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This is a conversation with Trick Dempsey, an Expert Game Designer with Massive Entertainment in Malmö, Sweden. Trick is best known for her work on the massively multiplayer online game Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 and the transmedia Syfy game and television show Defiance, and as a mission designer on Red Dead Redemption. Trick came out as a trans woman in 2020, having previously presented publicly as a gender-nonconforming man. Romie Stott is a poetry editor at Strange Horizons and an ambigender woman. Romie and Trick have been friends and sometimes roommates for twenty years, as well as collaborators in film and theatre. They are each about forty years old and grew up in the area around Dallas, Texas. This dialogue took place via Twitter, email, and Discord web conference in April and May 2021. The transcript has been edited for clarity by both participants before publication.

Trick's character in Defiance, a woman riding an ATV
Trick Dempsey's avatar in Defiance

Romie Stott: I have an idea to run by you. Would you have time and the emotional bandwidth for an interview (which could be by email or on Twitter, or could be us jumping on a teleconference)? I was thinking I’d be interested to hear somebody (specifically you) talk about the process of writing for a second-person viewpoint—creating these narratives not knowing what character the player is going to create. And also maybe just talking more broadly about the history of genderbending in video games (and tabletop roleplaying games), the experience of playing with avatars that may have radically different gender presentations from how you operate in the physical world, or in other games.

Trick Dempsey: I’d love to talk about second-person authorship, like we see in many games, and generally the experience of gender expression and exploration through gaming.

RS: We’re talking about impressions and ideas and the state of how you feel about things at a specific point in time when there are specific things going on in the world. These are not necessarily ideas that need to stand up to forever. It’s a speculative magazine.

TD: Yes. What’s funny is I still remember the first time I read John Varley’s books. Like, they’re full of such questionable stuff, but at the same time I remember seeing in The Eight Worlds, people change gender all the time. Like, constantly. And I was just like, Damn it, I want it so much. Even the first time I ever read a John Varley thing. And it’s like, How do I broach this with people? Well, I’m terrified, because gender identity is everything, especially in my specific upbringing; gender identity is the identity you have, other than Christian, which already had sort of melted away. Then you’re like, Oh, shit, what would I have left if I can’t say “boy”? And then seeing, oh, no, here’s this character who can change sex and is like “Oh, eventually, I settled on this one after a couple of years of this and a couple of years of that, and a couple of years as, you know, you don’t need to be on the binary.” You know what, John Varley? Your books are full of some weird shit, but I hope you were playing through some gender stuff, and I hope it helped a lot of people.

RS: Yeah, I still really like him. I’m curious about how much control over gender play the game designer has—how much thinking about it goes into the design process, how much it’s emergent from player behavior. Coming from a background as a film and theater director who incorporates improv and generally uses open casting, I have a sense of what is and isn’t on rails and the kinds of guidance or herding techniques I use to promote exploration or to get someone to pull back from a potential cliff. But all of them require me to be there in the moment, reacting and adapting. I’m not sure how I’d do it if I had to plan ahead for somebody playing in a space where I’m not. I know you’ve done both, in a lot of different settings with different restrictions.

Videogame avatar, a person raising a fist in the air

Trick's avatar in Tom Clancy's The Division 2

TD: Gender-queerness comes up immediately once character customization is on the table for discussion. Without character creation, it is rarely if ever discussed. Heck, if you wanted to get laughed out of a room fast, ask, “How will women feel playing John Marston?” [John Marston is the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption.]

Most players in multiplayer settings create an avatar which echoes their self-image. (The demographics of player avatars in modern, Earth-like settings reflect the demographics of the player base itself.) However, many players also create “performative” or “fictional” roles where they play out events with an explicit “other” character.

For customized characters, every studio I’ve worked at has come to the same conclusions about the best way to handle it:

  • Uncouple gender from body type. Just let players pick from two or more unlabeled body types. (These are usually traditional masc and femme.)
  • Permit the player to choose their pronouns and have all characters refer to them as such. (A lesser form of this is to only record a singular they for references to the player character, but this cost-cutting measure is both irritating and obvious.)
  • Permit the player to choose their voice. Do not bind voices to particular body types.

