What Happens to Women in the Game Industry

In light of the reports of sexual assault from game developers Nathalie Lawhead, Zoë Quinn, and Adelaide Gardner at the hands of male industry legends this week, I felt like I needed to make this post. I’m not going to be the first or the last person writing about this topic. But their stories and their bravery in sharing them despite risk to their careers should be spread as widely as possible. I have been very interested in being one of the women in the game industry for years, as you can probably tell by some of my other posts (here, here, and here). Yet the fear of what goes on there kept me from making a serious effort to break in.

Nathalie Lawhead was the first to release her story. She published a long account on her personal blog that included screenshots from emails as evidence. The extremely abusive treatment (unpaid labor, gaslighting, extreme crunch, humiliation) she experienced at the hands of Vancouver based game company combined with the sexual assault and harassment from Skyrim composer Jeremy Soule (who used his connections to make her experience at the company as horrible as possible) had me reeling. I can hardly begin to imagine the pain and suffering Nathalie went through. The way she described it made my entire body ache with compassion.

Nathalie Lawhead is the creator of Tetrageddon games

It is not news for those who pay attention that the game industry is toxic. There is a movement for game developers to unionize because of game corporation’s frequent layoffs, tendency to underpay, and mistreatment of workers. Game journalists publish accounts detailing how many companies resort to long periods of crunch to complete a project. During crunch, companies expect developers to pull all-nighters, skip meals, and generally work till they drop. There are no tangible statistics that I know of tracking how many game developers literally drop from burn out. But, if they exist, I am certain they are extremely disturbing trends.

The thing is, women and men share the burden of overwork in the game industry. It is a horrible standard, but there is an even uglier side that women experience. Riot Games has been under fire for years for its sexist culture. There have been abhorrent reports of sexual harassment, almost farcical in their extremity. “One woman saw an e-mail thread about what it would be like to ‘penetrate her,’ in which a colleague added that she’d be a good target to sleep with and not call again. Another said a colleague once informed her, apparently as a compliment, that she was on a list getting passed around by senior leaders detailing who they’d sleep with. “

Riot is the company behind the mega successful massively multiplayer game League of Legends

Game companies like Riot have been getting away with this disturbing bro culture for years because of their extremely popular game League of Legends. Riot and many other AAA companies also has raving fans known to pile on to anyone who criticizes the company or their game. Plenty of game developers have lived in fear of these fans. This is because they often aggressively demand changes to the game whenever it doesn’t fit with their expectations. This leads to women in the game industry to live in fear of speaking up about sexism. Angry fans have gone so far as to release developers personal information, or engage in prolonged online harassment of their targets.

Then you have the game industry legends. Criticizing a game company can bring down the wrath of hundreds of fans. Criticizing a legend can be even more dangerous. These are the darlings of the industry, deeply respected with more connections than most game developers can dream of. They have the power to make or break the career of an up and coming developer. It’s no wonder that Lawhead lived in fear for years of speaking up about what happened. She knew how immense the backlash could be. Even though she has won many awards for her fantastic work, as a woman and an indie dev she knew her name did not carry the same weight as that of Jeremy Soule.

Jeremy Soule also did the music for Oblivion and Morrowind.

The closest I ever got to working for a game company was when I went to a a IGDA talk. The CEO discussed his game and said he was searching for more developers. I spoke with him and told him about my Unity experience. He invited me to come to another event a week later. It was at that other event that I witnessed him blatantly touch another woman’s chest under the guise that he saw a hair there. I remember the shock and sinking feeling in my chest when this happened. It occurred to me that this was likely going to be the behavior I would witness (and maybe have done to me) on a regular basis if I worked for him. I had witnessed sexism in tech many times. Yet this was on another level from what I had seen previously, and crossed the line into sexual harassment.

