My name's Rosie Pringle. I am 26, turning 27 pretty soon. I'm in Brooklyn, New York, been here for almost nine years. I'm a user experience design consultant. I run my own user experience consultancy in New York. I generally work in fashion, art, and lifestyle clients, so I'm usually coming at it from that perspective. And I help them with tech expertise and research. So that's where I am now. And I used to work in branding and advertising at a media company, so I have a little bit of that perspective as well.
I really first got into gaming because my mom bought a copy of Ultima Online when I was about nine. So, we all played that together. So, I've been playing games a lot of my life with my family and close friends. My mother also taught me how to code when I 11, so that kind of introduced me into the tech world from a very early age. I remember coding Sailor Moon fansites back when the internet was just getting going on AOL. So, that's kind of where that all started. And yeah, I mean, I come from a really nerdy family.
So we're all in this together. [Laughs.]
I think this is a thing that you can claim that not everyone can brag: You said your grandmas, they both still play videogames?
Yeah, my dad's mother is more of a Wii Fit type, not necessarily a “hardcore gamer” as some would say. But my maternal grandmother, she played Ultima Online, she played World of Warcraft, she still plays Guild Wars 2 with her sister, who just turned 80. They live in two different states and that's how they keep in touch. And they have a whole guild of very elderly MMO gamers who play different games with them. So they're still very much involved -- probably more involved in the gaming community than I am right now.
I wasn't expecting to start here but it could be a good way to give context for you and why I'm talking to you, which was this Medium post. You wrote that earlier this year?
Yeah. I started getting into it this year.
I guess it’s weird for me to sum up your piece for you, but --
It's all good. [Laughs.]
No, I mean, I'm going to kick it to you in a second, and just queue you up by saying it was a little bit sarcastic. [Laughs.] Is that right?
Can you talk a little bit about that? I think from there that'll take us to a good place to start exploring.
This is the one, the World of Warcraft Twitter harassment that I linked to you? I've written a couple Medium posts.
It’s the one about how "it's solved, it's all been solved."
Oh, right! Yeah. So basically, in the design community, especially since these design social networks and gallery sites have come about, there's been a lot of interchange of ideas and what they call design patterns. Basically like, "Here's the best way to design a website. This is the best way to do it, do it this way. And just make it the most beautiful you can." Which isn't necessarily -- it doesn't line up with what my idea of design is, which is solving problems and making things easier to understand.
So when I see people posting -- I guess there's a tension between creating design patterns that everyone understands, like, for example, making a door handle that everybody understands they need to pull to open the door rather than push. Standardizing design patterns is a good thing, but there's a point where it reaches this homogeneity, I guess you could say. A lot of the people coming into the design community fall into this complacency of, "Oh, everything's solved. Everything's good. We've perfected everything. That's why everything looks the same, so don't criticize it. It's already perfect." Which I completely disagree with, because there's a lot of problems that still need to be solved.
For me it's like, “How dare you say that? Just because the drop-shadow on this button has stayed the same and styles have stayed the same for what, like three years? How dare you say that design is over, done, and we should pack up and leave.”
It's interesting because I did another interview with this woman who used to work in the game industry and now works at a tech start-up. She was talking about how it really feels like in videogames, there’s this sense that they’re trying to “solve genres.”
Yes. I would agree with that.
And so, I mean, this was sort of when I first reached out to you. Could you talk a little bit about what you see as familiar problems or patterns of thought that seem to be the same in videogames and in tech and design?
Yeah. I can definitely see it while I'm playing games when that line of thinking has been applied. Usually what happens is I think one game, or one website, or one place does it really well and then everyone's passing it around like, “Oh my God, look at this.” Like, “Look at that, this tutorial in this game, how they introduce you to the story is amazing.”
And then, you know, that reverberates as a trend throughout other games. Or, “Look at how they styled this web page.” That reverberates, everyone copies it. And it kind of circumvents a lot of the hard thinking and research that most people do when they're designing because you kind of have a template to go off of, and it saves a lot of brainpower.
But you do get kind of stuck. For a while those Ubisoft games -- I don't know if I said that right. [Laughs.]
I don't either. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Tomb Raider, and, I'm trying to remember. Maybe it’s not Ubisoft.
Right! They all had these intros that were all the same. It's kind of like those interactive storybooks where it's just "click to continue." "Click to continue." And it's frustrating. It's not a normal game pattern. It was lazy design thinking, basically. And whenever I play or watch a game and see that, I get frustrated. I know that they weren't really thinking when they designed that. If they were just cramming more stuff in there.
You even see it with a lot of game mechanics, like this whole choice-and-consequence game trend that you see with Dragon Age and The Witcher and Mass Effect. And I love those games, but then you see people get angry when you see people expect a game pattern like that -- like in Mass Effect 3 in the ending? They expected it like, “Oh, all these choices I've been making throughout these three games and this 80 hours I've invested in this story, or more, and then at the end, I get to choose my ending? It should have been chosen for me.” Like, they're angry that they're given a choice, because they feel like all their work and effort is for nothing.
I think what people forget -- I think when we use those words like “choice,” we kind of forget it's kind of the same as choice in a grocery store. Most of the choices have been made for you. And you can leave, but you're only going to leave with the things that they wanted you to pick from.
Oh yeah. That's design, definitely. Through and through.
You said something you wanted to see be challenged a bit, you called it "the mindless defense of innovation in tech." This'll be weird but I'll read part of your email back to you.
You said, "People value the newly designed system and novelty over actual functionality and usefulness. You're all about experimentation and improvement, but so much of the industry is just re-inventing the wheel. Certain people will throw millions of dollars at it like it's a ballsier version of Vegas, and it's disappointing to see this become the playground of the rich. But maybe it's always been that way."
So my question to you is: Does it seem like we've just actually gotten worse at identifying innovation and actually asking for it, both as workers and as an audience?
Yeah, I think so.
You think we've actually gotten worse at it?
