Women Working In Games: Game Girl Advance’s Jane Pinckard Talks Lara Croft, Male vs. Female Gamers

Yesterday, I posted an interview I did with Morgan Webb, co-host of G4’s “X-Play,” about being a highly visible woman working in the games industry.

Webb’s interview is part of Multiplayer’s special week-long series called “Women Working in Games.” A few weeks ago, I decided to speak to a few prominent women in gaming to find out about their personal experiences working in the male-dominated field.

Aside from Webb, another woman that I really wanted to talk to for my set of interviews was Jane Pinckard of Game Girl Advance. For years, Pinckard has written and talked about gender and games, and she recently wrote what I thought was a passionate and thought-provoking entry about all the attention surrounding “Assassin’s Creed” producer Jade Raymond. In it, she captures the anger, frustration, sadness and ambivalence that I — and perhaps other people — have felt about gender issues in gaming, which seems to have come to a head once again.

On November 29, I called Pinckard while she was at the Montreal International Game Summit to talk about gender in the gaming space. Here’s a tidbit from our conversation, where she mentions the sexualized Jade Raymond comic when we talk about the kind of comments women can get:

Pinckard: The whole Jade Raymond comic thing to me… it’s a super big deal, and it’s terrible. And if you are a woman, let alone Jade — that comic affected me as a woman. I saw that, and I was like this is an attack on me and on you and on all of us. And the thing is the guys just didn’t get it. They were like, “What? It’s the Internet. Don’t take it so seriously” and that kind of thing. … some people really didn’t get it.

Read on for more of Pinckard’s thoughts on Lara Croft, Ubisoft and what women can do to thrive and survive in the video games industry…

Jane Pinckard didn’t intend to go into video game journalism. But in 2002, the now 34 year-old started her gaming blog mainly because she wasn’t finding anything she wanted to read about games. “The reason my blog is named ’Game Girl Advance’ is because I was really into the Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance,” Pinckard told me. “I loved that thing, and I carried it everywhere with me. But I was like, ’Why does it have to be Game Boy Advance? Why do they assume that it’s going to be for a boy?’ And that really annoyed me. I said to myself, ’They should call it Game Girl Advance,’ and I was like ’That’s a great name for a blog!'”

From there, she began writing for magazines like GamePro and Xbox Nation, and worked at Ziff Davis and the CMP Game Group. She’s currently freelancing and writing posts on Game Girl Advance, though she’s about to start a job in business development for a video game studio (she declined to name the company at the time).

Multiplayer: Throughout your work, do you think that being a woman has posed any challenges to you that you don’t think men would have faced?

Pinckard: Yeah, I have to say it’s challenges and opportunities, to be frank. Because — and I’ve written a little bit about this before — if you’re a woman in a male-dominated field, you’re naturally going to stand out. And that’s good and bad. It’s good, because people remember you, and you’re noticeable. And when you go to a conference of 3,000 people, and there’s only 50 women, you’re one of them. And they’re like “Oh, you’re the girl.” And it’s bad, because they say “Oh, you’re the girl,” and they tend to not know anything else about you except that you are the girl. And that can be challenging to overcome, because there’s this perception that if you are “the girl” then you must speak for all women. And so they’re going to ask you like, “Well, I want to design a game for women. So we’re asking you, one woman, what should we do?” [Laughs] And that’s ridiculous.

There’s also sometimes a perception that you got to where you are because you are a woman. And that can be a bit tough, too. And then there’s just the challenge of working in a male-dominated field, where you’re just working with a bunch of boys. And I’m sure you’ve maybe experienced this too, where there’s a huge gender imbalance in the workplace. And there are some serious things about sexual harassment and stuff like that that do happen. I personally have not experienced that, but there’s just moments where you’re like, “God, you guys are just a bunch of boys. Grow up!”

I think my favorite type of workplace is the gender-balanced workplace. I don’t know exactly, but I think there have been studies that show that those tend to be more productive and more progressive and all that good stuff. So I think one of either gender’s too much. And then there’s some more serious things too, like I’ve been called lots of names. When I write about controversial things on my blog I’ve been accused of setting feminism back ten years. I’m like “Wha?” [Laughs] Just things like that. I think that’s also just the nature of the Internet. The Internet is full of people who like to proclaim these kinds of things about other people without knowing you at all.

Multiplayer: Some people would argue that guys who write for Kotaku get the same amount of flack. Do you feel that you get a little bit more because you’re a woman games blogger?

