Video Game Developer Brianna Wu Is the Heroine She Wanted to See | JOB HACKS
It's not just Gamergate, she says: "I work in the most sexist industry in the entire world."
Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
Name: Brianna Wu
Original Hometown: Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Job: Blogger, activist, motivational speaker, and head of video game development at Giant Spacekat. Wu was at the center of Gamergate and has become an advocate for better portrayals of female characters in video games. For her work in speaking out against discrimination and harassment in the gaming world, she has received many death threats. She has been interviewed and featured across a wide variety of media outlets like CNN, The Wall Street Journal, VICE, The Guardian, and contributes essays to publications like The Boston Globe and more.
How did you get your start?
I had basically been frustrated since 1985 about the lack of women in video games. Ever since I got my first Nintendo Entertainment System, it was really frustrating to see game after game present the player with a male protagonist, not a female protagonist. I have worked in different fields my whole life. I’ve worked in politics, I’ve worked in reporting, and I’ve launched companies. In 2010, I could see that the wind was really shifting in the video game industry — there was a real explosion of women players. So I made the choice to launch my own company and make games where women got to be the hero.
How would you explain Gamergate to those who aren’t in the industry?
Gamergate is a violent backlash against women that speak up in the game industry. The truth is, in 1989 women were 3 percent of gamers; in 2008 women were 17 percent of gamers, and today we are between 46 percent and 52 percent of gamers. Because of that, the game industry is changing.
Some players out there prefer games exactly the way that they are, where women are sexualized damsels in distress — set pieces in fantasies designed for men. There’s a certain portion of gamers that like games exactly like that, and they will aggressively harass any woman that speaks up against it. It’s very disheartening to see the amount of structural sexism that exists in the game industry. Gamergate didn’t come into existence in a vacuum. For 30 years, the professionals that make your video games have been putting these signals into games: signals to male players that they are the center of this universe. Gamergate is a kind of symptom of a disease. I work in the most sexist industry in the entire world.
Was that something you thought about before you got involved in the industry — the sexism?
I obviously believed in my own equality before I got into the game industry. But I have to tell you, back in 2010 when I launched my studio, I didn’t talk about feminism and equality to the point I do today. My attitude was much more, “Keep your head down, do a good job, and you’ll be fine.” What I found was a professional culture that is outright abusive to women. I felt like I was put in a position where I had to speak out against it. If not just over the principle, but because my own ability to survive in this career depended on it.
You mentioned that Gamergate does not exist in a vacuum — over the course of the past year, similar incidents like the Hugo Awards fiasco and the incident at SXSW have happened. Do you see these as becoming more frequent? Is the situation getting worse?
Social media has allowed more women to get together and talk about our experiences in way that has never happened before in history. The good of that is that we’re talking about equality more than we’ve ever talked about it before. I think it’s excellent. But the downside to this is the men who criminally harass women — they are also able to network and communicate with each other like never before. Because of that, we are seeing a literal war against women that speak out. It’s absolutely terrifying. Overall, addressing things like SXSW, addressing things like Gamergate — it’s important and it has to be done — but I think for the public, it’s tempting to focus on the positive and not think about the very steep cost that women are paying by speaking out.
Your decision to speak out has involved a lot more public speaking than you probably thought you’d be doing when you decided to get into the game industry. Has that been a learning experience for you?
My [husband](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FrankWu(artist) is a science fiction celebrity, so I have certainly gone to science fiction conventions with him and spoken over the years, but it’s really required me to step up skills in a whole new way. I do TV appearances regularly, I speak to journalists nearly every day of the week. I have to focus my public message to address this structural sexism.
What I found is the video game industry desperately needs leadership in addressing these things. The judges for the Game Awards — which is a huge event in the video game industry, it’s basically the Emmys — came out two weeks ago. Out of 52 judges, only one was a woman. So who’s going to talk about this stuff?
I tried to back-channel with the conference and talk to them about that. They were very resistant to talking to me or hearing criticism. I tried to talk to video game press about writing on the subject — which, by the way, is a very male- dominated field. The men in our field chose to say nothing about it. Interestingly, a lot of the women that were veterans — their tendency was to be quiet as well. We’ve been trained to see no evil, hear no evil.
We need for people to stand up and say “Hey, this isn’t right.” It’s not right that we have awesome women journalists on YouTube these days, but you just don’t hear about them. All the categories are filled with men. So it’s not that I want to be doing any of this — because I don’t get paid for it, and to be honest, it’s a massive distraction from running my own studio. But it has to be done. We need people standing up and changing this culture. Because it’s not just that it’s sexist, it’s that it’s so sexist, it’s endangering the lives of the women that work here.
What would you say to fellow women in the industry who see this problem but think they’ll let someone else handle it instead of stepping up the way you are?
It’s complicated. Not everyone can be on the front lines speaking out against this stuff. The video game industry is such a hard place to work when you’re a woman, I don’t begrudge anyone anything they have to do to stay here and work. It is frustrating that people like me have to take one for the team, but I don’t hold that against women who aren’t as comfortable speaking out. Behind the scenes I have almost never met a woman that works in our field that doesn’t think there are extremely serious problems with sexism. But the truth is, the cost is so high for speaking out against it, it’s very understandable why someone would choose to be silent about it.
So because the cost is so high, and you continue to speak out, you obviously view it as being worth it. Where do you see the future going? Do you think change is happening?
I know real change is happening. I recently wrote about Tomb Raider. In 2008, Crystal Dynamics released a Tomb Raider game. It was Lara Croft as a sex object — lots of shots of her butt in a tight wetsuit. But look at the way they portray Lara Croft today. They deliberately took the sexist moments out of it and you see her simply presented as a person.
