Cara Ellison is a Scottish author and video game narrative designer. She travelled the world as an itinerant journalist, and wrote about game makers across the world for her book Embed With Games and won the New York Game Awards 2016 award for journalism.
She has written for The Guardian, VICE, Kotaku, PC Gamer, Paste Magazine and the New Statesman, and wrote the best-named column in the world, S.EXE, at Rock Paper Shotgun. She was also co-writer on Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed The World for Channel Four television in the UK. Her writing and game narrative work has been featured in The New York Times and Wired, and she was one of The Guardian’s Top Ten Young People In Digital Media 2014.
Partnering with British Council Malaysia, The Cooler Lumpur Festival is bringing Cara to Kuala Lumpur to participate in this year’s festival themed ‘Notes from the Future’. We speak to her over email about being a “geek girl”.
Which is more accurate? You get away with more things being “a girl in the gaming industry”, or you are more scrutinised for it.
As a woman doing a job where male voices are much more common, I’ve become aware that being in the minority makes me hypervisible to the consumers of my work. This means that anything I say is amplified three times as much as they would than if I were a man. This isn’t a particularly pleasant experience. Inside the industry, from discussion with other women, I know that my points of reference, the ways I have been socialised to work, and the expectations people have of me can vary from my male colleagues, though the men I work with are usually supportive, considerate, and caring. This isn’t different from other areas of industry where men are hired more often than women, however the games industry is also hyperconnected to consumer feedback – consumers and journalists are more likely to contact you on social networks, via email, through PR networks, gaming platforms, and conferences. This means the feedback loop is intense and sometimes terrifying. At times the extra backlash because you try to advocate for yourself can become deafening. It can be hard to keep a sense of humour about that at times, but I’ve learned to invest most of my values in my work and not on social media. People understand meaning better in an arena where there’s more creative control.
How did you go from an English Lit major into a video game narrative designer?
I don’t really know! It’s been a long meandering road. I guess the first thing that happened was that I got a job in QA at Rockstar North after I graduated, mainly because some training in critique and analysis (and grammatical, logical bug reports) was what they seemed to be after. And it really helped in that role to be able to explain myself. That gave me experience in how builds and the development cycle worked, as well as less of a fear that I didn’t understand how to make games. I kept falling into games jobs after that: I worked in retail, and I worked as an interactive narrative writer, I became a games critic, and I’ve even been a producer at some points in my life. But now I’m a narrative designer I realise that I’m using the maximum amount of skills I’ve learned in my life to do my best work. That’s a job I came by by making my own games and by constantly writing samples for studios so that they continue to hire me.
What does it take to “make it as a woman” in the gaming industry? Do you have to be more of a “man”? Or is there such a thing, even?
I guess you could say that more masculine behaviours are sometimes required to be taken seriously and promoted and paid fairly, but it very much varies from workplace to workplace. Any workplace (including any of the jobs I took in the past ten years that weren’t anything to do with games) where there are very few women are susceptible to requiring you to join in with very subtly masculine-coded behaviours. In a couple of non-tech jobs where everyone was a guy I always felt myself keeping my emotions tamped down in case someone thought I was volatile, or trying to keep my misgivings about decisions to myself in case people thought I was ‘difficult’. But emotions are normal, you should be able to show them without risk of ridicule or removal of work. Having reservations about aspects of a project means that you should vocalise them as plainly and as early as possible so that you can account for them and make the project better. I’ve learned that if I can’t express myself properly in these ways it can be a red flag: either I have to share my concerns with a manager and risk being thought of as being ‘difficult’, or I find another job. Unfortunately a lot of the time if you’re just one woman against a whole studio structure, I don’t rate your chances of changing the culture alone.
Tell us about your worst experience with sexism, and what you said/would say to the offender.
I don’t particularly catalogue any of them, but a pet hate is when I’ll present an idea and the all-male welcome party shoots it down. Then a couple months later some man will repeat the idea (just in a lower voice) and he’ll be hailed as the Jesus of the project. Why didn’t we think of this brilliant idea before????? You had it a couple of months earlier, pal. Could have saved yourself a lot of money by just hearing whatever I said. (But I admit this hasn’t happened to me in a while.)
My favourite experience with sexism, on the other hand, is when sexists misspell their frothy rant so much it looks like they are drowning in their own drool. A kind of self-own of an offence. That rules.
Do men receive the same kind of abuse, or at all?
