women who are considering going into any male-dominated profession to develop a good female support network.  Seek out women’s organizations that are affiliated with your interests and obtain a female mentor, if possible.  This is imperative, because the isolation that you may feel will greatly impact your self-esteem and confidence.

I also recommend that the gaming industry not be your first job, even if it’s really what you want to do. Having some traditional work experience under your belt (even if it’s really boring) will give you a better foundation with which to deal with the unique challenges of working in games.

In conclusion

As dire as this might sound, it’s important to point out that this is not intended as a universal indictment of the video games industry. I know women working for games companies that are quite happy with the work they are doing, and the companies they are working for. There are also increasingly companies that are owned and operated by women, especially in the area of mobile games.

So I’ll end by quoting Leslee one more time, since hers is a sentiment I agree with whole-heartedly:

My only request for this post is that I don’t want it to be wholly negative in nature. I also don’t want it to simply be a criticism of Bioware and Stoic, because I had some really good experiences at both companies and I don’t hold any animosity toward either of them.

Yes, I’ve endured a great deal of workplace sexism over the past quarter century, but I’ve also spent nearly as long discussing the issue with almost anyone who would listen to me. Sure, I got a lot of eye rolls and dismissals, and sometimes blatant antagonism. But I also got a lot of people to think, and talk, and sometimes change. It can be a burden, but a necessary one, and one that I know I’m strong enough to handle.  I want this article to be about awareness and acknowledgement of the problem, and an opportunity for dialogue.

Can we move past violence simulators? Because Batman is boring.

So here’s the thing. Before we get any further, let me disclaim that I LOVED Batman as a kid. The Batman animated series was one of the best cartoons on television when I was growing up, and I watched a ton of it! I’ve also seen all of the Batman movies – yes even the George Clooney one with the weird nipple armor.) I also very much enjoy video games that are violent. I own no less than three Mass Effect hoodies, have played every Final Fantasy game released by Sony (even Lightning Returns), and have been known to conquer civilizations because they annoyed in Civilization.

Never the less, because of what I’m about to say, I’m sure some people will try to paint me as Jack Thompson-esque reactionary who hates Batman. Which, you know. Whatever. Nothing I say will stop that, so let’s kick some internet beehives, shall we?

Batman has gotten boring

The older I get, the less interesting Batman becomes. Kid-Me loved Batman and his awesome jet and cool techno toys! But Adult Me? Well Adult Me thinks that Batman is nothing more than a weird, traumatized sociopath with too much money and anger, who spends much of his time and effort punishing the people (street-level criminals) least responsible for actually creating the social problems plaguing Gotham City.

I get that in a lot of ways he’s intended as a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy. He’s a kid who gets to grow up super rich, inherit billions that he doesn’t have to work for, use lots of cool techno toys to beat up people who piss him off, and sleep with lots of women in the guise of needing “cover” for his crime-fighting activities. But Batman is also a goddamn paragon of toxic masculinity.

Recently, my husband wanted to try watching Gotham – since several friends had been saying good things about it. But I can tell you the exact moment when I stopped giving a shit about the show. It came about eleven or so minutes in, when Alfred shows up to take Bruce home after his parents have just been murdered in front of him. And the VERY FIRST THING he says to young Bruce is to MAN UP SON. Of course, he doesn’t use those words, but he does tell young Bruce to stop crying. You know, stiff upper lip and all that. And for the rest of the episode, whenever young Bruce shows up, young Bruce struggles to choke back his feelings while Alfred hovers, scowling, in the background, the embodiment of the “proper” masculine reaction to grief. (Which is to say, to display no emotions other than looking grumpy or sort of constipated.)

…yeah. No. I get enough toxic masculinity hurled at me here on the internet. I don’t need to spend my free time watching a drama that’s basically TOXIC MASCULINITY: THE ORIGIN STORY.

The thing is, pop culture is increasingly starting to shift when it comes to portrayals of Batman. Finally, finally there is a recognition that Grimdark Batman is an inherently ridiculous character. From the Lego Movie’s take on Batman (which in my head has become the canonical Batman[1]), to the meme that spawned a thousand spin-off memes:

my_parents_are_deeaaaaaad

Unfortunately, when it comes to video games, it seems like Grimdark Batman is here to stay, simply because AAA game studios really aren’t any good at making games that AREN’T violence simulators – which necessitates a portrayal of the hyper-violent, emotionless, bastion of toxic masculinity version of Batman that has become so familiar from the movies and television series like Gotham.

Take, for example, the Arkham City games, in which you play Batman beating the ever-living snot out of… okay, out of really a pretty astonishing number of people:

darkness
Side note: I was a little uncomfortable with how easy it was to find screenshots of Batman beating up all, or mostly black dudes.

