Women in gaming: Interview with the Executive Director of The Global Game Jam

Article written by Andy Turton, Director of X4 Technology.

I was lucky enough to interview Kate Edwards, executive director of The Global Game Jam and CEO and founder of Geogrify, who also has 27+ years’ experience working in the games industry.

The Global Game Jam is the world’s largest game creation event, bringing together talented individuals from all backgrounds to create a game which aligns to a central theme in 48 hours.  Kate also founded Geogrify, the only company of its kind which focuses on the geopolitical and cultural risks in digital content, specialising in video games, in which they concentrate on making digital content accessible to local markets through translation.

From learning about Kate’s remarkable journey and the impact she’s had on the industry, to what she thinks about representation in the industry and games themselves, this interview is not short of fascinating insights.

With a strong background in geography, cartography, geopolitics and cross-cultural issues, what attracted you to the gaming industry?

For me, it goes back to my love of games which has existed since I was a child. As soon as arcade cabinets started showing up when I was in high school, that became my culture. There was no Facebook or anything, our culture revolved around going to the arcade so, I’ve always loved games, but I’d never aspired to work in games.

My original aspirations were to be an astronaut but then eventually, I went into cartography and geography and it was in that pursuit of geography, that I moved to Seattle to study at the University of Washington.

During my studies in cartography, we got a call from Microsoft as they needed a cartographer and so, I began working as a contractor for Microsoft, which turned into a full-time position. I created an internal team to deal with geopolitical and cultural risk in all their content. This included their games, reviewing them for sensitivities, such as gestures, colour usage and character design. I basically walked backwards into the games industry.

It’s the people that have kept me in the industry. I love being around creative people. There are so many amazing people who are so talented in all kinds of areas in this industry.

In your role as executive director at The Global Game Jam, how do you empower individuals worldwide to learn, experiment and create together through the medium of games?

I love this organisation and what it represents. Over the latest couple of years, games have become more democratised because of tools like unreal, unity, game-maker, etc. Lots of these companies make free versions that anyone can download, and I’ve travelled the world and met so many amazing people who are self-taught and have this tremendous love for the medium.

What’s important is that games creation has reached a point where it’s basically as accessible as going to an art shop and buying a canvas, brushes and paints and going home to paint what you want. You can download the software and start working on a game. That’s really opened the world to the possibilities of what games can be.

That’s one of the things I love about the Global Game Jam, is that that’s exactly what it represents. Last year’s event was held in 118+ countries, with 50,000 people across 934 sites globally, all making games at the same time and they collectively produced 9,600 games. Everyone involved is from all different walks of life and they all come together because they share this love of games. It’s amazing to see it all come together, it’s very enriching.

You’ve been involved in some huge games, what do you think is the next fastest-growing gaming trend?

We’re seeing more departure from what I consider as standard genres, like Halo, COD and Animal Crossing, etc. They’re not going away, but what’s really exciting to me and frankly, where I see the most innovation, is the independent gaming community. Indie game developers aren’t as constrained by the need to produce revenue. Obviously, they want to make money but a lot of larger studios are dealing with massive franchises so there’s a lot at stake for them, which constrains how creative they can be because ultimately you’re serving an audience who likes a certain thing.

I’m really excited for the next COD and Halo, I don’t expect them to be vastly different because that’s part of the point, people want that similar experience they’ve had before. Whereas, indie games don’t have that constraint so it’s a whole new experience. In the indie space, we’re seeing things most AAA companies wouldn’t do [in my opinion] as it’s deemed too experimental or controversial but games need to mature and to mature, they need to take on all kinds of topics and take risks in what is considered an acceptable game.

We’ve seen this in every other creative medium, they reach a point where the creators take on any topic. Games unfortunately, have been constrained to making only fun and not controversial or sad games. But games like The Last of Us or The Last of Us 2 are very moving so it’s great we’re seeing more games expand the expectations of what a game can be.

There’s been some internal criticism of working conditions in gaming. Do you think that’s being addressed and improving already?

No, to be blunt. I ran the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) for 5 years, which is an advocacy association for game developers so I was very vocal about a lot of topics that affect the industry.

