After speaking with two journalists, “X-Play“’s Morgan Webb and Game Girl Advance’s Jane Pinckard, and another game developer, Ubisoft’s Elspeth Tory, I also really wanted to talk to Brathwaite because of her experience in the industry. She is the “longest-serving woman in computer games,” with 26 years under her belt, and she’s also the chair and founder of the International Game Developers Association’s Sex Special Interest Group. Brathwaite has extensively studied and worked on sexually-themed video games, such as “Playboy: The Mansion,” and written a book on the subject titled “Sex in Video Games.” With her experience and expertise in the industry, I figured that she would have a lot of interesting things to say to about her personal experiences as a woman in gaming over the years.
I caught up with the 41 year-old trailblazer on the phone last week. We covered a lot. Here’s just one highlight from the long interview that follows:
Brathwaite: Sheri [Graner Ray] in this lecture, she gives has an amazingly great slide of these hyper-sexualized men. And they’re not even fully hyper-sexualized. If they were really hyper-sexualized , they’d probably be showing something you wouldn’t show in a large auditorium to people. With this hyper-sexualized male characters, I love to look at the audience and watch how they react. The men are like, “Agh, would you get this off?” And the women are pleasantly surprised like,” Finally, something for us to look at.” And it’s always amusing to me to see people’s responses to this. And as a gamer who has been a gamer forever, if I see a woman in a thong in a game, honestly I don’t even think twice, because I’m so used to it at this point.
Read on for more of Brathwaite’s anecdotes, including how she’s hopeful for women getting into the industry, the weirdness of working on a “Playboy” game, being the first pregnant woman at her company, and what it’s like to be mistaken for a booth babe.
Multiplayer: How did you get started playing games and working in the industry?
Brathwaite: I don’t remember not playing games. I think my pre-industry experience is me building LEGO houses and wishing people would go through them. I really would. I’d build these enormous houses out of LEGOs which turned out to be just a really primitive form of level design, I guess. But I got into the industry in a really non-traditional way. I was 15, and I was talking to another person who was also 15, and she happened to be one of the owners, believe it or not, of a software company that her brothers founded, and it was the company that published “Wizardry,” and that’s how I got into the industry in the first place. My job was to know everything there was to know about the games, so that when people called up and wanted to know how to kill the wizard on the tenth level, I could tell them. There was an internet then, but maybe a hundred people had access to it. So if people were stuck in a game they would call, and I was the person they would speak to.
Multiplayer: And who was the other 15 year-old?
Brathwaite: It was Linda Currie. Then it was Linda Sirotek, and the company was Sir-Tech Software. Currie is her married name, and she’s a design director at Blue Fang, the company that makes “Zoo Tycoon.” She’s still in the industry too, believe it or not.
Multiplayer: So you and Linda are the longest-serving women in video games?
Brathwaite: See, Linda left the industry for a few years, thus allowing me to get a leg up on her. And I’m still working, and I’m still consulting, and I’m working with a client on a project right now. So I guess as long as I have a client… According to Ernest Adams, anyway, he did all this research, and according to him I’m the longest-serving woman in computer games, which is really quite an honor. There are some achievements you can get if you don’t leave, and this is one of them.
Multiplayer: Tell me about your career path.
Brathwaite: Back then, so we’re talking 1981, right? This is when I get started, and there is an industry, but many of us who are in it aren’t even aware that we’re at the beginning of something historic. I was talking to Rich Carlson, he’s over at Digital Eel, and we were talking about those early days of the industry and whether or not we were aware that this was truly a historic thing happening. And for some reason I really wasn’t [aware]. I was there right from the get-go, but really wasn’t aware that this was this major transformative media thing that was happening. Rich, on the other hand, was more savvy. So I worked at Sir-Tech, and then when I got old enough to go to college, I went to college but continued to work at Sir-Tech to put myself through college. And when I got out of college — this is sort of the defining moment I guess. I interviewed with IBM, and I very vividly remember as if it were yesterday the interview with IBM. Somebody said to me, as we were rounding this corner of cubicles, “And you would be revising DOS manuals.” And I remember thinking, “No, you can just stop the interview right now, because no, I won’t.” And I don’t know what it was, but it was right there that I truly decided, “Okay, enough of this.”
I had the job at Sir-Tech, and it was really expected that I was going to grow up and get a real job. Because nowadays parents think it’s odd when kids say they want to grow up and be a game designer. Imagine it’s 1989 when I was saying it, right? I might as well have just said, “I want to be Marlon Brando” or “I want to be a rock star.” It would have had the same “whatever” to it. So I went back to Sir-Tech, who was phenomenally supportive of me, and they knew I was going out and interviewing with these companies. And I went back and said, “You know, I think I’d rather just stay here.” And they were really happy. And so I literally stayed there for 18 years and had a great time, and we’re still all in regular contact with each other.
At Sir-Tech I went through the ranks, almost like an apprenticeship. I was very fortunate. The industry was smaller then, and I was able to work alongside some amazing game designers. And, if you get the trust of the game designer, what will ultimately happen is that they’ll get overwhelmed, and when they get overwhelmed, there’s too much work and they’ll say, “Hey can you find me this? Can you do this?” And I can’t say that I had actually had that plan in mind, but I just loved it. I loved it. It was really working with digital LEGOs. So I rose up through the ranks, and eventually I started writing for the games, and I started doing design until however many years later I was lead designer. So that was my path at Sir-Tech.
