These 7 Women Are Leveling the Playing Field Within the Gaming Industry

From creating gaming controllers for the disabled community to making inclusive skins for BIPOC players.
Jessica Ramos
May 17, 2021 @ 9:37 am
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Female gamers are often under-recognized and discredited within their male-driven industry, despite making up nearly 41 percent of all gamers in the United States. That's why this month, we're highlighting the women who are changing the gaming industry with The Game Plan. Here, we're diving into the world of drag queen gamers, the surprising ways gaming can affect your mental health, and so much more. Play on.

The video game industry can often be an unsafe space for marginalized players, whether because of the content of games, exclusionary communities, or other issues. The toxicity of the industry came to a head with the infamous Gamergate in 2014, where an organized group of male gamers attacked, doxxed, and threatened various feminist voices and journalists in the community. Yet while Gamergate has been denounced, the industry still has major issues with racism, sexism, homophobia, and violent behavior that need to be addressed and changed. 

However, in order to see real change in the industry, it's not solely up to marginalized developers and creators—it's the responsibility of people in power to provide safe communities behind the scenes and in the gaming communities they create. Although 83% of Black and 69% of Hispanic teenagers say they play video games, according to a 2015 survey, and 41% of gamers are female, per a 2019 study, that diversity isn't reflected behind the scenes. According to a 2019 study by Statista, 69% of worldwide gaming developers are white, 7% are Hispanic, and only 2% are Black. The same study also states that just 24% of developers are women.

Despite this, progress is happening. In recent years, many gamers have come forward with innovative ideas to help the marginalized communities the industry has been ignoring or discriminating against. The seven women below have been fighting to make their voices heard, whether it's by creating gaming controllers for the disabled community or hosting UX designer mentorship programs. We asked these women what work they do, how the gaming community is (or isn't) changing, and why it's so important to make space in the industry for everyone, not just white, cis-gendered, abled men.

Anisa Sanusi, 31, Founder of Limit Break

As a child, Anisa Sanusi's love for games like Kingdom Hearts and the Final Fantasy series got her interested in telling stories. After graduating from college with a degree in computer animation, she got her first job as a 2D artist at animation studio Arcus Studios working in UI/UX (user interface/user experience). However, during her early 20s, she struggled with several issues, including visa problems as a Malaysian immigrant working in the U.K., and she experienced the first signs of depression (which she was diagnosed with later in her life). As a result, she began to do poorly at work. Luckily, her boss's frustration with her led to Sanusi being reassigned to work with one of the senior staff members in the UI department, who recognized her difficulties in the industry. 

"'Ah, you feel trapped,' [they told me]. And it was like a pin dropped," Sanusi recalls, speaking to HelloGiggles. "My struggles make sense now. I felt like that was the first time I was seen, and validated, by someone else more experienced in this industry." 

That experience helped her realize just how important the mentor-mentee dynamic can be, especially for marginalized people in an industry that can be a toxic and isolating place. "We [the gaming industry] have a huge issue of retention, and it can be hostile to specific groups of people. They tend to leave pretty soon after [entering into the field]. Less than half of the industry is above 35 years old," Sanusi says.

In 2019, the then-29-year-old realized she was "still craving that mentor-mentee relationship," so she created Limit Break, a free mentorship program aimed at underrepresented people working in the U.K. game industry. The program pairs accepted mentees with experienced mentors in the industry to work together for a minimum of six months. In three years, Limit Break has expanded from London to U.K.-wide, doubled its participants, and opened up to a wider variety of underrepresented groups. Recently, it partnered with Out Making Games to empower the LGBTQ+ community to work in the gaming industry. Limit Break also hosts free events on topics such as Autism in Games and mental health in video games

Still, there's more work to be done. "We're trying to solve the problem from the bottom up when really it should be from the top down," Sanusi says. "We need to invest in female founders, fund games by people of color, and promote them." As of now, women only make up 16% percent of executive positions in tech, according to a 2018 report by Entelo, a recruitment software company.

"I applaud any and all efforts to get more diverse candidates into the pipeline, but if the system is the same as it is now, then I'm afraid we're just feeding more cattle into a meat grinder," Sanusi says.