Every studio I’ve worked at has agreed to those rules in planning, then cut them from production during development. Usually, the first rule is kept. The second rule is demoted to its lesser form. And the third rule is tossed out entirely.

Most studios I’ve been at have been loudly proactive about gender-inclusivity right up until it carries a measurable price tag. At which point it becomes “not a priority.” Hilariously, it’s usually the people who push for gender representation who take the fall for this, as they are reprimanded for “not sufficiently monitoring the process” or “not consistently providing guidance.” As though being a decent human being is something that can only be done under the watchful eye of an authority figure.

RS: I have sometimes tried to make self-portraits in character creators just out of curiosity to see how close I can get, but I don’t think I’ve ever then played that character. It’s not me in that world. I do not have the same constraints or axes of freedom as a videogame character, both in the sense that nobody would be casual about me cutting someone in half with a bolt of lightning, and in the sense that the real me has way more dialogue options. There’s a freedom in that me-and-not-me space—I’m partly there in order to do things I can’t do or don’t want to do in real life, but do want to do in a bounded, synthetic environment. When it works beautifully it’s like getting to do acrobatics over a safety net. When it works badly, it’s like trying to walk down the hallway and running into a net.

In a lot of multiplayer online games, you’re expected to form or join guilds or teams to fight difficult battles. A lot of what makes it not a space I want to occupy is the responsibility to other people. Like, if I’m playing a single-player game and I get a phone call, I can just switch off the game. If I get offended or frustrated, I can leave anytime. But in a game where other people are depending on me to be there, I’m letting it book my time. And this relates to performance of gender because usually I go about my day not thinking about it. Other people’s understandings of my gender are their business unless it becomes my business, most of the time. It doesn’t really trouble me whether they see my true self. But the second they ask me how I define it for myself, I have to ask things like, “Am I representing my community correctly?”

TD: It’s interesting that you highlight the performative aspect. Most players of an online roleplaying game are not roleplayers. They are a sticky group, but many of the people who stick around are interested in PvP, Player versus Player. They’re always in multiplayer mode, because they need to find their P to vP. Another big group is the collectors, people who always want to get all the items or badges, and you have to make new content for them to pursue. And there are a handful of other sticky sorts, and altogether they outnumber the roleplayers by a landslide. But these roleplayers, they’re attached to the character and the setting, and they want to leave a mark in the space. What’s interesting is it’s very unpredictable what they’re going to attach to.

RS: I’m somebody who very frequently, I guess you would say, passes. I mean, not exclusively. It’s really going to be a coin toss. If I have a choice of an avatar, it’s going to be kind of based on a mood that day, what I did last. Kind of a split-second visual decision of “that looks better to me.” And it’s because I’m not doing self-insertion. And I suppose it’s something that should be obvious to me, as someone who’s spent time in the fanfiction community, that there’s a lot of self-insertion fiction. Even talking to someone casually, “Oh, imagine if you could be an astronaut. Imagine if you were a doctor.” But once I start doing that—I don’t know if it’s because I have an acting background, which you share—I start building that character. Well, if I was a doctor, everything else in my life would be different. I’m not really me. I’m going to have different reactions to things, although I’m still guiding those reactions.

I’ve definitely known people who’ve “come out” in RPGs and in video game avatars before they’ve done it in the broader community, and I’ve also known people (myself included) who just like having the freedom to be playful with personas that are a part of them but not usually the part they lead with. And then I’ve also known people who are emphatically cis and straight and usually male, but play opposite-gender avatars because they do not see the avatar as self-expression and are instead making a choice about what they want to look at, often reinforcing and further exaggerating societal gender norms to express an ideal.