Sir-Tech closed in 2001. Largely the industry at that point in time, to be a little publisher, which is what Sir-Tech was, putting out one or two titles a year — forget it. And even with the recent Vivendi/Blizzard merger, forget it. The little guys, especially when they were that little, don’t stand a chance. So Sir-Tech closed, and it was really this bitter-sweet thing. I had been working with the same group of people on the same franchise for I think seven years. With the case of Linda, I’d been working with Linda for 18 years! And so it was real bitter-sweet, but after that I went to Atari and worked at Atari for a number of years. And I worked for a company called Cyberlore also on the East coast for a number of years.
Now I teach; I’m a professor of game design at Savannah College of Art and Design. And still I work on games constantly. I study games. I’m currently making a text adventure game, just because I can. There’s no reason. It’s completely, commercially silly, but I felt like doing it. And I wanted to explore a couple things for the heck of it, and I have that freedom now. And, as I’ve mentioned, I’m still consulting in the industry. But I love games. I honestly can’t imagine working with any other medium. I guess it would be akin to an artist who’s doing commercial art and then goes into education, but it really frees you up to do all other kinds of creative stuff. That’s my story arc for the career there.
Multiplayer: So when you said you wanted to be a game designer in 1989 people thought that was weird. Did people think it was weird because game design was so new or because you were a woman that wanted to go into game design, something that might’ve been seen as a “guy thing”?
Brathwaite: Yes, to both of the above I think. First of all, it was so obscure that back then if I had said I wanted to be a game designer people would say, “Well, what’s that?” Or they actually may have assumed board games, particularly in the early days. And so also people would say things like, “Oh, so you’re a programmer,” and game design isn’t necessarily about that. I guess being an architect for a game. You don’t do the actual construction, but you’re laying the foundation and blueprints and all that sort of stuff. There’s another woman, Sheri Graner Ray, she and I go way back. She was working on the “Ultima” series when I was working on the “Wizardry” series. She hasn’t been around quite as long as I have, but we talk about the original, old GDCs, and there were just a handful of women. Just a handful of women. Last year, and it actually made news somewhere, there was a line at the women’s bathroom at GDC, and were all just like, “My god, it’s historic! There’s a line!” There’s never a line at the women’s bathroom at GDC. And now I will go to events and not know all the women there, and that’s a real treat. But back in the early days of the industry, I could name all the female designers on one hand. We all knew who each other was. But now there are lots of female designers that I don’t know. That said, it’s still a pretty small industry. I usually will recognize the names, even if I don’t know them personally.
Multiplayer: So since you also play games growing up, was that ever considered weird…
Brathwaite: Oh, it still is. This hasn’t changed at all. Not at all, ironically. Bear in mind that I’m 41, and I have many friends who are my age, and I also have students that I teach at college, and tonight I’m getting together with some of my students to actually play some strategy board games like Risk and Scotland Yard. Because I asked my group of women, who are my age, “Would you guys be interested in doing a board game night?” They were like, “What?” They thought it was Monopoly, and I’m like, “It’s not ’Monopoly.'” That game is based on luck. I want to do something like Risk or Axis and Allies. And they’re looking at me like, “Why? This is an evening-long event. This could go on for hours.” I’m like, “Yeah, isn’t that great? We’ll get food.”
You know, I am the only hardcore gamer that I know where I live, that’s my age and that’s a woman. I know plenty of guys. Yeah, I’m the only who is a woman. And my husband, he doesn’t care either. So it’s still just as weird, but when I was growing up, absolutely. Absolutely! But I certainly generated a lot of envy, because as a 17, 18, 19-year-old, people would say they’d go to their summer jobs working at Dairy Queen. I’m at Sir-Tech playing games and getting paid for it. I mean, what better job could you possibly have as a kid than playing games and getting paid? So in addition to having the general weirdness of “Here’s this woman who is really into games,” there was also the general weirdness of the envy that I actually got to do that for a living.
Multiplayer: Did you feel that you faced any challenges that men wouldn’t have faced along your career?
Brathwaite: No, if anything it’s been a bonus. For instance, I’m doing this interview right now because I’m a woman in games, and I’ve done many because I was a woman in games. It’s also important to have that diversity of opinion on a team, and a lot of companies recognize that. So that’s been helpful. I haven’t experienced, except once, anything that I would say was discrimination because of my gender. And then I would chalk it up to the guy being an idiot more than I would chalk it up to intentional discrimination. I just really think he was an idiot.
If anything, the gaming industry is a fairly liberal, hip place, and if you’re making games people really don’t care what your gender is. At least this has been my experience. I’m not really a tomboy, but I’m used to working with guys. I’ve always worked with guys. If I were in an office with all women I think I would feel really odd. So it’s been a benefit to me in that respect. Absolutely, I think it’s been a tremendous benefit to me.
Oh, I know a couple things. You know some interesting things have happened. The company that I worked for had no maternity policy or maternity leave policy. Suddenly, here I am horrifically pregnant with twins, and so that had to be instituted. So I have been the creator of firsts.
I remember going to GDC one year, and I had the twins, it wasn’t last year but the year before, and I was still nursing. And did they have a place where I could do that? And it was just, “What are you talking about?” Eventually they had the nurse’s station that they had there, we were allowed to use that. But at the time it was sort of an odd question. I don’t think it was an intentional oversight. I just think it hadn’t come up, and when it did come up arrangements, were certainly made.
Multiplayer: Where was the place that didn’t have a maternity leave policy?