Anna Anthropy, 38, Writer and Video Game Designer

Anna Anthropy has been invested in video games since she was 12-years-old, when she started designing her own games. Software like Twine and Bitsy (which gives free access to anyone who wants to create interactive narrative games) gave Anthropy the freedom to explore her identity as a trans, queer woman. Now, as an adult writer and designer, her games often center on queer characters, like Lesbian Spider Queen of Mars, an '80s arcade-style game, or Dys4ia's, which is focused on Anthropy's experience going through hormone therapy. 

Her DIY design approach of creating self-published games was chronicled in her 2012 book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, part biography and part guide. In it, she wrote, "It should be terrifying that a small and privileged group has a monopoly on the creation of art." But Anthropy's hope is that easy-to-use platforms can give marginalized gamers the chance to step into the role of designer and create a new generation of diverse voices. 

"I'm hesitant to claim responsibility for any of it, but since I wrote Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, we've seen an increase in more inclusive game-making platforms...and more small games by marginalized creators," she tells HelloGiggles. 

However, as Anthropy discussed in the book, gaming studios often won't take a chance on marginalized creators or their stories. "Publishers permit only games that follow a previously established model to be marketed to previously established audiences...the audiences in question are mostly young adults and mostly male," she explains. 

And even with the access to design, it's still difficult for experimental video game designers to  find financial support. "However, platforms like itch.io {a space for indie developers, which Anthropy uses] means there are channels for game publishing outside the mainstream," she says. For now, Anthropy has been busy making fun, interactive visual novels (games that are text-based, follow a narrative, and are accompanied by animation) and teaching game design at DePaul University in Chicago. Her current personal projects include writing a supernatural romance between a camgirl and a demon called Heat from Fire/Fire from Heat for the erotic games anthology Strange Lusts/Strange Loves, due out in summer 2021, and designing a cyberpunk epistolary RPG game called I Love You, Alive Girl.

Xmiramira, 27, The Sims “CC” Creator and Twitch Ambassador

Amira Virgil has been a part of The Sims community since the original game was released back in 2000. At 22, she began to create The Sims "Let's Plays" videos (in which a Simmer records their game play on YouTube) when she couldn't find ones that were aimed toward adults, and over the years, she grew her subscribers to 42k followers on Twitch and 103k subscribers on YouTube.

However, Virgil found that she couldn't accurately tell a story in The Sims that reflected herself because characters couldn't be modified to look like her. "As a Black woman, I couldn't make dark-skinned Sims, plus-size Sims…" Virgil tells HelloGiggles. So, in 2016 she decided to use her self-taught graphic design skills to create Black Sims skins complete with flattering makeup and culturally accurate hairstyles. 

Virgil recalls receiving a lot of pushback from white gamers in the beginning because they didn't understand the need to create Sims avatars that had darker skin tones. "It was painted at first like I was just looking for something to complain about until I created the Melanin pack in 2016," Virgil says, referring to a free downloadable pack of Sims skin tone modifications that any gamer can use for their own Sims avatars to give them realistic, darker skin. Prior to that, Simmers were stuck with the gray or washed-out dark skin tones given by The Sims. "What made me make the Melanin Pack was the fact that I sat there and went through almost 60 pages of CC skin tones to still not find anything," Virgil says. 

After the Melanin Pack grew popular, more voices started noting how much more accurately Virgil's skin selections reflected darker skin than what The Sims developers originally provided

Later on, Virgil created another extension pack, The Melanin Pack 2. Her work eventually caught the attention of The Sims publisher, Electronic Arts, and she became a part of the EA Game Changers Program, a community partnership that brings together content creators with game development. 

Being a Black woman in the video game community has not always been the most inclusive experience, though. Virgil says that she and other BIPOC gamers have often been forced to create their own online Sims communities to be free from microaggressions and judgements. "If I make a Sim with big lips, somebody would say, 'Oh, those lips are so big and unrealistic,' and it's like, 'I look like that in real life,'" Virgil says. "The more time I spent in those online spaces, the more I realized that something had to be done." 

Upon The Sims 4's release in 2014, Virgil created her own online Sims space called "The Black Simmer" on Tumblr for Black gamers to create content and feel welcomed. The Facebook group, retitled "Diverse Simmers Connect," now has over 20k members.