Pinckard: The feminism thing, well that hurt, because I’m a feminist — come on now, people! But I think they get the same amount of flack, like you read their comments and they’re like “Brian Crecente, you idiot!” But I think that women are subject to sometimes a different quality of comments…

Multiplayer: That are more appearance-based?

Pinckard: Yeah, and more sexualized comments as well. The whole Jade Raymond comic thing to me… it’s a super big deal, and it’s terrible. And if you are a woman, let alone Jade — that comic affected me as a woman. I saw that, and I was like this is an attack on me and on you and on all of us. And the thing is the guys just didn’t get it. They were like, “What? It’s the Internet. Don’t take it so seriously” and that kind of thing.

Multiplayer: Yeah, I read some comments that said, “Oh if were her, I’d be flattered.” How is that flattering in any way?

Pinckard: Yeah, some people really didn’t get it. … I think a lot of men don’t get it. I interviewed recently at another game development job, which was all guys. And they were great guys, and they really wanted women on the core design team and all that good stuff, but there were still some things about their attitude where they would joke about like ,”Oh yeah, we’re like an HR disaster waiting to happen!” And I’m like, “I get you guys, but if you really want to hire more women you’ve got to straighten up.” You can’t run it like a club house. Women just don’t feel safe and comfortable in that kind of environment. And so I think the industry needs to do a lot more to — and maybe it’s just maturing and growing up a little and not allowing these kinds of dorm room attitudes to pervade. Because frankly I don’t think women are going to stick around for that kind of stuff.

Multiplayer: Right. Though I do feel like a lot of women who work in a male-dominated workplace can and do have a certain sense of humor, but then sometimes it can go too far. And some guys aren’t really sensitive to that. So where do you draw the line? Because you still want to have people be themselves and be able to joke around but not step over that line…

Pinckard: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. That’s a huge challenge, because a lot of the game industry — the reason it’s fun is because there’s a certain looseness in the attitude. And that’s not like the financial world, and it’s not like working at IBM. And if it were, it would be a lot less fun and not as interesting and creative. And I think that’s true anytime you get a bunch of creatives together. Creatives tend to be a little bit more like loose cannons maybe than other types. And that’s all good but at the same time, yeah, you’re right, you have to foster this sense of deep respect for your colleagues, including your female colleagues. And everyone has to have that. Everyone has to internalize that. And once that’s there I think there’s more room for jokes. And I certainly know women who make lots of jokes, including sexual jokes, off-color jokes, whatever, and it’s all within this context where they feel safe, and it’s okay. But then when you don’t have that context, then you’re not going to feel safe, and you’re not going to want to participate.

Multiplayer: When you mentioned you were going for different jobs, and they told you they wanted women on their core team, did you feel weird when they said that to you?

Pinckard: A tiny bit, but they were also very clear about why they wanted women. So I think it’s all about motivation. Like do they want me because they want a Jade Raymond effect? Do they want a pretty spokesperson? Or do they want me because they realize that they want to design a game that also appeals to women so they need to hire more women? If being a woman is the only qualifying metric that they use, then that’s stupid. They’re not going to get anywhere, and I hope that people don’t hire that way, because that’s ultimately setting women up for more failure. You hired an incompetent but pretty person as a producer, but she can’t do her job because she’s not trained for it, and then she enforces the stereotype that women can’t do their jobs.

But I believe in affirmative action. I think that there is an inherent value to diversity on teams, and I would also like to see more game developers hire more African-Americans, for example. Like I can think of maybe like three African-American developers off the top of my head. And that’s kind of criminal considering how many African-Americans play games, especially sports games, which are hugely popular. It seems weird to me. Like why wouldn’t you want to do that? Why wouldn’t you say that diversity is important on your team? And being a woman is part of that, but yeah, it has to do with the motivation, and if they are also looking for other qualities other than just the color of your skin or what gender you are.

Multiplayer: But what about in the case of Jade Raymond? She was certainly qualified but was also considered a pretty spokesperson for her game. Could she have done anything?

Pinckard: I don’t know that she could have done anything, actually. She is genetically, accidentally blessed with a combination of smarts and ambition and looks that our culture happens to find attractive, and that’s not her fault. I think that she’s always been charismatic, and even more than just being physically attractive, she can convey a passion for the game. She comes off very well on camera. She’s very likable. She has what a friend of mine calls the “Julia Roberts effect,” where it makes people like her. She’s a little bit goofy, and she seems like a real human. And I think that is supremely valuable, because, as an industry, don’t we want more people to understand that games aren’t freaky, violent products? But that they can be made by someone as articulate, and as attractive, as Jade is?