Brathwaite: A company called Cyberlore. They had had paternity leave, but birth — I’m remembering [another employee] left before me. His wife had a baby. They had a paternity policy. Here’s a big issue: what do you do when the lead designer on a project is horrifically pregnant? And so having to come up with contingency plans for all of that sort of stuff — Cyberlore was great. They worked with me through the whole thing. The director of operations at the time, Clarinda Merripen, she was phenomenal. She made sure that everything that I needed was taken care of. I worked from home for a while. As you can imagine I was as large as a freighter at one point in time. So I worked from home for a little bit after they were born. You see all of that was pretty good. I was the only woman who got pregnant there.
Multiplayer: Well, that’s great that they established that policy for you. But even as a pregnant woman, you didn’t ever feel discriminated against?
Brathwaite: No, I don’t feel I’ve been discriminated against. Like I said, if anything, it’s been a bonus. There has been some awkwardness, when I worked on the “Playboy: The Mansion” game. And there was some awkwardness. Like,”How do we talk about breasts around another woman? How do we say this?” And so there was some awkwardness. Like how do you talk to the lead designer about the sexual positions that the character might be in? And at first there was absolutely some awkwardness about that, not with me, but with the guys on the team.
Multiplayer: They felt awkward in front of you?
Brathwaite: Yeah, absolutely. Which speaks well of them, frankly. But after a while I became one of the guys, and they were never rude or crude or anything like that. But they were comfortable talking with me about it.
Multiplayer: Did you offer any suggestions on the sexual stuff?
Brathwaite: Oh absolutely, totally. Every woman I know has an opinion on breast animation, so I would frequently comment on those. Or like really subtle things, like there’s this one point where you’re going to go make out with [Hugh Hefner] on the couch. He’s taking you over to the couch, and for some reason in my brain the woman should go to the couch first. Because when she’s following the guy it just feels icky. I don’t know why, it just feels icky. And there was another woman in the company who was a programmer, and she agreed with me. And Clarinda agreed with me. And it was just this unique perspective that would come out sometimes as a result of that.
Multiplayer: Were there any other awkward experiences working on that game?
Brathwaite: Well, it was open, but there were a lot of kind of funny experiences. If you were talking about — see and I just used “you.” Perfect, that’s such a good example. If you’re talking about game design, you will often refer to yourself as the character unintentionally. You’ll say, “Okay, so I go here, and then I do this, and then I do that.” But imagine if you’re talking about a game that contains sexual themes. You’ll be saying things like, “Okay, so I go into the apartment, and I talk to you for a while, and then you and I have sex.” It’s just funny no matter who’s saying it. We would always crack up, it was just silly. But that was always interesting, to be sure.
Some other funny times… [Laughs] We had a real live Playboy playmate in the office. It happened a few times actually. When the guys, several of them, well more then several, maybe ten of them, were playing “Bass Trophy Fishing” or something like that on the PS2, and there’s a live Playboy playmate, and here are these tragic geeks playing “Bass Trophy Fishing” or “Pro-Fishing” or whatever the heck it was. And I just thought this makes zero sense to me.
Multiplayer: Like just ignoring the Playboy bunnies to play games?
Brathwaite: Yes! Exactly! It’s like, “Hey! Look! Playboy bunny.” Yeah, there you go. That’s like one of the funniest moments that I remember.
Multiplayer: So did the outright sexual themes in the game make the workplace actually more of a friendly environment?
Brathwaite: Absolutely. You know, and when you’re working on something that sexually-themed, the office, at least our office, was really professional. After a while I’m sure that there are all kinds of glossies passed around Playboy headquarters, people aren’t like, “Ooh breasts,” right? So after a while, I don’t want to say you become de-sensitized to it, but it loses some of that “Oooh” thrill factor. So you know, it was work. Just like all game design is work, and Playboy was a topic, just like medieval Rome could be a topic.
Multiplayer: So what I’ve gathered is that for you, being a woman has been an advantage in that you’ve been able to stand out, and obviously I’m talking to you right now. But did you feel that there were any disadvantages at all?
Brathwaite: If there have been, I’m not aware of them. If I was ever overlooked in an interview, I’m not aware of that happening. I would say in the early days, if the old boys’ network holds true, I would say in the early days that maybe it could have been a factor then. But I was already in, so trying to break in and trying to find somebody like me, I was already there. It didn’t matter. And there was Linda and I, who were together pretty much from the beginning. So I didn’t see it.
Now — and I tell students this too — I think it’s an advantage being a woman heading into the game industry, because there is a very tight-knit group of women who are power players in this industry. I don’t want to say they tour, but this same group of women goes all over the country with Women in Games International. And we see each other at all the conferences. We all know who each other is, and we are very open and accessible to women who are trying to get into the industry, because we’ve been there. I do know some women who have had issues with different things.
Oh, you know what I just thought of? Back there in the super booth babe days at E3, if you were an attractive woman working for a game company, people would brush you off and assume that you were booth babe. And that never felt good.
Multiplayer: Did that happen to you personally?
Brathwaite: Yeah, and then you’d have to sort of work your way back like, “Wait a minute, I seriously know what I’m talking about.” But when it went from models dressed like everybody else to models wearing thongs, you know, that was kind of awkward, to go to a booth and there’s this phenomenally stacked woman. That could be potentially awkward. And just on the fair market value, there were very rare instances of “booth beef.” So we had the babes, but rarely would there be actually a guy. So that was kind of weird.