Yeah. I think it's easier to fool people into thinking something is innovative. There have been templates that have been made both in gaming and design and tech and things like that. Like in tech, you always hear about, "Oh, this is the Uber for blank. This is the Uber for dog-walking.” And you know what they mean, that this is an on-demand service.
But honestly, we're at the point where we're pretty comfortable with on-demand service technology. It's going to get better, sure, but at this point it's kind of stagnated in terms of real innovation. We need to zoom out a little bit more in terms of looking at bigger patterns. There's not a lot of people who are really willing to do that. And in tech, at least, it's this kind of wooing of investors with beautiful pitch decks -- which I've helped companies put together, and they're all full of shit. Like, "We're going to get a hundred-million people to buy this, and it'll be amazing, and it'll make billions." And none of this is true, or based in any kind of fact or research.
It's like we can't even be innovative about imagining what success looks like.
Yes. I think so, too. As an interaction designer, sitting in the hospital and seeing people use the technology there, I was with someone with epilepsy and they had a seizure. Watching the nurse try and enter his signs into a pad, and she just gives up and picks up a napkin. Part of me is upset because someone is having a seizure next to me, but the other part of me -- the design part of me -- is looking at that and saying, "This is really shit design. This is where we need some innovation.
My mom works in medical tech, too, so I think about this, too. Like a call button in a hospital. You just have a pad with one button on it that says, "Bring someone to me." There's no level of urgency, whether it's "I want more apple juice!" or "I'm --"
-- "having chest pains."
Right. Exactly. Something like that. And that's because there's a really physical process for working with medical tech. There's all kinds of regulations and things like that, but it just seems too difficult to try and break into that system and innovate. So most people will say, “No, it's just easier to make Uber for dog-walkers.” Even though that problem is not really necessarily urgent.
Yeah. Do you know what E3 is?
The conference, right?
Yeah, the conference. So, many years ago, I used to write or help write the show daily, which is like the catalog/newspaper that's rolled out daily for attendees and retailers and media to sort of just see what's been announced, what's coming out, without having to exhaustively hit everything on the floor themselves. We would do the headlines on the conference in short stories. Sort of -- what's sort of the new thing people are trying to showcase.
We were actually instructed in-house by one of the sponsoring companies that pays for the actual thing to be there: "When in doubt for an adjective to use, use innovative."
I mean, I used to work at a branding firm, and it was like "innovative, streamlined." It was an old-school branding firm, one that was 30 years old, and they were all aflutter because they had just discovered the term "disruptive," and it was all about disruption! You have no idea what these words actually mean.
Yeah. You had said something games and tech have in common, I'll quote something again, you said: "They both have a real desire to be taken seriously, and to be seen as forms of art, or positive drivers in society. But they are very resistant to critique." Do you see that as a pretty 1:1 thing from games and tech and design, or do they seem to resist in different ways?
I think it manifests in different ways, but I think it's the same root cause. One thing that I'm very grateful about with going to art school, was really learning how to give and receive critique. It's a skill, and it's a skill that not a lot of people have. How to understand when something is a good critique, versus a bad critique. When something is constructive, versus, you know, destructive I guess. Most people don't know how to give it correctly, and most people don't know how to receive it.
People in both tech and games get defensive when they receive it. They're just not open to any kind of commentary on it. And I think part of that, at least for games, is because it's still such a new medium. There's no real central authority on games. There's Metacritic, I guess, but unless I'm missing something, to my knowledge, there's no established organizations that are dedicated to the central authority of game validation. Does that make sense?
Yeah. And I feel like something like Metacritic is even kind of an inside baseball name to drop. But I don't know, because so many people around me would know it. That's the problem, too. I mean, when you're so familiar with the subculture, it gets really difficult to suss out, is there a thing that's outward facing? I don't think there is.
No, I don't think so. And people get upset, especially with Gamergate, when there's some critique that isn't, you know -- if you are talking about it, about ethics in gaming journalism, from that perspective, as valid as that may or may not be, I think that's coming from a place because there is no authority. If someone, a journalist on Kotaku writes this or that, and there isn't that perceived authority, but they're writing a critique that people disagree with, there's no framework to -- I don't know where I'm going with this. But they just don't have any structure to it.
Well, I think part of the problem too is, at least in the case of videogames -- there are some voices clearly voices. Talking to a writer colleague of mine, also out on the East Coast this morning, he was talking about how it's almost a miracle we even know about videogames, because the companies don't want to talk about anything else other than their marketing.
But it's almost like we're not supposed to know about them, were it not for the fact that so much money is being thrown only in that. I don't really want to dwell on Gamergate, but there was that thing where Intel wound up becoming the market-leader as far as trying to seem progressive or help, you know, it's sort of built on a flimsy premise of building up scholarships and assuming that the school system works, and this that and the other. But that's an example of how those voices are just missing. There could be a central place that's more public-facing, but I don't think the game industry is interested in that.
Yeah. And the idea that Intel is some kind of authority, even if they sponsor things, if you think about it from a different medium -- that would be like movie camera manufacturers being the authority on film. It doesn't really make sense to me.
[Laughs.] Well Intel, too, they got shamed into doing it, because I think they misunderstood some of the nuance of the politics around this stuff. Which, how could you blame them, but on the other hand, they should have maybe been listening to the people.
But you were saying too, though, there's just a lack of education for how to even think critically in tech spaces. Which is really, you know, you said a basic philosophy class could handle most of these problems. I haven’t worked at a tech company, so, when you’re on the ground, working in places or in meetings, what does that lack actually look like? That they don't understand how to take critique when it's coming from a well-intentioned, safe dynamic?
One example is this Lambda conference. I don't know if you've been keeping up to date on that at all, or if that's just an inside tech community thing?
I've been keeping eyes on it, but probably for people who aren't familiar it won't hurt to explain a little bit.
Sure. And I might be getting some things wrong. I'm not really the biggest conference-goer because they aren't really very valuable to me in what I do, but as I understand it, as a functional programming conference, one of the speakers has written some things that people would consider to be white supremacist. And a lot of people were pretty upset that this guy was getting a platform. And it came down to a debate of whether or not -- the organizers were talking about, "He's not going to be talking about white supremacy while he's up there," but you're literally giving someone who believes this a platform, and you're helping their career. So is that or is that not an endorsement of his beliefs? And that was kind of the debate.
