Talking About Women's Issues In Gaming Still Taboo, Developer Says

Aug 23, 2015
Originally published on November 2, 2015 4:11 pm

This time last year, what became known as #Gamergate rocked the Internet and the world of video games.

The stated purpose of the hashtag movement, according to those who supported it, was that it was about corruption and ethical malfeasance in video game journalism, but the debate — played out largely on Twitter, Reddit and other discussion websites — highlighted rampant sexism and harassment in video game culture.

The online firestorm has simmered down somewhat, but many women in the industry still feel it's hard to speak up about these issues.

Laralyn McWilliams started in game development in the mid-'90s. Since then, she has worked many of different roles, but primarily in design. She was the lead designer on games like Full Spectrum Warrior and the creative director for the massively multiplayer online game Free Realms for Sony Online Entertainment. Now, she's the chief creative officer at The Workshop, a game studio based in Los Angeles.

McWilliams says that she hasn't experienced much overt sexism in her career, but just more of what she calls "casual exclusion."

"For most of my career it was things like having meetings with the publisher, when the publisher came from out of town, at strip clubs," McWilliams tells NPR's Tess Vigeland. "Most of the time I just wasn't invited even though I was in a leadership role."

Issues cropped up in meetings where she was included, too. One began with one man telling her, "I hope this goes better than the last time we had a woman at the producer's meeting." She says the statement didn't bother her at the time — but she later realized how such words might affect women just getting started in the business.

In June, McWilliams wrote about the changes she's seen in herself, the video game industry and the role of women in it over the course of her career.


Interview Highlights

On why now, after nearly 20 years in the industry, she's speaking out about these issues

In 2012, I was diagnosed with stage-IV cancer in my tonsil. Going through that experience really changes the way you look at the world. ... It corresponded with a time when I was starting to hear women [in gaming] ... talking about the things happening to them. And after cancer I just felt like, "I can't hear this and not say something." So honestly it's been out of a sense of love for what I do and knowledge that the more different people work on a game development team, the more our games and teams really grow and can create more and more interesting and dynamic games. And that's ultimately what it's all about.

On why it is so hard to even have a conversation about the issues of women in gaming

I would say the conversation right now is almost impossible. It's considered off topic, it's considered political, it's considered identity politics — even when you're trying to talk about something that literally just happened to you. So that makes it difficult.

And then it is compounded by the fact that I think there's almost nothing you can that's not going to make someone feel attacked and make somebody feel angry at you. I have friends who won't speak about it, regardless of their experience, whether it's been good or bad, because of the environment right now. And I think that that's what we need to get past, because as long as we can't talk about it, it means we can't do anything about it. We're just paralyzed.

On why the video game industry, in particular, is having such difficulty with the issue

Tech itself is male-oriented; software is even more male-oriented than that. And because games for many years have mostly made games for men, it's even more male-oriented than the rest of them. So it's sort of this more condensed version of all of the problems in tech.

And I think that because games are one of the lower-paying areas of tech ... compared to non-game related [software] jobs, and because of that the barriers to entry for women have just made women think it's just maybe not worth the extra effort to make less, work more hours, have to move all of the time and put up with all of this crap. I think that has led to a lot of homogeneity in game development that makes it even harder for it to break out of a lot of the issues. ...

There is a tendency in tech, and in games in particular, that if you are a woman who talks about the issues facing women in games, that becomes what defines you. You become "the woman who talks about being a woman." When honestly ... it largely continues to feel like my gender should be irrelevant.

And even that's something that I wrestle with — because I realized maybe it's not that I always wanted my gender to be irrelevant, but more that I felt like the way that would make things the easiest for me was if I made my gender irrelevant.

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Conversations around #Gamergate online have highlighted rampant and violent misogyny and harassment in videogame culture - not just in the games themselves, but in the people who make them and buy them. The online firestorm has simmered down, but many women in the industry say it's still hard to speak up about these issues.