And there were some funky things too, like again, these are things I’m never aware of. I’ve heard of instances where people have interviewed at companies where they were hanging out with a bunch of people from a particular company, like at GDC, and they were like, “All right, let’s go out to a strip club!” Well, thanks — have a good night, guys. That sort of stuff. But by the same token, am I going to say that at some future GDC, it’s not possible that 20 women are going to make the same decision? No. It could quite possibly happen.
And like I said, if there have been things that I’ve been left out of, I’m completely unaware of them. If anything, it has been a tremendous benefit. And even the ability to talk about sexual content in games, and the ability to study it as much as I have, if it had been a guy saying, “people have a right to use the full range of human experience,” he would have been called a sleaze and kicked out of the industry. And I’ve had way more than one guy point that out. Not that I’m getting away with murder, but it required a woman to be able to talk about this topic. Because if a guy had tried to bring it up, it wouldn’t have flown. Just compare — what are the things people have said about Hugh Hefner over the ages versus what they’ve said about Christie Hefner? So, it’s not just because I’m a woman, but it certainly helps. But I do offer the topic a tremendous amount of respect and I’m certainly not — I don’t shoot off at the mouth about it.
Multiplayer: So you’re saying being a woman, just based on appearance, legitimizes what you’re trying to say about sex in games, versus if you were a man…
Brathwaite: There’s a study of sexuality in every single field, in every single form of media people have studied sexuality. And that’s what I was interested in in games. Thank you. I like the term “legitimize.”
Multiplayer: Since you do a lot of interviews and you speak at a lot of events, do you feel you have to worry about what you wear more so than your male counterparts? Because I was talking to another female game developer, and she does a lot of interviews and she said, “I try to be neutral. I try not to wear anything low-cut or too short.”
Brathwaite: Oh, no I don’t do that. Especially because of the “sex in games” thing. The topic needs to be handled responsibly. It is a self-igniting topic, it will blow up all on its own without me pouring any gasoline on it. So if I showed up in four-inch heels and a super low-cut top, that’s not going to help it any.
Multiplayer: And just to clear this up: How did people mistakenly think you were a booth babe?
Brathwaite: People would come up to the booth, and you would want to show them the latest games. And so if it was somebody I didn’t know, they would often say things like, “Well, can I talk to somebody who actually works here? And I would say, ’Well, I do.'” “But do you actually know about the game?” And there were a couple other women who I worked with as well, particularly this one woman who was really thin and tall and blonde. [Laughs] Nobody ever believed that she was with the company. But she was. And so people would just sort of brush by you. They would just treat you like a booth accessory, which in some respects — a booth decoration. Which is fine. But when it’s your job to talk to somebody about the game, and they come in automatically thinking that they’re with somebody who doesn’t understand the product, that starts you off at negative two.
Multiplayer: Going to events or conferences, did you ever feel self-conscious being the only female in the room or playing games with men or in front of men?
Brathwaite: Not really. Not really. A long time ago, or even in the — here’s when I started feeling weird. It’s if I could play something where I could hear what other people were saying, through TeamSpeak or whatnot. And sometimes people say stuff online that, as a woman, and maybe it affects other people as well, but I think it particularly strikes me because I’m a woman, and I’ll hear people say, “Dude, I totally raped you.” If you identify yourself or you have a name that identifies you as a woman, sometimes people will say things to you, which is pretty freakin’ rude. So I just don’t, because I’m online. My gamer tag certainly wouldn’t give away that I’m a woman. So, that in fact, has been more recent. That’s just, “Give idiots microphones.”
There was one thing that I’ve heard about, it was this guy who went in and I think he called himself “GayBoyXXX” or something like that, and he just went in and played, I think it was “Halo 3.” It’s on YouTube. And you just listen to the stuff people say to this guy — holy s–t! The stuff that’s been said to me, I can’t even hold a candle to that. That is just tragic. Tragic and embarrassing to gamers as a whole. But I’ve had similar experiences as a woman but nothing that even approaches 1/10 of that degree.
Multiplayer: Why do you think that gamers do that?
Brathwaite: If you’re going to pick on somebody, you’ve got to find the most obvious and easiest thing to pick on, and that’s something that’s different from what you are — whether it’s your gender or your sexuality. This certainly isn’t something that games brought to the forefront. This was something that was happening in the school yard well before games showed up. So this is just yet another outlet for idiocy to come through completely unchecked, because no one’s going to come flinging through your Xbox LIVE account and punch you in the face. They’re less constrained and more free to be idiots.
Multiplayer: Would you say the same goes for how people reacted to Jade Raymond of Ubisoft? People just wanted to pick on her because…why? She was a woman in one of the lead roles of a high-profile game? What do you think of how people reacted to her on the Internet?
Brathwaite: I’m even trying to remember right now. My brain is completely going blank…
Multiplayer: [I explain the Jade Raymond comic.]
Brathwaite: Oh my God! That’s horrifying. I didn’t know about that.
Multiplayer: That was what sparked me to do these interviews in the first place. To get women’s voices heard and to discuss sexism in the game industry. Do you think that kind of thing would keep women away from working in the industry?
