Feminism, IRL

Casually Connecting: A Woman’s Experience in Game Development

StarSmasher!

When I discovered the call for submissions for the Indie Showcase on the Casual Connect website in Singapore, it was 10 days before the deadline closed, I was 7 months pregnant, and I had an iOS game that we had just launched as a beta. So there I was, staring at the opportunity of my life, suddenly feeling conscious of my very pregnant body and the way I would be perceived in an arena that was notoriously riddled with sexist attitudes. Could I let that stop me? The media was still buzzing about Marissa Mayer; as the first pregnant woman in an executive leadership role, she was under a tremendous amount of media attention. Granted, my company was no Yahoo, yet was this opportunity any less significant to me?

I had to sign up, of course, and submitted my game to the showcase panel and crossed my fingers, figuring I had nothing to lose. Imagine my gleeful astonishment when I got an email confirming that yes, the game had been accepted into the Indie Showcase and here were the items that needed to be checked off. I had 15 days to go before the day of the showcase. The days flew by in a flurry of designing business cards and company banners, storyboarding and designing game trailers, designing metal bottle openers for booth swag from a little-known Alibaba.com, and borrowing iPhones and iPads from friends. A lot of firsts for us and, in a way, each task accomplished seemed to validate our legitimacy to call us ourselves “indie.”

Luckily, having so much to do helped me avoid the thought of how I would present myself at the conference. My initial consideration of disguising myself with wraps and baggy clothes was simply out of the question. In the midst of all the fast and furious outfit changes, my husband quietly pointed out that not only would Singapore’s humidity in May be stifling, but being pregnant didn’t exactly make me the best candidate for heat stroke. There was no avoiding it. I decided to be as blasé about it as possible and practiced versions of my nonchalant self with my husband who, finally in consternation, decided to take time off from work to hang out with me for all three days of the conference.

On the day of the orientation for the Indie Showcase, I almost considered not going, but I got myself into a taxi and headed off to the Shangri-La, the hotel where the conference was being held. I remember feeling like I was all eyes and a giant belly as I waddled towards the Indie conference room, but once I saw the table that was assigned to us with the game that we had spent all our time on listed on the banner, my nervousness disappeared and suddenly I felt right at home.

As we waited around, not sure what to expect, a woman with a bright smile and long red ponytails came over and introduced herself as Yulia Vakhrusheva, the program manager of the Indie Showcase. Before we knew it, we were being swept into a brisk conversation with Juan Gril and Kelly Divine, directors of the showcase, about the ten commandments of being indie.

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Under the surreal glow of the blazing chandeliers and the hammering of the workers setting up the booths, I stood, arms akimbo over my belly, soaking in everything this moment represented to me. I was here at Casual Connect representing my company. This was a dream come true. Each day at the conference was an epiphany—a learning maelstrom of lectures, meeting people, and playing games. There wasn’t any time for self-conscious ruminations; we were too busy collecting volumes of feedback through intense conversations and play-testing.

It was hard not to be infected by the sense of camaraderie that swept all of us—it roared past gender, age, and physical being, generously celebrating each other in the spirit of being indie. Kelly and I struck up a friendship over a cup of coffee. She was curious about my story and I remember feeling incredibly awed by her strength and quiet presence. A tall, slim, blonde woman with green eyes, Kelly represented everything I wasn’t, and our conversations gave me a rare insight into the world she lived in: a treasure trove filled with aerial dancing and handsome football players, game design, and crazy adventures in Brazil, and all I wanted to do was listen with ears that seemed too small to hear everything she had to say. “When you step off that cliff,” she said, nodding at me with faraway eyes that looked beyond me, “the universe always steps up to meet you.” That thought still resonates with me as I sit here writing about my experience two years later.

I remember walking with Kelly through the halls of the Shangri-La, beautifully festooned with rare orchids hanging over elegantly carved pools of water. She was incredibly insistent that I accompany her, and so we headed over to the reception area for the Women’s Lunch together. I remember being seated at the table with Jessica Tams, Founder of Casual Connect, and Jessica Sachs of Big Fish Games, unaware that this was my personal ‘Lean In’ moment with no words to distinguish myself. Talk about a Classic Awkward Penguin fail. I remember Kelly coming to my rescue and talking to me about something that I have no memory of—I only remember feeling acutely conscious of my body and my sense of awkwardness. My pregnant belly, the proverbial white elephant in a room full of women. It’s ironic how that happened.

I still can’t find the words to explain how I felt when Jessica and Kelly announced my name for Best Female Indie of the Year. I can only tell you that it changed my life from that moment on. On days when I wonder if it’s really worth it, when the wanting to develop games urge fades against the mounting reality of daily bills, it gives me the courage to believe in what I do. For that, thank you Kelly Divine, Juan Gril, Yulia Vakhrusheva, and Jessica Tams. I hope to make you proud someday.

When I returned to Casual Connect again in 2014 in San Francisco, this time as a volunteer, I was thrilled to see familiar faces again: glorious Yulia, a pregnant and glowing Jessica, and a jovial-as-ever Juan. Even though I didn’t see Kelly, a woman who inspires me still, I hope when I return to Casual Connect in 2015—this time with a new game in tow—I will have the honor to reconnect again with kindred souls pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an indie today!

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