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For years, video-game design has been a boys’ club. Now, a Halifax student is at the vanguard of a new wave of women who are breaking down the barriers

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Amanda Mullenger. Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Amanda Mullenger. Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire

A couple of years ago, Stephanie Pelley, an enthusiastic gamer and a digital-marketing specialist at Halifax’s ISL, covered a major gaming convention in Boston for The Game Code, a television show she used to host on Bell Aliant Community One. On the second day of the conference, she decided to cosplay, thinking it would make for good TV. But soon after she arrived, she became so overwhelmed  that she had to go find a quiet place to sit down and breathe.

Everyone seemed to want a picture with her. “In a community like this, most people mean well,” she says. “Most people were polite, they just wanted to take a picture. There were hundreds of people who were super nice.”

Stephanie Pelley.

Stephanie Pelley.

But there are some unpleasant memories. At one point, some men approached her. “Can I grab your boobs?” one asked. After she said no, he tried to negotiate: “Just one? Can you at least lower your shield so that we can see your boobs in the picture?”

Citadel High School student Amanda Mullenger says that misogyny is common in gaming and not always as blatant as Pelley’s experience. Sometimes it’s as simple as a male player telling her she can’t do something because she’s a girl. Other times, she’ll hear another player tell her to, “make me a sandwich.”

“There are always people who say things like ‘girls don’t belong on games, they belong in the kitchen,” says Mullenger. “I’ve lots of people tell me that. I’ve also had people tell me, ‘Oh, you should wear a tank top.’ But I learned from an early age to brush it off. And I kind of actually feel like I’m used to it now.”

Mullenger is a second-generation gamer who’s been steeped in gamer culture since she was at least six years old, when she was living in the States with her mom—back when her mom literally met her match while playing EverQuest.

“My mom and my dad were in the same EverQuest guild,” says Mullenger. “They were going on a lot of quests together and they found it difficult to type all the time, so they started calling each other instead.”

After they got their phone bills ($1,163 and $753 respectively), they switched to Skype. Before long, they decided to meet in real life. A close friendship had developed, and they thought it would be fun if their characters got married in the game. Mullenger’s mother flew to Halifax so they could sit side-by-side as they tied the virtual knot amidst a flurry of screenshots.

“After the weekend, my mom flew back home,” says Mullenger. “My dad called her to make sure she was safe and then, over the phone, he proposed to her. The weekend was awesome and they had a lot of fun together, so they just decided to do it forever.”

Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Mullenger’s been taking after her parents since she got her first Sega console. After playing video games for most of her 15 years, she has a hard time pinpointing the moment when video games became important to her. They’ve been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.

“I grew up with them, so it was kind of a build-up,” says Mullenger. “But as I got older, I learned how much of an impact video games have had on me. They gave me the opportunity to live in Canada. To have the friends I have now. To have the opportunities I have through my dad, because that’s how my parents met.”

It’s that love for gaming that landed her in Citadel High’s Options and Opportunities (O2) program, which allows students to explore a specific career through hands-on experiences. Within a month of school starting, Mullenger’s teacher asked her if she’d like to attend a workshop for women in tech at Collide, a Halifax-based tech conference that brings people together from all areas of technology—from engineering to 3D printing.

Mullenger agreed, and last October, she sat in a dimly lit room at the Atlantica Hotel, talking with women like Stacey Mulcahy, a Microsoft developer and the brains behind the BitchWhoCodes website. The group was playing with Arduino, a circuit-based electronic platform that allows computers to interact with the physical world. But after awhile, the Arduino was abandoned in favour of conversation, and Mullenger shared her story, ending with a simple statement: “I want to make games.”

That got Mulcahy thinking. “There’s lots to learn from the process of making a game,” says Mulcahy. “So when [Mullenger] said she’d never made a game, I was like ‘You’ve never made a game, but you know more about game design and can talk more intelligently than people I know in the industry. There’s a missing piece here.’”

Without hesitation, Mulcahy made an offer: “Well, let’s make a game, then.”

It was an emotional moment; both women had tears in their eyes. “I was so speechless,” says Mullenger. “I still think about that moment all the time. I just kept thinking, ‘This is what I’ve been wanting. This is the break I need.’ All I could think about was my future, what I could do from then on.”

For the rest of the conference, Mullenger and Mulcahy worked together on a simple platform game. Mullenger wanted to start simple so that she could learn the basics. By the end of the conference, the game was more or less finished. It worked well, and Mulcahy gave Mullenger a list of tweaks she could make to improve it.

“I think that was the first time I realized that I could actually change the direction of someone’s life,” says Mulcahy. “I could be a positive influence for someone. That was weird, because a lot of times you know you have influence, but you don’t see it and you don’t understand it. The fact that we can do that for other women, in fields that aren’t all that woman-friendly at the current moment, is very important.”

For Mulcahy, last year was one of her worst years in the technology industry, and the ongoing Gamergate controversy didn’t help. “You assume that people know how to behave,” she says. “But not everyone does. All this ridiculousness…people saying awful things in public and just not caring…I think what made me the maddest is that I spent my whole year reading these kinds of things on Twitter, and I feel that, as a woman, it forces you to be mad and negative. I tried to end my year by being more positive, and that started with Amanda. I had to end the year on a positive note because I had never felt more compelled to leave the industry.”

Pelley feels that things are changing, slowly but surely. “As Warcraft has evolved, some of the harassment has gone down because before some men would harass female characters because they were using female avatars,” she says. “But there are a lot of men out there using female avatars. You can’t tell who’s behind the character.”

But Mullenger feels that she’s emotionally prepared for a career in gaming. She’s hoping to use her experience to change things. “People say women can’t do this, but I feel like I’ve built up a tough enough skin to get around that. If people tell me I can’t do it, I’ll say, ‘Watch me.’ And I feel really good about that. I want to inspire people.”  

Gamergate:

Just defining Gamergate is controversial. Wikipedia calls it “a manifestation of a culture war over gaming culture diversification, artistic recognition and social criticism of video games, and the gamer social identity.” The people pushing the GamerGate agenda claim that they’re trying to improve the ethical standards of video-game journalism. Most media experts say those ethical concerns are based on unfounded theories about conspiring feminists, progressives and  social justice critics.

Cosplay:

The practice of dressing up as a character from a film, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga or anime.

EverQuest and World of Warcraft:

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

For more from young video-game designer Amanda Mullenger, check out this exclusive video from videographer Bruce Murray.

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