TD: You could be quoting early-2000s me, here. I think I only got around to playing Tomb Raider: Legend when Uncharted made its big splash. Playing both games, I left feeling much more empathy with Lara Croft than I did with Nathan Drake. Heck, I ended up not even liking Uncharted and still cherish Legend as one of the best games in the genre. Even two years prior, I would have said: “I prefer looking at Lara’s ass.” But that would not have even been true then. If I was there to joystick an eye-candy woman, there were games which did that more flagrantly. I was drawn to the person-like status of Lara: this digital woman-like construct. And I liked the adventures she went on. I liked that some of the times when she spoke, I felt that she spoke for me.

video game avatar, a woman in a fantasy landscape

Trick's avatar in The Elder Scrolls Online

At that point—in 2006—I’d already tried coming out twice. Once while casting a woman to play me in an autobiographical series of plays recreating my nightmares. And once while watching The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya with a friend. In both cases, I was met with initial hostility and shut up immediately. I think I could have had that talk with my friends then, but I was too scared. I look back, and it’s like, why can I play a ten-foot-tall Ogre alchemist, but I’m scared to play a woman? Why wasn’t I talking about that with my high school gamemaster, or with you?

RS: I remember around 2001 or 2002, when we were reading the sourcebooks for Kingdoms of Kalamar, I built a secondary world I was going to run a D&D campaign in, where there were very defined gender roles but they weren’t related to biological sex. You couldn’t switch back and forth quickly; you could switch, but you had to file the paperwork. And whichever gender you currently opted into, that put a circle around what you were authorized to do—whether you were on the programming side or in the art department, essentially. Since it was decoupled from how you presented physically, but was important for other people to know when interacting with you, I came up with all of these signifiers to do with clothing, and then secondary signifiers like knotwork that would tell people the history of what genders you’d been in the past.

TD: Left Hand of Darkness, the RPG.

RS: And it was all very interesting but I never actually used it because I didn’t have a story I wanted to tell with it. I didn’t want the players to try to challenge or dismantle the system. I just wanted to imagine how it might function.

TD: A lot of these games are advertised as “you can enter a world of fantasy,” with the idea that you are in that world as yourself. We know that in the games for which we get data, the demographics of the player populations match the demographics of the character selections, in terms of gender. This implies that for every man who is going to play as a woman avatar, there’s some woman who decides, “I’m going to play as a man.” You get all kinds of questions because being a female character in the voiceover IP shooter environment, there is such a pressure to get on the microphone. People just harass anyone who is playing the Black man character or the woman character.

And then you let people hear your voice, and it can get real bad.

Being present, actually, that’s a big ask. To relate this to transness, I belong to a transgender chatroom on Discord, where we have a room dedicated to trans voice practice. We’ll let you do voice exercises and conversation practice. I did not know going into this, but in most cases, it’s easiest for you to train your voice rather than to do any kind of surgical or medical intervention. As a transfem, when testosterone lowers your voice box, that never reverses, regardless of when you were first introduced to testosterone. As a transmale, your voice is going to drop. Human bodies are weird. So they’re going to grow beards, but my beard is not going to stop growing. I can use electrolysis to destroy the hair follicles. They’re not going to stop on their own. For some of the key indicators of femininity, I’m going to have to actively do them every day for the whole rest of my life.

In the chat room, we have a really diverse group of experiences, but this is a hard thing we’re all doing. So I’d been practicing this high, light, vaguely Californian voice, and it’s tiring to do. It’s a strain. So I thought I’d try something lower, see if I could maybe try to sound like Lauren Bacall.

RS: Nice.

TD: And one of the people in the chat room was like, “That’s not you. You’re impersonating Trick.” And I don’t know whether it’s partly because she has mild autism and I terrified her and she lashed out. But I realized, I need to get my character set before I interact with a stranger online. My transition is a process, and people who are close to me, particularly in physical space, know and understand that. But someone who meets me online, who I am to them is that first impression right then. That’s really tough.

