The year: 1993. The setting: the interior of a black Honda Accord sedan. Two young girls, ages 5 and 8, sit quietly in the back, tap-tapping away at a pair of twin Nintendo Game Boys, utterly shut off to the world outside them. These two girls were my older sister and me; looking back on my childhood, most of my oldest (and certainly all of my fondest) memories indulged my lifelong penchant for the virtual world.
As I grew up in Westerville in the 1990s, video games were just a kid thing—belonging to no gender and excluding nobody—and every child played without questioning. You’d be hard-pressed to find a household that did not have an SNES console, or barring that, a PSX or Sega Genesis. Every day at recess my friends and I, a curious but normal (if nerdy) mix of both boys and girls, would meet on the playground, swapping stories of the levels we’d reached the night before and the Pokémon we’d caught on the bus that morning on our Game Boys. The bell would sound, and we’d be ushered back inside for computer class, where we’d be met by Mario (of Super Mario Bros. fame) as he jumped and tumbled and led us through Mario Teaches Typing. As a child, video games saw no gender.
That is until middle school, where a peculiar scenario awaited. It seemed that from the first day of sixth grade, just three short months after elementary school ended, there was a marked shift in attitudes.
And I didn’t like it.
Suddenly, and for reasons utterly unbeknownst to my 11-year-old self, all my girl friends—the same girls whose birthday parties the year before had featured four-player matches of Mario Kart 64 and Mario Party—had developed a sudden disdain for video games. It was as if some alien technology had swooped in and retroactively altered history, selectively removing all video game references from all the other girls’ memories. Sure, they acted more or less the same toward me at school, and they certainly seemed to recall our friendship from the previous years, but there was no denying that barriers were being built, the differences slowly showing themselves every time I’d ask if they brought their Pokémon cards to school that day or if they were putting a PS2 on their birthday wish lists. Because did you hear? The next Final Fantasy game was going to be the first one in the series to come out on the next-gen console. But I was the only who cared.
Fast-forward 15 years, and you’ll find a bright, confident, 20-something woman with a computer science degree on her wall and a flourishing career in the video game industry. Not to toot my own horn too much, but that young woman is me—and the gender gap in the games industry is more apparent than ever.
A recent example: I just got back from Portland, where I was hosting the sixth annual Classic Tetris World Championship (I know, I was also surprised that people in 2015 still competed at Tetris). The event itself was amazing, with only minor technical difficulties. At one point during the proceedings, I was giving out Tetris-themed swag like T-shirts and belt buckles to members of the audience who correctly answered trivia questions. The audience was a fun and boisterous group comprised mostly of—yep, men. After asking the audience which machine the first copy of Tetris was programmed on (it was the Electronika 60, in case you were wondering), I asked the young man who answered correctly what prize he wanted for participating. His answer?
“Your phone number.”
While I won’t deny that this was an utterly charming (if unsuccessful) tactic, I also have to point out just how improbable that scenario was had I been a man in the exact same position. And I certainly don’t say this to cry gender discrimination, nor to claim that I felt harassed or threatened in any way—quite the opposite, really. I was flattered, just not interested.
When Columbus resident Jess Brohard isn’t on the sticks or at the keyboard, she’s behind a camera or on stage, working as a freelance event and video host, partnered Twitch streamer, and YouTube partnered content creator. In her five years in the video game industry, she has worked previously with companies like Curse, DreamHack, Ubisoft, and HyperX. You can check the rest of her stats at jessbrohard.com, and see her appear at this month’s Ohio Game Developer Expo.
I merely highlight this example as a harmless version of the reality that women face in the game industry on a daily basis. Even when we’re not actively being threatened, or in the situations when being a woman in gaming has worked to my advantage, there is the constant feeling of “otherness” present in many of our minds. Even when it’s nobody’s fault, nobody’s feelings were hurt, and human nature is just displaying itself at its most basic biological level, there is a distinct difference in the way we see the industry, and the way the industry sees us.
Now, of course I could regale you with the countless times I’ve been told I should be in the kitchen, or had my passion, knowledge, and experience in the games industry questioned or flat-out dismissed—but there’s enough toxicity in the industry without me dredging up those old stories. For now, I leave you with this: the most precious lesson I’ve learned over the years is to never give up on your passions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to give up, felt as though this industry just was not the right one for me, cried over hateful comments on the Internet, and just plain felt like I didn’t fit in.
In the end, none of that matters. Unlike Princess Daisy from Super Mario Land, this princess is not in another castle—I’m exactly where I want to be, and I’m not going anywhere.