In 2011, independent game developer Brianna Wu faced one of the most terrifying moments in her career that had nothing to do with Gamergate harassment. Her lead animator, Amanda Warner, had just told her that she was pregnant.
Wu, the outspoken founder of indie-game development studio Giant Spacekat was then working on Revolution 60. It was to be the company’s very first game, slated to be released in 2013. Warner was her best employee – they had founded the company together – and this was crunch time. How would they make it?
But when Warner had first sat Wu down to break the news to her, Wu had already braced herself for the worst: was she moving? Quitting? Found a new job? A pregnancy was going to be tough, Wu thought, but they could work with it. They had to. Wu decided to bet the future of the company on it.
There are tons of room for women-led game development, Wu told me. "Even as recently as five years ago, women were only 17 percent of the games market," said Wu. "Today we are 49.6 percent of the games market. That’s a really big disconnect in the people who are making games and the people who are consuming games. With a majority-female team, there’s room for that kind of culture and life experience to inform the game, to make it something that appeals to women in a way that games made by men for women can’t."
Leading an all-female team was not part of Wu’s original plan, but that composition has become Giant Spacekat’s opportunity to stand out from a male-dominated market. "I never set out to make a majority-female company, but I found that the friendships I was making and the people I wanted to work with to make the kind of games I was passionate about – games that were heavy in narrative – were women. Women were honestly the most qualified people I could find to do these jobs."
Research shows that women do do things differently. Dawn Bonfield, a materials engineer and president of the UK-based Women’s Engineering Society, explained to me that most women see themselves through their personalities, rather than through what they do.
"Women often want to see the broader context of what they are doing," Bonfield added. "When asked to wire up a circuit to get a light bulb to come on, girls are far more likely to be motivated to do it if they know that the light bulb is helping a deaf person realise that somebody is ringing the doorbell, rather than just for the sake of getting the bulb to come on."
Simple differences, but these can make all the difference. I asked Wu how her all-women team has been changing the game. "If you look at the characters in Revolution 60, they’re gorgeous," she said. "But look at the way we animate the camera in that game. The camera never lingers on a character’s boobs or butt. It’s always pointed at their face. We’re very careful to portray them as women and people first."
Including women in at least 50 percent of the playtesters – a closer reflection of the game consumer demographic – also revealed important lessons that would ultimately impact the final design of Revolution 60. "When we got men to playtest the game’s combat engine, we would get comments like: "The combat is too slow!" or "I want to be able to attack quicker!" Men would sit down and hammer the iPad like that trying to destroy everything," said Wu.
"But when we brought women into the studio to playtest, we found that women appreciated the more rhythm-based, timing-based combat. They didn’t want to attack constantly. They wanted to attack at the right moment. What we kind of did was we split the difference there."
"I think if Giant Spacekat had not been a company led by women, we wouldn’t have been so careful and so respectful to go get so many female playtesters," said Wu. "We didn’t just assume that the men were correct; we really listened to everyone."
Not enough women in tech and games? The solution is simple, she says. "One of the problems in tech is that it’s so male-dominated that men tend to look for mirrors of themselves to fill these positions," said Wu. "I think the way to solve the problems in tech is basically: Hire more women."
"WOMEN ARE SO HISTORICALLY
DISCRIMINATED AGAINST IN THE
GAMES INDUSTRY THAT I DO THINK
THERE IS SPACE FOR A
demographic of women-led companies that are doing things differently. Between 1997 and 2014, the number of women-owned businesses in the United States rose 68 percent, twice the growth rate for men. Male-dominated business environments have long overlooked the needs of female employees, but with the rise of women entrepreneurs across the board, many women in other sectors are now step- ping in themselves to directly meet those needs.
"This data holds true for other countries as well to some extent," explained Felena Hanson, founder of HeraHub, a fast-expanding business that provides a coworking space focused on female entrepreneurs and professionals. "In the US, some are predicting that up to 60 percent of the knowledge-based workforce will be independent by 2020. People are working in a more independent way."
And increasingly, many of these independent workers will be women. "Women want more work-life balance," said Hanson. "They want to be able to spend more time with family and have the flexibility to work from 10pm to midnight because they want to pick up their kid after school and take them to soccer practice."
Like Giant Spacekat, HeraHub was born out of a need. When Hanson, a tech startup employee for nine years, left the scene to run her own consulting business and started looking around for a suitable coworking space, she realized that most spaces were skewed towards a younger male demographic. She felt like an outsider. "At the time, I was in my late 30s and I wasn’t at the point of my life when I wanted to hang out with 20-year-old guys who were playing beer pong in the corner," said Hanson. "It’s a great environment but it just wasn’t right for me." She sensed an opportunity and set out to fill in the hole in the market.
HeraHub, though not exclusive to women, is notable for its spa-inspired aesthetic, with running water, candles and live plants. The company invests a lot of time and effort in building up a supportive community of like-minded and aspirational women at its coworking space. "When women are in an environment where they feel safe and supported, they operate differently," said Hanson. "They ask more questions. They ask for more help because they feel like nobody is going to say: well, you should know that. Starting a business is difficult. You have to be relatively vulnerable and open to ask the tough questions."
