Considered to be the “longest-serving woman in computer games,” Brenda Brathwaite entered the video game industry in an unorthodox fashion at the early age of 15 – after offering a cigarette to the right person. 26 years later, she has been involved in the development of several award-winning series, including Wizardry, Jagged Alliance, and several others. In 2006, she was named one of the top 100 most influential women in the game design industry by “Next Generation” magazine. She is currently on the Board of Directors for International Game Developers Association (IGDA), and is also Chair of the Interactive Design and Game Development Department at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
As a woman in a predominately male industry, Brenda has an interesting and unique perspective on what it takes to make it as a game designer. Below is Brenda’s story, as well as her advice to aspiring game designers:
(Forrest Whaling)- I know you started working in the video game industry at about age 15 for Sir-tech. Could you describe your role at that age?
(Brenda Brathwaite) – Sure. At that time, the industry was really fledgling. My primary role there was to memorize games. If somebody called up and needed to know how to kill the wizard on the 10th level…I knew the answer. I literally played games non-stop! I mean, here I was a 15 yr. old kid getting paid to play games…could it possibly be any better than that? Then it just evolved – the designers needed things, right? They’re working on a particular game and they’re interested in 10 different types of Japanese swords. So I would be the one who they would call up and say “Brenda, will you find me…” Eventually that just sort of morphed into larger roles.
F – So you evolved into a game designer?
B – Oh totally! I couldn’t have gone to school for game design if I had wanted to. I mean the closest I probably could have gotten was political strategy or something.
F – So, how did you actually land the job at 15? I’m curious about that.
B – (Laughs) Well, the easiest answer and the TRUE answer is because I smoked. I don’t smoke anymore, but at the time I did. I was in school and this girl came into the place where I was smoking and was obviously looking for a cigarette. I hear her ask a couple people if they’ve got one and they all say they have menthols. She was looking for a non-menthol. So just to be friendly I said, “Are you looking for a non-menthol?” to which she replied, “Yes I am.”
So, I give her that and just to be polite she strikes up a conversation with me. That conversation ultimately leads to the following series of questions, which was:
“Do you have a job?”
“Have you ever heard of Sir-tech?”
“Have you ever heard of Wizardry?”
“Have you ever heard of Dungeons and Dragons?”
And I had! I was a pretty voracious Dungeons and Dragons player and I loved games. I loved games particularly and passionately. I started programming them at a young age – whenever I got my first computer around 10 or 11. Anyway. So, so she said, “Are you interested in the job?” based on my single answer to the D & D question. So I went and I played Wizardry the next day for 4 hours and I was head over heals in love. IN LOVE! It was amazing. So that’s how I got my first job.
F – Thank God you don’t smoke menthols!
B – (Laughs) I don’t smoke menthols and I didn’t have a job at the time. I mean there are so many ways this could have gone differently.
F – I also noticed that you worked for Atari and Cyberlore as well.
B – Yeah. So I leave Sir-tech in 2001 and I go work for Atari. And you know Atari went through a number of transitions. It was MicroProse/Hasboro/Infograms/Atari. I wish I had saved every single business card I went through and had an entire buy-out festival because it seemed like we were getting new business cards every other week (laughs). So yes, I went to work for them. And after I worked for them, I worked for Cyberlore. And now I work for the Savannah College of Art and Design and myself.
F – So you still do freelance designing?
B – Oh yeah, absolutely.
F – I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times. What is it like being a woman in a predominantly male profession? Are there any advantages, or do you have any advice for other women who are interested in becoming a game designer?
B – You know, it’s interesting because I don’t have any other perspective than being a woman. Bear in mind that part of my design team involves Linda Currie. Linda and I worked together for many years. And so for me, the industry didn’t look like it was male dominated because I worked with another woman. And so I didn’t really have that view of it. Although in my office, it was always me and, you know 20, 30, 40, as high as 100 other guys (laughs). But because I’ve never worked in any other industry, that never seemed weird or abnormal to me. It’s just people who grow up with 18 kids in their family, and if you ask them…it’s like, “Well, I don’t know, I never grew up with 2. I have no idea what the difference would be.”
