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I Feel Okay Being Myself because of Brenda Romero

I would say that my whole life, until the last couple years, has been a montage of people telling me that there was something wrong with me. I’m too Asian to be American. I’m too American to be Asian. Girls don’t play video games, jazz music, and study Computer Science. People getting PhD’s don’t believe in God; well, they can, but they can’t ever talk about it or make it obvious. You’re too “not like us” to go to this church. You’re too “outside the box” to go to that church. Why can’t people understand that there is only one thing I’ve ever wanted to be– MYSELF.

This is my first, post-GDC post and just to join the bandwagon of “people who have opinions about Brenda Romero,” I’ve never met anyone more brazenly herself than Brenda Romero. I’ve never seen, up close, someone doing something just because it is who they are, knowing it will make everyone uncomfortable, and not be outcasted, but embraced. The greatest lesson I learned at GDC this year was that I don’t have to conform to mean something to the communities I identify with– that I don’t have to choose between being accepted and being myself.

Who is Brenda Romero?

Google has a better idea of what Brenda has done. I knew her as the creator of Train, of her best-known non-digital works that greatly emphasizes impact of meaning through mechanics.

The Mechanic is the Message captures and expresses difficult experiences through the medium of a game. Much like photographs, paintings, literature and music are capable of transmitting the full range of the human experience from one human to another, so too can games. Due to their interactivity, the installation suggests that games are capable of a higher form of communication, one which actively engages the participant and makes them a part of the experience rather than a passive observer. The Mechanic is the Message is composed of six separate non-digital games that experiment with the traditional notion of the word “game”.

She’s also a…

Proven, award-winning Game Designer and Creative Director in the social, computer and video game space. Featured in Newsweek, Forbes, CNN, MTV, Wall Street Journal, WIRED and MSNBC, among others, and every key social and traditional game industry publication.

  • Game industry veteran since 1981.
  • Proven social game experience with multiple hit titles.
  • Proven hardcore game experience (including system, level and economy design) with multiple hit titles.
  • Geek-level understanding of play, mechanics, monetization, retention, virality and platform policies.

Recently, she became the game designer in residence at my school, and I was incredibly fortunate to be her teaching assistant this past winter. Which meant that, having just met her for the first time, I got to work closely with her in a classroom setting for the 10 weeks prior to GDC. I wrote a bit about that experience here, and I probably have two more posts to write (one on how I’ve never loved teaching more than I did for that class and, tangentially, another on how GDC had a lot of hugging and crying this year.)

Probably this screen shot of her phone will give you the best idea of what Brenda is like:

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taken from facebook

The uncanny series of events that transpired at GDC:

Not only was her game, Train, being displayed at GDC this year, but she was a listed speaker for 3 sessions. After the final presentations for our class, we had a quick e-meeting about grades, and then poof!.. she quickly vanished into GDC-preparation land.

There only exists one copy of Train

Day #1: Her first session, #1ReasonToBe

Now, I don’t recall how this panel came together, but I did remember, in class, how Brenda emphasized the importance of being on twitter, how it brought people together for a GDC talk, and being that the title of the talk appears to be a hashtag, well, you know. To be honest, I didn’t need to know what the talk was about, I went because Brenda was speaking, as did our students. VentureBeat recaps Brenda’s talk at the end of this series of prominent women speaking about identity in the game industry:

At E3, she said, the booth babes are so ubiquitous that it creates a “sexually charged atmosphere.” She said, “It felt like walking through a construction site. Why do I feel this way? I founded this fucking industry, you motherfuckers. I felt like I was receiving a lot of gazes I didn’t want to receive.”

Romero said that she was touched recently when her daughter gave her a card that said one of the best things she could hope for was to make a video game with her mother. Her daughter is the highest level (85) in World of Warcraft, and she is on her school’s honor roll. That card gave Romero a lot of joy. But as long as the booth babes at E3 make all women feel “gazed upon,” Romero said she can’t take her own daughter to visit the show. After she finished her comments, the crowd gave a standing ovation.