The conference received money from white supremacy groups to support them in their decision to keep this guy as a speaker. There was backlash, there's a petition signed by a lot of people who I guess you would call social justice-oriented people, including Alison Bechdel. Another group of people, I guess you would say Gamergaters or alternative right-wing people, created a Wikipedia where they were going to host all this identifying information of everybody that signed this petition to remove this guy from the conference. And the whole point of this Wikipedia, or this Wiki, rather was to collect information on these people and prevent them from finding employment in the future. Which is more threatening than it does seem because I do think there is a scarcity of work these days as automation kind of rolls forward.
So, it was just this huge culture war. I don't know if it's a huge culture war, but there is a culture war. What was really interesting to me -- the organizers of the conference then posted a huge, long blog post, with diagrams, explaining why, I forget exactly what it was, but how being offended works, what is oppression, what is inclusion, what isn't inclusion, and it was done from a functional programmer's mindset, who hasn't studied any kind of philosophy. And it was painfully obvious.
So even that basic level -- it's interesting because programmers and tech people think of themselves as very logical, they work with logic. You make statements based on logic: if this, then that happens. Things like that. So they think of themselves as very empirical. But ancient Greek philosophers talked about this kind of logic and all this kind of stuff thousands of years ago. And these guys are trying to reinvent that -- not necessarily in the most logical way.
I mean, are you talking about -- is this the sort of talk you see where it's like people forgetting, yeah, okay, everything is made of systems, but these systems are made of people in them? People who may think and feel differently -- that doesn't necessarily make them wrong, or make them not people?
Exactly. There's definitely this denial of humanity and this kind of almost reverence of technology that I think is kind of weird to me. My profession, I'm a user experience designer. So my job is to really think about things from the perspective of people who use a product. Whether or not that's customers, whether or not that's employees using systems, things like that. That's kind of always been my interest, and the fact that you can deny that people are involved in this and deny them their community is bizarre. I think technology should be in service to people and not vice versa.
When it comes to tech and games, do you think -- because obviously part of the voices that are missing is that coming from more people, and it coming to a point where companies decide that they need to address it. I mean, do you think something that's not really poked at enough is something about how you can't really conflate perks with a happier life?
[Laughs.] Yeah, of course. I've always had a problem with that. Some of the best jobs I had were in the most dismal offices.
Do you think that's intentional, or is it just a coincidence?
I don't know. I don't know if I put myself there as a reaction, but I'm always suspicious if I walk into a job and it's like, "There's a free breakfast chef!" I mean, I worked in one agency where they literally would buy you a hotel across the street so you wouldn't have to go home at night. I lived 20 minutes away, by the way. It wasn't really like I lived that far away. And the fact that you need that extra 40 minutes, maybe an extra hour with me taking a shower or whatever, it's ridiculous. There's a problem with your company and the way you guys work in terms of efficiency if you need that extra hour and a half.
My impression from people who work in Silicon Valley is that those perks are there so that you practically live there. Is that fair to glean?
Yes. Yeah! And there's places where there's bunks built in, chefs, all kinds of things like that. And that's kind of a return to worker dorms that were owned a hundred years ago in the Industrial Revolution. It wasn't really a time that was known for being great for workers’ rights.
Right. There's this weird thing where -- maybe it was the 18th century or the 19th century? We're sort of ignoring the lessons from that time. You talk about Greek philosophers, who we're also ignoring.
But, you know, regulation might be a thing to embrace. You see stuff with Uber. Charter schools embezzling. I’m never quite sure if it’s just by proxy of me and this project and the beacons I’ve put down, causing people to tell me about certain things. But you’re in a different circle. Do you feel like you hear about this type of stuff all the time too?
I mean, I'm looking for it, so I do hear about it. But I'm not necessarily sure that people just coming out of school or people who kind of buy into the ideology of Silicon Valley are hearing about it. People who buy into that "innovation is great" and "we really take care of our workers." I grew up in Florida. I was right around Disney. Well, I was in Tampa, which is a little further away, but Disney was definitely a force to be reckoned with in Florida. Walt Disney was kind of this benevolent CEO who took care of his workers as his family like they're all his creative minions.
Like, he would always take care of them, they would always be taken care of. They'll have a place to live, and a place to work, and everything's gonna be good. And then he died. And Michael Eisner took over. And there is no union, there's no nothing. You arrive to be exploited, and there's not always going to be a benevolent person as the CEO if you don't have those protections in place. So that always kind of stuck with me.
The other thing too is, I don't do my job best unless I have a multitude of influences, and I can sort of soak in what's going on in the world. To have a connection to humanity, whether it's going to movies or parties or shows. Things like that. Any kind of cultural thing, I want to be part of that. And if I'm not granted the time to be able to go do that, for me, it alienates me from everyone else. And that scares me: If there's people designing our future who are cut off from humanity like that, and are just insulated within a bubble of sleeping at work, eating at work, all you friends are who you work with. All of a sudden, the rest of the world seems very far away.
For example, in Silicon Valley and in San Francisco, there's a social network called Nextdoor. You could call it Facebook but for your neighborhood. And it's really the people who live there. I studied it a lot, because I worked at a local news organization, and our investor was interested in making a neighborhood social network, so I was taking a look at Nextdoor and Every Block and other local-based social networks like that. Well, the Nextdoor in my neighborhood? There's some tension because I live in a gentrifying neighborhood, so there's a lot of dialogue back and forth between gentrifiers like me and long-term, west Indian immigrants who have lived here for a few generations. But there is a dialogue, and people do talk, and it's good to watch that. But in some places like San Francisco, Nextdoor is completely populated by tech workers. And they're using it more as a neighborhood watch: "There's a suspicious character around my corner, I'm gonna call the cops on them." I'll have to look this up, but I think one person was recently killed in relation to this. This total insulation, I don't know how you can design great products for humanity if you're insulated like that. It's just not possible.
