Women in Games: The Escapist's Susan Arendt
Welcome, GamingAngels (and now BlogHer!) readers! It’s time to start bringing you more Women in Games interviews. Why? Because so many people don’t realize all the different ways that you can work with games. You don’t have to be a programmer, or an artist — you can take your skills and make a gaming-related career out of it, and that’s pretty awesome.
We start with someone who can answer quite a few of the questions I’ve gotten (mainly, how do I start writing about games?) much better than I ever could — Susan Arendt, Managing Editor at The Escapist. Not only will you learn how she got into this and what she does on any “typical” day (even though there isn’t one), but you’ll also find out about what she loves in female game characters (and you can view her whole PAX panel on that here, hooray), what she looks for in a good pitch and just what it’s like to be a woman in such a male-dominated field. Yeah, game development is full of men, but so is games journalism. Not really a surprise, right? There is also some puppy talk, because puppies are obviously the most important thing ever in an interview about working with games.
Enjoy — and learn!
There is a tiny bit of mature language in this interview.
Tiffany: What has your career path been like to get you to this point?
Susan: Well, I worked in the “real world” for quite a while before I ever got into this. I started writing on the side for a volunteer site about ten years ago and eventually became executive editor. I had a blog on 1up and was waiting for someone to notice how amazing I was and offer me a job. (Which actually kind of happened.) So I wrote for free for five years before I ever got to do this for reals.
When you started in the “real world,” did you ever see yourself getting to this point? Or heck, even getting involved with games to this degree professionally?
Well, I hoped, of course. But back when I graduated college (in the Dark Ages), you still had to move if you wanted a job in game journalism. And you worked in print. The Internet existed, but people maybe used it for email, if that. It was far from commonplace. And I wasn’t in a position to move to Chicago or San Francisco, so I figured I’d never get to achieve my dream of combining my great loves of publishing and gaming. But then the internet took over, and suddenly you could do this from anywhere. I never really thought I’d get to do this – but when I got the chance, I jumped at it.
So now you’re Managing Editor…that’s like…what? #2 in command at the Escapist empire?
What’s your typical day like? Is there a typical day?
There’s really no such thing as a typical day! I’ll field pitches, edit features, oversee the news team, work on a review, if that’s applicable, write an editorial, if something’s on my mind, interact with the community, record a podcast. you get the idea.
Very much so. There’s always loads to do, plus the regular nuts and bolts of training people, meetings, etc.
But overall just getting done what needs to be. Are things a little more difficult with the main offices in Raleigh?
Not at all. The majority of people I deal with, I deal with online, but other than time zones being problematic, it’s no trouble unless the person is in Australia or something.
And then they’re just on a different day and everything goes to hell.
Exactly! Fortunately, the furthest away my regular contributors are is Scotland on the one side, and California on the other.
A relatively small band of longitudes!
Yeah, could be much worse.
I do have to wonder, do you sometimes feel like you’re left out as an outlet because you’re not in the big hub cities? Or do freelancers really help scratch that itch?
Oh, sure. being so remote works both for and against us. On the one hand, we’re not in the San Fran echo chamber. We tend to think a bit differently than other folks because we’re not seeing and hearing the same things from the same people all the time. On the other hand, that also greatly cuts down our face time with developers and PR. We don’t go to the showcases and stuff, so we get left out a lot.
I’d hope that Epic wouldn’t leave you out. Since you’re kind of right there, haha.
Heh, yeah, they are just down the road. Insomniac, too, though I’ve yet to visit them. I promised I’d bring cookies.
Ooh, yeah, don’t go on that trip without the cookies, then.
Red Storm is here, too.
Now you’re just blowing my mind.
I know, people don’t expect it!
I was wondering if you had any particular opinions on outlet exclusives, as you can’t always make showcases and such.
I understand the business side of them, but they’re annoying. I mean, I get it – PR forms a plan and wants to make a big, focused splash. But I’d be just as pleased if they never existed. Yes, even if that meant we didn’t get them, either.
Switching to something else entirely — is it ever a little more difficult to be a woman doing what you’re doing?
