For those of you who aren’t familiar with Asoka Tano, she’s a character on the animated Star Wars series, the Clone Wars. She has an interesting history both in and outside the show. Without spoiling anything, Ahsoka Tano’s story arc parallels exactly what women in games face when they start the industry.
Ahsoka has a lot to learn. She’s a youngling that just “graduated” and needs a Jedi Master to become his Palawan. Through her debut into the show, her recklessness and new ideas are at odds with Anakin and Obi Wan. Over the episode, they realize that without her—they never would have saved the day. Throughout the series, Ahsoka proves to those around her and the she is more than capable of protecting herself and saving the galaxy.
Just like Ahsoka, throughout their careers, women in games have to prove themselves at every level. Whether they’re at the same company and want a promotion, or moving to another studio, it almost doesn’t matter what we’ve worked on, or what skills we can bring to the table. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’ve come from “marketing” or “comp sci,” people don’t see your skills. They see that you’re wearing a suit jacket.
Men in games don’t need to wear suits. Women don’t either.
But I guarantee you that if I had showed up to my interview in a t-shirt and jeans, I’m not sure I would’ve been hired.
My first interview was actually in an email. The game director of a small company loved an academic paper I had between Foucault and fandom for games. (I have a habit of mentioning Foucault to anyone who’ll listen.) He asked if I wanted an internship. I said “sure,” and started that June.
At the time I was struggling with deep depression. I had just finished a student project where one of my classmates was not-so-subtle about doubting my talent. As a level designer, as a game designer, as a “person” in games—because I loved story, I was less suited for “real” game design.
When Ahsoka first started in the series, fans hated her. I didn’t know this since I came in so late, but apparently she wasn’t considered a “real Jedi” or a “real character.” Even the fans mirrored what Anakin did in that episode. Asoka wasn’t ready to be a Jedi. She wasn’t supposed to be there.
Ahsoka set out to prove him wrong. And in game design, so did I.
I tried to prove myself worthy by doing anything considered “gamey.” Systems balance, resources, live game operations, anything that wasn’t story, I did somewhat out of spite. Just so I could say that I was worth it as a “real game dev.” Whatever the hell that meant. But turns out, I was meant to be here….but not for the reasons I thought.
When I left the internship, I left a small story about the world behind me. A coworker found it and reached out me about it. Sure enough, they loved it. At GDC, I met dozens of narrative designers and systems programmers all saying exactly what I had believed but was too afraid to say.
Game design was about systems and story.
That guy in grad school was just trying to put me down. He didn’t want me in games. He saw me as a threat. Now, I’m proud that I was one.
In my experience, at first, people brush us aside. They say “no one cares about [the thing we’re good at].” It’s a way of acknowledging us without having to do anything about it. Worse, they ignore us in meetings or restate our ideas as their own. But over time, the ones closest to us, the ones that work side by side with us, see our value. They rely on us. They realize how we’ve been ignored or passed over. Over time, the “new way” becomes the “old way” and that old way was ours.
Not because we are women, but because we are game designers.
When I first joined the industry, I didn’t want to be known for my gender. I wanted to be known for my work. But now, after being in the industry, I realize the most important thing is to make yourself known. Not to people in power, but to the people whom power belongs.
We aren’t always wanted. Sometimes we’re wanted for the wrong reasons. But women are not a poster child of diversity. We are beacons of hope. We are beautiful, and we can kick your ass, playing a game or making one. And it’s completely okay to own that.