RS: What you’re saying makes a recent experience of mine make more sense. I have a really wide vocal range, both when I’m speaking and when I’m singing. And I recently shared, in an online space, a recording in which I was singing in a low register, using a voice which Pandora thinks is male, and also a video in which I was talking in a relatively high feminine register, higher than what I usually use, and someone who is trans asked me whether they’d misunderstood and it wasn’t me singing, whether I was playing one of the instruments instead. Which, afterward, I was like “Oh, right,” because I wasn’t thinking about either of them as not my voice, even though neither of them is the voice I’m using right now. They’re both part of my expressive range. Having spent a lot of time around actors and singers, I think of that as a normal thing, manipulating timbre and vowel shape to convey emotion or tone. But the person who asked me was attuned to the difference in my gender presentation, which I was consciously manipulating without thinking of it that way.

TD: One of the things I try to champion is having voiceover IP disabled by default in every game I work on, because if you can leave it on by accident, being the only woman inside of a multiplayer game or having a recognizably African-American Vernacular accent, or even actually Southern, or even recognizably, like, French, people crawl out of the woodwork to find some way to fuck with you. And it opens people up to kind of accidentally opening themselves up to abuse.

And so I wonder how strong the normative pressure is to go, “You know what? I am safer as a man in these games than I am as a woman, so I’m going to make a male avatar.” And I don’t know a way to get that information, but I want it so much, because I know that generally the demographics match. And so I want to know, for the people who try to pass, basically, inside of a game, what their motivations are. But that research is very hard to both do and to get greenlit.

There are a couple of games where I meta-enjoy VoIP: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and The Blackout Club. Not Fortnite, it’s too fast-paced. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the way they did their VoIP, it was localized, so you were actually talking to a person who was there. Before there was a meta, you would get “drop some ammo and I’ll leave you be.” “Ok, sure.” You’d get these really tense standoffs. And even if they aren’t playing a character, they’re negotiating on behalf of the character. Functionally, it’s pulling them into the game world. They went through the magic circle at that point, and had gotten into it. Which is really transformative. That’s amazing. Me as a game designer, and also as a theater person—holy shit, you brang the audience in! And yet at the same time, I’d never. Never would I do this thing.

RS: I do feel like I’m closing myself off to these emergent experiences, and a level of complexity you can only reach if you have a dedicated human on each character, kind of like the Neil Stephenson Diamond Age thing, or the Michael Crichton movie Westworld, where some of the people are real and some of the people are robots, and part of the fun for the players is you don’t know which is which.

TD: Games used to, like, there would be a gamemaster present. But games got so big that the cost of keeping those kinds of administrators around, you would have more servers than you could ever have people as moderators. It’s unfathomably expensive. I’ve been making games for fifteen years and I can’t imagine the expense of doing that.

RS: I assume expense also plays a role when you’re deciding how much latitude you can afford to give a player during character creation.

TD: Often, games will restrict character customization based on race or masculine/feminine body shape, and on face structure. The “hair” menu populates differently depending which head you use as your starting point. Choose the white head and now the afro is gone. You might notice with The Sims everything fits every model. But maybe you’re trying to make a game that’s really real looking, so you bring in three Black actors and scan their heads. And you bring in three white actors, and you scan their heads. And then you go, you know what? Because we scanned their heads and modeled hair formed to these skulls, it doesn’t look good when we put the hair designed for one head onto another head. Maybe there’s a gap between the sideburns and the face. And if we bend them in, they sometimes disappear and go inside the face. Now, we can build a tech that manages it, or we can put a restriction on it so you can’t select this hair for this head, and move on to another thing. So somewhere, someone decides, “I don’t think Black people or white people can have this hair.”

character creation screenshot
a character creation screen from Warframe

But maybe as a player, let’s say I’m a mixed-race person and I have natural-textured hair and pale skin. In this world, I can’t exist. You see that a lot with “This is women’s hair; this is men’s hair.” It’s like, yo, that’s left out a lot of real people. It’s the strangest thing when you—I’ve transitioned. I have this female avatar, and I can try to make myself. Actually, no, you can’t. You can have a woman’s face, but if I try to make a thick brow, it won’t let you, no matter how hard you try. And you remember all the shitty things you’ve had in your life. You’re called back—I’m saying “you,” but I mean “I” am suddenly back to being on the phone with a care clinic in Lund, saying I need an appointment with a therapist who deals with gender transition, and being told, OK, the next available slot is in forty-eight months. You suddenly remember that you can’t put your own face on your character. I mean, if it’s a cartoon game, who gives a fuck, unless they insist on eyelashes for female animals. If you are saying “Be yourself,” then you must prioritize presenting all of the options that a human can be. The choices you choose to omit will define that which is human and that which is not.