Obviously, diversity and inclusion is a big one that needs to be remedied. Working conditions is another one I’ve been very vocal about. I do think companies are slowly starting to understand that you employees are your talent and your real assets. The franchise you own and the games you’re putting out are the product of your talent and companies can forget that. The more companies that acknowledge this, the more they’ll realise how they need to treat their talent. It’s about serving the employees’ needs to reach a collective goal which is to create an amazing game.

I do think it’s improving slowly. It tends to be more of a geographic phenomenon though, certainly labour laws in the EU tend to be stronger than here in the US, where they’re pretty bad and non-existent in some cases.

There are cultural differences too. I spoke to a studio head in Denmark once and he said that even during highly pressured times, his employees wouldn’t crunch, they’d still leave by 6pm because it’s not part of their culture to work themselves to death. Whereas in the USA, working so many hours is some kind of twisted badge of honour, but it’s slowly getting better, partially because the younger generations expect more and say no we won’t crunch, you need to be a better project manager.

Do you feel the efforts in improving female representation in the industry are being improved?

It’s a complicated topic, it is, and it isn’t. The non-complicated part is yes, it’s only about 20% women on average worldwide in the industry. The complicated part is more about how we get companies to recognise that underrepresented people have value.

Lots of this has been addressed and some of it publicly, where we’ve seen lots about sexism and scandal, which has majorly shaking up the industry. Every one of these major incidents helps to expose those problems in that company and gets other companies in the industry to wake up and reflect, ask themselves hard and honest questions about what goes on in their company.

A lot of this frankly comes from leadership; if they’re unwilling to be aware of what the problems are in their own hands by not listening to what their employees are saying, then it’s the leadership who are accountable. I hear anecdotes from women every single day in the industry and it makes me angry because we’re not going to change human nature, but we can keep it accountable. There needs to be structures in place in companies so that if I get harassed and report it, somethings going to be done about it. There needs to be accountability structures so there’s a culture of calling out and whistleblowing.

I do think there’s a greater awareness, not just over the last couple of years but over the last couple of months with the black lives matter movement. It’s emphasised again not just about the lack of gender diversity but the lack of racial diversity and other under representation in the industry. A lot of companies posted their BLM statement about what they’re going to do to change things, which is great but again, a lot of us are sceptical because we’ve heard this before and unless there’s a change in behaviour and we’re shown there are accountability structures, it’s going to be hard to believe it.

All that being said, there’s a lot of great companies who’s culture has changed and even smaller to medium sized companies who left larger AAA companies specifically because they wanted to have a good work life balance or because they want to have better representation in their company across the board. The industry is becoming more open to its flaws and things are changing, but it’s slow and we still need to push it.

What’s your biggest piece of advice, no matter the individuals background?

Don’t let the lack of representation in the industry put you off joining. I’ve been in the industry for 27 years and there’s a reason why I’m vocal, it’s because I want other women especially young women who are considering gaming as a career, who see all the bad stuff online, to join gaming.

If you’re in that category where you like games and think you’d like to work in the industry, think about your skill set and what exactly you think you’d like to do. I’m a geographer who’s been in the industry a long time, if I can make up a job in this industry then anybody can. I know psychologists who do user experience design and user research. I know sociologists, historians, astrologers, etc. so whatever your academic degree or initial interest is in, there’s potentially a role for you. Ultimately, what we’re doing is building worlds and when you’re building worlds that requires a massive range of skills to do something like that.

Finally, and most importantly, think about what you’re good at and what you enjoy most. I’m in my mid 50’s and I can tell you that I’m doing what I absolutely love. It’s very rare you’ll find your dream job in this industry, like most career paths you must work towards a job that’s related to your strongest skill sets so you get into a company. Once you’re inside a company, it’s often much easier to transition laterally to a new job. So, if you want to develop your art skills you can go talk to that team because you’re an employee. You know you can find mentors that way too. Use LinkedIn and other networking tools before even getting into the industry and ask people if they’ll give you some time to ask questions. I run a lot of industry events and most people like sharing what they do so don’t be shy to ask.

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