Dames Who Make Games

Dames Who Make Games: Catherine B.

Dames Who Make Games Catherine B. | Gamerwife.com

Dames Who Make Games Catherine B. | Gamerwife.com
Welcome to Dames Who Make Games, Gamerwife’s interview series with the lovely ladies who make our video games. Whether you’re a QA tester or a company VP, we want to hear what you have to say. And remember to click “Continue reading” for the whole story.

In this installment of Dames Who Make Games I had the honour and privilege to sit down with my very first Lead Programmer, Catherine B. We talked about work/life balance, how to get women to stay in the industry and why startups can actually be a boon for women.

Gamerwife: How did you get started in the video game industry?

Catherine B.: I was working on my Master’s Degree… I was actually at the point where I was done with my classes and I was working on my thesis and it was tedious. I saw an ad that simply said “There’s a new player in the video game industry in Montreal,” so I thought “What the hell,” and I ended up applying to a very small start-up. They hired me and that was it for the Master’s Degree, actually. [laughs] I never looked back.

It had been something I wanted to do– working in the games industry– but sometimes it’s hard to know how to get in with the big [companies]. So, getting hired at a startup was actually a good move for me.

GW: So, you were studying in Computer Sciences?

CB: Yes. I was actually working on an image treatment Master’s. It was very interesting and the classes were interesting, but working on my thesis at home… I don’t have the kind of attitude where I can get up and work on my own when I don’t have a deadline. It’s just not for me and I was realizing that I needed to be with other people.

I didn’t have any experience so I was hired as a programer. The advantage with a small company is that you get to do a greater variety of things than if you were at a big company, because you have to do everything. The projects are smaller and they have fewer people on board so you get a lot more responsibility a lot quicker, I think. So after a few months there, one of the founders was actually the lead programmer on the project and he needed to work full-time on the engine so he needed somebody to run the project and he asked me.

From there I got additional responsibilities. It was actually great. A good thing about start-ups is that if you show that you have some potential and you’re willing to work hard, they’re gonna give more responsibilities to you.

GW: And what do you like most about your job?

CB: I think one of the great advantages of the games industry is that the technology changes so often that you can’t get bored. One year you’re working on the iOS platform and the next year it’s Android… and next year I don’t know what it’s going to be. I always have to learn and keep up to date with the latest changes so I know I’m never going to maintain something on very old hardware because there’s no such thing. You have to learn constantly and you can’t get bored. There’s always a new challenge.

GW: So what would you say is the biggest downside for you?

CB: I wouldn’t say there’s a downside, because I really, really like my job, but I think working with mostly 20 something year old guys who don’t have families means that I sometimes I feel like if I could put in another 10 – 20 hours a week it would be so much better. I don’t actually have that pressure from my boss, it’s something that I put on myself. Like “I should stay later,” but I still have my daughter at home. That work/life balance, can be hard to achieve. But, when I got pregnant, it changed my priorities and it was a choice that I made. I decided to assume that choice, so I work 40 hours a week and that’s it.

GW: Was that difficult to put your foot down to do?

CB: No, no. We try to not work overtime at all. I mean, sometimes you don’t have a choice, but they’re very understanding with me. I have a laptop so I can bring it home and work after my daughter has gone to bed. So if I really have to put in some extra time, I do it on my own time, which is great. I can’t complain.

Maybe it’s one of the advantages of not working for one of the big companies, where everyone wants to work, so if you’re not ready to work 60 hours a week it’s easier for them to replace you. Whereas, for a company that’s maybe less glamorous or less popular, they have to be creative if they want to retain their employees.

The choice of working for a startup was very lucky for me in the end.

GW: Other than your own sort of guilt about not putting in big hours, have you had any issues with discrimination or harassment as a woman?

CB: No. In school, there was never discrimination, but there came a point in my third year in my Computer Sciences undergrad that I realized that for some of my classes I was the only white girl there. It was the first time in Montreal that I felt like a visible minority. It was very eye opening, I guess you would say. But in the end, it’s probably easier to go through that when you’re 20 than if you were 5, say.