You might be wondering what I’m trying to get at in this piece. I guess it’s nothing that hasn’t been said before, but until I see change I feel like it will just have to keep being said. Over and over and over again. No aspect of how women are treated in the game industry is OK. What happened to me is a pale ghost in comparison to what happened to women like Nathalie, Zoë, and Adelaide. Yet I have seen and read enough to believe that what they say is true. My heart goes out to all of them, and to all of the other women in the game industry who have experienced sexual abuse in the game industry. More of them are coming out of the woodwork with their stories even as I write this. None of them deserve to suffer like this.

If you agree with what I’ve written here, consider following me on twitter @nadyaprimak. I post updates about my blog, coding projects, and creative work. I also write a fair amount about the tech and game industries. If you’re interested in delving deeper into what its like specifically for women in gaming, I recommend checking out this book.

Dealing with Work Transitions in Tech

My life has been full of work transitions lately, which has caused me to spend quite some time thinking about them. About a month ago the company I was working at was acquired. A few weeks prior to that I had a recruiter reach out to me about an exciting opportunity and I decided to bite, just to see what would happen. After the acquisition I received a job offer and decided to accept, partially because of the acquisition at my current company and partially for other reasons. If you read my last post, If Da Vinci Lived in the 21st Century, you will also know that I just returned from Italy so there is also the transition back to American life.

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about my life story, but I do think that dealing with transitions in life helps to deal with transitions at work. Let me explain a little bit. I was born to immigrant parents and moved around a fair amount growing up, from Ohio to Washington and Minnesota. Honestly, it was miserable. Every time I moved I was devastated all over again. I knew I would have to make new friends and adjust to a new school as well as kiss my old friends goodbye. I always preferred to have an intimate friend group over a large numer of acquaintances, which didn’t make moving any easier.

Everything about this picture is a lie. Nobody smiles when they are moving. You are stressed, sweaty, and it sucks.

Not until adulthood did I feel like there were any benefits from an ever-changing tumultous childhood. The biggest benefit is that I’m not nearly as afraid of change as I used to be. Considering the era we live in, where the gig economy rules, my lack of fear about applying, interviewing, and jumping ship to new companies, dealing with work transitions is kind of like my boring superpower. It also prevented me from being lulled into a false sense of security. In tech, as in a number of other industries, acquisitions, mergers, and other forms of change cane come suddenly and unexpectedly.

To be honest, the acqusition of the company that I will shortly be leaving is not the first acquistion I have experienced. There was another acquisition a few years ago that was even more jarring. At that time, the startup I worked at was acquired by a direct competitior. That meant the vast majority of employees were let go the same day of the announcement, turning the office into a ghost town. That experience taught me a lot about working in corporate America.

It’s not only big players like Amazon and Facebook that acquire companies, in fact it happens to all sorts of tech companies.

Some of those lessons were harsh, but I don’t regret learning them. One lesson was that you always have to look out for yourself. No matter how guilty you might feel about leaving a company (I, for one, always feel guilty) if it’s not working out for you, you should plan your getaway. Another lesson was that you should always be learning and growing, even if your job feels comfortable. That doesn’t mean that you should be working till 2 am on coding challenges. Just that there should always be something that you are learning. If you’re learning new things at your job, thats perfect. If not, you may want to dedicate an hour or two a week to experiment with some new tools. Or if that sounds too boring, join a group and learn with friends!

There is one more lesson I want to share. Unfortunately, I did not immediately take it to heart. Basically, the lesson was to always run TO something, not AWAY from. Early in my career I moved to a new city and found myself bored out of my mind. I became rather desperate to get out of there. I accepted the job despite seeing quite a few warning signs. Those signs included the company insisting on doing 6 interviews with me, one of the project managers asking me if I was okay with workplace stress and long hours, and a number of other things. Instead of running for the hills screaming, I accepted the offer and ended up leaving after just 6 months.

It’s cheesy but its good advice

I don’t blame myself too much for this mistake, and nobody should. We all make mistakes in life as we do in our careers. It was a valuable lesson, and now if I’m not truly excited about a job I do not make the jump. If you are dealing with a difficult transition right now, remember that it is temporary. You will get through it. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I was very afraid in my first job. If I didn’t ask questions though, I don’t think I would have learned very much. If change is something that scares you, try taking baby steps first. Do something new on the weekend, go somewhere you’ve never been before. You might even find it thrilling!