Brathwaite: I think certainly that would discourage women from being the public face of a game. And that in turn doesn’t give role models to college students coming up. I know a lot of people now in the industry who would say, “Well, when I was growing up Roberta Williams blah, blah, blah.” And Roberta Williams is gone from the industry now, and I’ll say “Roberta Williams… You know? ’King’s Quest’?” “Oh, right!” But she’s lost that sort of allure that she had among many young women. So if people like Jade stand out and say, “Hey look, here’s me, I’m in the industry and I’m doing this thing,” and they get mercilessly mocked like that… I have no problem being mocked, but that’s pushing it. You wouldn’t make fun of Peter Molyneux in a similar way. I don’t know of a single game developer who hasn’t been mocked in some way by a comic but, wow, that is astounding. It’s also really personally painful and embarrassing, I’m imagining for her, having that kind of stuff out there. Whether it would keep people from entering the industry… I don’t know. If this is something that you’ve always wanted to do… People behind the scenes who are not the public faces of products, I would be surprised if this would happen to them. But I’m just really shocked and saddened to hear that.
There was that one Kennedy game, “Who Shot JFK?” Or whatever. Frequently people will put out like the “Border Crossing” game. They’ll put out these little idiot Flash games, and there was one insensitive dude who put up a game right after the Virginia Tech massacre and he says, “I’ll take it down if somebody pays me.” Thanks, dude. But meanwhile everybody’s pointing fingers at the larger game industry, and we take it in the teeth for this sort of stuff. So I’m hoping that whoever did this… You’ll see this all the time. If they have a list of the Top 100 female game developers, there was actually a thread on a site where they rank them by how they look. And this is totally not uncommon. In fact, I have that expectation that if I’m going to be online I will be ranked along with other women. It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody sends me an e-mail like, “Have you seen this?” I’m never like, “Oh, my goodness!” Never. But, certainly I’ve never seen anything to the extent of what happened with her.
Multiplayer: I don’t think really anyone has, which is why I think it was a big deal. Why do you think that gamers focus on women in development the way they do?
Brathwaite: I don’t know if this is specific to games and gamers. There’s been all kinds of things. If you are a woman and you’re getting any kind of attention in any kind of media, this is probably going to happen. Go through the aisle of any grocery store and look at the magazines that have Angelina Jolie’s face on it. So if you’re an attractive woman who’s getting media exposure, odds are this is going to happen. I don’t know if it’s specific to games. I don’t think it is, because certainly while I was in high school I can remember guys saying all kinds of dumb things about women then, too. And they didn’t have gamer tags and Xbox LIVE accounts to do it. So I don’t know if it’s specific to video games.
Multiplayer: I don’t think it is either, but I think being that the games industry is pre-dominantly male…
Brathwaite: You know one thing, and I think maybe the sheer quantity of men as compared to women does make it challenging to stand up and say shut up. There’s a friend of mine, he’s an RN (registered nurse), and I can’t imagine if he and another RN at a conference did something that was like this. They would be eviscerated. Can you imagine? If they did something like that, targeting? Because just the sheer numbers. They would be heavily outweighed, and perhaps it’s similar to that for women gamers.
Multiplayer: Do you think that there’s sexism within the industry? Do you think that’s a problem at all?
Brathwaite: Within the industry or among gamers?
Multiplayer: You can speak to both, but I see them as separate.
Brathwaite: Me too, that’s why I wanted to know which is which. Within the industry, again, it’s hard to say. In my own career, I have not experienced it. I can’t speak for other people, but I certainly do know of things that have happened that are phenomenally surprising.
Multiplayer: Do you think the industry still has a long way to go in terms of having more women in the industry and more openness and diversity?
Brathwaite: Well, we absolutely need diversity. And not just diversity of gender, but diversity of cultures, of ethnicity, of sexuality. If we want to reach beyond the audience we have now we’ve got to bring in more players, and to bring in more players we’ve got to bring in people who might be able to reach those players. And so that’s important, and again it sounds bad to say this, but I don’t know this problem of sexism — you know, women get paid less in all fields right now. So I don’t know that it’s unique to the game industry. The game industry tends to pay pretty well. But I don’t know if you remember, but there was this Breck Shampoo commercial eons ago that said, “If you tell two friends and you tell two friends and you tell two friends… And if there’s a job opening at a company and people tell their friends, odds are their friends are going to be guys.
And talking on the diversity front, I have heard people — this one guy told a story about walking into a company and seeing a picture of Jenna Jameson, fully naked on a wall and doing something exciting. He was gay, and he thought, “What would happen if I brought in a similar picture from a piece of porn that I like? Would that be acceptable? Why should I have to look at this?” So I think the issue is broader than just women. It’s a cultural issue, not specifically a game industry issue. Although because many gamers are that 17, 18, 19-year-old level, and here they are on the Internet, and they’re able to talk completely unfiltered, it’s certainly the easiest place to do flame wars. And you don’t even have the option of, “Nah, I’m not going to press the ’send’ button.” There’s no trail. Nobody can go back and play stuff over again. I’m still really shocked by that comic. That’s still just amazing.
Multiplayer: What advice do you have to women who have to deal with this scrutiny? Can they avoid it? And then how do women cope if they have any gender challenges within the industry?
Brathwaite: That’s a big question. First of all, network with other women. I think that’s just phenomenally important. Networking with other women is incredibly important, and we’re really tight. In the industry there’s a huge group of us. That line I just said, “we’re really tight” — normally I wouldn’t even think twice about that, but having said that, my internal monitor showed up and said, “Don’t print that, because somebody could absolutely spin that into some sort of horrible comic.” That’s sad that I even thought that. But networking with a group of women like the IGDA women or the Women’s SIG. And there’s a lot of men who are part of the Women’s SIG, actually. It’s an amazing group of people who are united to talk about a particular thing, and to advance that.