“I want her to feel safe there and not gazed upon,” she said. “That is all I am asking.”

Read more at http://venturebeat.com/2013/03/28/women-bring-down-the-house-at-the-gdc/#9yffduvkPgZBeXDZ.99

She must’ve spoken for no more than 20 minutes, followed by a standing ovation from the crowd.

Day #1: The IGDA Party

With every GDC, I care less about parties. I considered going to the IGDA party, because every year, I run into dear friends and/or meet awesome people. The IGDA (International Game Developers Association) is the largest professional organization for the game industry that covers cities all over the world crossing all relevant disciplines.

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I walked there from the convention center with Cameron and Alex to find the most discouraging of lines. We managed to swing a (nearly non-existant) shorter line of what was probably for VIPs, but Alex wouldn’t let me stop to ask questions.

Inside, I was annoyed to realize that this was a club-setting dance party and not the usual high-end networking event that IGDA parties traditionally were. “If I knew it would be a dance party, I wouldn’t have brought my laptop bag, or, well, I probably wouldn’t have come.” I mean, I love dancing, but as one stranger tried to start a conversation with me, I kindly declined and suggested that we make introductions back at the convention center, where you can actually hear the people talking to you.

Did I see the hired models there? Sure, and I ignored them as I tend to do. Do I recall the fuzzy bikinis, that were also out and about earlier that day to promote the party? Yes, but having gone to this conference for 8 years, I seemed desensitized to it, and, quite frankly, *most* of them were costumed on the more modest side of things– I’ve seen and heard of far worse.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEXPjLsdJJg%5D

Day #2: #igda trends on Twitter. Brenda resigns.

The next morning, while having the traditional GDC morning prayer, Grant, a good friend and active IGDA leader suggests that we pray for the IGDA and game industry for the very public controversies that arose the night before. From what I heard, pictures of hired models from the IGDA party were tweeted with outrage that a organization aimed at building an inclusive and professional community would host such an event in the midst of what was already a socially sensitive space. Brenda Romero, who was chair of IGDA Women’s SIG, resigned, he told me, expressing that FINALLY these issues have risen to a point where they must now be publicly and permanently addressed.

Forbes picks up the story and recaps:

Tuesday night, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) co-presented a party attended by industry experts…and scantily clad dancers. Game designer Brenda Romero resigned her co-chair position of IGDA’s Women in Games special interest group as a result, and according to her Twitter feed, women have thanked her for her action. Before writing the article, I queried IGDA for a comment. The group has just responded:

“As many of you know, the IGDA was a co-presenter of the YetiZen party Tuesday evening.

We recognize that some of the performers’ costumes at the party were inappropriate, and also some of the activities they performed were not what we expected or approved.

We regret that the IGDA was involved in this situation.  We do not condone activities that objectify or demean women or any other group of people.

One of the core values of the IGDA is encouraging inclusion and diversity.

Obviously we need to be more vigilant in our efforts.  We intend to be so in the future.”

Brenda Romero’s resignation becomes a hot topic blowing up all over Twitter– Polygon reports:

“I went home last night to work on my Friday GDC talk feeling super uplifted by the turnout and support for the #1ReasonToBe panel,” Romero told Polygon in a statement today. “I woke up to DMs, texts and links to news of the IGDA party. It really saddens me. I have been a long-time supporter of the IGDA. However, my silence would have been complicity. I had no choice. And just hours after our panel, too.”

And you’d think that things could only calm down from there…

Day #2: Brenda receives the Women in Gaming, Lifetime Achievement Award

Unrelated to the events of the past 24 hours, I believe it was that afternoon that she got this award:

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I appropriated the photo from her FB page

Brenda Romero’s name was spoken all throughout GDC, both on and offline. It was unusual to hear all the speculation and reactions to this person who I worked with for the past 10 weeks. It was like having a front row seat to a major cultural shifting event in the game industry. Every time I saw her, there’d be some line of people waiting to connect. I heard someone had written her into a poem, read at one of the GDC sessions.

