This is, more or less, the text of a speech that I gave at the University of Northern Iowa last week. I knew I was speaking to a bunch of college students, many of whom want to get jobs in the games industry, so I wanted to tell them the words that my past self needed to hear. At their age, I heard from a lot of people that journalism was "too hard" and that I should pursue a safer writing position, like writing corporate newsletters or advertising copy. No one ever told me that journalism (especially games journalism) was already dominated by the voices of people who grew up being told that nothing was too hard for them. So, this is a speech for the people who grew up told that they're going to have to make compromises and that they will not be able to achieve their dreams.
I want to give you permission to try.
Implicit in that suggestion is that I also give you permission to fail. Learning how to play a game, or how to figure out what kind of job you want to do, or what kind of creative work you want to create, is about failing and learning from failures.
But it's also about getting over the initial fear of trying in the first place, especially when you are already marginalized in some way, or considered to be an "outsider" to the field that you want to try.
I am going to tell you a story.
When StarCraft 2 came out, I was already working as a games journalist and had been for some time. My editors asked me if I would review this game. I hadn't played the first StarCraft, but I wanted to try the second one. I had been reviewing games professionally for years by this time, and I wrote about any game that my editors assigned. I still do!
My boyfriend at the time heard that I was going to review the new StarCraft game, and he told me: "You can't do that. It's too hard."
Now this was absurd, right? I had been playing games all my life, and I had been working as a professional games reviewer for years before I even met this guy, and yet his gut reaction was to tell me that I could not do it.
At the time, I called him out for this. I told him that I had dealt all my life with men telling me that I wouldn't be able to play Warcraft 3, that I wouldn't be able to play Soul Calibur or Street Fighter, and that I wouldn't be able to play CounterStrike or Halo or Call of Duty. Still, though, he wouldn't stop insisting to me: "No, StarCraft is different – it's WAY too hard for you."
There was subconscious sexism in his comments to me – and we eventually did break up because this guy turned out to be more sexist in other more explicit ways later on – but there was also the fact that THIS GUY WAS NOT GOOD AT STARCRAFT HIMSELF! This was something he had already tried and failed. And deep down, I think he hated the idea of me succeeding at something that he could not do.
Today, StarCraft 2 is one of my favorite games. I play it for multiple hours every single week! Is it very hard? Yes! Did it take me years and years to finally learn how to play it? Yes! I actually had to find other, more forgiving friends to talk to, people who did teach me how to play the game in more effective ways, people who told me it was hard but ALSO gave me the tools that I needed to succeed. Now, my experiences playing StarCraft 2 are some of the happiest hours of my lifetime.
You should always be suspicious when someone tells you that something is "too hard" for you.
Many people will say this about hardcore competitive games. They'll also tell you this about games journalism, which is a very competitive industry. There are very, very few slots for staff writers in games journalism, and given that journalism has done a garbage job of adapting to a post-print media, internet-driven world, there's still very little stability and very little money for all involved. It's very hard to be noticed in the field, unless you know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.
But I would hesitate to tell you that I think it is "too hard."
On the contrary, I think that being good at any of this stuff is almost entirely psychological. It's about our own expectations of ourselves, and whether we give ourselves permission to try in the first place.
As a woman, I frequently meet people who express extreme surprise that I write about games for a living. They are even more surprised when they hear the type of games that I like to play the best – when they hear that I like competitive games, in particular. Women are not expected to be competitive. We are socialized out of it; it is considered unfeminine and unattractive to scream obscenities at a Street Fighter match, and these spaces are often male-dominated as a result. Also, much of the language of trash-talk in these communities is actively sexist.
Perhaps it seems unfair for me to compare competitive gaming communities, with their rape jokes and sexual harassment problems, to the issues that I have faced as a woman journalist in the games industry. I'm sorry to say that the comparison is not too far off. Although the types of sexism that I hear from male journalists tend to be couched in a sort of condescending politeness, it has the same end result. It is still about men who are surprised that I am still here, when I visibly do not "belong" or "fit in" with the other people who have succeeded.