I have a lot of hope actually, because I was there at the ground floor, I have seen the industry grow by leaps and bounds over the years. Whereas it could have been me and Sheri [Graner Ray] or me and a few other women, me and Linda. There are now hundreds of women, and that’s really heartening. In the classes that I teach at SCAD, I’ll often have 25% of the classes made up of women. And it shocks people when I say that. “Are you serious? You have 25% women? Really?” Yeah! And this is in a game design curriculum. And my classes, I’m not looking out across a sea of white people either. I have very diverse classes. And that makes me feel good about the industry and the future.
I would love to see companies like Microsoft and Sony address this issue. It’s easy for us to say, “We can’t control what people say about us online,” and that’s very true. That’s absolutely the truth. But at the same time we can put some community standards out there and say, “Listen, if you’re going through the game going blah blah blah, you can be reported.” There could be open play channels where, listen, you want to say whatever the hell you want to say? Great, go here. But if you don’t want to do that, then this is the place for you to be. And that might help address some of that. I would like to see some corporate minds tackle that issue, because can you imagine being someone who picked up a game for the first time and hearing that kind of crap? That would be astounding.
Or take a look… One of my favorite ones is “Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance,” the PS2 version. Take a look at the start screen of that. You have two guys, a dwarf and a human dressed head to toe, covered in leather. And then you have a woman who’s on her way to a stripping engagement. She’s got the thigh-high boots and this little booty stocking thing. What is going on there? I don’t know how the hell I got on that.
I would recommend that they network, and I feel a lot of hope about the industry. When you go to GDC, make sure to hit the IGDA Women in Games roundtables. And for that matter I’m a huge supporter of the IGDA. The IGDA has put together so many special interest groups that are focused on really making gaming inclusive and a great place to be. I think that’s really important to support groups in their effort like that.
Multiplayer: Well to touch on what you said about “Baldur’s Gate”… Do you think the way female game characters are portrayed in mainstream games has any effect on the way gamers view women in gaming, and also turning off women from those kinds of games?
Brathwaite: Yes. Here’s the thing. I don’t have a problem if you have thong outfits and a chain mail thong for a woman in a game, but there should be… First of all, there’s no equal opportunity, right? You don’t get to see the really hot guy in a game, right? But give players an option. I don’t necessarily want to walk around in a game world in a chain mail thong. At the very least give me an option to dress up. It started with Lara Croft, and she was all over the cover of every single magazine in the universe. And then everybody afterwards just started coming up with one after the other in progressively less clothing.
Let me just tangent to “Second Life.” What I found really interesting about “Second Life” is this is a virtual world in which players start out with a turtleneck, basically, and jeans. And through nothing the developers have done, but rather community standards, now it’s really standard to go in and see lingerie. People are standing around in lingerie and this is something players have done to themselves. So I just find that really interesting from a cultural study standpoint.
So here’s one of two anecdotes of how women are addressed in games. Sheri [Graner Ray] in this lecture, she gives has an amazingly great slide of these hyper-sexualized men. And they’re not even fully hyper-sexualized. If they were really hyper-sexualized , they’d probably be showing something you wouldn’t show in a large auditorium to people. With this hyper-sexualized male characters, I love to look at the audience and watch how they react. The men are like, “Agh, would you get this off?” And the women are pleasantly surprised like,” Finally, something for us to look at.” And it’s always amusing to me to see people’s responses to this. And as a gamer who has been a gamer forever, if I see a woman in a thong in a game, honestly I don’t even think twice, because I’m so used to it at this point.
And sometimes I’m irritated because if you’re running around in a game, and you’re half-naked in a game, this is a choice that I may not have personally chosen to look like this to somebody I’m talking to in a game world, but I am. So I’m approaching them as this hyper-sexualized avatar, when I really would have rather approached them as something else. So that doesn’t help. So with this hyper-sexualized guys, one thing that I like to think of is, and I’ll point out to the guys—Sheri’s loaned me this slide so I can show this in my classes. And when I show this, and I go through Sheri’s lecture and I get to this particular slide, I say, “Just imagine, the way you guys felt here, this is how it felt for someone we worked so hard to get and they have finally purchased their first game, and this is what they turn it on and see. Just imagine.” And then after this I’ll show pictures of women in games alongside their male counterparts, “Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance” being one of my favorite ones. And it’s like, doesn’t that look silly now that somebody’s called your attention to it?
And other games, I can’t remember which one now, but there was one — I don’t remember whether it was “Dead or Alive [Xtreme Beach Volleyball]” — but it went on for two minutes in the clip, and there’s still no sign of an actual volleyball. There’s breasts and all kinds of jiggle physics and all kinds of stuff going on, but there’s no sign of a volleyball. And that’s just bizarre. But would it be different if the percentages were reversed, and we didn’t have the amount of men making games was instead the amount of women making games? I don’t imagine we’d have that kind of stuff.
Multiplayer: Why do you think there aren’t more women game developers and gamers right now?
Brathwaite: Well, I don’t think it’s on the radar for many women, for starters. Certainly when I was growing up… like my daughter’s 6 years-old and plans to be a game designer when she grows up. Why? Obviously, she’s heavily influenced. I’ve never said, “Go be a game designer” but she wants to do what Mommy does. And I have other female friends who can tell similar stories. And I think it’s a question of having someone out there. Like when people looked at Roberta Williams and said, “Oh, Roberta Williams. Ever since I played her games and found out who she was I wanted to be a game designer.” So we need to have that kind of stuff out there. And right now for the most part the people who are out there are men, and so we don’t have many female role models who we can say, “Wow , check out this stuff that they’ve done and look what they’re doing in the industry.”