But there was never any harassment for me. The company that I work for doesn’t tolerate that sort of behaviour, so if there was something I could just put my foot down and go to HR.

I’ve never been confronted with sexism or anything like that so I guess my perspective as a woman is more the perspective of a person in the industry, period. From my point of view it’s a good industry to be in, which isn’t something everyone says, but I think it depends on where you work and what you’re willing to accept. And if you’re not willing to accept it then you shouldn’t be working there. I think things are looking bright for the future. The big companies will have to adapt eventually if they want to retain their older employees. I hope it does, anyways [laughs].

GW: I absolutely agree. There is already so much change and I think the market itself is changing so much with the move towards casual games and the absolute explosion of indie companies who have the flexibility to offer shorter hours, telecommuting… all of those things that are more conducive to “having a life.”

CB: Especially seeing how making big games, like GTA or Mass Effect or something like that, is getting so expensive and so risky I think big companies might look into smaller projects in the future. There will always be somebody working on the next big thing, but if more projects are smaller and more short term it will start to be more like a regular job. You won’t be able to entice people solely with how exciting it is to work on the next Dragon Age.

For me, working on a game it doesn’t depend on the concept so much as on the underlying technological issues with regards to the console or the type of game that we’re doing. If people can get their heads around that and realize that “yeah, the type of game that I’m doing might not have an impact on the pride I get from my job,” maybe people will start looking into indie companies and smaller studios and places where you can actually “have a life.” Not that all small studios are like that, there are people that will drive their employees to madness everywhere. There will be more players in the game and you will have to be more competitive to retain your employees at some point.

Dames Who Make Games | Gamerwife.com

GW: Were you always interested in video games?

CB: My cousin had a Nintendo and I thought they were so lucky to get to play Mario. I begged and begged my parents and by the time they got me something it was a Super Nintendo [laughs]… it took a few years. From there, my father had his own company and whenever they would retire an old computer, a 386 or something like that, he’d bring it home so I got to learn a little bit about computers that way.

People around me were {getting into computers/programming}, but that was in the pre-internet days so it wasn’t as easy to be self-taught. I can’t say that I knew that much about programming before I got to university, but in the end it was an interest that I’d had from a very young age. But by high school, yeah, I knew I wanted to get into programming. I remember the first time anyone told me that was a “guy’s job” was in CEGEP, so, I think I was in a good environment to be interested in computers and programmingsince no one was telling me, “why are you doing that? Why aren’t you going to be a teacher?” I had very supportive parents.

GW: As far as your experience in University and realizing you were a minority in your program, what do you think can be done to improve the representation of women in STEM fields and the game industry?

CB: At the school level, I’m not sure that there’s much to be done because it’s not like Computer Sciences is that hard to get into. However, I think it could be good to encourage girls to be interested in sciences and math in high school, because if you’re not good in math you probably won’t be interested in Computer Science when the time comes.

I went to an all girls high school, so I guess it wasn’t the typical experience that a lot of people have where there’s that gender divide. They tended to tell us that we could do anything. It was very feminist. If I had been in a co-ed school it might have been a bit different. We tend to encourage girls to do certain things and boys to do other things, even if we don’t realize that we’re doing it.

Once in the job market, what can be done? As a Lead Programmer I know I wouldn’t want to put a preference for a woman over a man because I think it would do a disservice to women in general. I mean, you’d get in a position of authority and you have to justify that you weren’t hired because you’re a girl. That’s a bit more delicate. But for more junior positions I think it is a good idea to say “yes, we want to hire more women and we’re going to mentor them and assist them so they can grow with us.”

When you’re fresh out of college, you’re still learning, so why not, give a chance to somebody who might not have been the best in her class, or maybe she was, or whatever…

GW: …but lacks the confidence to be in the industry…

CB: Yeah, you have to learn all the time, so for junior positions, I’d love to see something like that. Start them young and they might stay…

And if there are more women in the industry then at that point HR might have to say, “requiring people to work 60 hours a week isn’t doable because we have so many women,” and yes, women still have the most responsibility when it comes to kids. No matter which study you look at it’s still the case, so let’s be honest about it and say “yeah, women don’t have as much spare time as men do, so let’s accommodate our female work base which is growing larger and larger. Otherwise they’re going to leave the industry for something else and we’re going to have to start over with junior members.” I think it starts from hiring more women and then figuring out what we can do to keep them.