She went on this French language program — I forget what the name of the program is — but she was the first game designer to go on this French language program, and all these parents saw it, and they were calling up their kids saying like, “Oh, I saw this very nice young woman talking about games, and I don’t think games are so bad anymore.” So I think it has a really positive effect. And I think we do need more charismatic spokespeople, wherever they come from. And in her case, yeah, she has a real background in programming. She’s done tons of stuff before. And then she got picked up by G4, and of course she’s not going to turn that down because it’s a chance to be a game developer and to talk about games. What game developer wouldn’t want that? What game developer’s going to turn that down, a chance for them to explain why games are cool to a wider audience?

And then I think, I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I think Ubisoft noticed the amount of press that she was getting, and they did what most companies would do, which is they exploited that. I like Ubisoft and all, but they don’t care about Jade as much as they care about their bottom dollar, and they’re going to do what they think works. And if the GameTrailers interviews that have Jade on them get like 20 times the hits as any other product that they put out, what are they going to do? They’re going to put her in front of the camera. I think they created a lot of resentment though, both internally and maybe externally. I think a lot of men were resentful of her stature, and maybe some of them thought she didn’t deserve it, and they deserved it more or whatever. It’s difficult. It’s complicated.

Multiplayer: And what do you think about the gaming press and gamers’ reactions to her?

Pinckard: Well, to be honest, I’ve sort of avoided the worst reactions, just because I don’t want to be upset. It astonished me actually that I read a lot of feedback or heard a lot of people saying, “I’ve never heard of Jade until this,” or “I had no idea that she was anything before she was a G4 host.” And so that kind of astonished me a little, because if you just do a little Google searching you’ll see her list of credits, bios and stuff. So number one was that people didn’t really seem to know who she was or really know her background, and they just accepted her on the surface as this spokesperson, which disappointed me.

And number two, this sort of attitude of that’s just how fame is. Like, “Oh well! That’s what happens when you get famous. Too bad!” And they weren’t quite saying it’s her fault. Some of them did, but they were sort of veering in that direction. And I do agree that the celebrity culture is supremely f–ked up. Like I feel sorry for Lindsay Lohan. Really I do. How can you have a normal life when you have to live in front of the cameras like that? But I also think that that doesn’t make it right.

Multiplayer: But I think that kind of attention is new on the game development side. No one has really gotten that kind of Lindsay Lohan treatment before.

Pinckard: Yeah, you’re right. Exactly. The closest people that we can think of that have that are like Will Wright and Shigeru Miyamoto. But those guys have been around for a while.

Multiplayer: And no one’s talking about what they wear or how they look.

Pinckard: Yeah, completely. And the thing is, those dudes who are like, “It’s not a big deal. I’d be flattered if it happened to me,” or whatever, it’s like, really would you? If you were depicted giving a f–king blowjob to these gamer geeks, you would think that’s flattering? They would go ballistic. And they don’t even think about that. It’s really difficult for them to consider.

Multiplayer: Do you think that game companies are responsible for the images of their employees, particularly in the case of Ubisoft and Jade Raymond?

Well, I know in my post I kind of called out Ubisoft because I do think they’ve, in this case, sort of pushed her beyond what was proportionally appropriate. Usually the creative directors are the ones who get pushed out. You think of Harvey Smith with “BlackSite: Area 51.” Usually it’s that role that gets the promotion, and in this case it’s the producer. And although the producers often go on PR stuff, and I’ve talked to a lot of producers about their games, they’re not usually the lead spokesperson. So I think in this case that’s what the gamers saw as inauthentic. Gamers are really smart like that. They can really sniff out these PR things. So a lot of the comments were along the lines of, “She’s just a producer. She had no creative input.” Which isn’t strictly true. It depends on the company. Sometimes producers have a lot of creative input. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. According to the way the rest of the industry works, that’s pretty much true. I think in that sense maybe Ubisoft is in some way responsible for pushing her beyond what they would normally have done. And I think that was the source of a lot of jealousy.

Multiplayer: Why do you think gamers and the gaming press focus on women the way they do?