When you put up stuff like the comic, or I’ve seen ads like — and I won’t mention the company — but there was one ad, it was a recruitment ad… I forget what the ad said, but it had a bunch of guys holding up beers and looking nuts. And it was like, “Do I want to come work for you? Hell no!” [Laughs] It’s like, do I want to go work for a frat? And in other really silly but subtle things. Like using “he” in want ads. “The lead candidate, he will have…” And I remember getting one of those ads less than two years ago, and responding to the guy and saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I qualify because I don’t have a penis.”And he was the recruiter for the particular company and he managed to get it changed. I don’t know if I answered your question, I just went flying off…
Multiplayer: So basically you’re saying part of having more women in the industry is having more role models out there and also the industry being more open and more gender neutral?
Brathwaite: Yes. Be more open, be more gender neutral, but I also think it’s just truly not on the radar of lots of girls. There comes a time in the life of many, many women, and it usually happens in the early teens, where boys gravitate towards games, and girls tend to go away from games. Now this may not be true of the casual gamerspace. And certainly women like Jessica Tams, who’s doing all kinds of stuff with casual games, that kind of stuff helps. Women are overwhelmingly playing tons of casual games, and I can count myself among them. So the answer is, when it comes time to make a decision of what to do, you have this whole group of boys whose brains are just wired to games. Games are these mathematical patterns, and boys tend to gobble these up. And women tend to get away from them. So women would have to make a right turn to head back toward that and to go back in toward gaming.
But we’re growing every year, and I just see our curve, the curve that we have made in games, and the amount of women that we have now versus 10 years ago, versus 20 years ago is to me overwhelming and really positive. And if it keeps growing at the same rate, I can see there being some kind of parity 10 years from now. And I really believe that, because it’s what I see in my classes and it’s also just what I’ve seen in the industry throughout the years.
Multiplayer: Do you think there’s also just an inherent difference between male and female gamers in that we’re just not encouraged to pick up games?
Brathwaite: Sheri [Graner Ray] wrote a book called “Gender Inclusive Game Design,” and one of the big things she pointed out is we as women and men have, stereotypically speaking, different learning styles. And women in general prefer the modeling learning style. “So, how do you do it? Show me how you do it.” Whereas men go, “I don’t need directions, I’m not going to stop and ask for those, give me that controller.” And in most games, if you look at their tutorials, the way they teach you to play, they’re geared towards that risk-taking explorative learning style. And so, often if you sit women down and actually say, “Here, enjoy the game, play the game,” they will. But there’s also been fascinating studies done where they put a bunch of people in a room and the guys will eventually crowd the women out around the machine. So there’s this element of overpowering toward the game, toward the computer.
For the most part, the bulk of games right now, if you look at mainstream, triple-A titles, the bulk of those are geared toward male audiences, like “Madden” and that stuff. But in casual games, we’re kicking ass. There’s tons of women who play those games. And it’s hard to say, if you add all that stuff up, which the larger gaming audience really is. So sure, people might be saying all kids of horrible things on Xbox LIVE while playing “Halo,” but there’s this whole other gaming world. I’m sure there are restaurants like Hooters, and then there are restaurants like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. And there are places where you can go and see somebody dance, or you can go and see them dance while they’re stripping.
Multiplayer: Can you talk a little bit about your book “Sex in Video Games” and do you think that having more mature themes and openness in games might result in more openness in the gaming community?
Brathwaite: My book is this massive overview of everything there is to know about sex in games, from this whole detailed history of the “Hot Coffee” incident in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” to the detailed history of early sex games to the modern history of sex games. And it also includes some hyper-sexualization of characters, and if that’s something you want to do, be aware that there are consequences to that, because maybe some people don’t want to walk around in a chain mail thong. Okay, maybe it will draw in some people who do, and I’ve heard, “Well, if you’re a guy and you’re going to be looking at somebody’s butt running around in the world at least it should be an attractive butt.” Okay, fine. But at least have options for other people.
As far as having sex in games, there’s sex in every form of media, right? And games are under pretty heavy scrutiny right now. People have even talked about removing First Amendment rights from video games, and people have tried to declare them harmful substances and contraband and all kinds of amazing things that just sound absurd by any stretch of the imagination. And I don’t think we should have sex in games. But I think we should have the right to have it. Just like in the movie “Sideways” or take “The Sopranos.”
What would happen if we removed sex and violence from “The Sopranos”? Would we have had the show that changed television? No, we wouldn’t have. And as game developers we’re not even close to having a “Sopranos,” I’ll admit that. We’re probably years away from a “Sopranos.” We are where movies were in their infancy. They were all about car crashes and dumb violence and stupid suggestive jokes. Okay, we’ve got a lot of that, but we’re coming up as an art form.
And I want to make sure that we have the full range of the human experience to choose from. And the one that people go after the most is sex. That’s not true. I shouldn’t say that. That’s just in my experience because that’s what I’m always defending. People go after sex and violence in games, and while we may never need either extreme, we should have a right to have them. When our storytelling gets to the point where we can do our own “Sopranos,” we can do “The Godfather,” we can do “Sideways,” we can do a “Brokeback Mountain.” We should have the full range of human experience. It’s an art form like any other art form. For me, that’s the importance of preserving it. Not necessarily, people will often point to the extremes. And if I say we have a right to the full range of human experience they’ll say, “Brenda Brathwaite wants everybody in games to screw!” Which is not the case. In fact, time and time again, it’s been proven that that doesn’t make your game sell. In fact, it will often embarrass you off the shelf.