So I hadn’t noticed anything BUT a benefit to being a woman. You know, for instance, if you look online at the number of interviews that I’ve done solely because I’m a female…it’s astronomical. You know how they call it “The Old Boys Club?” Well there’s a wonderful “Girls’ Club” in the game industry. We all know each other, and we’re a tight group and a very supportive group. The IGDA has the Women in Games special interest group. Then there’s another group called Women in Games and they’re international. They put on events all over the place to help bring women into the field.
I’m a fairly atypical woman anyway? My current absolutely ridiculous passion is my new car. I like fast cars, I like working on cars, I like classic cars.
There were FIVE women in the industry when I got into the industry. There were 5 female game designers and I knew them ALL. Only 2 of them are still left. I would LOVE to see more women get involved. If women are thinking “Geez, I’m not really sure where my place in the industry is” or if they see a group of guys when they’re playing a game and they say “Wow. I totally don’t play the game that way….I don’t feel like I’m a part of this group….maybe this industry is not for me.” Stick it out. Find other women like you. There are people who like to play the types of games that you like to play. There are people who are interested in the design issues that you are interested in. Where I work right now…..we have a pretty large collection of women. We did a global game jam here and 20% of the people who were present were female, which is an astronomical number…..
So, I just don’t see it as an issue. I’ve never seen my gender as an issue in designing….not once, not ever. Nor have I ever felt marginalized because of my gender. I’ve never had anybody say anything stupid to me because I was I was a woman. You know? It’s just never happened.
F – I actually read an interview where you said that you did feel like you played a unique role as a woman. For example, when designing the Playboy video game, a lot of the guy programmers would come up to you for graphic design advice. Or maybe just to get advice on how women think. I’m sure that plays to your advantage in certain situations.
B – Well, it has given me another perspective. And so I should say, there are a number of people who will come to me and ask me to do consulting for them specifically because of my gender. So they’re curious about the game space for women and, considering that the largest growing market right now is women in their late 30’s and 40’s….I AM that demographic.
And so I’ve certainly gotten a number of gigs just because of that and I’m sure (laughs) if I were a 40 yr. old guy I wouldn’t have. So yeah, that’s a possibility there.
F –What is it like teaching game design to aspiring young minds?
B –You know, it’s no different than when I was in the industry really.
In the industry, at some point or another, if you’re in the lead, you are working with people who really want to learn design. And the only way to really learn design is to do it. And so I guess because I’m not so much worried about commercial deadlines or epic losses of money, there’s a little more leeway to let students explore and to let students make mistakes so that they can learn from those mistakes. Mistakes are phenomenally valuable things.
Obviously when you’re out there in the industry mistakes cost a ton of money. But when you’re in school you have that opportunity to explore. There’s room to make games that are non-traditional. This is a tremendous opportunity. I don’t find that I work any differently with people in the classroom than with people in the industry. Most game designers that come into a company, at least in my early years, came out of nothing. Maybe they had an undergrad computer networking degree or a degree in literature or something. I once hired a guy who had a PhD in medieval economics! And he was an amazing systems designer. Amazing!
If you and I are going to have a fight – how do we mathematically calculate that? What form do the programmers need that in? How do we get that to them? How does it fit into the larger systems? So much of this is learned on the job. While school will give you some kind of framework for that – when you actually get into my company per se, you need to know exactly how my programmers need to receive that information……or the tool that you may happen to be using. So, that’s important.
source: Google Images
F –Do you have any general advice for people who are interested game design colleges or careers? How can they get a leg up?
B – Yeah. The absolute single most important thing that you can do is to play games. And make games. The number one weeding out question is, “Have you made games or not?” I don’t really care if you can talk about how other people made games. I want to see that you can do it.
I don’t care whether I see your ability to do this in a digital or non-digital format, it doesn’t matter to me which way it comes…but I need to see that you’ve made games. I need to play your games and then see how good they are. Then there’s what I refer to as the “Question of Death”. That’s when I ask:
“So…what games do you play?”
“Oh well, I’m really busy in school and I don’t have that much time.”