Pinckard: You know, I think that’s just the nature of who we are as human society. That’s why there is this celebrity culture and why we revere attractive people, and then also can’t wait to tear them down. [Laughs] I think it’s a confluence of factors. It’s the fact that Jade is attractive to the gaming press, of course you’re going to write about her. And once that happens Ubisoft is going to push her more because they realize she gets press and then she’s going to continue to do it because it’s her job, and as a producer what do you want? You want to sell copies of your game and make sure the game is successful. You do that by going out and doing interviews, representing your game. You know, you can’t fault any of them really for doing their jobs. …

I mean, I think it’s tough. Because if you’re an attractive woman in the industry, there’s a fine line between promotion that’s going to enhance your brand and be good for you and make you into a celebrity, and there is a strength in being a celebrity, right? There is definitely a strength to Jade now that she’s famous and she can go where she wants and she has more clout to do what she wants and to have more control over what she works on, and that’s all really good. On the other hand, where is the line? Obviously for Jade, she was offended that somebody would think that she would even do a Maxim cover or strip, and I think some women would. … So where is that line? I don’t know.

Multiplayer: Do you think that the image of female video game characters, like Lara Croft for example, affect how women are viewed?

Pinckard: That’s a neat question. Well, I think the image of female game characters is not unique to games. I think you see it in comic books and the sort of pulp fiction and stuff like that. So I think it just comes from a tradition of that kind of stuff. And I think it is changing, like it has changed in comics. It used to be in the ’60s and ’70s, female characters were all sort of drawn in a certain way, and now you have the rise of indie comics with very unusual female characters. And I do think that is happening with games, as well.

The Lara Croft thing is a tough one, because there’s this woman that I met at Stanford Law who was a gamer, and she loved Lara Croft, and she had Lara Croft as her desktop wallpaper, and then she was told by people at her work that that was considered sexual harassment and she had to take it down. And she was like, “But she’s my hero!” [Laughs] You know? She took it down. What could she do? But she was like, it’s kind of tragic that one woman’s hero becomes another woman’s — I don’t know — unpleasant reminder of the sexualized nature of the avatars.

So I think for me Lara Croft, the design of her was not as offensive as the way that she was marketed. And I separate those two. I think when Toby [Gard] designed Lara Croft, he did design her to be this basically over-the-top superhero. And then when marketing got a hold of her, they had her pose topless with Duke Nukem’s hands on her boobs, and they had her do these stupid pictorials. And Toby, the creator was like, “Lara Croft, my character, would never do those. She is a classy, strong woman.” He felt like he had lost control over how she was depicted and presented. And of course she’s virtual; she can’t say no. They can make her do whatever they want. Which is another interesting form of manipulation. Because at least Jade can say no.

Multiplayer: On one hand, people notice Lara Croft for her proportions, but at the same time, people love and respect those games because she’s a strong female protagonist. And it is sort of the same thing with comics, too. Wonder Woman is known for strutting around in almost no clothes, but at the same time her character is strong-willed. So I think being a powerful woman who’s sexy isn’t necessarily a bad thing…

Pinckard: I think you totally hit the nail on the head. It’s about how the character behaves. I think that’s more important. So when a character is made to appear nude in Playboy pictorials… First of all, come on, people. It’s a f–king digital character. You really need to see her boobs? Draw some boobs and look at that instead. And I wonder if there were ever female gamers who felt betrayed by that. Like, “Oh my God, my icon… I can’t believe she would do that.” I do think that right now for me a more important point is the lack of any female models at all in some games. And I think that games are getting away from this, but remember the first “Fable“? I was so pissed that you couldn’t play as a female. And I was just like, come on. Would it really have been that hard to have a female skin, you know?

Multiplayer: I totally agree. Like in “Crackdown.” I love that game, but why can’t I just be a woman? Why can’t I be a genetically enhanced female agent running around the city? [Here’s why.]

Yeah, totally. And even with “Halo.” I remember playing co-op, we used to play multiplayer all the time and it was me, my sister and my friends Jason and Jolene. It was boys and girls, and it was like, “How come there’s no females?” So instead we’d color our suits pink and red and orange and these more feminine colors, because that was all we had to distinguish. When I’m running around on the multiplayer map, I want people to know that it’s me, and I want people to know that I’m Jane and I’m a girl and I’m going to try to frag you! Although I’m really bad at those games. But I think that’s a problem.

Multiplayer: Some women argue, “There’s no difference. I like ’Halo’ just like anyone else. End of story.” And then others obviously think that there’s enough of a difference to where they are part of female gamer clans and stuff. Do you think there’s a fundamental difference between male and female gamers?

Pinckard: I think there are differences between men and women, period, and that probably extends to gamers. But just because a difference exists, though, it doesn’t mean that men and women can’t enjoy the same games. And I think that’s clear. I mean, “Halo” is a great example, because it does have crossover appeal in a lot of ways. And my sister, who isn’t really a gamer, she just buys maybe two games every six months and then plays those or just comes over to my house to play “Halo.” She really only plays “Halo” pretty much these days. But “Halo” is a sort of an intuitive FPS console game. It’s somewhat accessible, so I think that it can appeal to men and women.