Since Train was being presented throughout the conference, I knew where I would likely run into Brenda. There I’d find our students, mingling among other UCSC game design students.

It was probably the only conversation I had with her during GDC, where I remarked about the uncanny set of events in the past 24 hours.

24 hour Recap:

  • Brenda gives her #1ReasonToBe talk
  • That evening, IGDA throws their party
  • Brenda resigns from being co-chair of Women in Games SIG
  • Brenda receives lifetime achievement award

The experience from my front row seat

On the internet, it doesn’t seem like people have anything bad to say about Brenda– mostly, neutral reports on the events at GDC and many applauded her for making a stand. In person, few remarked that the IGDA needs her now more than ever, and that she shouldn’t resign. Most of the backlash that I saw was not against Brenda, but against the issue.

From my Facebook:

Bryan: it is those men that should be stigmatized, not the dancers. you are blaming women for the behavior of assholes.

Me: we arent blaming the dancers… they’re getting mad at the people who hired the dancers.

Bryan: getting mad at people who appreciate dancers, if they have such good taste then they could try participating in event planning instead of just dumping on the people who took the initiative to put together what should’ve been a fun party. this is censorship of a specific artistic taste, those dancers took the job of their own free will, there is nothing representing exploitation or unfairness to women in having dancers at a party, whereas excluding the dancers would be unfairly targeting the dancers. you are sliding down the slippery slope of censorship.

Me: Wow Bryan, if women thought of that sooner, maybe women’s suffrage wouldn’t have taken so long to happen… and maybe the slaves should’ve just freed themselves.

Bryan: those are problems that are about exploitation, those dancers are not being exploited or hurting anyone. obviously if they had slave dancers on stage we would have good reason to be in uproar.

Me: what if the DJ played songs about gays going to hell?

Bryan: that would be hurtful. the dancers are not hurting anyone. the dancers are being disrespected by being singled out to be excluded from the parties. taking the moral high ground on artistic basis is not warranted here. you may be of the opinion that it is distasteful to have dancers at the party, but that’s just your opinion. it is closed minded to be so offended by artistic taste as to quit an organization that is doing awesome work and throwing parties that are not hurting anyone and most people really enjoy. it is a snub to the igda and to dancers everywhere on totally dubious grounds.

Alan: Bryan, this isn’t about exploitation, it’s about inconsistent messaging around gender stereotypes.

Me: Bryan, I think if i could put it succinctly, the way this culture makes me feel, as a woman, is invisible… And maybe you just don’t understand that objectification in this form feels alienating and dehumanizing…

Bryan: these girls are hired for entertainment, they are no more objectified than hired musicians or other artists. the objectification by certain males is the problem, not the dancers.

Ian: Bryan: your argument (if I understand it) is that the party organizers were free to hire any entertainment they wanted, and the guests (as adults) are expected to be able to tell the difference between hired entertainment and women developers who were also in attendance. Thus, any male at the party who treats a female like an object deserves to get called on it, but the problem is the behavior of those males, not the party atmosphere.

I won’t go into why this line of reasoning is flawed, because in this case I see it as irrelevant. This was a professional party for the benefit of professionals, similar to an office holiday party. Dress is expected to be professional (i.e. whatever you’d normally wear to work). Dancers in skimpy outfits == unprofessional == not appropriate for this particular venue. ESPECIALLY in light of the IGDA’s promise that the party would conform to the GDC Code of Conduct, which these outfits violated. Regardless of any moral stance on whether dancers should be allowed at parties in general, they were absolutely not appropriate for this particular party, by the social contract and promises laid out ahead of time by those who organized said party.

