Longtime woman game dev on being a 'cultural fit'


Laralyn McWilliams has been in the video game business for half her life. It's not that there are no women her age in game development, simply that there are few, and only recently has she begun to speak out about her experience of the industry.

For most of her career, she says she preferred to avoid discussions of gender, but learned startling things about herself and others once she began to bring it up:

It was a little over a year ago when I started to speak very quietly, very pragmatically about the experiences of women in game development. The backlash was clear and immediate. Those discussions were unwelcome and were met with open hostility from some colleagues. At one point, I was told directly that any discussion of women's experiences in game development was like debating religion and politics–it wasn't just divisive, it was "off topic" in a game development group.

I said in response that I thought of myself as a game developer first and a woman second. When those words left my mouth, I was stunned: not just because I'd said them, but because in that moment, I meant them. I felt gutted, by the clear exclusion of my colleagues and by awareness of my own complicity.

In a new post she's written at Gamasutra, titled "We're Not Pegs", she provides an englightening and measured look at her experience, and at the countless tiny alienations women often experience in development and are discouraged from discussing. She recalls the first time she read this popular piece from a black woman engineer at Google, where the writer described the subtle ways she found herself adapting her self-expression and identity to fit in, to put her white colleagues at ease.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

The deceptively-controversial topic of what makes a "cultural fit", and who does (and does not) have an easy time being a "cultural fit", has come up in games-oriented social media lately thanks to Holly Nielsen's piece in the Guardian about her perception of a "dress code" in the game industry. She argued the prevailing preference for checkered shirts and industry tees—or the idea clothes don't matter altogether—had led to a sort of dude culture "uniform", which limits fashion choices for women and emphasizes their outlier status. Women game developers and journalists are, Nielsen wrote, left with few choices except to be "one of the guys", lest they draw unwanted attention for being "dressed up" or "sexy", or lest they be mistaken for other professions.

While plenty of women related to Nielsen's experience (and others didn't), her piece brought a surprising degree of censure from men all over the industry, who argued about everything from the semantics of the phrase "dress code" to all the more important issues people concerned with sexism should be paying attention to instead. Laralyn McWilliams' article addresses this response:

I saw derision from many of those same peers whose opinions had shaped me over the years. "That's so stupid–there's no dress code. I wear what I want," those mostly white male colleagues said. "There are no rules other than 'please wear clothes.'"

They missed the point. When you're already nearly perfectly round and a good match for the hole in which you want to fit, you don't sweat a few differences. You still fit in that hole so gracefully, so naturally, that you can sport your few minimally unique edges or your slightly off shade with pride, as a badge of honor. I don't blame them for not seeing it: when your peg easily fits in the hole, it's easy to assume that the hole fits everyone, or in fact that the hole doesn't even exist.

If you have a shape that's not an easy fit, though, you become aware of anything that calls out those differences.

Further, she says it's not just women or feminine people who are affected by this implicit suite of rules, who feel the pressure to whittle themselves down until they "fit". People with religious needs, a same-gender partner, or even folks who don't drink alcohol struggle in environments where cultural uniformity to the dominant paradigm is encouraged, and examining that paradigm is met with swift rebuke.

Read McWilliams' whole post over at Gamasutra. Watch her speak about game design here. You can also hear her speak on the inaugural #1ReasontoBe panel, which Brenda Romero and I annually curate at the Game Developers Conference, here.