Oftentimes this restriction is to reduce the production cost of making a very adaptive system, but also to prevent the creation of “ugly” characters. “We don’t want a monster factory,” my director once said of permitting masculine facial structures with feminine hair and makeup. This fucking sucks.

RS: Oof, that monster factory quote hits me in the gut. That’s making me think about, like, obviously part of the reason that the LGBTQ acronym can get so long and have so many additional letters is this idea of, Ok, look, whatever you are, it counts, even if what you are in this context doesn’t match who you are in another context or at another time. But it becomes more tricky when you’re saying “This is a singular assertion of your identity,” which is what a character creator is. It’s like, these are the checkbox categories you’re allowed to use. These are your paperwork. The game design is acting as a government entity saying what is and isn’t legal within the game. How much does that bring up other times when it’s like “These are the only categories that exist, and you need to pick the one that best fits”? Sometimes, it’s like “Ok, I get it, this is the best that can be managed with the restrictions of hardware and software.” And other times, it’s like this pressure to say “This is what and who I am” even though…

TD: This kind of thing happens all the time with names, with people who have one name. Like Cher is Cher. And her taxes get returned all the time because she doesn’t have a last name. And she’s Cher! You have computer systems that don’t think someone could have a two-letter name. I’ve had my name rejected as fake. Nobody could be named Trick. Trick is what’s on my government ID! It’s a problem when I fill out forms in the US because my street address in Sweden has letters in it that don’t exist in English. It doesn’t want to handle that. They get replaced by those rectangular boxes with the tall X, you know the ones? It’s amazing my mail gets through. Like, “I have no idea how this made its way to me.”

When you meet someone who plays these games, or ask players directly, in many ways, as a designer, people identify me with the game. So when the game says no to them, I have said no to them, the same way as the lady at the DMV said “I can’t give you an ID.” Game makers are authority figures. There are a lot of games and a lot of character creators where it’s like, all of a sudden, “Oh, I’m re-experiencing this well of trauma that’s already happened before in my life.”

RS: So you mentioned that, at least in games you’ve worked on, flexibility of gender selection is prioritized very early in the process, and then at some point, it drops off. So you go from explicitly accommodating diverse gender identities and trans identities at the start of the process rather than “it’s too late, we can’t add it.” And it’s still “we can’t do that.”

video game avatar, a robotic exoskeleton with a cape and cowboy hat
Trick's warframe in Warframe

TD: So, early in the process, there’s usually a meeting, and it includes the game designer and the art team and the producer and anybody else who has to be there, and then whoever else thinks it’s important and wants to show up, so anybody who cares about gender presentation shows up. And it’s like, Ok, we’re not going to label body types male and female, we’re just going to select the shape. We’re going to decouple pronoun choice from body type and we’re going to offer a nonbinary option like “they.” And we’re going to allow the player to select a voice entirely separate from whatever they chose. So they can do a “me,” presenting feminine appearance, but with—god bless Saints Row and Monster Hunter for fucking nailing this. And then it’s like, right, cool, let’s all agree to this.

Everyone at that meeting is good about it, or usually everyone, and is really careful and respectful. And then they realize the problems, and it’s, like, awful. It’s like, these are the pillar values! And then, ten minutes later… someone shows up and it’s like, “We’ve made the UI, and we can record “he” or “she” every time that the player is introduced. But we’re not going to do “they.” We’re not going to add 30% to our budget.” Which is not quite true, because there aren’t that many references to the player.