Me: … and where were the male dancers?… (yes, i said invisible)…

Bryan: I recognize your concern Sherol, and objectification is a real problem. I am arguing that blaming dancers is the wrong approach, it is not fair. Arguing for male dancers is a matter of taste and seems hetero normative. Game developers are a global and artistic bunch, some of whom are dancers as well. Perhaps those dancers on stage were game devs, too. It does not reflect well on the art of game design when we are calling other art forms unwelcome.

Ian: Bryan, since when is anyone in this entire thread blaming the dancers? I know I’m not, and from my reading neither is Sherol or Alan (though they are free to correct me on this). If you are trying to argue that the dancers should not be targeted with hatred, we’re all in agreement, but this argument does not address the core issue.

Whether the dancers were game devs or not is irrelevant. Whether or not any of them were male is irrelevant. As I said before, it’s a professional event, professional dress expected, so a guy in a Speedo is EXACTLY as inappropriate as a woman in a bikini, whether they’re game devs or full-time dancers or basketball players or homeless people.

Calling it “art” is a deflection. Your right to enjoy entertainment stops when that form of entertainment is actively preventing other people from enjoying themselves. Let me put it another way, more bluntly: by having female flesh on display, it leads to a sexually charged atmosphere that, together with the presence of alcohol, exponentially increases the chance of a woman at the party being targeted for actual honest-to-goodness rape. And yes, you and I know that rape is wrong. We also know that robbery is wrong, and that if you walk down a dark alley late at night flashing a bunch of cash, that the person who mugs you is still in the wrong… but at the same time, putting yourself in that situation makes you unsafe and you should rightly feel afraid if you walk down a dark alley at night. Likewise, a woman who is aware of her surroundings is EASILY within her rights to recognize a club with the triad of “alcohol + scantily clad women + male dominated field” as a place that is perhaps just as dangerous as a dark alley, and she might very well want to get the hell out of there.

So a woman’s choice, entering that environment, is either to put herself at risk by staying at the party, or to leave and abandon any social networking and career advancement opportunities that might have otherwise been present. Why should anyone be forced to make that choice, especially at GDC of all places where the WHOLE POINT of being there is career advancement

And by forcing women (and not men) to make this choice, that is what is getting so many people so angry about it. Because it’s not about appreciating various forms of entertainment. It’s the Game Industry (as represented by the official organization of game devs, the IGDA) sending a direct message that says “women, you are not who this industry is for, and you are not welcome here; if you want to be here anyway, expect to make some concessions that men do not have to make.” Tell me how there is any way in our entire universe that this is remotely fair.

Through these series of events and this discussion that erupted on my FB, I was able to summarize how I feel with one word, “invisible.” Though, even this cause that intends to help me belong in the industry, is itself, alienating. I don’t have stories about guys grabbing my ass… ever. I feel kind of plain and “one of the guys” that I wonder if there’s something wrong because I’m not being harassed. Sometimes, I tell myself that it’s just because I don’t try hard enough to look pretty. On top of that, I feel alienated around women, in general, because I’m around men all the time– I’m just not used to being around women.

It sometimes feels like the only way to identify with women in a male dominated industry is to muster up the right kind zeal for the cause, and I’ve never had that. I remember feeling invisible when the girls in my lab created a girls in gaming panel for the Grace Hopper Conference and never told me about it. Maybe they didn’t think I cared enough about women in computing? Maybe they don’t like me? Maybe they just don’t understand me? I know I’ve excluded people from things for one reason or another. So, in my own “special” way, I deeply care about many things, and in those same ways, I feel invisible.

Maybe I’m just weird. I’m just being myself, I don’t know how to fit in, and people have a hard time understanding me. When I worked in residential life at University of Delaware, one of the staff leaders commented in the most insightful and unoffensive way that “you [I] just don’t fit in anywhere.” For the most part, I’ve never felt okay being myself, because all I ever saw were people (1) being like everyone else, (2) being them-self, no different from being like everyone else, or (3) being them-self, and outcasted.