When “find the thing” and “kill the dudes” is the only sort of story that most game studios know how to produce, is it any wonder that Grimdark Batman is the only Batman we get in games made for adults? (I’m not including Lego Batman here.) The AAA game studios have put a lot of brainpower into innovating improvements in the area of graphics, UI design, and accessibility of gameplay – while putting pretty much no brainpower into innovating ways of telling stories that don’t center on violence.

How to make Batman actually interesting

The thing is, I think it would honestly take very little modification to make Batman an emotionally rich and compelling character. What if instead of telling young Bruce to MAN UP SON, Alfred instead teaches Bruce that it’s okay to express your feelings and be emotionally vulnerable? And what if, after that, Alfred became a real father figure to Bruce instead of being an emotionally distant butler/nanny? A Bruce Wayne capable of expressing a damn emotion, who dons the cape despite also knowing that systemic injustice is the real cause of the crime that he fights? Shit, that’s way more interesting than Grimdark “I growl all my dialogue” Batman.

batman
Click through for larger, more readable version

Heh.

…stupid jokes about Catman aside, honestly the Batman game I would love to play would be one in which Batman struggles to balance the philanthropic work needed to heal the damage caused by deep systemic injustice with his work as a hero who keeps ordinary citizens safe from violent crime. One where the social work of building community is actually part of the game and something that’s not glossed over in cutscenes.

It would be totally doable! One of my favorite RPGs for the PS2 was Dark Chronicle – a game in which there is a huge cataclysm, after which the two heroes have to go through dungeons and fight monsters to defeat The Big Evil while also helping various communities rebuild after their homes were destroyed:

dark-chronicle
Gathering resources to build buildings and deciding optimal placement is totally part of the game. It’s strangely addictive.

Modeling something like that and applying it to the Batman story would honestly not be too huge a task. This is a game design problem that I’m fully confident that game studios could solve… if they could be bothered to care. But the AAA game industry is hugely male-dominated, and largely guided by the pervasive (and inaccurate) myth that women don’t play video games in any significant numbers. So until the landscape of AAA game development changes significantly, which I don’t expect any time soon, I imagine that I won’t be playing any Batman games any time soon. I’ve got many more interesting games to catch up on.


[1] Whenever anyone mentions Batman, the first thing that pops into my head is DARKNESSSS. NO PARENTSSSS.

Data Analysis of Trolls and Sea Lions in 2015 [CW][TW]

For about the last month, I’ve been dealing with an increase in trolling. It seems that writing a 3-part series that examines data sets in detail to analyze sexist trends in representation in D&D 5E isn’t nearly as controversial as writing posts in which I talk about simply having feelings about a game. Because my post about my personal reactions to opening packs of the latest Magic: The Gathering expansion attracted a whole lot of assholes – not just here in the comments, but in other parts of my social media. Frex:

trolls

Those are all comments from ONE POST on Google+. (As someone else pointed out in that thread, it’s like I put out jackass fly paper or something.)

It’s gotten to the point where the last week or so, I’ve been leaving notifications on on my phone while I’m socializing with friends (something I usually make a point of not doing) simply so that I can keep an eye on comments on my blog, in case something particularly odious gets posted that I’d really rather not leave up for any length of time. Which, of course, presents a bit of a dilemma. If this sort of nonsense is getting to be more common, shouldn’t I just lock down comments completely?

The problem with that is that my patrons and other long-time readers are pretty damn smart, and often contribute quite a lot in the comments sections of my posts. Case-in-point, the comments on my recent semi-tongue-in-cheek post about games I don’t plan on letting my daughter play are actually full of some really great recommendations of fun and progressive games. One other notable example is my post from last year about Lightning Returns and its bonkers wholesale cultural appropriation of Western religious iconography. While I stand by the content of my post, the commenters added a lot of context that I hadn’t been aware of regarding the historical oppression of Christians in Japanese society.

Closing down comments entirely would mean that I would be cutting off actual intelligent and enlightening contributions by supportive readers, and I’m not quite ready to do that. However, while I’ve gotten pretty damn jaded when it comes to people calling me a crazy fat lesbian, there have been quite a few commenters that have started dragging my daughter into their attacks on me since my recent post, and that is… a lot harder to deal with.

