SXSW: Harassment is ‘a thing that happens’ in the game business

March 13, 2015 | 5:06 p.m.

THE PLAYER

AUSTIN, Texas — At the South by Southwest games festival on Friday, three renowned industry artists and designers spoke about the challenges of working in games, specifically relating to the experience of being a woman in a male-dominated field.

There were universal stresses. One spoke of the horror of bombing an interview. Another compared getting artists to work together as herding cats. Then Alison Carrier, a designer for Electronic Arts-owned mobile studio Red Crow Austin, brought up some less embarrassing and less humorous stories.

She wanted to discuss two challenges.

A panel at SXSW spoke to issues concerning women in games. From left, Susan Bollinger, Lorraine Zawada, Alison Carrier and Maitland Lederer. (Todd Martens)

A panel at SXSW spoke to issues concerning women in games. From left, Susan Bollinger, Lorraine Zawada, Alison Carrier and Maitland Lederer. (Todd Martens)

“The first one is how volatile the industry is,” she said on the afternoon panel. “I’ve had two studios shut down within three years. I’ve had to relocate to different states to stay in gaming.… Knowing that’s around the corner at any time is a hard thing to deal with.”

And the second?

“The other challenge is sexual harassment,” she said. “It’s a thing. It’s a thing that happens. It’s a dark, dark little corner of the gaming industry, but I’ve personally had it happen and I know other women who had it happen and haven’t been able to talk about it. It is probably one of the biggest challenges to have to overcome.”

Harassment of female game creators and writers has come to the fore in 2014 and 2015. At this SXSW, for instance, the documentary  “GTFO” will premiere. The film, via interviews with game developers and critics, charts the history of harassment in the field.

Moderator Susan Bollinger, who works in human resources at developer Certain Affinity, asked the panelists why they would stay in the game industry when faced with such potential hardships.

“Oh my God, we make video games,” said Maitland Lederer, a software engineer at Arkane Studios. “That sounds like, really, whatever, but it’s true. At the end of the day you get to make this thing that’s really cool and you’re proud of it. And if you’re not proud of it, you’re proud of the thing you’ve done on it.”

Getting there isn’t always easy.

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Bollinger tried to get panelists to specifically state how their careers differ from those of their male counterparts. “Shorter lines to the bathroom,” joked Lederer, who also had more somber thoughts.

“I have definitely seen the thing where a woman says something in a meeting and everyone ignores it and then a guy repeats it and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s such a good idea. Why hasn’t anyone said that?’ That sort of thing does happen,” she said. “I’ve seen other women I work with taken less seriously.”

Carrier went one step further.

“I’ve really had to change my ‘soft’ skills over the years,” she said. “As a female, I would have to discover someone’s communication style and then make sure that I could match that or overcome it. There are a lot of big dog, Capt. Kirk-type personalities that say, ‘This is the way it has to be done and I don’t believe anyone else.’ I’ve had to go from being kind of quiet and demure about it to being way more assertive.”

Lederer said that quiet people will generally have a tough time in the game industry. “Big personalities do a lot better in this industry,” she said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, but it will help you get ahead.”

“I had to abandon manners,” Carrier said.

“Interrupting people was something I never did before the video game industry,” she said. “In meetings, if I want my voice to be heard, I have to start … being louder than the other person in the room and enunciate. That was something I had to learn. I don’t know if that would necessarily happen if I was male. All the males in the room, being the only female in the room, had their turn to talk.”

Yet no one on the panel said they would consider leaving video games. In fact, all three women being interviewed left other careers for the game industry. Carrier, for instance, started in advertising, while Lederer was a defense contractor before she worked for the telecom industry.

When an audience member brought up “gamergate,” a 2014 movement that saw a number of female developers and writers harassed online, asking how women wouldn’t be turned off from ever working in games because of it, moderator Bollinger took over. She said it was important to distinguish that gamergate happened largely outside of the industry on social media.

“While women in game development do have some challenges,” she said, “they’re sort of typical of women in any male-dominated industry, and it’s not specific to gaming the challenges that are inside of game dev. It’s a little different than what’s going on on the Internet with the public situation. There’s that reason to not be frightened away.”

Lederer sought to put a positive spin on gamergate.

“One of the positive side-effects of gamergate is that now we have all this attention to it, and we have networks for women to go to. We have a lot more people to talk to,” she said. “It was always there. Harassment isn’t new. It was just sort of under the surface. Now we can see it and people believe us.”

“Make sure you love video games,” Carrier said. “If you don’t, this job will burn you out and it will kill you in your soul. You have to love video games. You have to really want it. You need to want to spend your waking hours and beyond with this product.”

She added that the positives will outweigh the negatives.

“Don’t let anyone kill the fire inside of you,” she said. “If you have that, find the tenacity to keep going at it.”

– Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

We’re at South by Southwest until March 22. Join us at latimes.com/sxsw for ongoing coverage of the festival.

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