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How Jane Doe Became Pistol Patty: Megan Carriker of Spark Plug Talks Women in Games

Interview

The gaming industry is seriously lacking in women. This is an issue that is being discussed all over the place — at convention panels, on industry blogs, in focus groups, behind board room doors. There is a small but steadily increasing push to get more women into game development (as well as software at large) through incentives such as game design scholarships and better recruitment strategies. I think we can all agree that these efforts are a really good thing. But for the sake of argument…just why is it so important to get women on board?

To help answer that, let me bring you into an email conversation I had this week with Megan Carriker, a staff member at indie developer Spark Plug Games. Of the fifteen people on staff, Megan is the only woman. She shared with me some interesting insights, not only about the development process, but of how she was able to help bring about some positive changes to their latest titles.

According to Megan, women have typically made up the majority of Spark Plug’s audience. This makes sense, when you consider that Spark Plug specializes in casual games, a corner of the gaming market dominated by female consumers. The question of how to better cater to their female audience was already being kicked around by the time Megan joined the company.

As for the female audience being a priority – that was definitely a conversation that was going on before I came here. And they had definitely expressed a desire to expand the diversity of the staff. I don’t think it was intentional that they then brought me on board but since I’ve been at the table, I’ve been able to add plenty of different perspectives.

They’ve been absolutely fantastic at taking my opinions and incorporating them. What sort of items would I want? What would I think about this? Think about that? I helped push along the thoughts of a second currency for WW:OFB, introduced the idea of the daily goals/quests and was able to influence some small things. It was exciting, to say the least.

Though Megan was loving her new job and the inclusive attitude of the staff, she noticed some presentational elements that needed help. Exhibit A: Annie’s boobs (not the monkey).

For example, when Facebook Timeline kicked in for all brand pages, the image we had ready just wouldn’t work. It’s the image up right now on our main page. And as you can see, the Facebook profile pic for Witch’s Workshop: Open for Business only features Annie’s face and doesn’t have her at the top: That’s because the cover image for Facebook just kept showing her boobs. It kept cutting off her face and just focusing on her upper torso. I don’t know why. Every time I would try to resize it, it was always just really prominent that you saw Annie’s boobs on the cover image and it was really agitating me. So I got our artists to make a new image.

Megan’s influence changed more than just artwork mishaps. Spark Plug is currently in development for Plight of the Zombie, an Android/iOS puzzle game with ravenous undead protagonists. During her first play-test, Megan noticed a problem.

Every level in POTZ involves eating humans. That’s a given. But the issue, I found, was that every single developer had used the one female character (who was weapon-less) as the easy, pick-up/gimme brain. So essentially every level had Jane Doe (which was her name at the time) in a corner at some point as a possible human to get the most easily since she had no weapons in any level.

My ears pricked when I read the phrase “every single developer.” I asked Megan for details. Was I correctly understanding that the developers had all independently cast poor Jane Doe as zombie fodder?

None of the designers had realized what they had done. They just used the weaponless character and didn’t think a thing about it. They didn’t react much when I pointed it out. They sort of had an “oh, hey, you’re right” moment and immediately went to changing it without any more questions asked. But it was an issue where it just wasn’t discussed from the beginning. The artists knew they’d include a female character and somewhere along the line, without discussing it much, it was all just mutually agreed that Jane Doe would be weaponless. So all of the designers, without discussing it with each other, just simply placed her as the gimme human in each level that was completely helpless. But their reaction was really ideal. Nobody made a fuss or seemed embarrassed or fought me on changing it. They simply opened their eyes to the different perspective and we went forward from there to change things.

So what happened to Jane Doe?

She is now called Pistol Patty (in-line with the other characters, the pistol-owner was originally Pete Pistol) and is one of the more powerful humans in the game.

Awesome.

Even little victories like this one show why it’s so important for women to be a part of game development. As Megan mentioned in one of her emails, the gaming industry is “overwhelmingly white and male.” Now, being white and male isn’t a bad thing, and certainly there are white, male developers who can create diverse characters with the best of them. But this imbalance does mean that other perspectives are widely excluded (and if that doesn’t bother you from a cultural perspective, then at least consider how your bottom line would improve with a wider audience). All it took for Jane Doe to become Pistol Patty was for a fresh set of eyes to look at the game and point out that something was off. I have often thought that unflattering portrayals of women in games — in all media, really — aren’t typically the result of deliberate thought, but rather a lack thereof. The guys at Spark Plug did not intentionally set out to create a damsel. They just didn’t think about it. This is exactly why stereotypes are such a bad thing; they creep into our brains and influence our actions without much conscious thought. Everyone succumbs to the images presented by the status quo. This was brought up in an article I read last year, concerning female developers in the Vancouver game industry.

Deirdra Kiai remembers one time a male employer in the video-game industry handed her a list of potential game characters. “Okay, I know I’m biased. Tell me which of these characters can be women,” he said, according to Kiai, who is a Flash game designer and programmer at Vancouver’s Agentic Communications.

“I’m happy that he sought my input, but at the same time kind of sad for the greater state of society that this was necessary,” she said, laughing, during an interview with the Georgia Straight at a Gastown restaurant. “And it’s not just men who do this. When I was younger and creating my own characters, I would often make them male by default myself until I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’”

As the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see,” and that goes for what you create, too. With games becoming a prominent part of our cultural narrative — both as entertainment and artistic expression — the need for a more universal array of perspectives could not be more important. So, props to Megan, for speaking up, and to the whole Spark Plug development team, for listening. That’s something I hope to see a whole lot more of as the gaming industry continues to evolve.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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