I hope that my thoughts and personal experience help to shed some light on going through transitions at work. Nobody likes change, but without it life would be an absolute bore.

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door”.

If Da Vinci Lived in the 21st Century

Apologies for the delayed post this week. I am in Italy on vacation and so getting the time to post has been less than easy. The first leg of the trip in Rome there was simply too much to see and do. Thankfully, now that we are taking it easy, I have time to sit down and write this. Everyone was telling my husband and I not to go to Rome in August because it is particularly hot, but the plus side is that all the hotels are extra cheap and there are less tourists than usual. One of the things that fascinated me the most in Rome was seeing a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit near our hotel at Piazza Poppollo.

The da Vinci exhibit got me thinking about a lot of things. I actually picked up a biography about the man which I am still reading through today, and it is immensely fascinating. However, I didn’t need a book about his life to identify da Vinci as a multi-passionate individual, so it was easy for me to understand his interest in many different fields, from science to nature to art. The Ted Talk by Emilie Wapnick (I also linked to it in a previous post) described Leonardo da Vinci perfectly. He kept over seven thousand notes in his journals, jotting down everything from to-do lists to random observations to inventions to drawings of everyday life. If da Vinci got bored with one research project, he switched to another with equal fervor. The man also became fascinated with the most random things, such as the tongue of a woodpecker. This led to many perceiving him as weird.

A photo from the Leonardo da Vinci museum in Rome This picture includes real miniature models of his inventions built with wood.

Society recognizes da Vinci as a genius with insatiable curiousity and incredible talent. The sheer amount of inventions and artworks featured in the exhibit blew me away. Yet a thought kept nagging at the corner of my mind. The more I read about the man, the more I wondered. If da Vinci had been born in the 21st century, would we still regard him as a genius? Would globalization and the internet be a hindrance or a help? Would the world even know his name?

I believe that if da Vinci was born in the 21st century, nobody would have ever known of his genius. While the internet may at first seem a boon to a man like da Vinci, it is also a rabbit hole for endless distraction. We know from descriptions written about him by friends that da Vinci was a distractable man. The man had many inventions tossed aside, such as scuba diving gear that was never usable by an actual diver. Luckily for him, this didn’t mater because there was plenty of other things for da Vinci to learn and discover. There was no need to spend a decade deep diving into a subject like specialists do today. That is because 500 years ago most subjects didn’t have much material to learn yet. After all, fields like medicine, natural science, and psychology were just being defined at that time.

Another image from the exhibit.

There is another reason I believe society would not recognize da Vinci as a genius in the modern day. That is marketing. Combining globalization with the internet means we have a world where everyone is competing for attention. I doubt marketing would have appealed to him. I definetely can’t imagine him devoting time to analzying Google’s search algorithm. Not when there are so many other interesting things to learn and discover. People learn marketing because they want to be seen and discovered. Yet da Vinci was only discovered because he was commissioned by wealthy patrons to make art and invent devices. Because of the money he earned, he could afford to pursue his curiosities. This was mentioned several times in the exhibit. This is what he really wanted.

Obviously there is no way to prove to you for sure if da Vinci would be recognized by society as a genius in the 21st century. The broader point I wanted to make is how much more difficult it is today as a multi passionate individual. Every field today has specialities with sub specialties on top of them, and most of them takes years to master. The only way to master multiple specialties is to become a workaholic, such as Musk who famously stated he works 120 hours a week. That is not sustainable, or healthy. Ultimately, being born as a multi-passionate individual in the 21st century can feel like being dealt a tough hand.

Even the famous Last Supper began disintegrating quickly because da Vinci used an unverified experimental technique.

Still, I like to think we can take some solace in the fact that, even someone as brilliant as da Vinci might have been overlooked in todays information overloaded world. At least for me, when I am feeling insecure, I find it a comforting and reassuring thought.

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door”.

