Vanessa Chu is a U0 Science student at McGill University. She is also a member of Game Dev McGill, an on-campus club for students who want to try their hand at making video games. Chu grew up playing her Nintendo DS, and her father was an avid gamer as well. Despite not majoring in a field related to game development, Ontario-native Chu chose to attend McGill because of its community of students interested in gaming, as well as Montreal’s vibrant tech scene.
“One of the bigger reasons I chose McGill [...] is because of the community around Montreal for game development because that's always been one of my big hobbies,” Chu told The McGill Tribune. “And that's why when I came to McGill and found out there was a club for game development, I joined right away.”
Chu sees game development as a creative outlet. After dabbling in creative writing and visual art, Chu believes games are an ideal medium for experimenting with interesting graphics while simultaneously developing a narrative.
“When you look at video games as, say, an art form or just a medium for communicating it's [...] so much more versatile [...], in my opinion, than all these other art forms because it allows for players to interact back [with] the creator and become creators in their own [right by driving] their own narrative and experience,” Chu said.
Chu loves making games as a hobby. However, she recognizes that it can seem daunting to break into an industry professionally where women are in the minority.
“I think it's a little intimidating when you look at the stats and it's just [...] very male-dominated,” Chu said.
STEM fields and the game development industry have a reputation for lacking in female representation. Although women make up around 41 per cent of gamers in the U.S., only approximately 23 per cent of developers identify as women. The industry markets video games toward straight boys and men, who also represent the majority of industry developers—which can be discouraging for female-identifying individuals interested in pursuing a career in games. Luckily, Montreal is home to a plethora of AAA—leading mainstream corporations—and indie game studios, where many women have successfully landed jobs in game development.
Rebecca Cohen-Palacios played her fair share of Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros growing up. Yet, after completing her Bachelor of Computer Science in Computation Arts and Computer Science at Concordia University in 2009, she hadn’t considered becoming a game developer until she came across an interesting opportunity.
“I saw a program (called the Difference Engine Initiative) for women to make their first video game, in six weeks, on Twitter,” Cohen-Palacios wrote in an email to the Tribune. “The Difference Engine Initiative was a life-changing experience of discovering that I had the skills to make a game this whole time! My first game was a teaches-typing game about lolcats. A year later, I got my first job at Ubisoft Montreal where I’ve shipped three games since then!”
Cohen-Palacios now works as a user interface (UI) developer at Ubisoft Montreal. She stressed that developers can come from a multitude of backgrounds, and don’t necessarily need a university education in game development.
“[I have no] formal training for video games,” Cohen-Palacios wrote. “I was able to transfer my experience in creating user interfaces for web to the field of video games. It’s more common than you think to see people from different fields become game developers.”
Around six months before Cohen-Palacios decided to switch careers from web design to game development, she founded Pixelles along with co-founder Tanya X. Short. A nonprofit initiative dedicated to helping women enter the gaming industry, Pixelles has served as a springboard for multiple women currently working at studios in Montreal. The organization aims to make learning about games more approachable, and Cohen-Palacios emphasized that it’s okay not to be perfect on the first try.
“We do monthly workshops to teach a game dev skill,” Cohen-Palacios wrote. “Pixelles also runs a program called the Pixelles Game Incubator where we help 10 women make their first game [....] Don’t worry about doing things ‘right’ or being cutting-edge when you’re starting out. Remember that you’re learning. Make games that bring you joy. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong here!”
Pixelles provides female-identifying game enthusiasts with an avenue to share ideas, learn new skills, and be a part of an empowering community.
“A big part of our programs, events and activities [is] about providing a safe place for women to participate, learn and realize they’re not alone, through the lens of game development,” Cohen-Palacios wrote. “[...A] space to exist [in game development] without the pressure of being the ‘only woman in the room,’ without having to constantly push back, be silenced, feel weirded out, or worry about being judged. All of these micro-aggressions (on top of the harassment that [the gaming industry] is known for) can add up and be really alienating. So just being able to leave all that behind, meet other women who share your experience and ask questions freely can be really empowering.”
With these initiatives at Pixelles, Cohen-Palacios aims to address the industry’s “leaky pipeline”—the risk that developers in minority groups end up leaving game development.
“There are many initiatives to teach kids to code and bring awareness of games as a possible career path to new women graduates,” Cohen-Palacios wrote. “Part of doing that [is] having role models—women, non-binary folks, people of color, [etc.]—to identify with and to be led by these role models when they enter the industry years later. But with the leaky pipeline, we are seeing these marginalized developers leave games altogether. It's a big and complex problem that the games industry, as a whole, needs to start seriously tackling today!”
Bianca Basso was an aspiring Disney animator who turned to game development after completing her undergraduate degree in Film Animation at Concordia in 2012. She witnessed the effects of the leaky pipeline at the educational level while enrolled at CDI College in an animation and design program. Basso believes that having more women enter and complete these programs can help to combat the issue.
“I definitely think it starts at the education level,” Basso said. “In my program, when I was studying game development, there were only two women [enrolled]. The other woman ended up dropping out because she didn’t feel welcome in the environment. I did have a good experience studying, but because there aren’t many women in these programs, they get pushed out at the education level before they enter the [job market]. Since the classroom is a reflection of the industry, it’s important to have more women entering these programs.”
Basso now works at Ubisoft Montreal as a Gameplay Animator for Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege. Although she loves her job, she acknowledged that the lack of female representation in her department can be alienating.