To quote myself from Twitter:

I’ve been awake for half an hour, and I’ve already had to remove three comments from my blog that weren’t there when I went to bed. All because I wrote a post, which included GAMES I LOVE, about how I’m worried about sexism in games re: my 3yo daughter. And honestly, I’m so used to people talking smack about ME that it doesn’t even matter. Fat? Uh huh. Jealous? Sure. Lesbian? Whatevs. Man-hater? Obvs. Misandrist? You know it. Seriously, that shit just doesn’t even bother me 99% of the time anymore

But when they start dragging my DAUGHTER into it? That shit really fucking sucks. “it’s a good thing she doesn’t spend much time with you” “you’re raising her to be a dysfunctional lesbian” “you’re a bad parent”. They say all of this because I had the nerve to say even HALF-seriously that there are some games I might not let my daughter play. But for all that their objections are framed around her, they don’t actually CARE about my daughter, her feelings, or her upbringing.

It’s an entirely new level of sexist bro entitlement. They don’t just feel entitled to games that cater to ONLY THEIR INTERESTS… They feel ENTITLED to having MY DAUGHTER playing the same games that they want to play, like several years from now. Because fuck her feelings and her development as a healthy woman in a toxic patriarchal society. That bitch better like their favorite games. And honestly, I don’t know how I can find any of this shit surprising anymore. I really don’t. But I do.

So, you know, thank you, you entitled shitstains, for proving my damn premise about why sexism in games is so fucking toxic.

One of the things that I have done in an effort to make dealing with this sort of nonsense a bit easier is to write a FAQ covering all of the most common shit that gets hurled at me, so that I would have something to point at when removing comments instead of having to type out the same justifications over and over (and over and over…).

In the post which rolled out the new FAQ, I vented some of my frustration over the increased nonsense level around here by saying:

I don’t feel bad in the slightest about summarily trashing comments that insult myself or others, and I’ve grown to quite enjoy replacing derailing comments with sarcastic memes. Because again, see #3 – this is MY house where I make the rules.

But of course, there are certain types of people (men) who think it is LITERALLY JUST THE WORST that I don’t run an open forum for them to insult, abuse, and generally dispute everything I’m saying here. And those people get really. Fucking. Tiresome.

But of course I got questioned on it. Because despite that this is a feminist blog in which I write about sexism in a perceived-as-male-dominated-geeky-subculture, somehow me complaining that it’s always men who have a problem with me removing their comments from my blog is somehow suspect because… uh… reasons?

yes

At the time my response was terse and to the point, since I felt that was about all the attention that particular question deserved.

However, since then, the continued activity of trolls and sea lions got me thinking. As 2015 winds to a close, wouldn’t it be an interesting exercise to set about doing a data analysis of the comments that I’ve gotten to date in 2015? So that’s what I set about doing.

Data analyzing troll and sea lion comments

This has probably been the least fun post that I’ve written in a while. Gathering numbers to do one of my data analysis posts is always an exercise in tedium. Worse, it required going through 11 months of comments, including the ones that were so horrible that I simply deleted them from my blog without even meme-ing them.

I’ve left email comment notification on for the purpose of archiving all comments in their original state, so the process of reviewing them was actually simple, if rather unpleasant. Because breaking down the comments enough to categorize them and analyze the underlying trends required… actually reading them. In detail. Something which I do my best to avoid. And it also required digging up a lot of hurtful stuff that I’d honestly forgotten about from earlier in the year.

Originally I’d conceived of this post as something I’d be able to knock out in a day as a quickie “fuck you” to the trolls that have been plaguing me lately. However, I didn’t count on the fact that it is hard and upsetting purposefully immersing yourself in the words of people who want to make you feel like crap about yourself. What I thought would be a relatively easy task for one day has turned out to be a grueling and exhausting task that’s taken all of today, and parts of yesterday and the day before, and has left me feeling pretty emotionally raw.

Still. It’s done, and the analysis proves pretty clearly that my hypothesis was pretty near correct. You can read the entire summary here, with fancy interactive charts and everything, on Infogr.am. Though I’ll ask that you please exercise caution, since it might prove triggering for anyone who has experienced online harassment, gender-based or otherwise.

graphic
This is how it starts, and it gets “better” from there.

I’ll note that I know some readers have issue with accessibility re: color blindness with some of the charts that I use here. That’s mainly why I used Infogr.am to put this together – mousing over any particular data point highlights the data segment in question. This is especially useful in the couple of charts that have A LOT of different colors, if differentiating colors is something that is difficult for you.

Of course, I don’t believe that this sort of analysis is actually going to solve anything, because the sorts of people who troll and sea lion my blog aren’t the sorts of people to be swayed by actual facts. Besides, the fact that I’m making this a patron-supported post is pretty likely to draw at least a few trolls out of the woodwork, given that I’m literally being a “professional victim” by doing so. But I haven’t let the asshats and the haters stop me from doing what I do yet, and I’ll be damned if I’ll start now.