Today, Virgil is currently working on creating a new community where Black creators can learn the skills and knowledge necessary to build sustainable businesses as influencers and creators within the industry. "Someone on the outside would not know there are thousands of streamers of color," Virgil says. "In order to combat the lack of exposure when it comes to Black creators, there need to be more communities at the intersection of gaming where creators can learn from each other about the business side of the industry."

Angela Washko, 34, Interdisciplinary Artist

Interdisciplinary artist Angela Washko's work has always been focused on presenting women's stories in unconventional ways, from her interview with the web's "most infamous misogynist" to her interactive game projects. Exploring these issues within the world of video games, specifically, has been a recurring medium in her practice. She's made video artworks like "Don't Leave Me," a compilation of the violence women experience in some of her favorite childhood games, and written about the subject of sexism within the gaming industry. However, it wasn't until 2017, when Washko decided to explore the dynamic between women and pickup artists, that she stepped into the role of video game designer.

Her interactive video game, The Game: The Game, takes a visual novel framework (where players can choose from a list of actions to determine the course of their dating lives) to honestly show how it feels to be on the other side of a man's unwanted—and in the case of pickup artists—persistent advances. The text in the scenarios is largely based on The Game, a sort of pickup artist's handbook where strategies are written in often excruciating detail on how to coerce and successfully have sex with a target woman.

Speaking about the game, Washko says that she "wanted people to go through the experience of interacting with the coercive and frequently non-consensual practices of pickup artists by being positioned to make decisions and walk through how they play out—something one cannot do if they actually encounter pickup artists in bars and other public spaces." 

Washko is passionate about broadening the mainstream views on who video games are meant for and what types of narratives they can tell. "I have been trying to challenge the historical assumption that women are not the audience for games and the gaming industry's lack of investment in creating complex narratives about women," she says. That mission has found clear success; her work on the The Game: The Game won her the Indicade Impact Award in 2018, an award that honors games exploring social issues.

Washko has recently shifted her work into a documentary that celebrates queer community and sexuality. "I felt like I needed to make a project that was celebratory," she says. Workhouse Queen follows Ed Popil, a suburban telemarketing manager whose life changes with his drag queen persona, Mrs. Kasha Davis, is cast on RuPaul's Drag Race. Washko has been following Popil's life for the last three years, and the documentary is currently touring film festivals internationally. 

Aziah Isaac (SunziBae), Streamer and Top Content Creator for the Queen's Gaming Collective

As a self-proclaimed "Blerd (Black Nerd)," Aziah Isaac has always had a love for anime, gaming, and movies, and she has long wanted to take up space as a Black woman in the industry. After graduating college with an art degree, she began to build and organize cosplay costumes and photo shoots, and create music. She eventually got into streaming where she played video games and discussed important topics within the geek space that affected women like sexism in games. For Isaac, however, being a Black creator has been difficult, and she's spoken up about the unfair treatment she and other Black content creators have experienced, like the pay gap between her and her male and white counterparts. She says now that she felt her work as a Black creator was undervalued in the industry. 

"POC gamers and women just want to be able to have the same opportunities to show we can work with brands and companies. Too often we're written off before we can grow," she tells HelloGiggles.

After scoring an imprint launch deal with Sony music called Lost Rings and releasing a song about video games called "Joystick," Isaac earned the attention of the Queen's Gaming Collective, a women-led gaming community of female "creators, streamers, and competitors" that gives them the tools and knowledge to build sustainable careers in the industry. "It was groundbreaking to have a 'Blerd' woman representing geek culture in music, so Queens GG took notice," Isaac says. Today, she's a top content creator for the community.

"Being a part of Queens has been so inspiring and uplifting," she says. "The company really aims to give us the tools we need to not only create, but also to reach these marginalized demographics that don't necessarily get the shine they deserve within the gaming space."

On a recent stream panel, which she created in honor of Black History Month on Queen's GG's account, Isaac said, "We're so used to the grind, to having to outhustle, we're used to being low-balled, you know what I mean?" Along with four other Black game influencers, she gamed and discussed issues in the industry related to race, and highlighted Black creators. The panel even made the front page of Twitch. "I wanted to celebrate Black women within the space and Queens had no problem giving me the reins," Isaac says now.

