An ode to women still in the game in 2015

Writing this post feels like playing a game of Bloody Mary. Put your finger on a keyboard and say “Quinn, Wu, Sarkeesian!” and a bunch of gamerbros will appear as if by magic to take your life and/or your sanity.

Before I was an author, I was a Woman in Tech. Yes, capital letters are needed these days, because it’s a Thing. It didn’t feel like much of a thing then, and I don’t know if that’s because I worked for a company that never made it a thing, or because Our Time hadn’t come yet, but there is something happening in the tech world that makes me glad I’m no longer part of it, and yet simultaneously sorry I’m no longer part of a solution that needs to be realised.

I fell into IT as a career; I was an office assistant and my boss had bragged to a management board that he could put together an intranet site for them, then proceeded to panic because he had no idea how to do it. Cue me and my big mouth. Then, within two years, I was in charge of two intranet sites and the public website for an entire college.

Before long, I moved on to work as an ICT project officer for the Equal Opportunity Commission, where it was my job to find new ways to use technology to communicate about anti-discrimination laws. A tertiary college and a human rights advocate’s office were two of the absolute safest places I could have begun a career in IT as a woman, even though I didn’t know safety was needed or valuable at the time. Maybe back then it wasn’t.

Fast forward a few more years and I moved to Norway. Oslo. Home of the Opera browser. Of course I wanted to work there, but it took two years to even get an interview. In the interim, I took a project management position with a startup that went under just as I was finally offered a position at Opera. I experienced a certain amount of Boys Clubism during my time with that startup—mostly in connection with the US office, where I was called “sweetheart” and was constantly asked if I could handle “the boys” on my team. “Send them to me if they give you any trouble, sweetheart.” Ugh, right? But no big deal.

My days managing projects at Opera were smooth-sailing, and I never experienced anything I’d call discrimination. My dev teams were always respectful, and though the Polish guys in particular always insisted on opening doors for me (and I mean insisted, like they’d stand there for an hour shaking their heads if I didn’t give in and walk through), I never felt marginalized, or harassed, or disrespected.

The absolute best time I had in that job was working with the folks at Nintendo. Three fabulous trips to Nintendo HQ in Kyoto mark some of the most uplifting times in my entire tech career. And even when I waddled into meetings, feet swollen from flying, belly swollen with seven months of fetal growth, I was always treated with the utmost respect and, when it was called for, deference. At least, according to my translator I was. But I don’t doubt him. Both the Opera guys and the Nintendo guys were fantastic. I miss them, and those days.

Me at Nintendo HQ in 2009

Me and my Nintendo counterpart,
Nintendo HQ, Kyoto, 2009

Note, though, that they were all men. The only women in my team were me and one of my testers. The only women I saw at Nintendo were the dainty, uniformed girls who tiptoed in and out of our meetings to bring us tea. I was an aberration, and I always got the feeling the Nintendo guys didn’t know how on earth to deal with me, so they just treated me like one of the guys and hoped that would work. It did, maybe too well; on my last day at work before I went on maternity leave, they gigglingly wished me well via teleconference, their faces awash with embarrassed blushes. They’d been ignoring my gender pretty successfully up to that point.

I had my baby, moved into documentation, then eventually left Opera to pursue creative writing. The End. All in all, a fulfilling career that ended because I wanted a new path. Though I experienced some condescending head-tilting while I was pregnant, I was not driven out of the industry, and I have no bitterness about my time in tech. I never felt fear, and have no residual fear to accompany my memories of that time. But I recognise all that for the privilege it is. And I wish that the experiences women are having in tech today were closer to my own peaceful one.

All you have to do is a little bit of searching and you come across countless stories about the discrimination and abuse prominent women in tech (employees, business owners, CEOs, commentators and journalists, to name a few) are facing today. And none have faced more vicious, demoralising, and outright terrifying abuse than those in the gaming industry.

Brianna Wu, a game developer who runs independent game dev studio Giant Spacekat, recently wrote this article about her terrifying experiences with the hate group GamerGate. She literally risks her life on a daily basis because she wants to make video games and have a voice in the industry.

Anita Sarkeesian, the woman behind an online video series about women’s depiction in video games called Tropes vs Women in Video Games recently spoke at a conference for International Women’s Day in Sydney. In her talk, she told attendees exactly what she’s been wanting to say, both to the legion of GamerGate participants who have made her life hell for the past three years, and to women who, like her, feel gagged by the fear of what speaking out will bring down on their heads.

And Zoë Quinn, another game developer—one with whom it’s said the whole GamerGate crapstorm began—was doxed and had to leave her home in order to avoid attack; she is still one of the primary targets of the group. As far as being the ignition point for GamerGate, I’d personally argue the hate was well and truly already there, it was simply given a name—that automatically became a lightning rod for douchebags and militant men’s rights activists—in connection with the controversy over a vindictive blog post by her ex-boyfriend.

You can Google GamerGate for yourself. I’m not going to rehash it here. What I am more concerned about as a woman is what would happen if I chose to go back to my former career now. I once pursued employment at a game company, and was warned by a female colleague that I’d hate the atmosphere at the company I was in talks with. Though it was not that warning that ultimately made up my mind not to pursue that particular opportunity, if I heard the same words today, maybe it would be. Could I put myself in the line of fire to pursue a career path I loved? Would I have the strength to endure what these women and countless others have endured? And what about my daughter? She could become a target just because nothing is off-limits to these self-professed scourges of the gaming industry.

I want to say yes, I could be strong enough to fight the good fight, because I believe so wholeheartedly in what these women are doing, and how important this fight is. But in reality, I can’t be sure. And neither can any of the young women who love games and tech enough to consider spending their lives and careers shaping them.

I’m not sure if my own happy experiences were due to luck, or the fact that I was never seen as a scary agent of change, or simply because people don’t care about who makes their browsers as much as they do about who makes their games—after all, browsers don’t ship with built-in guns, chainmail bikinis, or murder/rape fantasies. Maybe my whole experience would have been different if I’d been put in a situation where I had to stand up or speak out for my sex. What would I have said? Who would have hated me for saying it?

But the question I think is most important of all is this: what will I say to my intelligent, sensitive daughter if one day she comes to me and says she wants to make video games?

Actually, I’d tell her to do it. Because fuck them.

But it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be terrified for her, and that’s what makes this whole thing so messed up. All I can do is hope that by the time she’s old enough to choose a career, the women I admire in the industry today will be Tech’s answer to Rosa Parks.

Please don’t give up your seats, sisters. Keep them warm for tomorrow’s bright stars.

Featured photo credit: 2014-11-11 17.33.11 via photopin (license)