As Giant Spacekat works to expand on the venture capital circuit, Wu is experiencing exactly the sort of challenge Hanson describes. "Networking is difficult," she said. "I find myself being excluded from a lot of social circles. If you’re a dude on the VC circuit, it’s a relatively comfortable space for you. But for me there’re so many problems and challenges we have and there’s no one to kind of look to or talk to for advice. We’re forced to solve them ourselves. It is immensely challenging."
THE MOST OVERLOOKED REALITY
OF A WOMAN'S WORKING LIFE
But, she says, it is motherhood that is currently one of the most overlooked realities of a woman’s working life.
"When we talk about the harassment of women in tech or sexism in tech, I think we talk about sexual harassment of 20-something women a lot," said Wu, who had been forced to flee her home last year after receiving multiple rape and death threats at the height of Gamergate aggression. "But I see a complete absence of talking about how mothers are discriminated against in the games industry. The games industry is so dominated by crunch and overloaded work schedules that...I think it goes unnoticed by a lot of men here...that after women have kids, they generally leave game development. Because the environment is just not conducive to that. In a very male-dominated video game environment, these issues just don’t come up."
At HeraHub, too, Hanson noticed that many women were leaving their corporate jobs once they had a child. As a result, the coworking space caters to many working mothers by providing lactation rooms so that those who are still breastfeeding can have a private space to pump their milk. "And because it’s a female-focused environment, they feel comfortable putting their breast milk in the refrigerator without bagging it up and making it secretive," laughed Hanson. "I mean, can you imagine a woman breastfeeding in a gaming, technology environment with a bunch of guys? I just can’t even imagine what would happen."
Overall, women are more likely to leave their full-time jobs in male-dominated sectors following maternity leave. Bonfield believes this is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to increase the number of British women engineers above the abysmal figure of 7 percent. The materials engineer still remembers how she herself went from being a high flyer in an engineering company to somebody languishing in a dead-end role simply because she didn’t go back full-time after having a child.
"They were just not set up for part-time working and my career really suffered," Bonfield recalled. "I put it down to poor management and an uninformed manager rather than a company policy, but the effect was the same. I left the sector, and have never returned. This is common for a lot of women who would otherwise now be in senior roles."
"I LEFT THE SECTOR
AND NEVER RETURNED.
THIS IS COMMON FOR A LOT OF
WOMEN WHO WOULD OTHERWISE
NOW BE IN SENIOR ROLES."
"I feel like we’re charting new waters, to say: look, guys, women are 50 percent of the consumers. We need to be closer to being 50 percent of the developers. And for us to become 50 percent of the developers, we need to change the culture of development a bit. And I think Giant Spacekat is a very bold experiment in creating an environment that is comfortable to women."
Wu, who is now in her mid-30s, struggled mightily with the question of having children. "When you see a mother with kids, doesn’t a part of your heart just tug?" she asked me. "In a way that feels like it’s been hardwired into your brain? Do you feel that too? It is so emotional. Sometimes I hang out with Amanda and her daughter and it makes me feel like I’m missing an important adventure. So that’s what that’s about. It’s about that longing inside of me."
"I think that’s something a lot of women struggle with at my age. Those are the questions after your 20’s: What is my life about? What is important to me? Where am I going? The answer I have personally come to is that I want to be a kind of figurehead for women in tech. And kind of fighting some of these battles for the long-term good of women in this field. I feel that that’s a very respectable life mission for me."
At this point, I suggest to Wu that she is, in fact, a sort of mother figure for women in the tech industry. "To a degree, I think I am," said Wu after a moment’s pause. "I guess I’ve never thought about that but it’s probably true."
But not one to be easily daunted, Wu set out to make it work. She talked to female friends who had had experience managing and working with pregnant employees. "What they told me constantly was: communication is key, setting expectations is key, giving her space is key," she said. "So every single week I would go talk to Amanda and I would say: 'What are your goals for this week? What are you feeling? What is reasonable to expect of you this week?'"
"It was that constant communication that led us to work out something that was fair to everyone involved," said Wu. "I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you that her productivity didn’t suffer. It did. But in the long run, I’ve gotten a very loyal and particularly skilled employee who’s much happier with her life. She loves being a mom."
After her birth, Warner’s daughter Emma became a common sight at Giant Spacekat. "At first, having a meeting with a kid around felt strange – largely because it’s not really done in professional circles," said Wu. "But I quickly got used to it and realized it’s not a big deal. I realized that respecting Amanda meant Amanda’s child. Work should never ask a parent to choose between their job and their child."
WORK SHOULD NEVER
ASK PARENTS TO CHOOSE BETWEEN
THEIR JOB OR THEIR CHILD.
And the Giant Spacekat family is growing. Natalie O’Brien was six months pregnant when she was hired. “I wasn’t even going to send over my resume,” the company's administrator, told me over email. “But Bri and Amanda didn’t blink an eye. They interviewed and hired me knowing my situation, and have been extremely supportive over the first month of my employment.”
"I think we’ve got to have more honest conversations like that," said Wu. "Something that I prize very much at Giant Spacekat is that we really do have a very open culture. There’ve been days when Amanda’s been up all night with her child and I’ve been like: just take the day off."
"I think there’s this kind of competitiveness in American corporate culture where you kind of keep all this stuff hidden. It’s time to have honest conversations about it."