Recovering From Creative Burnout

It might surprise some people reading this, because I’ve been publishing these blog posts every week for a month or two now, but I have been recovering from creative burnout for quite some time. Part of this is because of my last game development experience I wrote about in my last post, Navigating Your First Game Development Contract. Part of it is because it’s difficult in the saturated social media world to receive feedback for your creative endeavors. Yet another part is our human tendency to compare our work to other creatives who might be more successful than ourselves.

None of the reasons listed above are more valid or more justifiable than others. The worst thing you can do for yourself when you are recovering from creative burnout, is to beat yourself about it. Not only will that fail to get you out of a slump, it will actually make you feel significantly worse and may even lead to depression. In fact, it might seem illogical but the first thing I recommend doing is accepting that it is okay to be in a slump. We are all human beings, and human beings are not perfect. Therefore, you can not expect yourself to go through life never experiencing any creative slumps. They happen to many of us, and we can overcome them.

One of the first things I noticed about my slump was that starting a new project felt like a completely overwhelming task. My energy reserves felt depleted, probably because I used most of them up on my last project. As creative people we are using our right brain constantly and it can get worn out, like a muscle. This is especially true if you just finished tackling a large project. So, have a little sympathy for yourself. I’ve found that when I’m feeling down it helps a lot to practice loving kindness meditation. It may seem like a small step, but it’s important to gain some of that confidence back. Believe you are worth comfort and respect. That starts with loving yourself!

What can you do once you are feeling a little bit better? I suggest starting with small things. Projects that you can share with friends and loved ones to gain back a bit of that validation and start feeling good about yourself again. If you’re a painter, that might mean making miniature landscape paintings on tiny canvases. If you’re a musician, maybe you remix an old track or hit up an old friend for a collaboration. Writer? Maybe you write some flash fiction. Game developer? You might look up game jams on itch.io that have strict limitations on time and complexity.

This self care wheel includes lots of ways to practice loving kindness towards yourself.

The point is to take baby steps toward getting back into your full creative practice. Have patience with yourself. It might require a number of small projects, and you might even have to revisit the first step of practicing loving kindness and compassion for yourself if one of these small projects doesn’t work out the way you hoped or you feel some resistance. If you are burnt out, you should focus on having compassion for yourself and practicing loving kindness.

It is likely that if these small projects feel exhausting or give you no sense of accomplishment, then you experiencing severe creative burnout That doesn’t mean you are broken. It just means you need to give yourself a little bit more time recovering. Focus on rest and relaxation before picking up your creative practice again. Don’t force yourself to work on something creative if it doesn’t give you any sense of joy or excitement.

Another important thing: whether you are burnt out or just in a slump, reduce your time on social media. This goes especially in terms of following successful creatives. Even if think we are just admiring another creatives work, subconsciously we still compare ourselves and feeling worse. If you know you have that kind of masochistic streak, you can temporarily delete some of the social media off your phone. That way you don’t end up mindlessly browsing and feeling worse without even realizing it.

The “do everything” mindset is what often leads to burnout. That is why baby steps are so essential.

Finally, remind yourself that motivation is good, but it doesn’t necessarily come before action. In fact, more often than not, motivation and action are closely linked, and action actually comes first. With the case of creative projects, oftentimes we begin making something, then we become more motivated by our progress, and the cycle repeats itself. So don’t be surprised if your first small project feels a little bit tedious at first, that is normal!

There is a ton more I could say on this subject. Recovering from creative burnout ties into our general mental health and there are tons of discussions around that topic online. However I want to provide practical advice so you can get started quickly. Feel free to comment where you are at in your slump recovery journey, and I will try to offer my best advice. You can also tweet at me @nadyaprimak. Good luck with your recovery journey!

Pitfalls in Working with a Game Publisher

There are thousands of indie game developers all over the world who make games. But, only a fraction of those developers have any experience working with a game publisher. I was one of those developers when I saw an opportunity to work for a start up that published educational games. I submitted my game portfolio to the company and was accepted shortly after. It was a super exciting moment. I couldn’t wait to start working with a game publisher on a legitimate platform.