I also have to worry about the same types of things at journalism networking events that I do in the competitive gaming scene. I worry: will people think I am just someone's girlfriend or someone's wife? What should I wear? All of these men are perceiving me by default as a sexual object, not as a potential employee or professional network – NOT as a COMPETITOR. I am compared only to the other women in my field, never on the same playing field as the men. I watch men with less journalistic experience than I have who get promoted and get valuable staff positions because they are friends with the right people, or because they seemed like "a guy you can have a beer with."
In competitive gaming scenes, the people at the very top of the leaderboards are always men. The people who win the most matches are men. At games journalism institutions, the people in charge are always men, too. The mastheads are predominantly men. Does this mean that men are just inherently better at videogames than women? No. It means that women have been systemically pushed out of competitive communities due to sexual harassment, condescension and excessive scrutiny. The exact same thing is true for games journalism. Men are not inherently better at games journalism, but they would appear to be if you only looked at who gets hired.
Men can look at the games industry itself and literally see themselves: on mastheads, on game development teams, and in the representations of characters in virtual worlds. They are therefore given permission to TRY at every turn. They are actively invited in. This space already includes people who look like them, act like them – people they can have a beer with.
Both young men and women are told that games journalism is "too hard," and that they shouldn't even try. That the few positions that exist there are very prestigious, that only a few people will receive them. But men are able to look at who DID succeed, and see themselves. So even when people tell them "it's too hard," that contradicts their own observations.
A lifetime of people telling you that you cannot do something … it does get to you. I have had to learn how to play games and enjoy them IN SPITE OF harassment, IN SPITE OF people telling me that it will be "too hard" for me, IN SPITE OF not seeing myself represented at all, either in the publications that I read or the games that I love the most.
So I am going to tell you, if you look at something, and you don't see yourself represented in that space ... it's not because there is something inherently wrong with you. It doesn't mean that you are not qualified to be there. Other people will tell you that. But they are wrong.
It is hard to get into games journalism if you are a man. It is much harder if you are not, or if you are marginalized in any visible or perceivable way. But we need your voice so desperately. I need you. I, personally, would love for you to try.
I believe that you can do it, because I have done it. I cannot promise you that you will be wildly successful. For example, the one man on this panel about women in games has more Twitter followers than all three of the rest of us combined, and although I don't know his salary I can absolutely promise you it's higher than mine and it probably always will be. [I actually cut that sentence out of my talk because I felt guilty in the moment, but screw that -- I'm leaving it in this time.] I am not famous; I don't make a lot of money; I am not wildly successful – but I have survived in an industry that has done nothing but told me to leave. Not only that – I do work that I love, work that I'm proud to share.
The creation of that work is not going to be particularly glamorous. Hard work never is; it's gritty, and it's sleepless, and it's thankless, and it's often very lonely work, being a creative person in any field. It means staying up late and writing when all your friends are partying. It means spending long hours working instead of playing the games you want to play or watching whatever cool TV show or movie everybody else has seen. It does take sacrifices, and the end result will be that you may still not be appreciated for anything you've done.
I am not going to be able to sell you an inspirational image of defeating everyone and standing on top of the mountain saying I TOLD YOU SO!!! That would be very satisfying. But for most people, it's not going to happen.
I can promise you that survival is possible, and that joy is possible, and that creating excellent work that you can be proud of is possible – and that your work is desperately needed. If you don't identify as a gamer? Your opinion has value. If you think you aren't qualified and that you don't know enough? Just remember how many less-qualified people have poorly written blogs already, and how eventually those blogs became career opportunities for them. You already have the only qualification you need, which is your own experiences and opinions. They are missing from the world.
I'm going to close this talk with a link to a piece written by a journalist I know about how to pitch and sell articles to publications. It's written for outsiders specifically, especially people who've never sold an article before. It's at tinyURL.com/TryPitching. So … no excuses. Go try it.