I also think that there’s lots of evidence that women do really like and excel at hardcore PVP or “Quake Wars” type of games as well. But I would say those women are the exception. Demographically speaking, they are the exception. That’s not to invalidate their choices, but it’s to say that they’re already kind of a self-selecting and special group. And not all women are like that obviously, for a variety of reasons.

So I think it’s important to have a diversity in the media that we offer to people. Because people have different tastes, and it’s true that women don’t tend to enjoy games like “Quake.” I mean, I don’t. I can play them, and I used to like them, and I wonder too if it has to do with getting older. Like I used to love competitive games a lot, when I was in my twenties, you know, and I loved shooting at people and that adrenaline rush. And now I find that that’s not as satisfying to me, for whatever reason. Maybe I’m looking for different experiences, and I think at the conference, at the last couple of days, a lot of people touched on this idea that we, as gamers, are getting older. We’re having children. We’re married. We have these deep social relationships. We want something more from our games than what we used to want when we were younger, when we used to be satisfied with power fantasies and these very simple sort of epic experiences. And now we’re saying, “What’s the next level? What else is it that games can deliver to me emotionally?”

Multiplayer: Right, and I think I read this on N’Gai Croal’s blog, where there was a reader that was like, “I’m a dad, and I love hardcore games, but like I just don’t have the time. I need something that’s shorter, and easy to save, but gives me the satisfaction I would get from a hardcore gamer’s game. I would think that’s a big challenge for game developers to sort of create that experience.

Pinckard: Totally. I absolutely agree. And I also think that women have traditionally been at the forefront of this, because they’re burdened with more than their fair share of house work and childcare, usually. That’s just statistical. And so they’re going to have less leisure time for games. Now men are sort of catching up. But I think women have always been less free to play games the way that men have. So maybe that’s why women play casual games or they play more casually. And they just don’t want the same kind of game that requires 20, 40 hours of play. I think that’s totally right.

Multiplayer: Before, you had mentioned something about when people want to design games for women, they ask your opinion. [Former EDGE editor-in-chief] Margaret Robertson mentioned on her blog that she’s uncomfortable with being the spokesperson for 51% of the world’s population. Obviously, you’re very vocal about your beliefs. Do you feel comfortable with being a mouthpiece for female gamers?

Pinckard: That’s a really good question, because I think I feel ambivalent about it. On the one hand, any time women get asked to speak about games I think they should, just to be visible and show we’re out there and we’re normal. And so I rarely turn down speaking requests. And it’s not like I get a ton, but I’ve spoken at South by Southwest a few times and stuff like that. So I rarely turn it down. But I also try to make it clear when I’m on the panel, or whatever it is, to say like you can’t distill the preferences of an entire gender to the three people on this panel. That’s impossible. So I try to navigate that by accepting [speaking engagements], because I think it’s important to talk about these issues, but then I say that these issues are way too big for us to really explain in the course of this 45-minute presentation.

Multiplayer: What do you think that women can do in the industry to overcome sexism?

Pinckard: That is a great question. I think there’s two big things that we can do. One is to support other women in the industry, wherever they are. Support the ones that are doing good work. … Really support the ones who you think are doing the right things, making the right choices and who are admirable, and support each other. I support just in little ways. Like when students write to me to ask about stuff, I almost always answer as much as I can, because more women in the industry’s a good thing.

And second, don’t take this s–t lying down. When stuff like this happens, say something. Like if people are forwarding this s–t to you at work, go to your manager or even go to f–king HR and say this is unacceptable. Don’t be like, “Oh well, it’s a boys’ world and I’m the only girl in the company. What can I do?” That’s bulls–t. You belong there, too. You were hired for a reason. So have some self-esteem and do something. And say controversial things. And you’ll get attacked, and you’ll get called a “bitch” and all this stuff. So what? More people are going to agree with you I think than not.

Multiplayer: At least just get it out there for discussion.

Pinckard: Yeah, like you’re doing. Don’t pretend that it’s a problem that’s going to go away.

Got thoughts on Jane Pinckard’s interview? Let us know! And check back later to see more interviews from women working in games. Next up: “Assassin’s Creed”’s Elspeth Tory, “Sex in Video Games” author Brenda Brathwaite and Sega PR’s Tali Fischer.