LARALYN MCWILLIAMS: I'm Laralyn McWilliams, and I started in game development in the mid-90s. I've worked in a lot of different roles, but primarily in design.

VIGELAND: McWilliams has worked as lead designer on games like "Full Spectrum Warrior." Now, she's the chief creative officer at The Workshop, a game studio based in LA. She says she hasn't experienced much overt sexism in her career, just more of what she calls casual exclusion.

MCWILLIAMS: For most of my career, it was things like having meetings with the publisher when the publisher came in from out of town at strip clubs. Most of the time, I just wasn't invited, even though I was in a leadership role. Sometimes there was this awkward do-we-tell-her-or-not conversation around it. I remember once - this was just actually five or six years ago. I had been a producer before at other companies, but moving into a producer role for the first time at the company I was working for at the time. And at the first producers' meeting, literally the first thing that somebody said to me was, I hope this goes better than the last time we had a woman at the producers' meeting. So it's been minor for me, you know, in comparison to what I know other women sometimes go through.

VIGELAND: Yeah.

MCWILLIAMS: But on the other hand, I also know that there are lots of women who have gone through their entire game career really and not had anything overtly sexist happen to them at all.

VIGELAND: You maybe don't have the horror stories, but you did start speaking out about what other women in the industry face online. What prompted you to do so now?

MCWILLIAMS: So in 2012, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer in my tonsil. And going through that experience really changes the way you look at the world, I think, for some people. It corresponded with a time when I was starting to hear women talk about the things happening to them. And after cancer, I just felt like I can't hear this and not say something. So honestly, it's been out of a sense of love for what I do and knowledge that the more different people work on a game development team, the more our games and teams really grow and can create more and more interesting and dynamic games. And that's ultimately what it's all about.

VIGELAND: Why do you think it's so hard to talk about these issues? Why is it so hard to simply have a conversation within your industry?

MCWILLIAMS: I would say the conversation right now is almost impossible. It's considered off-topic. It's considered political. It's considered, you know, identity politics, even when you're trying to talk about something that literally just happened to you. So that makes it difficult. And it's compounded by the fact that I think there's almost nothing you can say that's not going to make somebody feel attacked and make somebody feel angry at you. I have friends who won't speak about it regardless of their experience, whether it's been good or bad because of the environment right now. And I think that that's what we need to get past because as long as we can't talk about it, it means we can't do anything about it.

VIGELAND: Why is it that this industry in particular is having such a tough time finding an answer to what you have just talked about?

MCWILLIAMS: Tech itself is male oriented. Software is even more male oriented than that. And because games, for many years, have mostly made games for men, it's even more male oriented than the rest of them. So it's sort of this condensed version of all the problems in tech. And I think that because games are one of the lower-paying areas of tech - I mean, it still pays very well - but compared to non-game-related jobs - because of that, I think the barriers to entry for women have just made women think it's maybe not worth the extra effort to make less, work more hours, have to move all the time and put up with all this crap.

VIGELAND: Have you thought even about what kind of reaction you might face just having done this interview?

MCWILLIAMS: Oh, yeah, for sure. Before I did this interview, I talked to four different friends to ask their opinion on whether I should do it. And, you know, it's for a lot of reasons. Part of it's because I'm not super outgoing. It's also, though, because there is a tendency in tech and in games in particular that if you are a woman who talks about the issues facing women in games, that becomes what defines you. You become the woman who talks about being a woman. When honestly, for the most of my career and to me, it largely continues to feel like my gender should be irrelevant. And even that's something that I wrestle with because I realized maybe it's not that I always wanted my gender to be irrelevant, but more that I felt like the way that would make things the easiest for me is if I made my gender irrelevant.

VIGELAND: That's Laralyn McWilliams, a 20-year veteran of the videogame industry. Laralyn, thank you for talking with us and best of luck.

MCWILLIAMS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.