In the stream, she noted that the industry can better arm Black creators by providing them with knowledge and creating small communities to share information about the business of content creation. By being an example of a multi-hyphenate content creator in the gaming industry who's not afraid to discuss race and gender, Isaac is hoping to continue educating Black content creators on sustainability and success. "We [Black people and POC people] are going to have to come together, create communities where we're transparent with each other [and] figure out 'how we can uplift everyone [and] grow our communities as a whole?'"

Erin Hawley, 37, Accessibility Advocate and Blogger

Erin Hawley has been a fan of video games since she was young, but as she grew older and her disabilities (Muscular Dystrophy, scoliosis, and anxiety) progressed, playing games became difficult due to the lack of accessibility offered to the more than 20% of disabed players. Around 2014, she started a blog, The Geeky Gimp, where she wrote about the different ways video and tabletop games controllers were inaccessible to herself and other gamers with disabilities because of reading, audio, or tactile difficulties. 

The controller, though, is just one example of a myriad of issues developers hadn't been taking into account that Hawley highlighted in her blog. In response, many gaming companies and publishers reached out to Hawley to ask her to playtest their games or work as a sensitivity reader to make their games more inclusive. "Even in promotion of a game, you have to have diverse people in the room and on screen, and that, of course, requires sensitivity readers to make sure that you're getting it right," Hawley tells HelloGiggles. 

As a playtester, Hawley looks for the ways in which games can be improved, as accessibility is, unfortunately, often overlooked. Subtitles (which aren't always able to be adjusted in size or color), the structure of controllers, or even gameplay requirements like button mashing are all issues that Hawley takes note of while playtesting.

Through her work, Hawley has developed a friendship with Inclusion Lead Bryce Johnson at Microsoft, which led to the creation and release of the Xbox Adaptive Controller in 2018, a device Hawley helped playtest. "He said to me, 'You were really the catalyst of that controller,'" she recalls, noting that she felt, for the first time, that something she had done had gone on to impact thousands of gamers. 

Yet there is still a long way to go. "A lot of developers saw [the controller] and thought, 'Okay, games are accessible so I don't have to do anything else," Hawley says. "Just because parts of the gaming industry are accessible doesn't mean that it should stop there. It's not just the hardware but the software, too."

In addition to her work as a playtester, Hawley helps facilitate networking groups for disabled ambassadors with Easterseals, America's largest nonprofit healthcare organization, which focuses on outcome-based services for people with disabilities throughout the course of their lives. Her networking groups have also given her a community with other disabled influencers across different industries, where they're able to share their projects and struggles, and uplift each other. 

Cierra McDonald, 39, Principal Program Manager for Xbox at Microsoft

Cierra McDonald started her 17-year career at Microsoft with an internship that stemmed from her Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. For 12 of those years, she worked with Team Xbox in program management, where she's facilitated and oversaw programs and initiatives across the organization and found her own community within the gaming world. "[The] mission is to connect and uplift the Black community within the gaming industry," McDonald says. 

Under her leadership, Xbox partners with and sponsors Black Gamedev community events like the Xbox BiG (Black in Gaming) Green Room networking event at GDC in partnership with Black in Gaming, Game Devs of Color Expo in Harlem, and the Gameheads nonprofit organization in Oakland. 

But as a Black woman in a leadership position at a huge company, McDonald is aware of the roadblocks BIPOC women have and continue to face just to be considered for these positions, especially in the gaming industry. "You have to work twice as hard to get half as far," she says. For marginalized women, microaggressions or issues of well-being in certain industries—gaming and STEM included—can be, as McDonald put it, "barely perceptible," adding, "It can be very frustrating both because of the obstacles themselves, and also because other people who are not in your shoes cannot, or are unwilling to, see those obstacles."

But McDonald is working toward changing perceptions of who can and cannot succeed in tech. In 2015, she began hosting her summer camp workshop, Intro to Game Design, in partnership with Girls Who Code. To date, over 1,500 girls across the country have participated in the Girls Who Code seven-week class. McDonald's main focus is trying to show children and teens that the possibilities of a career in gaming are real, and that she's evidence of that. "My workshop tries to crack open their perceptions by showing how accessible gaming can be to anyone, regardless of age, technical ability, or prior experience," she says.

Read more stories in The Game Plan here.