As PAX East 2015 came to a close, men, women and everyone in between crowded into a panel room for the convention’s annual “Why It’s STILL Awesome Being a Female in the Gaming Industry” discussion, which was appropriately held on International Women’s Day. Joining host Johnathan Gibbs (Founder, Edugaytion), Tatjana Vejnovic (Operations Manager, The Koailition), Sarah LeBoeuf (News Reporter, The Escapist), Dianna Lora (Associate Producer, Voltage Inc.), Karen Rivera (Writer, Freelancer) and Maylene Garcia (Senior Producer, Nickelodeon) returned to the topic for the second time and spoke broadly about their experiences as women in the gaming industry, particularly in a post-GamerGate community.
Gibbs dove right into the meat of the topic, stating, “2014 was, without a doubt, reason enough for us to continue this discussion. From a certain event to other things and everything in between, we witnessed moments that made us cringe and scream, but we applauded people who stood on the right side of history.”
When asked what they’d been up to over the past year, Vejnovic took the mic first. “I’ve been trying to travel and spread the positive vibes because, like Johnathan said, there’s been a lot of negativity over this last year. It’s been rough. Actually, I’m choking up even thinking about it. It’s almost embarrassing; a lot of us are almost ashamed to call ourselves gamers because of what’s happened. We shouldn’t be. We are gamers, we are one and we should not be ashamed. We should be here together, we should be positive, love one another… we should move on from this and continue to grow.”
“One of the reasons why it’s important for us to have this panel — and we mentioned this last year — is to empower everybody to let you know you are not alone,” Lora added. “It doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, anything… We are all here together. It’s to show we’re all here to support each other.”
“The best thing that I’ve learned in this year has to be that I’m not alone in the industry,” Rivera contributed. “There were a lot of setbacks for a lot of people in the industry. When you take time to kind of assess how the situation is going, having people that you can talk to has been an immense, valuable and super-important resource. I mean, I am really humbled and proud to call all the ladies on this panel my friends, because they are amazing, wonderful talented women, and being up here with them again is an immense joy.”
Garcia joined in, “I walked away from the first panel and feel like I took more from the audience than I gave, because everybody was so unique and open and great. Besides working, I spent the year taking classes, learning a lot about mentorship and networking and what it really takes to be a good leader. Anyone can kind of be a manager or a boss, but the sign of a good leader is a strong team and, since I’m in that position, I feel like I not only want to be able to leave my team in a positive way but I want to make a good, lasting impression on other female leaders in the industry, so I’ve taken a lot of time to invest in that and just learn as much as I can.”
Gibbs tore off the conversational band-aid, asking about the difficulties the women faced within the gaming industry and community, both over the past year and in general. LeBoeuf responded without missing a beat. “If you want to be in any kind of male-dominated industry, the competition is so fierce. It’s such a hustle to break in, and that’s true for men or women. The thing about being a woman on top of that in a male-dominated industry is, you have to do this constant struggle while dealing with the daily bullshit that is being a woman in a male-dominated space. There are going to be days where you’re like, ‘Why am I even bothering? I’m working so hard, and people are going to tell me that they don’t want me here.’ Fuck ’em! Do not listen!”
“This is what I want to do. I fucking love video games!” Lora said, emphatically. “Don’t tell me that I’m not going to make it, because I work too hard — I work too, too hard — to get to where I am right now. I mean, we all do. If you’re passionate about it and you really love it and you really want to do it, who gives a shit about whatever anyone else is telling you? I think that’s the mentality that I’ve taken.”
To prove her point, she continued, “My company makes visual novels for the female gaming community. One of the things that we always had, was, ‘You are the main female character, and you have to pick a boyfriend.’ There’s this girl named Lauren [at Voltage] who really pushed for an LGBT relationship for this new game that we just released called ‘Queen’s Gambit.’ It’s the first time ever in that company that the female main character gets to romance another female character, which I think is absolutely amazing to do in a conservative comics community. I think it’s important for us, if you’re working in the industry, to really try to make changes. Change comes from within, and you have to be loud.”
“It is about the passion,” Vejnovic agreed. “It is about the love and, for me, I used to be a very negative person. When I would get knocked down, I would think that was it. Susan Ardent [Managing Editor at Joystiq] told me, ‘You’re life may suck sometimes, and you’re going to have to deal with it.’ And she was right! It’s the passion that you put into the work that you do that will get you through it. Yes, 2014 sucked for this industry, [but]… we’re gamers, and we’re above that. We game because that’s who we are.”
