A Day in the Life of a Female Game Developer

The game industry is undergoing a dramatic transformation in who develops games and who plays them. More women are part of the game development process and more women are playing games than ever before. “We want to make games for everyone in the whole world, and the world is a lot bigger than one gender,” said Kate Kellogg, Head of Operations at Amazon Game Studios and former VP of Studio Operations at 2K Games.

This past Monday, April 22, 2019, at the Amazon Web Services Pop-Up Loft in San Francisco, Advancing Women in Product (AWIP) and Amazon Game Tech brought together three women technology leaders from the game industry to discuss their experiences. The panelists shared individual and corporate-level strategies they have used to respond to inequities in the workplace. They also provided guidance to those looking to land a job in game development.

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Kate Kellogg was joined by Khevna Shah, Curriculum Developer at Girls Who Code and former Technical Designer at Rockstar Games, and Katrina Wolfe, Senior Operations Manager at Kongregate and former Producer at TinyCo and Grab Games. The panel was moderated by Jenny Tai, Senior Product Manager at Tubular Labs and former Senior Product Manager at Zynga, and sponsored by Emil Mouhanna, Amazon Game Tech Sales Leader.

I was pleased to be asked by my AWIP colleagues to cover an event related to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. I’m lucky to be married to someone whose career focuses on equity and inclusion in the workplace, but the stories from the panelists made me all the more aware of how far we have left to go — and how we might get there.

The Challenges of Communication in the Workplace

Speaking up when someone says something inappropriate is never easy, but it can be especially difficult in work environments.

When comments or behavior in the workplace crosses the line, Kate said, learning to “be brave, speak your own truth, and ask people to respect you” is crucial. All the panelists emphasized that the more courage individuals show, the easier it is for everyone else to feel comfortable speaking up, too.

In terms of how to learn to “be brave,” seeking out support from coworkers is essential. The panelists emphasized the value of building allies who provide encouragement and emotional strength, help talk things through, and help craft thoughtful responses in difficult situations. Knowing when to speak up can get complicated. Kate explained that allies help figure this out by making one aware of one’s own biases and skill sets while being cognizant of others’ biases.

Achieving success in the workplace requires effective communication, and that requires awareness of one’s own communication style and as well as others’. The panelists explained that understanding how you best convey information and how others best receive it is critical. Depending on the situation, for example, a face-to-face conversation may be more effective than an email.

Allies can also help address the frustration of not being heard or trusted in meetings. Katrina describes an experience where she was struggling to be heard and earn trust from her colleagues. She wondered, “Am I not saying the right things, or is it just sexist?” Finding allies was the key to changing how people perceived her. She asked a coworker, “Can you just be more aware in these conversations, and either give me advice on how I can communicate better, or if you do think they’re doing something wrong, call it out?”

One of the outcomes of this was a team culture that helped both women and men be heard. When someone said something and later someone else repeated it, then others would call out that it had been said before. As Katrina explained, “it was helpful for even the men … trying to get heard and have a presence in the conversations.”

This was eye-opening for me. As I thought back to team meetings over the years where I had felt ignored, or where someone else had received praise for saying something I had said earlier, I wished I had learned to ask allies to look out for me in meetings.

Being the Representative for All Women

Kate describes an experience that recurred throughout her career — being the only woman in a group of colleagues, and being apologized to any time someone made “a comment or a joke that was a little questionable.” It was as if others assumed she was “holding the bar for what was an appropriate standard, as if I was in charge of what was okay.” Khevna agrees, saying that when someone says something inappropriate, “I don’t want to necessarily be the police.”

Whereas earlier in their careers, panelists might have been unsure how to respond, one panelist said, “Now, I’m really comfortable calling out and saying, ‘Everybody here might have an opinion about whether that’s an acceptable comment.”

Being the only woman on a team can also result in typecasting into projects related to traditionally-female roles. Katrina described a situation: when a project came up focusing on raising children, she and a female colleague were selected to work on it, despite not being parents. For me, this highlighted both the emotional labor that women face in the game industry and the need for greater representation.

This was a reminder to me to not make assumptions about others’ passions and to work to bring diverse perspectives into all aspects of product development.


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Influencing Leadership and Changing the Industry

Changing a company’s culture is hard. It requires buy-in from leadership, but if leadership is not on board, bottom-up influence is difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, our panel had some suggestions:

  • Talk about it. Katrina said, “The more we talk about it, and have people getting into the industry who care, and will speak up in their own companies to say, we should do this, this should happen, why aren’t we doing this, and just asking that at your own company, will make the other people realize we should think about this, we should do that.”

  • Demonstrate the business opportunity. As Kate put it, “The more we diversify our staffs… the better chance we have to really target big, monster, world-impacting success. By connecting what is morally and socially correct with the business opportunity, that is a huge potential.” Katrina added that analytics help to know who the audience is.

  • Organize Diversity and Inclusion trainings. Khevna pointed out the value of D&I trainings, which help employees get better at difficult conversations. Many game companies fall into the trap of pursuing diversity without inclusion, and that leads women to leave.

  • Raise awareness of unconscious bias in hiring and promotions.Katrina said that Kongregate’s senior leadership makes “a huge effort when we’re looking for resumes to try and get a balanced group and … talk through our own biases to help make sure we know if we’re impacting it in a way that we don’t quite realize.”

Some leaders succeed in creating open environments in which employees are encouraged to speak up. In his acceptance speech for the Human Rights Campaign National Equality Award, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, “We want our employees to be empowered to speak their mind, and to be heard. Every Amazonian should feel comfortable sharing their unique perspectives and every Amazonian should seek out the perspectives of others.”

Katrina talked about Emily Greer, CEO and co-founder of Kongregate, as being “very proactive about trying to make a culture that is inclusive… Our CEO makes a huge effort to say, ‘if you ever have problems, you can come directly to me.’” Emily Greer is also adamant about work-life balance, which Katrina highlighted as a major component of the inclusive culture at Kongregate.

Advice for Those Interested in Entering the Game Industry

The most common advice panelists offered attendees interested in a career in game development was to have ways to show your work. A few examples included:

  • Join a hackathon. If you win an award, you can put that on your resume. Even if you produce nothing, you learn from your failures. As Khevna put it, “Hackathons build your bravery muscle.”

  • Work on a mod. Kate said, “If you want to be in games, you can be in games tonight” — by getting a game with a mod toolkit. There are even contests for mods.

  • Participate in open source projects. Seek them out and submit, Khevna said.

  • Share your art. Your art does not have to be in games for you to show off your skills.

All the panelists emphasized the value of networking. This theme carried throughout the event, which included a recruiter for Amazon Game Studios.

So Why Game Development?

Despite its challenges, pursuing a career in the game industry as a woman has an advantage.

Khevna described situations where she had points of view that no one else did, and where she found bugs in the software that no one else would have. As Katrina said, “Going into the game industry, you should think of your point of view as inherently valuable, because you have a unique point of view that is such a big business opportunity for so many companies.”

Moreover, for game developers, the field is unlike any other area of technology.

Although she left the game industry multiple times, Kate talked about why she kept returning: “The passion of people that work in games is completely motivating. It’s a challenge to keep the work-life balance. But that kind of momentum is what I want to have around myself.”

And isn’t that what we all want — a career where we bring value and are surrounded by people passionate about their work, in an industry that, if we’re lucky, sees us as whole people?

The full panel discussion is available on AWIP’s YouTube Channel.