And yet! I don't know if this is too personal a question to ask, but this something I did want to ask about. You're based in New York. Did you intentionally steer clear of the West Coast for any particular reasons? And if so, beyond just the financial cost? I mean, New York is not cheap either.
Beyond the personal reasons of friends being here and I just love New York, I've gotten job offers that had relocation assistance to San Francisco and I mean, I've never been interested in working in a primarily male-dominated office environment. And some people would probably be upset at me for saying that, but it definitely stifles what you're able to do and what you're able to say. To not really have that freedom, and to be in a culture that's so, so much about that -- it's just not up my alley. For example, we were talking about good critique and bad critique. If you're in a room of people who don't understand how to critique, and how to receive critique, and to top that off you look different -- not that I look super-different. I'm still a white woman, but I am a woman. And there's a whole slew of issues, people who aren't used to working with women. You can't have a real creative environment where there's real critique going on and it's constructive and it's pushing things forward. It becomes more defensive, and it's just not a great environment to work in. I've worked in it before. I didn't really see it being very different in Silicon Valley, and from what I've been reading and seeing and hearing, it isn't.
Yeah. I'm sure you're familiar with the show, Silicon Valley.
I don't know if you know this, but the writers of this show, they go and they visit companies for research. One of the former Twitter executives advises on the show. What's interesting is from what I hear, from people at those companies, no one ever thinks it's about them. That show, I don't know why they think they're going to visit and see how ridiculous the companies are.
But what do you think is not being said about these dynamics you're talking about? Is that just part of our design as human beings, we think, "I'm not the one that's being racist and sexist, that's someone else! There's no way I can be that bad."
Yeah. People are really uncomfortable with that. It's really funny that you bring up that show, because I was thinking about it earlier. I really liked Mike Judge's quote. I think he said: "The people who work there are ashamed of their greed." Which I think definitely plays into the whole, "We're making the world a better place! This is innovation!" all that rhetoric.
He said they are ashamed?
They are ashamed. Which I think definitely is pervasive in all of the things you see coming out of there. There's a huge denial of that. The other thing that's interesting about Silicon Valley -- I was watching it with a friend of mine who is another nerd. We played games all the time together. But she's a black woman, and we were watching it, and I felt a little bit uncomfortable watching it because there's not that many female characters on it. They had a really good female developer last season, but she left. And it was still only one.
But it was different watching with her, because we watched a few episodes, and the only black woman that showed up was a stripper. And she was -- my friend was super-uncomfortable. And we stopped watching it after that. She didn't say anything about it. But you can tell. And I felt really bad, because I didn't even think about that. There was another level to it that I wasn't even aware of.
It's like that for Mad Men. I had a friend who got upset about that. I’m not commenting on the comment or mocking it, which I’m just clarifying for the transcript, but they were really upset and saying, “Why are there no Chinese people in Mad Men?” I’m not sure these types of things can always be addressed all the time in all art, but I get where they’re coming from. And it does require more effort, more open-mindedness, and all sorts of things people know they could be doing better on.
But when do you think these types of critiques -- when do you think those are fair? Are they ever unfair to make? Obviously, with Silicon Valley, I don’t know what the statistic is, but I think I saw yesterday that 15 percent of tech company roles are women. So it’s like, well, it is representing reality, but sometimes it’s like, how is that reality ever going to change, then?
That's true. There is something to be said for showing an example that people can identify with. That's part of making culture, pushing it forward. But then there is also the part where you're depicting what's actually going on. But I don't think Silicon Valley -- it's a comedy show. So they're trying to keep it light-hearted and funny. And the experience of working as a woman in tech is not funny. [Laughs.] It's really, really horrible in some instances.
There was a study really recently called "Elephant in the Valley," where it said something like 60 percent of women who work in tech are sexually harassed. I forget the numbers too, but a majority of them are both told they're being too aggressive and not aggressive enough. These ridiculous contradictions. And the reality of working as a woman in tech is that you have to work twice as hard. And if you're any kind of person of color in tech, it's the same. Or more. If you're a woman of color in tech, I'm sure it's exponential. Just to get the same kind of respect and the same platforms.
Is your perception the problems women are facing in game development any different than women in the rest of tech?
I'm sure there's some differences, but the culture has sort of developed to this point where it doesn't seem very welcoming.
And I feel, too, that a lot of the confessions and the attempts by the industry -- it does feel like they're sort of insincere.
Right. I think it kind of leaves a lot of ground uncovered. I mentioned earlier, I've never seen a game where anybody could get pregnant for any reason at all. That's -- I think that would be interesting. Maybe that would upset a lot of people but, it would definitely make it kind of like a God mode.
“How dare this videogame have a relatable life event?”
[Laughs.] Everything else ever happens, but things like that will never ever happen, it seems like.
It's interesting. That's true. I did want to ask, it's interesting the way that it's gendered -- it's really broad to call it the tech industry but I think you know what I mean. In games, designer is statistically typically a male job, but in tech it seems to be female even though it's the exact -- well, it's the same skillset. Why do you think that that has wound up being gendered differently?
There's been a lot of studies and research done into why that has happened. And a lot of it comes back to the advertising industry and culture that was made in the ‘80s. There are studies showing there are just as many women going into computer science in the ‘50s and ‘60s and before that. And then over time, tech and computer science and programming somehow became a male-oriented field. Revenge of the Nerds came out, dads were buying their sons computers and letting them program. When it came to dads or moms buying their girls that kind of stuff, it just didn't happen. So, by the time computer science majors got to college, all of the young men in the class already had a basic 101 knowledge of things, and all of the women in the class kind of had to play catch-up. So there was kind of this culture made where women felt they weren't as good, just because they had started a couple steps behind. A lot of women dropped out of computer science majors, and it just keeps reverberating up the whole ladder.
And there's also this perception of creative thought being more of a woman's domain, at least, I don't know if that's true across all media, but definitely when I went to art school it was about 75 percent women. Made dating in college very hard.
As a straight woman.
