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.
I met Henrike back in August when I was attending PAX Prime. She had a small booth near the back of the Indie MEGABOOTH area next to LearnDistrict & Girls Make Games. She was presenting an insanely compelling puzzle game that was created to help teach modular thinking and programming. I was so impressed with her charming game, Machineers that I knew I needed to interview her. Luckily, after her game launched last month she was able to take some time to chat with me.
Gamerwife: Let’s start at the beginning, what was the first game you ever played?
Henrike: If we are talking about video games and about games that go beyond Mario, Tetris and Solitaire, the first game I really got into at the age of 12 was a German RPG called Shadows over Riva. It took me over 2 years to finish it, because I always hit a puzzle I couldn’t solve and then left it for 6 months before trying again. My brother and sister had always been way more into gaming, so after I had watched both of them finish Final Fantasy VII, there was no real point for me to replay. It was tricky to find something just for me.
GW: What made you decide on a career in games?
Henrike: My career has always been taking accidental turns. I went to study Game Design on a whim; in a way it was to cheer me up, because I had been working a pretty boring job before, and had no idea where I was going. I knew I wanted to help people like me who felt imprisoned in school – not because they weren’t smart enough, but because they didn’t fit into the system. The more I revolted against school and teachers, the more I was labelled a troublemaker who would never succeed in the real world. I wish there had been something or someone to make me see how my skills and ways of thinking are useful to the world, instead of trying to keep my head down. A few months into studying game design, I realised that by making educational games that are actually fun, I had the chance to achieve exactly that.
GW: Where did you go to school and what did you study?
Henrike: I studied Media and Computing at the University of Applied Sciences for Economy and Technology in Berlin (HTW Berlin). This was another accident. After high school I was going to study something creative, with arts or advertisement, but I didn’t get accepted anywhere, so I reached out further. I had no plans of becoming a programmer at that point, but when my only acceptance letter arrived, I had no choice but to give it a try. Turns out that I had the stamina to endure the frustration of learning programming. The feeling of empowerment you get when you realise that you can create things that you used to consume and you can understand the world around you on a whole new level was more rewarding than anything else I had learned.
GW: What are the best/worst things about working in video games?
Henrike: The best thing is that I will never wish I had any other job, or be ashamed or unexcited about what I do. I make people laugh and feel connected and see themselves in a new light. I make beautiful things every day, I travel, I give talks and lectures, and no one tells me what I should do.
The worst thing for me is that its hard to tell where work stops and free time starts. I feel a lot of responsibility towards my employees, my players, my students, my audience, and the pressure is getting to me. I want to give everyone what they deserve, and I have a hard time saying no, even when I have no time, so in the end I am exhausted and stressed out a lot.
GW: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an independent developer? How did you overcome them?
Henrike: During 2013 I had to live off very little money and often didn’t have enough to buy food at the end of the month. Luckily I have good friends who helped me out, but I hate asking, so there were some quite desperate moments. When we started talking to our current investors, I realised that I couldn’t continue the way I had been working with my co-owners anymore, because I was shouldering too much responsibility on my own. I felt awful about having to have that kind of conversation, but there was no other way. After some discussions we came to the agreement to go separate ways. I had to take a private loan to buy them out, had basically no more income, and was still waiting for the investment to come through. All the while the new team was ready to get started, quit or denied other jobs, all on a promise that I made. I made it through by keeping up a straight face, staying confident and believing that what we are doing is special enough to make it. Right now we are pretty comfortable, but we also know that if we don’t make enough money, we are going out of business in March 2015. I totally understand anyone who doesn’t have the stomach to go through an existential crisis every few weeks, and sometimes I wish I had just gotten a random job. But most of the time it’s pretty rewarding.
GW: Have you ever had issues with harassment or discrimination as a women in video games?
Henrike: Actually, since I moved to Denmark, I feel like I have been taken much more seriously. Scandinavia is probably one of the most advanced places in the world when it comes to gender equality. I still have an issue with the way Danes handle jokes that are sexist, racist, offensive or discriminating in any way, as they strongly believe that their right to freedom of speech is more important than the right for the receiving people to be offended, and I disagree.
There have been some smaller incidents here where people said some awful things to me without meaning to hurt me, because they are used to using female organs and femininity to insult each other and don’t see why I have a problem with that. Seeing a fellow developer and friend demand proof that sexism in the games industry exists when they never even bothered to ask me or one the other female game devs in Copenhagen about our experiences, made me pretty angry, but I feel like it doesn’t really compare to what I have been reading happening to female devs and researchers in the United States.
GW: What advice do you have for other women who want to be involved in game development?
Henrike: (Since I teach students in Game Development, I have a hard time giving practical advice specifically to women, that isn’t related to dealing with sexism, which I am assuming this questions aims at.)
I tend to surround myself with people whose values I can agree with or at least tolerate. Of course there are always people who see things very differently, and I wouldn’t assume to have all the answers, so I avoid conversations about equality and diversity with them. In a way this is a coping mechanism: If I was aware of exactly what everyone believed in and how contrary these beliefs are to mine, I might have a lot less friends. I don’t jump into every argument and fight every fight, especially not online, but also often IRL I tend to walk away from things that drain my energy and don’t lead to an improvement on any side. It takes some people longer to understand the concepts of patriarchy and privilege and how they can turn guilt and anger into positive actions that lead to a more welcoming and open community for everyone.
Game development advice for everyone:
Work hard. Don’t be in it for the money. When anyone comments on your work: Listen to the feedback (you may decide if you want to act on it or not – but don’t explain yourself, unless you are asked to). Train your pitching skills. Travel to every game event you can afford to. Make friends before business.
GW: What games are you playing right now?
Henrike: I am playing L4D2 with my team mates on Friday nights, Minecraft with my boyfriend, The Walking Dead:Season 2 for entertainment, Plants VS Zombies to zone out, and XCOM and Rymdkapsel whenever I travel.