Calling all Ladies, Dames and Fems: How Inclusive Spaces In Tech Harm the Communities Most in Need

Organizations run by primarily white, cis, straight founders train the majority of their focus on alleviating alienation for white cis women in cis male-centric spaces, but do little to dig deeper into other marginalized identities and access needs.

by Veve Jaffa on November 4th, 2015

Even to the most privileged professionals working in technical fields, it’s no secret that the industry suffers from a severe lack of diversity and exclusionary practices affecting anyone who is not white or maledespite invaluable contributions from marginalized programmers who are often erased outright from history books.

In recent years, especially in the wake of GamerGate, there have been a growing number of organizations determined to balance the scales by offering spaces to marginalized members of tech communities, primarily aspiring programmers and video game developers who face harassment in established communities catering to the white male majority. The need for people who face systemic barriers to cultivate and organize safe spaces where they can learn new skills and network without such threats is a dire one, but unfortunately is not addressed in any satisfying way by the increasing number of non-profits that claim to cater to our needs. As an independent video game developer who feels alienated by spaces engineered to exclude me, I sought community within the organizations that claimed to offer safe spaces for marginalized developers. What I didn’t expect was being made to feel as disposable and unwelcome in those spaces as I did in their white-male-dominated counterparts.

Organizations run by primarily white, cis, straight founders train the majority of their focus on alleviating alienation for white cis women in cis male-centric spaces, but do little to dig deeper into other marginalized identities and access needs. From a conspicuous lack of understanding for trans identities to tendencies to tokenize underrepresented presenters and developers, these spaces leave a lot to be desired for anyone who wishes to see themselves represented in a variety of roles beyond the grateful recipient of scarce resources.

Exclusion: An Introductory Guide

Small character game icons seated around small round tables, consuming beverages.

In-game scene from Shoot to Kill, Veve Jaffa, 2015.

Growing up in a world where you’re always an outcast for either being queer, poor, disabled, or the weird immigrant kid who can’t figure out their gender, you learn there aren’t many spaces to safely be yourself and explore your creativity. My solution was to surround myself with as many white boys as possible and fight as ardently and valiantly (bless my baby queer heart) to fit in, but at best this required denying crucial pieces of myself, and at worst found me pushed out on my incorrectly-assigned ass for daring to take up space in a white, male-designated domain.

That hopeless need to fit in always reminds me of the heartbreaking summer I finally convinced my parents to let me go to engineering camp. While I have fond memories of the MacGyver-esque mechanical contests and covert game-making during my web development courses, (it was a jam-packed page of animated buttons that all led to an endless variety of clip art dogs, in case you were curious) they are submerged beneath experiences I have tried hard to forget. Beyond the daily ridicule from fellow campers who felt more than justified in making me feel unwelcome, I faced multiple uncouth attempts from counselors to convince me to switch to a course “better suited to my gender”. I knew then, at the age of 8, that I would never be welcome in the world of technology.

When I started making games, I learned to expect that any participation in industry events would garner the typical “you’re a programmer?” from incredulous white dudes, and the same exclusion I had long-suffered since childhood. I opted to avoid disappointment and resolved myself to make art in the judgment-free solitude of my bedroom. What finally coaxed me out from coding solo was a femme fatale themed game jam hosted by a not-for-profit with a mission statement proclaiming dedication to highlighting marginalized voices in game development. Every instinct I had acquired from a lifetime of exclusion from large-scale creative and technical communities warned this sounded too good to be true, but months of yearning to meet and (maybe, hopefully?) even collaborate with other game designers on the margins compelled me to take the risk if it meant finally finding my community.

The day of the jam a familiar anxiety coursed through my body. It felt like the first day of engineering camp all over again.

Coding Language 101

In-game screenshot; a character looks at the camera, wearing a vest and bowtie, leaning against a graphical case of bottles.

In-game scene from Shoot to Kill, Veve Jaffa, 2015.

Betrayal is a product of broken trust, and as such, I could never feel betrayal for the ways spaces designated for white cis-het men excluded me. After all, there was never any promise to include me in the first place, rather, there was an infamous culture of exclusion surrounding technical fields that nearly boasted its exclusivity to white men. What I hadn’t been prepared to deal with was the way organizations designed to help marginalized developers would belittle and exclude some of their most vulnerable members. Many not-for-profits operate with top-down models of progress, assigning leadership roles to white, cis, professionally established and financially privileged individuals from the community. As a result, very little nuance and understanding of intersectional experiences exist in these spaces, resulting in inclusivity statements that read as afterthoughts in considering racial sensitivity, accessibility, trans identities and other realities outside of white cis experiences.

Even before I attended the game jam, perusing organization’s sites made me feel like inclusion of my existence was an afterthought. A quick Google search reveals that many orgs focus on the visibility of womanhood in both their language and public image, affixing “girl”, “lady” or “dame” to the title, intent on targeting the industry’s gender gap. Often times the site’s language simply states they provide spaces for women. In rare instancesafter scrolling to the bottom or squinting extra hardI would find an inclusivity statement assuring the acceptance of trans people. The preoccupation with descriptors ubiquitously associated with womanhood fails to acknowledge many trans people who do not identify as women or do not visibly pass as women in the ways cis-normative society dictates. This crucial oversight results in spaces that are largely unaware of trans experiences and access concerns like confirming pronouns or providing gender neutral washrooms.