I was going to say, yeah. Depending on your orientation.
Yeah. But it seems there's culturally this idea that being creative is somehow female and being analytical is male. Which is very weird to me.
I don't know when UX started to become -- I don't know if people consider it to be a buzzword, but I certainly feel like I've heard more about it in the last 10, 15 years. Or, well, just heard the term if nothing more.
But my perception is that that is seen as a more feminine disciple? And I don't know if that's just because it has empathetic thinking, and that engineering is more "masculine." Why do you think that is? Obviously that's not necessarily inherently true, but is that sort of the expectation and perception?
Yeah. I would say so. I'm not sure if it was always that way, I don't know what the field looked like 30 years ago. It was called more "human-computer interaction" back then. And certainly a lot of the texts written about it were from men, from that era. But I think, for me at least, it's the way to stay within the tech world without necessarily having to participate in some of the toxic tech culture that's inherent in engineering teams. I mean, I still program as a UX person, which for me, it's a broad enough term it can cover most of the things I have expertise in doing. But for people who are hardcore user experience researchers, I think it definitely does relate to that human element and being able to talk to humans.
I saw one person who wrote about that as, like, offsetting your emotional labor on someone but calling it user experience, which both upset me and resonated with me. So maybe that's at play. I couldn't really say for sure.
How do you feel your upbringing, and maybe even feel free to include your mom in this a little bit -- how you feel like your upbringing influenced the way that you approach that type of work? Do you have any specific events or examples of memories that correlate?
Oh yeah. Maybe I'll just start with a whole brief history: My mom worked in Sears, and she worked in the hardware department. Then they started adding computers, and she started going to people's houses to set up computers, and help them understand the technology. This was back in the early ‘90s. As the internet came out, she was very interested, and started programming for the web. Got a job as a software engineer at Sprint in the late ‘90s. She was laid off for not being a cultural fit as a slightly older, lesbian woman. It was completely remote -- everybody worked remote. But she was the only one that wasn't a white male, a straight man.
And then we were on welfare because of that, so that definitely was a formative part of my life, knowing that this tech world isn't necessarily equal. And then I decided to go into it, I guess.
That's okay, I have a similar story.
I understand that. Where you've been shown all of the evidence to not go down that path, but it's just not the way life happens.
Right. Part of it was I had a lot of fun growing up and messing around with coding websites and making different experiences. Back when the web was a little bit more crazy. There's Flash everywhere and bizarre artistic expression. Not necessarily the greatest user experience, but people were kind of experimenting and finding out what works and what doesn't. And I liked being part of that.
Then, as I was graduating high school: “You know what? I should probably learn how this stuff works beyond just messing around.” So, I went to school for that. It was bizarre because while I was in school and when I was getting started in the tech industry, I kind of forgot what had happened to my mother. And she got laid off again, from a different place, for not being a cultural fit -- after making her way up to being a director. That really angered me, and I started paying more attention to what was going on.
And then I had another incident, where I was harassed. That was my third wake-up call that --
That these are not isolated events?
No. And the person who did it to me had already done it to at least four or five other women that were known. The fact that this guy wasn't even that great at coding, either -- I was like, “Why was this even a thing?” So that's when I started looking around, and finding the same kinds of stories. I'm glad people are talking about it more now, but it's bizarre that it's been going for so long.
I mean, I guess it's hard to simplify, but do you somehow make them feel threatened? Or what is it?
Yes. That's what it is exactly. This person in particular, he was the CTO, and he kind of tried different kinds of intimidation on everybody. And he kind of found what worked with everybody, in terms of getting them to do what he preferred. And I'm kind of obstinate and anti-authoritarian, and he had tried a couple different things on me, and nothing really worked. And that was the next tool in his toolbox.
This was the CTO?
They got rid of him, which is good, and my story is happier than a lot of stories. But he became CTO somewhere else, so, that's not too great. And it upset me that it had happened with several women before me, and nothing had happened. And they had to work with this guy for years before something happened. That upsets me more than what actually happened to me. The fact that there was no repercussions for them until I happened to come along.
How have your relationships with even "very well-intentioned" male co-workers changed as you've gotten more experience, and perhaps gotten more independent and opinionated?
I always try and start from a place of empathy. That's my job, and that's also kind of my nature. Which makes me kind of decent at my job. [Laughs.]
Are you being humble there?
Well, I've had a lot of time beating myself up, so I'm done with that. I always try and start to understand where they're coming from, what their perspective is. I apply the same framework: what their background is, what they may or may not have encountered. So I always try and start with that in mind. I'm pretty forgiving when it comes to working with men in tech. But there are things that can be done -- like if you see something happening, and you're on the sidelines, and you walk away or you say nothing? That's a problem to me. You might need to be educated on what you can do. And I understand how it might be awkward, but people, and men in particular, need to get over that. I'm so grateful that I worked at a place where I told one of my co-workers what happened, and he was like, "You should do something about that." I was still in shock, but his support helped me a lot to understand what happened to me was not okay. And the fact that he supported me and my boss supported me was great, and the fact that they were on my side was great. It's as they say in The Witcher, there's no such thing as neutrality. You can't stand on a sideline and watch what's going on, in my opinion, and be innocent.
In tech, it seems like people love to mentor women, but very few people realize that they should be mentored by women.
Yeah. I still have to kind of progress to that point. I'm still starting out in the industry. I've only been professionally working in it for six to seven years, maybe. Maybe I'm at that point where I can start to do that. I was actually talking about mentorship with someone a few months ago, and there are people that I like to call -- and I thank J.K. Rowling for making this term a thing -- dementors.
They say that they're going to be your mentor, and they help you out, but then when the time comes, they don't step up to speak up for you. And they don't help you out in your times of need. And they kind of exploit you for your work and take credit for it. And they're basically like vampires, where they might recognize that this young person has talent. I've seen this happen to other people, too. On one side, they say, "You're great! You're doing great! You're really talented!" But on the other side, they never really help that person. In any creative, or tech -- I would consider programming a creative industry -- but in any industry like that, there's a lot of insecurity when it comes to your own talent. And there are people out there who can smell that insecurity, and prey on it.