Men do get abuse. It’s not exactly the same flavour. I think men are scared to talk about things that frighten them or scare them for similar reasons that women are required to act more masculine in a male-dominated atmosphere. It’s about who’s the most stoic, the most tolerant of awful things – it is supposed to show you are reliable and strong to behave that way. But I’ve found that men are also allowed to make many more mistakes before anyone is willing to be like, “Look, you don’t deserve your position/you are a [insert swear word]/you should be fired.” I think that’s because men are allowed to be complex beings; people look for the reasons behind a man not doing well in life. But women are often either seen as good or bad and there’s no fuzzy in-between where people don’t notice you.
You spent a year with game developers, writers and designers. Share with us the one most interesting thing you learned from this experience.
I think I learned that creators, no matter who they are or where they are, distil themselves into games in a very personal way – it’s just not always obvious where they have done that in their game, but people put a lot of themselves into these things, just like filmmakers or novelists. I don’t think the general public is used to thinking about games this way.
Tell us more about “barks” and how essential they are in developing the game narrative.
’Barks’ are a functional piece of game writing that indicates a non-player character’s change of behaviour. For example, when in an FPS a soldier on the battlefield spots you, they might yell, ‘enemy spotted!’ which indicates to the player that now they should expect to be shot at or pursued. Three things are required of a bark: they should be succinct, they should be clear, and they should be immediately forgettable. They will be repeated many times by many characters, so no interesting language or cool phrasing. They also have to be really short because otherwise the audio crowds together and overlaps which means what is said is lost. I guess it’s quite comical for me to think about barks as essential for developing narrative, because they are only necessary for games where there are a lot of changes in non-player character behaviour, and these are most often games where you simply kill a lot of dudes. And yet, now that I think about it, they indicate a lot about who you, the player character, are, and how others relate to you, particularly when they are taken by surprise by your presence. Barks are essentially an indication of how your actions are affecting the game world in myriad outcomes, which is quite beautiful in a way. And ridiculous to think about in another way.
Are there any differences in the gaming community between Malaysia and other countries?
My general feeling was that there wasn’t too much difference, although the independent games community seemed to just be gathering speed when I visited in 2014. It is certainly more multi-lingual than your usual meetup! A cool thing the internet has allowed us to do is to support each other via internet, and my feeling is that the success stories of independent games movements in places like Toronto can also serve to help and provide advice for burgeoning communities like Edinburgh, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur too.
If you had to pick only one game to play for the rest of your life, what would you pick?
The Witcher 3. In that, I’ve sunk like 10 hours into it and felt like I’ve barely left my house, so I guess I’ll be playing this game for the rest of my life anyway. (It is exceptionally good.)
Catch Cara Ellison at The Cooler Lumpur Festival, happening at Publika Shopping Gallery, 17-20 August 2017 in the following sessions:
Saturday 19 August 2017, 4:30 – 5:30pm
The Bark Workshop: Craft Words that Bite
“Fire in the hole!” “Probably just rats.” Sound familiar? They’re video game barks – and non-playing characters in your favourite games say it over and over again. They probably only have the same few lines that turn into an earworm. How do you write something simple that doesn’t seem to say much, yet things wouldn’t be the same without it? Join Cara Ellison in this introductory workshop and learn how to pack a punch with just one line.
Online registration – RM50: http://yumm.my/CL2017x19
Seats limited to 30 pax.
Sunday 20 August 2017, 2:00 – 3:00pm
Not Just Child’s Play: When Gaming Turns Mainstream
Speakers: Cara Ellison, Ng Yubin, Danelie Antoinette Purdue, Pinda Rika Dorji
The global eSports audience is estimated to reach 385 million in 2017, with revenues heading towards the $700 million mark. The scene has begun attracting household brands – e-commerce giant Amazon acquired Twitch, a live-gaming site, for $970 million, and last year saw the birth of eGG, the region’s first dedicated eSports channel.
Once synonymous with the socially awkward and undesirable, how did the gaming subculture turn into a juggernaut? What does this say about the future of entertainment and sports? Will we, in our lifetime, see eGames becoming a viable career choice? In this panel, we talk everything from the geek to the glam.
Admission is FREE, but pre-registration is required: http://yumm.my/CL2017x20
Sunday, 20 August 2017, 6:30 – 7:30pm
Geek Girl Rising
Speakers: Cara Ellison, Mahvesh Murad
Being a geek is hard. Being a geek girl is even harder. On this panel, Umapagan Ampikaipakan sits down with three of the geekiest girls for an in depth discussion about diversity in the medium, opportunities for female creators, and the rise of geek culture. (Oh. And they also talk Internet trolls!)
Admission is FREE, but pre-registration is required: http://yumm.my/CL2017x20
Check out the rest of the programme on The Cooler Lumpur Festival’s website.
Fellow UK author Olivia will also be participating at the festival – check out her interview and sessions here.