So somebody says, “OK, are we going to do the standard ‘he’ and ‘she’ when there’s localization? Like in French, there’s no agreed upon way to do gender neutral.” To which I say “Fuck you.” There are lots of smart people who have proposed solutions. Pick one. Go out on a limb. Do them. And sometimes, they just make everyone in the world a ‘they,’ which just insults everyone. Like “Oh, you had the option to have a gender taken away from you by the SJWs. Everyone’s a they.” So most people aren’t going to do it right.

RS: Nobody wants to be the vanguard. It’s the tall poppy thing. People want to do what’s right, but they don’t want to get ahead of where consensus is. That’s scary. Using singular ‘they’ in print is now pretty standard, but for ten or fifteen years before that, I was pushing for it, which I’m sure you also remember, the singular they. And I’d have all these rhetorical arguments and historical examples, and the editors or publishers would always be like “well, I’m fine with it, individually, but it’s not in the AP stylebook, or the Chicago manual.” Augh!

TD: I have an anecdote. It’s a small publisher. Cast of zombies, and the sound department records all the voices, and it’s creepy. And the animation department comes back and says, “OK, we’re going to animate either men or women. We don’t have the budget for both.” And our audio person said, “No, no, no. We recorded men and women. I’m not going to throw away half the voices.” You know how childish this gets. And they said, “no, we’re only going to do half. All the zombies are men.” And we go, “Hey.”

And the guy goes, “Look, I’m a progressive. I’m a feminist. But this is a budget thing. We can’t do this. We’re going to do all male zombies.” And me and the woman in the room look at each other and go, “No, you’re going to do all female zombies.” And he says, “No, that would be weird.” And we go, “Yeah, wouldn’t it?” This was almost ten years ago.

RS: Even aside from the cruelty of implying that some of your players’ bodies or ideal bodies are unacceptable, there’s no reason creatively to have a narrow idea of what bodies are allowed to be protagonists—I know I can’t reliably predict what I’m going to like until I do it. I’d hazard that’s one of the primary functions of play.

TD: I’ve found that loose and unclear character vision tends to make characters gravitate to a small number of shapes and attitudes that are approachable to a specific audience of straight, white men. Or, more directly, characters gravitate to be more similar to the men who will greenlight and approve decisions. It is no coincidence more middle-aged dads started starring in games when the directors on those big-budget projects became middle-aged dads themselves.

“Write what you know” is good advice. If you are a person who runs big teams making media for a worldwide audience, hire someone different than you and have them write what they know. I’m actually a big fan of a clear character vision from the start. Particularly if a diverse group of character designers are empowered to create characters they, personally, empathize with.

RS: Without naming names, because you still work in the industry and these are your colleagues, do you find it easier or harder when it’s a small developer versus a large, triple-A developer? I’m thinking that you have more influence in a smaller group, but at a larger company you have more resources, and that job might be a whole department instead of work you’d have to take on yourself.

TD: It depends on the situation. It can get technical. Like, most of the time, it becomes politicking. If you go, “You know what? I really care about gender flexibility in character creation for this game,” I’m going to find the right person to take for drinks and make the argument. If I’m in a twelve-person company or a twelve-person team within a large company, which is common, I can just say what I think about it. I can say, “Yo, we’re going to do this because it’s what’s right,” and it’s enough. It’s much easier on a small team. But say you are going to do three or six player characters, you can say let’s have a male and female voice, but let’s also have one voice with an Oakland accent and different permutations of class and race, we eliminate some of those options and we hire one third the number of people.

RS: I’m playing Genshin Impact, and you can name the main character, and in fact you have to name the main character because that’s your identity if you play multiplayer. But when you play the single-character quest, where there’s a lot of voice acting, your name shows up in the on-screen text but what you hear voiced is “traveler” or “honorary knight.” Which makes sense to me because they have no idea what name I’m going to type or how I pronounce it.

TD: That workaround is part of the game design culture and practices of Japan and China—it’s a Chinese game, but their game design traditions overlap a lot. It’s common for them to call the player by a nickname. Which led to a strange experience once when I was playing a game where the nickname is “Tricky,” and I was like “Oh god.”