I was going to say that one of the strange things about videogames is that it's a field of artists that rarely thinks of itself as consisting of artists. And what I've noticed in tech is above a certain pay grade, the luminaries consider themselves artists. I guess it would be lazy to cite someone like Steve Jobs, but a lot of people at that level see themselves as artists. But what you don't really see is those people treating their workforces like fellow artists and collaborators in an artistic pursuit.
I don't know what your experience has been -- who in these types of companies seems to be indulged or given leeway to experiment, or allowed to experiment with expressing or exploring ideas that maybe there aren't KPI's or whatever the letters are that most people use. [Laughs.]
Yeah, definitely. [Laughs.]
Not that I'm looking down on those letters, but I'm saying that's not how you wind up with something that hasn't been done before.
Yeah. I could get into that, but definitely that leeway to experiment, it does seem like that's something that has to be earned. And the people who actually get that leeway, often, are the people who have the most mainstream views, I guess you could say. And when you do have a CEO or a C-level person, who was a white male person with limited experience -- if that's the person who creatively experimented, you're going to be pushed in a certain direction.
However, if you have someone who's just starting out, and they come from a different background, they're going to offer a different perspective, and they're going to pull it in a different direction that you never would have imagined. And the fact that they don't get the leeway to do that is pretty awful, and it's definitely holding us back. Every study out there says if you have a diverse team, it's both better business and more innovative. So it's just kind of mind-boggling to me that it's not happening more.
Well, inertia is a powerful force, when you don't even want to look at what direction you're going in.
It’s interesting and I think you’re right, that people with the most mainstream views get the most leeway to experiment. What a weird concept and a great way to put it. I feel that telegraphing in what you see in a lot of videogames, too, though there’s this attitude in the industry that people say and act like videogames as an artform moves very fast. It’s like, they say it’s moving fast but it’s not really moving at all. So, but, we talked about innovation a bit before but what do you think in tech and in games, when people use that word “innovation,” what do you think it actually means to them? What’s the perception you’re gleaning from people who walk that walk and talk that talk?
One thing I wanted to talk about earlier -- there's this concept, it's from the statistics community, but it's been applied to the user-experience community as well. And in user experience and analytics and all these places, data science, we like to do testing, and it's either quantitative or qualitative. I don't know how long you were working in media on the web, but you might have run into A/B testing, where they have two versions of a specific element, let's say it's to sign up for a newsletter. And with A/B testing you have a red button, or a blue button. You test and see how many people click the red button versus the blue button. That's your A and B. This has been utilized a lot in tech -- I don't know if it's been utilized in games, it may have been. But the problem with A/B testing? It seems very simplistic and obvious, "Oh, we can eventually work our way to the perfect thing, backed up by numbers, statistics." But the problem with A/B testing is that you're limited by what you already have, the framework you already have. You're still working off the fact that there's a button there. You're not starting over completely with a new, fresh design. You're working off the old template. So, you reach what they call the local maximum: the best possible iteration you can have of the design that you have. And you never hit the global maximum, which is what would happen if you tried every option ever and all the different designs.
So I think we're hitting this local maximum as a field. Based on the framework that we have and the framework of tech right now, which is this start-up style business model where you seek investments and you try and gain as many people as possible on your app or whatever. We're limited by this framework, and we're about to reach the maximum there. We haven't really started looking other ways to push it forward. What you would call a conservative innovator, they're operating from a totally -- not to bring up the C-word, but they're operating from a capitalistic perspective.
It's okay. [Laughs.] You can use that word around me. I’m an adult. [Laughs.] But it's been coming up a lot lately, actually.
Right. So there might not necessarily be great money unless you kind of pervert it and say the medical or the education fields or governmental infrastructure -- unless you can kind of find some sort of in-road, or secret inside way of doing it. There's not a whole lot of money and there's not a whole lot of interest.
Do you get the sense that videogames at least are they trying to retain people past a certain age?
I don't think so. I think they are definitely focused on younger people. I don't really know because I am a younger person. [Laughs.]
I think it's really interesting because there have been studies coming out that older gamers -- it helps with Alzheimer's, being involved in a game like that. People who play World of Warcraft after a certain age had a higher cognitive function than people who did not. Seniors, not to stereotype, but they love Bingo. Why wouldn't they love World of Warcraft? It makes perfect sense to me.
I think some of it does come down to representation. I think this has been written about before with Grand Theft Auto, but you also extended it to Hitman or Metal Gear -- even just that one thing of why can't we play a game like that with a different type of character in it? Maybe the question to ask is: When you do see game companies trying to make concessions to a broader audience, what do you feel that you see them change from marketing perspective or from a design perspective? What do you think they recognize as the thing to try to address or assuage or broaden? It's not always necessarily, "put a female character in it," it's sometimes also "make a different type of game."
Definitely. I still appreciate the female characters, someone like Shepard. It's really awesome to play that as a woman, with a female's voice, and be a bad-ass space marine. I love space. I named my cat Garrus. I loved that. And it's interesting to watch the evolution of Tomb Raider, definitely, how they've re-defined Lara. I like it a lot.
At least aesthetically they did, yeah.
I mean, she's still hot! But she's not ridiculous. I remember my aunt bought that one, I think it was the first Tomb Raider. She was playing it and I was sort of looking over her shoulder, and we were both making fun of the polygons. So ridiculous.
Like two stop signs, basically.
[Laughs.] Yeah. I mean, we still played it together, so there's that. But it's not as immersive. I can't really lose myself in a game like some games are designed to. In the industry, I don't know. I definitely see some efforts at inclusivity. You know, this controversy about the Baldur's Gate remake with the trans character. Is that just a side NPC?
I don't know. I don't read everything or I would just get too depressed. My understanding was there was some sort of joke about a trans person, and then they took it out. But don't quote me on that. I think this is a community and an industry where the people who want to are realizing maybe they should be a little more careful and a little more tactful about how they're doing things.