GW: I think, especially in a lot of the junior positions there is a sort of attitude in the industry that people are very of disposable, there’s so much movement around the industry– even in higher positions. Poaching devs from other studios…

CB: …and then firing them when the project is over. Which isn’t really conducive to having a family and responsibilities and a mortgage and everything. Yeah, you got to work on that awesome game for four years and yet at the end of it you don’t know if you still have a job. Even if you were very good you might not have a job, at that point you might be too expensive.

GW: I’ve always wondered why there’s hasn’t been more of a push to unionize, for certain portions of the industry, just because of the hiring and firing practices and the way that contracts are handled…

CB: I think part of it is the mentality that the industry is a meritocracy and so “it’s not going to happen to me, I’m good.” Especially in an industry where there’s a lot of guys, the way that guys tend to trash talk a bit more and be more confident, on average. They’re great at their job, even when they aren’t [laughs]. So yeah, maybe it has to do with that. You don’t want to work with someone who’s incompetent just because he’s unionized and he can’t be fired.

GW: I guess I hadn’t thought of it like that. But there is a sort of attitude that “I have to be the best at this, I have to work 80 hours a week, I have to prove myself at every level…”

CB: And if I do that and the guy sitting next to me isn’t working as hard because he doesn’t need to, then I’m a sucker. [laughs] There is that mentality, but in the end, working those kinds of hours is insane. You shouldn’t have to do that. Especially when they’re not paid, which is often the case. It’s ridiculous. The industry is still young, but as it matures and the workers in the industry are getting a bit older– I think it’s always going to be a fairly young industry– but as people get a bit older maybe they won’t put up with that attitude anymore.

In my experience, past 50 hours a week, you’re not writing good code any more. You’re including more bugs than you’re solving. It gives a false sense of productivity, but you can’t solve a problem when you haven’t slept. Programming is all about solving problems, that’s all we do is solve problems. So if you haven’t slept, you aren’t productive.

GW: What’s your favourite game of all time?

CB: Hmm? Planescape Torment, an old RPG.

GW: Good answer!

CB: I guess I’m a typical girl in that I like games with a good story, not just shooting people in the head. All the old adventure games by LucasArts… all that stuff from that era is very nostalgic for me. Even though I know they wouldn’t be successful these days. They’re too hard, nobody wants to do pixel hunting anymore. Not even me! [laughs] But I remember those games fondly.

It’s actually funny at work to realize that I’m 30, so I’m old already, for the industry… and realize that my colleagues who are 23, 24 don’t have the same references that I do. They grew up with 3D games whereas I remember 16 bit games on my computer. [laughs] Playing the original The Incredible Machine on the computer on MS DOS. Things have changed so quickly, it’s just two different worlds.

GW: Are you playing any games right now?

CB: I don’t have a whole lot of free time, but I try to keep up with what my studio is releasing and also the competition. Mostly casual games, but I also play D&D on a forum so I can actually do it on my own time [laughs], on my lunch hour or when my daughter is sleeping. I used to play tabletop D&D, but I don’t have time for that every Friday anymore.

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  • Reply
    Haute Gamer
    August 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Great interview! I kind of wish there were junior or interning positions at start-ups (I know it’s hard to do) rather than the big companies (ie. Sony). Would you be able to interview someone in the UI/UX field in gaming? That would be great!

  • Reply
    August 30, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Great suggestion! I’ll keep an eye out. Right now I’ve got an interview with a writer at BioWare that I’m working on, another potential designer interview, an internal (technical) writer and a game design student in the works with hopefully more to come. 🙂

  • Reply
    September 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Anyone who answers “Planescape: Torment” is my friend forever.

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