“In some departments, like the department I work in, there are much fewer women than men,” Basso said. “Sometimes you don’t realize how important it is to be able to just turn to another woman working next to you and just [vent]. In the marketing department, [most employees] are women. [They’re able] to just go to each other and talk about any problems they have, [whereas I] feel like I am mainly comfortable coming to my colleagues with work-related issues. That isn’t to say it’s not a great environment to work in, but it can just be really helpful just to have another person to [turn to].”
Although the gaming industry employs a lot of designers, like Cohen-Palacios and Basso, and programmers as well, job opportunities aren’t limited to these fields. Marri Knadle is a McGill alumnus who is now a script writer working on Far Cry 5. Knadle pursued a somewhat non-traditional route to game development, that began while studying at McGill.
"It was kind of a circuitous route,” Knadle said. “I did my master’s in Medical History and then did some French study, [while] I was a copy editor [at the Tribune]. I kind of wanted to shift gears at least for a while because I was burnt out on academia [....So through copy editing I...] ended up getting a job at an e-learning company as a copy editor making training software for pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies [....] There was kind of a trend in e-learning towards ‘gamification,’ they called it, and basically it's like tricking adult learners into enjoying learning because it's a challenge [....] And I love playing video games, I love games, so that was something that I got put on a lot.”
Knadle started building a portfolio with her work in e-learning. The learning games she created had a similar structure to traditional video games, sparking her interest in the prospect of becoming a developer.
“I used Twine, [a program designed to build interactive stories,] to make a narrative training game,” Knadle said. “That was a huge deal for a pharmaceutical company [....] That got me a few years of game design [experience] and writing for games. Even though they [were] learning games they had [a] similar structure [to traditional video] games. They had characters, stories, learning objectives on top of what I would consider a choose-your-own-adventure-style kind of game with scoring. It was really fun.”
Knadle had always been interested in the idea of writing for games, but wasn’t entirely sure how to get her foot in the door. With some preliminary experience under her belt, she turned to Pixelles to meet like-minded women and collaborate.
“I joined the Pixelles game writing incubator,” Knadle said, “and that was a huge door opener because we had the opportunity to hone our talent, to work in a group where we were getting critique [....] That's something that is super valuable to show prospective employers, that you're not just writing alone in your room.”
Writing for games requires an alternative creative process when compared to traditional, linear storytelling. Knadle stressed that the main differences between writing a short story or essay, and writing a game are interactivity and pacing.
“[When] writing a linear thing like a television show, or a movie, or a book, or short story, you have full control over the order in which the reader or player can see these things,” Knadle said. “But speaking specifically about [...] open-world stuff, which is what I do, you have no idea if the player is going to have story bit A that they see first, or Z or Q because they're wandering the world [....] You don't have control over the emotional beats and how they're paced, so you kind of have to be good at imagining different ways that the player can experience it [....] It's just a different way of thinking about how narrative is experienced [....]"
"We're seeing a social craving for stories that feel like they haven't been told yet, or have different heroes in the leading role."
Games offer an alternate way of conveying information and telling poignant stories. Knadle sees representation as an important issue because it affects what kinds of interactive stories are told.
“I think that the more perspectives you have going into a story, the more interesting it's going to be,” Knadle said. “Since there has been a lot of focus on male-hero stories, I think it's really cool to see what kind of stories we can share, with not only women, but non-white people, different genders as well [....] We're seeing a social craving for stories that feel like they haven't been told yet, or have different heroes in the leading role [....] Sociological studies [...] show that if there [are] positive role models for young people, they're more likely to chase their dreams [....]”
Marion Esquian is a game designer and level designer at Tribute Games in Montreal. She also works as a coordinator at Pixelles. Esquian studied interactive design, virtual reality, and UI/UX at L’école de design Nantes Atlantique, before undertaking an internship at Juicy Beast, an indie game studio in Montreal.
“I did the incubator and it’s one of the best experience I had in my life,” Esquian wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I met so many wonderful people and it really helped me win self-confidence.”
Esquian emphasized that game development is much more beginner-friendly than it appears. She recommends practicing with software to make a first game.
“Game dev is really accessible!” Esquian wrote. “It sounds scary at first but as soon as you begin a project you realize it’s way more accessible than you thought [....] It’s a scary challenge for someone who [has] never [done] that before but it’s also the best way to realize you’re capable of doing it! There are so many softwares that don’t need you to actually code [....] I first tried Construct2 which is really accessible and just after a few tutorials I already had an idea [of] how to make my game. Then I started using Game Maker and I actually wrote lines of codes [....] Making a game by yourself is the best way to understand how it works and if you like it or not. It also brings a lot of satisfaction!”
For beginners who want to learn more about 3D modelling, Basso recommends downloading the educational versions of Maya or 3DMax, which are professional-grade 3D animation programs. Sophie Deng, U0 Computer Engineering and member of Game Dev McGill, stressed that learning on your own is an excellent way to start making games.
“I get to do keyframe animation!” Basso said. “What more can you ask for?”
“Try to learn it yourself, that’s how I learned,” Deng said. “Or start with RPG Maker because it’s super easy to use. And YouTube tutorials are super easy to follow.”
Not only can the end product of game development be extremely satisfying, but Knadle emphasizes that the process of creating stories is just as enjoyable.
“My favourite moments are when [we’re] in the writing room and we're brainstorming together and bouncing ideas off each other,” Knadle said. “It feels like that imagination play when you were a kid where everyone takes a different role and tries it out and plays pretend a little bit [....] Like getting excited about a funny joke we wrote together, or a really dramatic moment that came out of a few hours of brainstorming, for me, that makes me want to keep going back and [keep] pushing it.”
For Basso, the best part about working in game development is doing what she loves every day.
“I get to do keyframe animation!” Basso said. “What more can you ask for?”