My adviser, Michael Mateas, says that this point of my career is where the grad students all embark on deep soul searching. I met Brenda during such a disorienting stage in life, and for no other reason than being who she is, did she care about that– not just me, but for the students in our class as well. In her office, she would share stories from her life with great transparency and vulnerability, which spoke profoundly to me. I’m certain that if you’ve met Brenda, you would’ve encountered nothing other than the authentic Brenda Romero.

John Romero was teaching a class this past Friday, I walked into a packed classroom, and sat on the floor in the corner. Towards the end, Brenda walks in, and comes over to sit on the floor next to me. There was something so down to earth about that. I hadn’t spoken to her since GDC, and inquired on how things were. From how she carries herself, she makes it seem effortless to pioneer the “how things should be” in spite of the “how things are,” but with no facade, she candidly explains to me the challenges of being in the limelight. It’s so easy for me to take for granted how powerful, accomplished, and resilient she is, but through her weak moments do I find myself most moved by her strength.

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Game design feedback and life lessons from Brenda to her students

Although, I’ve only known Brenda for a couple of months, I’ve seen how she’s opened the locked doors that I can now simply walk through. Not only has she impacted many through staying true to herself, but I give her credit for the lives I will impact through my staying true to myself, as I do for a few other encouraging industry veterans: Craig Reynolds, Daniel Kline, Jamil Moledina, and the entire CA program. I, of course, greatly credit my professional contributions to my academic mentors: Stephan Bohacek, Maria Palacas, and the one-and-only Michael Mateas, who’ve invested months and years into directing and shaping me as well.

My contributions may not end up being worth much, but due to the example, encouragement, and correction of people who cared enough to (directly and indirectly) “let me be me.” I know now, more than ever, that I don’t have to be marginalized for being who I am, especially when it’s different from how things are.

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7 thoughts on “I Feel Okay Being Myself because of Brenda Romero

  1. Update from IGDA: Posted on 7 April 2013

    The future of IGDA events

    By now, you’ve likely heard comments about a party the IGDA co-presented Tuesday, 26 March, during GDC week. We deeply regret that the IGDA was involved in this party as we do not condone activities that objectify or demean women or any other group of people. And that happened at this event.

    Moving ahead, the intent of this blog post is to state how IGDA as an organization will conduct its participation in industry events from this point forward. Following are the ground rules – whether at GDC, E3 or any other conference:

    • The IGDA will offer “networking events” as its primary focus, not “parties.” Building a community and providing networking opportunities are part of our core mission, and we want to create activities that provide that opportunity, and to do that in a way that will be appropriate and enjoyable for everyone.

    • The IGDA will always encourage inclusion and diversity at our events. We want to ensure that everyone present feels comfortable because the activities are appropriate and respectful of the diversity of our membership. If our membership ever finds that’s not the case, we want and expect them to be vocal about their concerns – first and foremost to the IGDA leadership (starting with me at kate@igda.org via email or IGDA_ED via Skype).

    • The IGDA will be vigilant (far more vigilant than in the past) when choosing to partner with another organization. If we do decide to partner, sponsor or co-present, we will attempt to have comprehensive oversight of the entire event’s content from end-to-end.

    • The IGDA recognizes and will honor local cultural differences amongst its global chapters. Undoubtedly, some chapters will decide they prefer a classic “party” to a “networking event,” and may have activities which are local to their region. We respect these differences, but still fully expect chapters to uphold the IGDA’s values of inclusion and diversity, regardless of the type of event and locale.

    • For events not associated with the IGDA, we have decided on the following actions:

    • Event Guidance: With the help of a membership advisory group to be assembled, the IGDA will draft recommendations for how game industry companies and organizations can be more inclusive and stage productive events, while still remaining fun.
      These recommendations will be voluntary, but we hope that companies will be interested in utilizing these guidelines.Some companies are already following a positive approach.