She also had some advice about enacting change within the industry: “If you have an idea, write a letter. Get your friends to write letters too. Let’s talk about ‘Mass Effect 3’ for a second. They all wrote letters. They started a Facebook group. They changed that ending. If you guys think you don’t have a voice, you’re wrong. If you want to see change, get your friends together, write a letter, make your voice heard and do it. If you’re passionate about it, you can make a difference.”
Switching tracks, Gibbs asked the panelists about their positive experiences, to which Garcia admitted, “I think that question is a really personal one, because I’m sure there’s a lot of women in the industry right now who don’t think it’s awesome and really can’t find a reason for it to be. This past year was my opportunity for growth. Although it’s an uphill battle and it’s a constant fight, I know that all women walking behind me and alongside me and even ahead of me will benefit from every rock I kick and every person I push to get things to be more equal. The person I’m looking at mostly is my daughter. I have a 6-year-old daughter who puts on a fashion show and fights zombies in the same breath. That’s who I’m fighting for: my zombie fighting fashionista.”
LeBoeuf gestured at the audience in order to answer the question. “This! I have made some of my best friends in this industry. For a long time, I worked in an office that was mostly male, and I was in a place I didn’t grow up in, so I didn’t have a lot of longtime friends and I didn’t have a lot of female friends with me. But now I come here, and this is where all my lady friends are. They’re all in this industry. My life would be so different if I didn’t have amazing women who know more about this industry than me, leading me through it. I just hope that I can equally inspire someone else someday.”
“As much as possible, we want to be able to help the people as we move forward,” Lora agreed. “At the end of the day, that’s what matters. As we all move up, I’m going to reach back. That’s the most important thing.”
“In the industry, it’s about what you know, but it’s also about who you know,” Gibbs pitched in.
“That’s another reason it’s really important for us to stick together,” LeBoeuf agreed. “The truth of it is, a lot of networking events are at bars. They’re put together by men for other men. They can be sleazy, there can be an element of being hit on, or worse. I’ve heard horror stories that happen at industry parties and networking events. You need to be careful and you need your ladies with you to go through it with you. Networking can be so much more challenging as a woman in a male-dominated space.”
When asked how leaders can become those beacons for guidance, Rivera answered, “Honestly, a lot of it comes through being vocal and being active. Being up here is just one part of it. Being consistently positive and open and reaching out to anyone who needs a helping hand is probably the most important and I know a lot of us had that over the past few months. I know I’ve reached out to my friends a lot in the past few months, just for help, just for guidance, and also just kind of bullshit like, ‘Man, that sucks.’ Just being able to tell someone that and have them say, ‘It’s okay.'”
“You really have to take whatever knowledge you get, whatever love you have and share it, because there’s always someone who needs it and will benefit from it,” Garcia agreed.
“The industry is a lot smaller than you think it is,” Vejnovic explained. “It’s a very family-like industry. Don’t be afraid to stick your hand out and go, ‘Hey, I need some help, can you help me?’ If you try and do it by yourself, I promise you’re going to keep falling and scraping your knees over and over again. We’re here. Really. Pick a person and just say, ‘Hey.'”
While responding, Lora choked up a little. “I went to this really awesome panel at GDC [Game Developers Conference] called ‘Turning the Tide,’ and the general idea was how to bring more diversity to the gaming community. There’s these amazing women up on stage who each have 20-25 years of experience, and they are there. They live it, they know it. It was so empowering to see these powerful women, these strong women up on stage saying, ‘Do not give up.'”
LeBoeuf took a more general approach. “Even if you don’t have your aspiration to be in gaming, it doesn’t matter. In every aspect of your life, don’t let anyone tell you you don’t belong there because of your gender or any other reason. Something I’ve started doing a lot in the past couple of years is, when people use lazy gender stereotypes, I call them out on it. They’re usually not trying to be mean. Don’t let anyone make you think you’re not behaving the right way because you don’t conform to a boring gender stereotype.”
“All of us up here have super diverse interests,” Rivera explained. “At the end of the day, having a little bit of respect and appreciation for where people are from and taking that time. You always have to remember to give people space to understand they might just not be there quite yet. We might not always be at the same level of knowledge and understanding but, if you’re open and you keep trying to remember that and teach people, then eventually the world will become a better place.”