But I don't think a joke is the best way of acting like you have a seat at that table. I think it's always better to do your research and be respectful and try to exercise some empathy. I don't know why that is so hard. I understand videogames are very expensive, and I understand you're not going to please everyone.
It's interesting. I think the primary demographic is viewed as very loud and vocal and opinionated so it's like, "They must be appeased!" When in fact, if you did bring other people into gaming -- when it comes to shopping I think it's, at least in America, moms are the No. 1 spender. It definitely can be adjusted when it comes to bringing other demographics in, or keeping them in. I guess you could call it tokenism, in terms of including this character or that character. And I don't mind it, I guess. But if that's all they got, that's not enough. I play games as a chronic escapist -- I play games when I'm sick of the subway smelling like a sewer, and I want to come home and pretend I'm a knight. Or a space marine. [Laughs.] Or like Grand Theft Auto. It's really fun to play that game. It's designed to be super-adrenaline rush fun. So why can't I play a game where I'm a criminal woman? [Laughs.] That's what my question is. It wouldn't necessarily be for everyone. Grand Theft Auto isn't for everyone, although a lot of people really love it and it makes a lot of money.
I don't really expect to see anything like that from the industry. But it is interesting to see what indie developers are making, what people are doing with Kickstarter and things like that. I think it's starting to move in a really cool direction.
I would have hoped in the last 10 years that so-called enthusiast sites would be a lot more curious and a lot more bold about taking risks and giving things coverage that other places don't because it really does broaden things. Obviously there is more and you can always be doing more, but sometimes it feels like they're not looking that much or trying to listen.
What is the purpose of enthusiast press if they're not all that curious and they're just looking to try to get traffic? But maybe that's more my fixation than yours, as someone in the media. But what do you feel the media could be doing a better job of to put more pressure on these types of things we've been discussing?
I used to work as a product designer for "the media." [Laughs.]
Does this get to some of what you were talking about things being much more data-driven?
Yeah. There's kind of like that BuzzFeed, I guess it's more pioneered by HuffPo, but then taken to the logical extreme with BuzzFeed, of data-driven journalism. Hopefully some places like Medium can push back on that. It would be interesting to see where that goes. It's all being templated, like I said. Headlines being A/B tested for whatever gets the most clicks to bring back ad revenue. Tenuous ad revenue. Rather than providing content of interest in value.
To people. To human beings.
Right. Part of that is perpetuated, too, by the social networks themselves, like Facebook's increasingly strict algorithms as to what gets displayed and what doesn't get displayed. The fact that Facebook has kind of become the front page of the internet, or Reddit, as they call themselves too. Although that is a bit more community-based, whether or not that's a community that you like or not.
Reddit is very much where a lot of stories get found and swiped and not credited.
Yeah. I think people are getting kind of weary of shit content. I think there is a push-back against that. So I think there will be a backlash against that that we're going to see over the next few years. So maybe that will be the space for more interesting game criticism and discovery. I was just talking to my boyfriend about that -- I wish there was a Siskel and Ebert for games. The fact that someone like Anita Sarkeesian is so controversial? I'm glad she's doing what she's doing, that she's pushing at the space, but her critiques are so simple. [Laughs.]
Right, they're actually fairly sedate. I feel like that's an unpopular thing to say. But I think you can say that and also say the reaction against her was not at all called for. You know, it's a whole other topic.
Something I typically ask men I interview, but I'd be curious if you ever talk to any of your male friends about where they zigged and other people zagged -- why they're not spending their time on the internet making life living hell for women and people they don't know?
Probably the nerd I talk to the most is my brother who wants to go into the gaming industry. So I'm hoping just because I was around, he didn't zag. I would have kicked his ass. [Laughs.]
Well someone would, sooner or later.
Yeah. [Laughs.] When it comes to that, definitely when I played World of Warcraft and I got stalked by creepy dudes, I think they come from this place of loneliness. Sometimes crazy, pathological loneliness like finding my address and sending me cards when I never provided that. But there is this deep loneliness, and isolation.
And you're not the first person I've talked to who has told me that that happened from that game.
[Laughs.] I got three or four people threaten to commit suicide when I didn't want to quest with them anymore. What kind of place are you in where you're threatening to commit suicide on Ventrilo with this 16-year-old that you've been talking to for three weeks?
You wrote in that Medium post we mentioned before that with Medium, or the way we act on social media or on videogames with each other, you were talking about how "we're not pushing the field in humanity forward by patting ourselves on the back and continuing a giant circle-jerk." Can you give a little context for that and what you were talking about, there?
I like having a satisfying day at work and congratulating myself when things are done well. It's really great when something does launch, and people use it and they love it. I guess I like to tell people that I'm really efficient, and by that I mean I'm really lazy. I think they're the same thing. I look at the resources in the world and how so much of it isn't used correctly. And it just makes me anxious to say that design as a field is done just because we've found the perfect way to shape a button -- whether or not that's true. It's ridiculous to me.
I don’t know how long we’ve been locked in this pattern, but it feels like we’re just sort of serializing our knowledge and mapping it for various machines. Is it naive to think that this is the way we move forward? Is that even really the point? From a media perspective, it feels like we’re trying to put off or just delay the inevitable.
Yeah! Definitely. So, I think there's a pattern that has been created as we automate more and more things and as more things will be automated. We're going to see a huge crisis when truck-driving is automated. And that's when I think that in America people are going to really come to terms with the fact that the jobs may have disappeared to China or India 10 years ago, but that's not where they're going now.
Right. This is a benchmark I read about a lot. I just read a thing yesterday about truck routes and automation, how the average truck driver can only be driving on the road 10 to 14 hours. But an automated truck can go 24 hours. Is that the point of why we work?
Well, for some it is. And for the people in Silicon Valley, for what they're programming, it is. More and more jobs are going to disappear, and the people who design the tech and make the tech and own the tech are going to become more and more wealthy and more and more isolated. Less able to design for the masses and more interested in designing for themselves.