    • Walk Out and Talk Out:
      We realize that leadership must start at the top, therefore I personally am pledging to follow a “walk out and talk out” policy in relation to game industry events. Quite simply, if I attend an event and find the content to be contrary to the IGDA ideals, regardless of the potential value of being present, I will leave the venue. However, I won’t do so without informing the sponsors/organizers of my reasons for walking out – both at the party and afterwards. I will always be respectful in my feedback; organizers are far more apt to listen to constructive recommendations over reactionary words. I’m hoping if enough people join me in this approach, companies and organizations will realize that the time for change has come. We all need to work toward an environment that’s respectful of all people, all groups.

    The IGDA exists to support the needs of developers and advocate on their behalf. In the big picture, conference parties are a small aspect of our greater growth and professional development, but they’re a flashpoint for demonstrating values that are either oppressive or progressive.

    Our humanity makes us prone to mistakes, but that does not diminish our resolve to be a force of change. I hope the IGDA membership will rise to the challenge, and keep working together to help our industry reflect the reality of our diversity, whether it’s at events, in the workplace or in the games we create.

    Thanks,

    Kate”

  2. You’re not invisible to me! Are we fellow Outcasts (Type 3) then? I’m sorry if I was prejudiced when I said you were “too Cylon to have access to our planetary defense grid codes”. While I’m not giving you those codes it was still insensitive of me.

    This letter does address something that has always sort of puzzled me. This imaginary planning conversation:

    IGDA1: “Let’s make an event for game developers, a lot of whom are introverted and/or nerds, and spent a non-trivial amount of time in in middle, high school and college learning things like coding, art, design, and playing computer, board, console and card games instead of going to parties. What environment would they like best?”

    IGDA2: “I know- a PARTY! Let’s make it like a combination of every crappy high school, college, frat, and dance club party they probably hated. Then let’s blare the music at 105dB so no one, I mean NO ONE has any chance of talking whatsoever! The non-nerds in Marketing agreed this is the environment they would want most. And I dunno, dancer babes or something.”

    IDGA1: “Well, when you phrase it like that I can’t imagine NOT spending a presumably large amount of our presumably limited funds on such an endeavor!”

    And for what it’s worth, I’d wager on you coming up with one or more cool things in this earth before you’re done here.

  3. Let me open by stating that I personally feel disdain towards every class of UCSC students that comes after me for having access to these courses when I did not. You are all horrible and lucky and I hate you.

    The gaming industry as a whole is still very uncomfortable with the idea of women, and strong, opinionated women seem to freak it out even more. It’s like a split personality where one side is theoretically for inclusion while the other is completely oblivious to what that actually entails. Then you start getting into the queer community and the entire conversation flies completely off the rails. Wherever it stands now, there’s still a long way to go.

    Just know that you can and should feel like you have a place here. The idea that this scene has always been about catering to some sort of egalitarian gamer highborn is overblown at best and acidic at worst, because voices like yours are going to be what shapes the conversation not just about what games are, but about who we are as the people who play them.

    Keep being you. Period.

  4. @shane,

    Thanks Shane… I’m around people who do amazing things, so I can’t say that I’d be impressed with myself just yet. I’ve been in school my whole life… It’s so hard to imagine what it’s like to not be in school.

    p.s. 100011110100010100100100111110000011
    001010101010010010100010001111110000000101
    01010100111100101010010101001111001010100

  5. @jared

    It’s pretty exciting to see programs like at UCSC growing at the rate that it is. I can totally relate to the split-personality feeling– it’s disorienting and leaves you feeling neither here nor there.

    Thanks for your comment in regards to shaping who we are– that’s where I find my heart to be.

    • @godatplay, Thanks Josh! I’m glad you are out there living the dream. You are an inspiration and I can’t wait to build stuff like you someday soon 🙂

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