Here’s an interesting tidbit about women in games. There are to this day, that I’m aware of, there are still no sex games for women. The only one that’s not intentional that I would recommend… People say, if you’re a woman where would you go? “Second Life.” There’s a large adult community in “Second Life.” Not on the teen servers, but on the regular servers.
Multiplayer: You advocate the right for games to have the right to have sex and violence in them in order to facilitate mature themes in storytelling. To play Devil’s Advocate, what do you say about games that are overly violent, that portray the Virginia Tech shootings, or say if something as offensive as the Jade Raymond comic was made into a game?
Brathwaite: Wow, well that’s one hell of a question. Henry Jenkins from MIT posted something on his blog yesterday… Let me run to my computer and get the exact quote. Hang on a second while I get the exact quote because it just hit the nail on the head. … His quote was, “As an art form, games deserve constitutional protection. But as artists, game designers have a responsibility to take seriously what they’re saying through their work and how that message is being received by their audience.”
And when I read that it was like, wow. As artists, we have a responsibility to take seriously. So not just to go, “Yeah, let’s really make this over the top and crazy!” If you were going to do something responsible — for some reason this quote just really hit me, and I’m sure I’ve heard something similar before. You know, I could throw a party, and it could [cost] $85,000 and I could invite tons of people, but it would be highly irresponsible and I would probably lose my house in the process. To handle this content, because we are in a position of power that we can use this content to do what we would like to do. As creative artists in any medium, to be aware and to really use that responsibly. And for some reason Professor Jenkins’ quote just really hit me.
Multiplayer: So you’re saying people should have a right to use sex and violence but at the same time, you would hope they would do it in a way that is contributing to something and not just doing it for shock value.
Brathwaite: Exactly. Not just doing it for shock value. But you could add a ton of extra notes to a piece of music too, or just keep adding random paragraphs, or dropping 37 F-bombs in front of something. But is it really necessary? Just taking responsibility for it. People have argued that there were certain elements in “The Sopranos” that were not necessary. But I really think that properly, I think “The Sopranos” is genius. … With “The Sopranos,” I think that was necessary. I don’t know what you would have removed or what you would have added in, I think it was done just perfectly. And we wouldn’t have the ability in games right now without going to an AO level is my guess, to have that kind of stuff in a video game to the extent certainly that it is in “The Sopranos.” And if we get the gates closed, that bothers me. It really bothers me. It’s a tremendous restriction on creative freedom. I want to start with the whole palette. I may never use it, and I never have used it! Certainly I have not made a hardcore sex game.
Multiplayer: But just having the option to if someone were to create something unique and great and different some day, that they are allowed to use sex if they so choose.
Brathwaite: Yeah, and even having the act of people making love or something. We can all think of movies, like “Sideways,” there’s that hysterical scene when the guy comes running out naked, it’s like priceless! Stuff like that. He had the option to have it, and that scene… Still to this day I’ll just think about it and it cracks me up. So there’s stuff like that. Was it necessary? Maybe it’s not necessary. But it was used responsibly and it was hip and it was part of the artist’s overall vision.
Multiplayer: But I guess that point will always be arguable, if it’s artful or not. Like the guy who made the Jade comic could be like, “Oh, it’s art. It’s a political statement.”
Brathwaite: True. Absolutely. That’s why I would go back to Professor Jenkins’ comments. Using it responsibly, and responsibly implies that you’re really thinking through what you’re about to do when you do it. Just please stop for a second, put down your mouse, and think about what you’re about to do. And did this person who created this comic, did this person think through how it would affect this other person? Holy crap, how could you not think of how that would affect somebody? It’s phenomenally self-centered. And what if this woman had kids? It doesn’t even matter whether she has kids or not. But what if she did? That would compound it. Because as a parent you’re like, “Oh, dear God, what about my kids? Go ahead, cut my leg off but spare my kids.” Okay fine, it was a statement, great. But was it a statement that was made responsibly? Jenkins is advocating that we take seriously and act responsibly. And that quote just hit me like a ton of bricks yesterday.
Multiplayer: Before you mentioned having women be more visible, and you’re obviously out there at conferences. I guess you feel comfortable being a spokesperson for female gamers and developers?
Brathwaite: Well, I feel comfortable talking as a woman and as a game developer. And I do get letters frequently from women who say, “Hey, I heard about you and keep up the good work.” So I get that sort of stuff. I’d still like to think I’m fairly approachable. I certainly send a lot of e-mails back. And on my blog if people comment I will almost always comment back to them. As bizarre as it seems, I don’t even notice it that much. Because it’s always been like this. And I’ve been in the game industry since I was 15, and I didn’t have a real job before I got in the game industry. So honest to God, I don’t know anything else. I don’t know anything else. It’s not an uncomfortable place for me to be in.
It was bizarre right after I started talking about sex in games, and I started doing research on that, because then it was explosive. And despite the fact that I’ve worked in games for 20 years and made maybe 20 games at that point in time, suddenly it was like massive news. And that I remember feeling like, “Holy crap, who’s calling? MTV? What?” That really took me aback for a little bit. But it doesn’t so much bother me now. So yeah, I’m comfortable with that and it’s been a great career for me. I can’t imagine having done anything else and if I had to do it all over again I’d do the exact same thing.
Got thoughts on Brenda Brathwaite’s interview? Let us know! And be sure to check out the other interviews from women working in games. Next up: Tali Fischer, Public Relations Manager at Sega of America.