Here’s something odd: I relate better to Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard than I do to any of my characters from any Bethesda game or even to The Warden from Dragon Age: Origins. Initially, I had thought this was because I prefer characters with voices. In game worlds with fully voiced characters, a voice-less protagonist really stands out. It makes all scenes have this wild pacing where the supposed protagonist might make a speech in less than a thirtieth of a second and then a character makes an offhand remark that takes ninety times as long. I feel like my presence is actively edited out of a story that is ostensibly about me.

I recognized that it was the mismatch in realization between speaking characters in the world—where there’s a canonically voiced yet voiceless protagonist in a world which is otherwise voiced—when I finally played the brilliant CrossCode. In CrossCode, the protagonist has been rendered mute by events, and the story is largely about getting her voice back. Because every character had the same methods of communication—the protagonist eventually gets some words and learns some ASL—I stepped into her shoes more readily because the game demanded the same level of imagination to hear her voice as it did every other character.

Essentially, I empathize more with protagonists whose voice is presented audio-visually identically to other speaking characters in the world. And that’s true even with a speech-impaired character. If the player voice is going to be different, then the character needs to be treated as differently voiced.

RS: Have you seen shifts during your fifteen years in the industry (and long before that, as a player)?

TD: Yes? Lots? That’s a big question. Because another valid answer is “No, not at all.” And it is horrifying to talk about.

video game avatar in front of a banner that reads "thank you for sharing"
Trick's avatar in Tom Clancy's The Division 2

It’s difficult to overstate how much the 2014 Gamergate movement harmed the presence of women and queer people in the industry. Those that had managed to climb up the male-dominated ladder found themselves targeted not only by harassment from without but also by opportunistic “protection” from within. Women who had been moving into leadership positions found themselves silenced for their own protection by a combination of folks either helpful-but-ignorant or mediocre-but-opportunistic.

Nonconformity became genuinely dangerous. Gleeful predators looked to destroy any woman, queer, or person of color in the industry, while the internal systems within studios were only built to harm rather than aid them. We’re seeing a variation of this same behavior happen again with the latest #MeToo movement in games. Longtime rivals performatively support the women who come forward with accusations against their professional opponents while leveraging internal tools and processes to silence their own accusers. Meanwhile, the same online mob from 2014 attacks every woman who comes forward with any report. Women get destroyed while a rich overclass of abusers ride high on piles of money.

We’re all prisoners under capitalism.

Some of my earliest employers in the industry were openly and explicitly “boys’ clubs.” The women who worked their way in needed to establish themselves as “one of the boys” and queerness was kept hidden at all costs. There were progressive employers out there, for sure, but they weren’t hiring no-experience designers straight out of school. I took the jobs I had to, and I made the best of it.

There are a lot of companies out there today that pay lip service to inclusivity and that’s a big step. Many of those even have accessibility and diversity teams. Even when those teams are understaffed and overworked, they at least exist. Which is much, much better than even ten years ago.

Also, I’m a union rep now with Unionen. Unions are not an all-powerful solution to injustice—their powers are very limited—but they are a force which helps a whole lot more than they hurt. It’s nice to know they have my back.

Join a union. They help.

Trick lives in Malmö, Sweden, with her wife and their fur baby, Pixie. While a game designer by trade, Trick is occasionally a podcaster and a novelist. We assure you that, to date, all of the novels are bad. Her favorite tabletop RPG is Blades in the Dark.
Romie Stott is the administrative editor and a poetry editor of Strange Horizons. Her poems have appeared in inkscrawl, Dreams & Nightmares, Polu Texni, On Spec, The Deadlands, and Liminality, but she is better known for her essays in The Toast and Atlas Obscura, and a microfiction project called postorbital. As a filmmaker, she has been a guest artist of the National Gallery (London), the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston), and the Dallas Museum of Art. You can find her fairly complete bibliography here.
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15 Apr 2024

Mnemonic skills test positive: inaccurately positive.
pallid growths like toadstools, / and scuttling many-legged things,
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