“So let me get this straight. You think SCHOOL is busy, and you wanna come work for me? I can assure you that will be busier because now you’re in the game industry. And if you don’t have time to play games then, what, exactly is going to happen when you’re working for me and on the line? If you don’t have time to play games, then you’re not serious about this profession. And so we’re done. Get out.”
Although I don’t say it quite that abruptly (laughs). But that’s what I mean.
F – Now out of curiosity, you say you like to see people who get down and design these games. There is such a large spectrum of games. A lot of games can be created by a kid in their basement. And then there are much more complex games. Do you think there is merit in these kids who are just making these games in their basement?
B – Yeah! My most recent game is Train, and Train is a non-digital game.
F – A non-digital game?
B – Yes, a board game. I made Train into one copy. There is only one of them; and there will only ever be one of them. It’s already published, and that game was made in my kitchen (laughs). You know, it was made in my kitchen by a team of one and it got into the Wall Street Journal.
So yes…make games. Love to make games. Make them in your basement. Make them on your friggin’ roof. Do what you’ve gotta do, but make them! I mean, it’s literally a dividing line between people who will get into the industry and people who will not. That is the FIRST line.
F – That’s really interesting. I had not thought of board games like that before. I was thinking purely digital. But I guess that same sort of strategy would relate to a digital game. Do you believe so?
B – Oh of course! I don’t really care whether they’re games of electricity or not. You’re showing me your ability to create rules, to create a dynamic, to create a response in players, to create feedback, and to create fun. If we take World of Warcraft all the way back – it evolved out of a non-digital space. Most of my games are non-digitally prototyped. Four, in fact, had a non digital prototyping component to it. And many game designers that work today do that. There are tons and tons of board games that are amazing and show the beauty of game mechanics. You can’t hide your bad game design behind pretty graphics.
F – I have one more quick question, and this might be hard to answer. What would you say your favorite game of all time is?
B – Can I give you an entire series? I would have to say the Civilization series. Although I’m working on the Wizardry series and I’m absolutely in love with the Wizardry series, when I play Civilization, it’s the first time that I think, “My God, how are they doing this? How is this happening?” And with Wizardry I already knew all the answers to those questions so there wasn’t that fascination. I still love the Civilization series. Probably the game I play most right now is Civilization Revolution. I love it. I’m addicted to it. I can’t get enough of the stupid game and it drives me crazy!
So there’s that. And the game that I’ve decided to study from the perspective of Art History actually – from the fine arts, is Doom. I think Doom is an absolute masterwork on all kinds of levels.
source: Google Images
F – Now, are you speaking of the current Doom series or of the original Doom?
B – I’m talking about Doom I and II, so that’s the original work. I’m planning to write an entire chapter, believe it or not, on Doom II, level 26. That’s what John Romero considers to be his masterwork. So I’m going to try to work with him and pull out his entire design process for the entire level……to write a whole chapter for a book just on that.
F – OK. I have one question that I meant to ask earlier and I think it’d be of great interest to potential game design students. What do you are the main benefits of attending a graphic design school?
B – That’s an easy one. There was this moment in one particular class on narrative content design and I’m talking about building a story for a giant world. And in that class I say, “So it’s around Wizardry 6 that I realize that if I just did this instead, it would be so much easier and this portion of the World would almost make itself.” Keep in mind that it’s Wizardry 6, so it’s over a decade in a single series. And I told them in 5 minutes what it took me 10 or more years to learn. THAT is the benefit.
Nowadays a significant body of work has been built up. So you can have a chance to make games before you even get into the industry. You also have the chance to learn in one year what it took somebody 10 years to learn. I expect that people entering the industry right now are going to be more equipped than I was with my (laugh) tiny little whatever when I first came in.
F – Is there anything else you’d like to add in general about your experience as a game designer?
B – I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living and I can’t imagine a better way to earn a living. It doesn’t feel much like work. It never really has. And I would encourage students who might be thinking, “My God, why do I have to learn this?” – that if they want to learn game design – every single thing they are learning……and I don’t care WHAT class it is….I don’t care whether it’s in the sciences or the social sciences or art history…..all of that will somehow inform their games in the future. All of it. Just work diligently and try to learn everything they possibly can. And play games. Play games. Game designers within the industry will have very little forgiveness when they repeat the same mistakes that have already been solved.
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