Our industry is making slow strides. There are two tactics. You need to recognize the games like Tomb Raider that do a good job and do step forward, but we also need to call out structural sexism like the Game Awards and force our industry to get its head out of the sand. The game media is the biggest problem that exists — it’s an extremely sexists part of the equation. If you look at the staff of Game It Forward or the staff of Giant Bomb or Kotaku you are going to see women making up a single digit percentage. Not even one woman has ever worked at Giant Bomb. And it shows in their coverage, which is just a flat-out erasure of any issue that has to do with women in games.
Have you ever found yourself liking a game that has a very sexist portrayal of women?
Of course, I probably have 100 games like that.
How do you reconcile those disparate aspects of your personality — your enjoyment of these games and your desire for women to be treated as equals?
It’s hard. For instance, Dragon’s Crown has a ridiculously sexualized portrayal of women in it. This woman has breasts that are like six times larger than her head, but it’s an amazing game. You constantly feel kind of at war with yourself because our industry repeatedly puts up games that are fun, but have extremely sexist and demeaning messages towards women. So it’s honestly very hard to enjoy games sometimes.
When you start feeling down about enjoying it, is that what incites you to create your own games that portray them in a different light?
That’s exactly it. Our industry has an innovation problem. We are stuck making these same violent games over and over again. Why don’t we have more story-based games? I want to go to a world and interact with people, but the product our industry is putting out are these violent, sexist games about killing. So what we’re doing at our studio is we are in the middle of raising $23 million to build games that are going to let you interact with stories and in extremely organic ways.
We have three primary sensors that we’re working on. One is looking at where your eyes are pointed, another is looking at your body language, another is analyzing the emotional tone of your voice and determining the intent behind it. The technology we are working on will let you put on VR goggles and live in this world and talk to people and have them react in emotional ways to what you are saying. So if you’re looking a character in the eye while talking to them about something serious, they’re going to respond to you with more fire than if you’re looking around the room. If you speak to someone aggressively, that is going to affect how they react to you. We are working on these extremely complicated tools to get to really awesome story-based games.
To be a woman in your industry, what are some of the traits you have to have?
There’s no one way to be a woman in this industry. Some women choose to stay completely silent. Some women choose to align themselves, frankly, with the sexists of our industry, because you’re rewarded if you do. Some women are firebrands and we speak out. Some women choose to slowly influence things behind the scenes at their publication or studio. There’s no one right way to be a woman in the industry. Don’t listen to the voices telling you that you don’t belong here: Women are 50 percent of the gaming market in 2015.
What would you attribute the surge in popularity for women in video games to?
When the iPhone came out in 2008, it was a game-changing moment because it let us start over. In 2007, if you were to play a game, I would hand you a PlayStation 3 controller. You’re basically handing to a beginner this tool that requires you to be extremely comfortable with 15 button and dual joysticks. When the iPhone came out, it vastly simplified that. You just touched whatever you wanted to do on screen. So we gave gamers a starting point to kind of start learning how to play games and it resulted in this huge explosion of gamers.
The problem is, nowadays, the industry seems to be stuck. They think the games that women only want to play are Farmville. It’s just not true. It’s really telling to ask yourself, what is the highest-budget game ever made for men? You look at that and it’ll probably be Call of Duty or Destiny. But if you ask yourself what is the highest-budget game ever made for women, it basically doesn’t exist. You can target something like Hello Kitty with the budget of $3 million, but that’s as high as it gets. The truth is, our industry has never taken women very seriously.
What about men in the industry who might not be the ones sending you death threats and aren’t bad guys, but they’re also not necessarily educated in feminism. How do you think that should be handled?
One of the biggest problems we face is these kinds of men feel like they have all the facts when in fact they don’t live these experiences. So we have this problem where they feel very informed, and yet they’re objectively uninformed about it. There’s no magic bullet there. I talk to men every single day that have sexist attitudes and don’t understand it. They’re not necessarily bad people, but they’re part of the problem in ways they don’t understand. I honestly don’t know what else you can do other than to just keep talking about it, keep banging the drums, keep asking them to think about these issues.
Do you have any speaking engagements coming up that you’re looking forward to?
I’m speaking at GamerX next month, I’m really excited about that. I’m sure my assistant knows where we’re going and when, but I honestly don’t know. I’ve woken up in the morning and have gone, “Oh! I guess I’m flying to France today!”
When you first got into gaming, did you ever think this would be your life?
Absolutely not. And I don’t get paid to do any of this. I have a page where people can contribute to a fund that hires a dedicated person in my company to help with some of these tasks, like cataloging my death threats and sending it to law enforcement. But I grew up in Mississippi, which is a place more racist than most people can imagine. What I repeatedly saw growing up in Mississippi was a lot of white people that were just choosing to not see all the terrible ways we treated black people in that state.
I used to think it was a problem with the South, but the truth is it’s human nature. We have a tendency to not want to think about ways that we could be hurting other people. So for me, it’s a question of, “Can I sleep at night if I don’t say anything about this?” I can’t.
When I got involved with Gamergate, they were bullying women in our industry one by one and the men in our field were choosing to be silent about it. Michael Futter of Game Informer very callously told someone, “Gamergate is not an industry issue.” That’s the mindset that leads to women leaving this field at four times the rate that that men do. I could not live with myself just being silent.
Where do you see this field going in 10 to 20 years? Do you think it’ll be dramatically changed?
Yep! I think if you look at what Barbara Walters was doing in the ‘60s in journalism, I think you could look at the next 20 years in that field and see an explosion in the number of women that came into that field, and that changed it. I do think it’s going to change for women. I don’t think it’s ever going to be utopian, but I think it’s going to get a lot better.
What advice would you give a young person looking to get into the gaming industry — particularly a young woman?
I would say if you will push past your fear and chase the dream that you love, I will be standing right beside you and so will every other woman in this industry.