As many of my games are imbued with sometimes tragic (but mostly hilarious) gender feels, my hope was to find other trans game designers at the jam to collaborate with. With none in attendance besides myself, I had only a small pool of cis women to partner up with, most of whom were not well acquainted with the reality of trans people and the necessary sensitivity surrounding pronouns, bodies, and self image that is so imperative in creating a safe space for us to express ourselves. I felt let down, but not entirely surprised by the lack of awareness that was initially reflected in the press material for the event.

Following the jam, I became an organization member so I could take advantage of the coworking space and free courses offered as a component of membership. I was eager to continue development on my game and widen my skillset as a programmer alongside peers in a safe space. My first day returning to the space I was approached by a white man who both worked for the org and the venue, who told me that I would need to leave, and require permission to return in the future. I immediately got in touch with a founder of the org, hoping it was all just a misunderstanding, that I would receive an apology and be welcomed back into the space as a valued member. Instead, her response was a point-form email attempting to deny my experience, as if she was debating an abstract issue rather than experiential insight from a member of the community. The white cis founder of the org refused to acknowledge the gravity of a white man telling a marginalized member of her organization to leave, and didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned with following through on suggestions to make the space safe for me. I was told, without apology, that my future return was welcome, but it didn’t feel that way.

Besides the implications of being told to leave a space supposedly designed for me, the rejection didn’t sit well for other reasons. Many non-profits’ promotional material focuses on presenting people of colour as the target recipient of their resources, while having very few involved in any leadership positions. This particular organization had no people of colour on the board or in any higher level roles influencing their directives, causing an obvious disconnect between the organization’s ideals and its members’ needs. As a member, you can sign up to present at monthly speakers events to showcase new work or speak about relevant community topics. Members who present are not compensated, despite the vulnerable position of sharing work from a marginalized perspective, however outside speakers who are professionally established and belong predominantly to privileged groups are often recruited to give paid presentations.

Else Invisible()

Dialogue selection screen from gameplay. There are four dialogue boxes: "What was your lens cap doing in Fae's dressing room?" "You're the eyes behind the camera. You must see a lot." "Do I detect sarcasm?" and "What was your relationship to the victim?"

In-game scene from Shoot to Kill, Veve Jaffa, 2015.

I had always been wary of the exploitative structure of large-scale game jams requiring a submission fee and utilizing participant’s games for fundraising and event-promotion without compensating the featured developers. Small-scale inclusive jams have proved disappointingly similar. Following one weekend-long sprint to create a game in the theme of femme fatales, I was notified that it would be used for a fundraiser to provide organization members with travel funds to GDC, the largest industry conference of its kind and an invaluable networking opportunity for up-and-coming game developers. As a new member, and one of the featured artists in their fundraiser, I had no reason to doubt I would be offered a spot in the large convoy of developers who made games for the same jam. But when the time came to go to GDC I was offered neither a travel stipend nor compensation for use of my work, leaving me feeling used and excluded once again.

As a creator of independent films and video games, I have a lot of feels about the lack of representation reflected in media and its creators. While creating work with marginalized characters is a step in the right direction, it does not address the implicit power imbalance between the artist and their subject. In the same way a film with trans people playing trans characters is a step in the right direction, when the producers, director and crew are all cis, the film will inherently possess the cis gaze, and inevitably perpetuate cissexist and transphobic tropes while missing important insight into authentic trans experiences. This isn’t necessarily because all cis people are out to make harmful or erasing portrayals of trans people (though many are), but because it’s impossible to adequately consider and accommodate people with different lived experiences. This is why it’s crucial to incorporate trans, queer, disabled, non-white contributors in varying roles and positions of power, especially at the very top, instead of as visual receipts used to prove inclusivity. An alarming number of organizations operate with the personal goals of their founders at the forefront, using their positions as a vehicle for their own visibility rather than those they aim to help. When those goals revolve around community recognition, self-adulation, or the growing popularity to be seen doing the right thing then there’s no hope to affect change.

This isn’t a public service for us, it’s a personal service for them.

It’s been 6 months since I was let down by a community I had hoped would welcome and appreciate my work, and now I’m across the continent speaking at conventions, presenting my game at IndieCadeall as a product of my determination, endless months of work, and industry networking with little-to-no community support. It has been extremely hard trying to carve out a place for myself in an industry that says I don’t belong, and even harder doing so without the support of spaces designed for me to feel safe to experiment and grow as an artist.

Until marginalized creators’ needs are treated like a priority instead of an afterthought, and our work is recognized as integral to an organization’s success rather than a product of it, I will continue my journey alongside other developers who have yet to find inclusive support networks with the hope of finding a community to call my own.