Unfortunately, my experience working with the company was less than ideal. Perhaps there were some warnings early on, but I did not know what signs to look for. Also, the company seemed eager to share information with me about how to complete the project successfully. They set up a video call with me and e-mailed me the PowerPoint that illustrated the requirements needed. They immediately gave me access to the platform where other developers submitted their games so I could get some inspiration for what game I should make.

I immediately noticed many of the games submitted through the platform were very simple. This made sense, because there was a requirement to complete the game in three months. Still, I felt pretty confident I could make a game that was more interesting. There was a clear incentive for making the games more engaging. Developers were paid by the percentage of users who play their game.

What I didn’t realize, and what wasn’t made clear to me, is that the game I built had to work seamlessly on an internet browser on older iPads. This was the reason that the games I saw on the education platform were so basic. Unfortunately, during my on-boarding the technical aspects of just how simple my game needed to be were not discussed. I had no idea that I could not have a three dimensional game where you could move a character around an environment with arrow keys because the iPads running Chrome could not handle rendering at that frame rate.

It can be difficult to export a game to an iPad or the web by itself, but both at the same time? VERY DIFFICULT

It was a huge blow to my motivation and excitement about game development when the testers reviewed my game. They said that it was unplayable on the required platforms. It was also a shock because I had been using the testing platform provided by the company many times. Before I submitted the game I played through it on the testing platform religiously. It seemed very counter-intuitive for the company to provide a testing framework if “passing” the test didn’t actually mean it would run on the final system.

I attempted to re-factor my game by reducing the complexity. For starters, compressing the graphics and simplifying the 3D models in the environment. After another round of testing I realized that there was no way my game would work within a web browser on an iPad without making huge changes. I had only a few weeks left at this point.

Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t create a build of the game and run it on an iPad myself. The problem was that the game had to connect to the companies proprietary API’s, and those API’s were only designed to run on the companies domain where the testing platform was. To make matters worse, their API also didn’t run on an iPad — only a computer.

A brief video preview of my game, Grand Canyon Adventure.

In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the company was trying to take advantage of eager indie developers. The kind who are too new to know how to distinguish a sketchy arrangement from a legitimate one. I was one of those developers, who trusted that the information I needed to succeed would be provided to me. Maybe it was disorganization and mismanagement on the part of the company that made the technical requirements unclear. Regardless, the result was the same.

I wanted to share this story because I’m sure there are other indie developers out there looking for contracts to prove their capacity and get their work seen by more people. It’s an admirable goal, and far be it from me to discourage any indies from doing that. However, its important to be aware that many companies take advantage of indies eagerness to get professional experience. I wish I had done more research and asked more questions before diving into making the game. Hopefully this post will help those of you reading to be aware of some of the pitfalls. Especially in cases where you are working with a publisher that has very specific rules about the types of games that they accept.

It was not a lack of motivation or excitement about making the game on my part. I read through the rules, visited the forums, and took time to explore the platform the company used. Sadly, I had pretty much completed the game before I learned it would not be publishable on the platform..

Spending three months on a game that ended up not returning any profit is bad enough. Whats worse is the bad taste is still there an entire year later. I can only imagine how much worse it would have been if I signed a contract for a year. I know this has happened to other developers. It is my sincere belief that the industry needs to do a whole lot better. Especially in terms of making the technical limitations transparent, without taking advantage of indie developers passion.

My itch.io page for Grand Canyon Adventure

Even though my game didn’t get accepted while working with the game publisher, I decided to publish my game publicly on itch.io instead. After all, it is a shame to work on something and have it sit unseen on my hard drive. It’s an educational game for middle school students where you navigate a boat through the rapids of the grand canyon. You earn points by collecting gems and answering questions about erosion.

Are you an indie developer? Have you had any bad experiences working with a game publisher, on educational games or otherwise? I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for reading and feel free to follow me on Twitter @nadyaprimak where I talk more about game development, art, technology, and more.