Turning to the crowd, the panelists took a few questions from their diligent audience. When asked what moment made them feel were truly in the industry, LeBoeuf responded first. “My first E3. It was life goal of mine since I was 12 years old. When they closed it to the public and made it press only, I thought, ‘Well, that’s it. I’m never going to get to go to E3.’ I finally made it for the first time in 2009, and every year since. I work my ass off until I drop. It is the work I am most proud of.”
“I was going to say the same thing,” Vejnovic said with a laugh. “I was standing next to Susan [Ardent], Matt Shaw from BioWare, and there was one other person and we all exchanged cards and I stood there like, ‘What’s happening?!'”
“We did a video last year for Pixilitis having indie elevator pitches in 30 seconds or less,” Rivera answered. “A community manager from Capcom tweeted it out and was like, ‘You guys did a really, really good job. We need to see more of this in the industry.’ It was just really fun to actually have people give you feedback and recognize that you’re putting effort out there.”
Garcia added, “That moment for me was literally when I went to go interview to be an associate producer at Nickelodeon. I didn’t have the job yet, but I walked in there with my mind right and wanting it. I walked in there and I was like, ‘I can see myself here’ and that was 7 years ago.”
After another audience asked about moments of everyday joy and everyday acceptance on the job, Lora said, “Our office is so diverse. We are LGBT friendly, we have so many women who work in that one office, and our CFO is a female developer who has been working in the business for years. She owns the company. Her face is on the brochure. She’s always supportive and my company is absolutely fantastic. We are able to take an afternoon off and go to the LGBT panel at GDC. Every single day is a positive thing.”
“For Valentine’s Day, I did an article about my video game crushes and it was a mix of both males and females,” Vejnovic added. “My staff was like, ‘I’m really glad that you as a female bisexual did this list because you genuinely have an appreciation for both genders, whereas, if a heterosexual male or female, did this list it would be heavy one sided.”
When asked about harassment in the workplace, LeBoeuf answered, “In my experience, most of the men in the industry are great. They’re supportive. There are just a few assholes that stick out so much more because they’re such assholes. I have not been harassed at work; I have been harassed on the Internet, at cons, in non-geek related spaces.”
“Definitely not in the office,” Garcia agreed. “They’re really awesome. The only place I’ve ever really experienced harassment has been online. Internet gangsters. They don’t have to be present to be accountable for the things they say or the people that they hurt. That’s where they find their strength.”
“When my Al Jazeera piece went up, I didn’t even know it had already been published until I saw a Twitter mention. It happens. Internet trolls,” Rivera added.
“You are never going to agree with everyone all the time on anything, and you should have an open mind but don’t let anyone else tell you what you’re feeling is wrong,” LeBoeuf insisted. “Don’t let anyone say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be offended by this.’ Well, fuck you! They’re not calling you a slut on the internet a hundred times a day!”
When asked how to spread positive gaming experiences over negative ones, Garcia said, “I think it’s overall more exposure. For some reason, people like to focus on the bad instead of acknowledging the good. You just hear the GamerGates. You don’t hear about the community doing well, you hear about the crime rates. It’s just really about exposure and opening that message up to everyone.”
“I think you do have a sort of responsibility, if you’re a person of privilege, to use that privilege and success for something positive,” LeBoeuf agreed. “I went to a Women in Comics panel at New York Comic Con last year, and Kelly Sue DeConnick of Marvel was asked the same question about comic books and she said, ‘I’m sorry, you fight because you have to. Because we need you.’ And that is what I say to all the women. That has resonated with me so much. There are times where I just want to delete my Twitter and drop the whole thing, but I fight because I have to. Because other people need to.”
The final question tackled how gaming positively influenced the panelists’ personal lives, to which LeBoeuf said, “The thing about gaming is that it’s about a series of accomplishments. It just makes me feel really good to be in a game and just completing goals. It just puts me in a really inspired mindset.”
“I did not have the voice to speak for myself,” Vejnovic explained. “‘Mass Effect’ legitimately gave me the linguistic skills to speak for myself in both a positive and uplifting manner. When I withdraw myself, I put myself in Shepherd’s shoes, read these dialogue things over and over again and go, ‘I can apply this in real life.’ Now I can be that Paragon person that uplifts someone or I can be the Renegade bitch.”
Rivera: “One of the biggest things for me is seeing other people who deal with that struggle and see games that deal with those things is absolutely amazing. I’ve been telling everyone to go play the DrinkBox game ‘Severed.’ It spoke to me on so many levels just because it was influenced by Latin culture. It made me feel more at home sometimes. It’s so cool to see other people experiencing what I’m experiencing with different ways of showing that. Games do that.”
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