Do you ever talk to people you work with that maybe you’re not super-tight and friendly with, just shake them on the shoulders and ask, “To what avail?” [Laughs.] I mean, do these conversations ever happen in companies like those in your experience?
I don't know. I haven't worked at a huge tech company like that. And now I run my own company, which is me and my consultants, so if I talk about that, it's with other consultants in a friend-to-friend way.
Maybe it’s only at certain pay grades, anyway. Is it just what we said before, these are companies trying to drive the culture but are resistant to and actually resent criticism, but also don’t want to think about what innovation is?
Yeah. Only certain people are going to get in the door at companies like that. They're recruiting from a certain type of universities, and to get into those universities there's a certain demographic that tends to get into those universities. Affirmative action and scholarships and grants notwithstanding. So it's just insulated itself. Here's a prime example: I was working on that neighborhood social network, like I told you about.
No, I wasn't working on that one. I was working on a competitor, I guess you could say. We were talking about the kinds of people who would like to use this app. We were doing demographic research. One of the groups we decided to focus on were mothers, just because they're interested in their communities. And a bunch of other reasons. So you start to dive down: Are we targeting working mothers? Are we targeting stay-at-home mothers? Who are the demographics associated with that? What kind of money do they make? How can they be advertised to? What's the return on investment? Blah, blah, blah.
So then it got down to a discussion of, all right, what kind of questions are we going to be asking on this network? And I got into a fight with one of my co-workers, because she insisted that mothers would be intent on choosing a school for their children to go to, and finding the best school for their child to go to. And I told her, that's a hugely -- this was several years ago, so I wasn't really familiar with the concept of privilege so much, but I would have said privileged back then. That's a really privileged view to take. Many working mothers and parents don't get to choose what school their child goes to. So if you're designing a system that has these assumptions baked into it, and you don't even know how to test for them, it's going to funnel a certain way, and attract a certain kind of person, and benefit a certain kind of person. It makes the gap even wider.
You mentioned Kotaku before when we talked a little bit about media. I think the way you put it is you were interested in expanding your online whatever or persona to sort of make it be known that you are interested in games. What types of stories do you feel like you never see but would love to read about, coming out of the industry or game culture? Stuff you never see, but would absolutely be all over it?
I don't see much artistic critique of games. For some reason, it's still a debate that games are art or are not art. And that's ridiculous. By any definition you have, some games fit the bill, so I think it should stop being a debate. And I think there needs to be real artistic critique of games. I just played Firewatch and I loved it. I think that game is so awesome. But no one had the language to adequately talk about what was going on with it. It was like, "It's pretty, and then the ending sucks!" [Laughs.] You can go further with it. I want to write about how there's this idea of agency, and as a gamer you have agency over your character. But you don't really, and especially in a walking simulator, there's only one way for you to go. So the illusion of agency, nobody's talking about that. Nobody's taking it to that level. And I think it would be very educational for a lot of people, a lot of gamers, to start to know this language so they can talk about stuff and push it further. Film criticism, at this point, with this new golden age of television, they all have that language. But games don't have that language. It either needs to be invented, or it needs to be refined, so people can start talking about more than someone's skirt length. I don't even care about that anymore.
You heard about that controversy, I'm sure, with the Let's Play of the cancer game, That Dragon, Cancer?
What happened? Are you talking about people not wanting to pay for it?
Right. That's interesting to me. I haven't played that game in particular, but from what I understand, it was an interactive story-book. People were streaming it on YouTube, and making money off of the ad revenue, while the game itself did not see much money. Not that many purchases.
For me, it's interesting. The people streaming this game and showing the whole thing -- for one, yeah, they're giving away the ending and people and watch it and see the whole thing, and this couple doesn't get any money from it. But, on the other hand, something like Firewatch, which is also a walking simulator, I watched a Let's Play, the first ten minutes of that. And I went and I spent twenty dollars on a four-hour long game. It motivated me to go and buy it. The people who do the Let's Play streaming, and stream these things, they have huge audiences. If you're an indie whatever, tapping into a huge audience is always a huge boon. It's what you pray for. So it's interesting to me that the people who made this game were so angry about this, when they got a lot of exposure. Which can be a double-edged sword, too -- whether or not exposure should be for free or not. But it takes it to a lot of interesting places, as to what is a videogame, what isn't a videogame, what's worth paying money for, what's not. It's really interesting to me.
Who decides, who influences those decisions.
Right! The argument they were using is sort of the same one that the record industry and the movie industry use: oh, all these people pirating something, we're losing these many sales, because of all these people ripping us off! Which may or may not be true, because those people who ripped it off may have never intended to buy it, and they just did it because they could. It's impossible to know.
Bringing it back to the film industry, I guess this is the capitalist, designer side of me thinking, but they made a game which isn't necessarily something that a lot of people want to pay for. And if you think about it, let's say that this artistic group of filmmakers submitted it to the Tribeca Film Festival. And it doesn't take off and get blockbuster-level money from being in the Tribeca Film Festival, but it is hailed as a great artistic masterpiece. Just within that independent, and really engaged community. That's kind of how I viewed that game. It was more about the artistic meaning. I think we will end up designing rules as to whether or not it's okay to do a Let's Play of this or not, and I think that was a good case to set that up. But the expectation that you're going to have a blockbuster from making a game about something like that I think is unrealistic to me. But it would have been nice for them to get more money than they did.
So, this is intentionally a broad question, you can go with this wherever you want: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Well. I think it's definitely, for me personally, it's introduced me to a lot of different people and a lot of different ways of thinking. And it's kind of connected me to the world, more than, say, Facebook has -- because that's kept me within my circle of people I know. Being able to grow up and go on the internet, and talk to people who live in England, or Japan, or Australia. That was pretty amazing. And it kept me in touch with my family. My family lives all around the U.S., and the fact that I can log onto a game and hang out with my mom, even though we live across the country from each other, or my grandmother, is pretty awesome. And it's brought me closer to them than I think I probably would have been if I didn't have that. I think it's definitely eased a lot of pain for a lot of people, being able to have something literally magically that they can go and partake in. I think it's probably helped quite a few people live in life today.