Absolutely sometimes it’s more difficult, but the flip side of that is sometimes it’s actually easier. If you’re a woman writer in this industry, you will absolutely get opportunities simply because you’re a chick. Of course, it’s up to you to do something with those opportunities when they come along. There’s a lot of accidental misogyny that goes on, which is really not fun.
Some is not-so-accidental…but that largely comes from readers, not actual professionals.
Do you think that you deal with a completely different set of reader expectations as a result of your gender?
Yes and no. When I first started writing about games, 10 years ago, I had to prove to readers that I knew what I was talking about before they took me seriously. That doesn’t happen now, but I do think that some readers are just plain nicer to me than to the other editors on staff. Or maybe I’m just nicer to them!
Well, cliché as it sounds, guys don’t tend to worry about people’s feelings as much as girls do, and that can come through in how you interact with your audience. They appreciate it.
So that definitely works in your favor. And mine, I guess, and any other woman who sets out to do this kind of thing.
It sure can. Of course, there’s the other side of it. There are definitely people out there just waiting for the smallest reason to call you stupid. Because, obviously, no woman doing this job actually knows anything.
Well, of course. We all just do it to attract lovers and titillate men.
Naturally. We’re all just in it for the attention, don’tcha know.
Because once that plain Jane turns on the 360, she’s suddenly Carmen Electra. Or some other, less-90s lady.
Yeah, I don’t know who the new hottie would be. Um…a Kardashian, maybe.
Yeah, I’ll just throw a dart at one and hope it doesn’t hit Rob.
So, do you think you work differently, or just overall see games differently as a result of what people would expect from you as a woman?
Nope. I do what I do, and I hope people enjoy it. If they do or don’t because I have certain bits in my pants, well, there’s not much I can do about that. Seems like a weird criteria to use when judging someone’s work, though.
When I first started writing, I didn’t use my name, or a picture of myself, because I didn’t want people to know my gender. I wanted them to like my work — or not — based on nothing but the work. And that’s still how I treat it every day. I am who I am, and naturally part of my perspective is shaped by my gender, the same way it’s shaped by my age, my upbringing, the fact that I’m from Pennsylvania…it all goes into making me who I am.
You know that there’s something wrong with a lot of female characters in games. To the point where you had the PAX panels on the subject. For people who couldn’t be there — what is your ideal female character, is she anywhere out there, and has the industry gotten anywhere close to creating her?
There are plenty of great female characters…well, maybe not *plenty*…but they’re out there!
I like different characters for different reasons. Take Vanessa Schneider from PN03, for example. Great character…super cool, total badass — and there’s absolutely no reason for her to be a female. Nothing in the story or the game mythology that says the protagonist needs to be a chick. Make the hero a boy, and all you’d really have to change are some animations — the core game would remain unchanged. But she’s there, because someone decided, hey, why not? That’s fantastic. I wish that happened more often.
There are some protagonists that should be male, and some who should be female. But when it doesn’t really matter one way or the other, I wish developers would just shake it up a bit and choose a female more often. Players don’t mind, I promise you.
Do you wish more games gave you the gender choice? Or is it that the ones that don’t just can’t fit it in the narrative?
Giving the player the option of gender choice simply won’t work in all cases. If you want to structure a specific narrative, you need a specific character — not all games lend themselves to the kind of open-endedness that lets you create your own protagonist. I won’t turn a game down simply because I have to play as a guy, but I do wish that some more consideration went into whether or not it HAS to be a guy.
I think that the perception from the moneyhats is that consumers won’t buy games with girls in the lead role, and that’s just selling the audience short. Men are smarter than that.
Well, okay — there are lots of great women out there. But what kind of female character is one you wish you’d seen by now? There’s a possibility that there’s not one.
I’m actually really looking forward to the Lara Croft reboot. Because she’s capable, but scared. There’s not a lot of subtlety in game characterization. You tend to have characters who are one thing or the other. They’re a badass, or they’re the ingenue. They’re the villain, or they’re the saint.
What I love about the revamp is that she’s still got guts — she’s gonna do what she has to do — but she’d really rather someone stronger, braver and older came in and took over. That’s not an option, so she buckles down and gets it done.
No one really ever wants to make the in-between for some reason, but humans are the in-between.
Exactly! I’m not brave every day, in every situation. I’m a strong, independent woman, and some days, I really just want to be taken care of.
So far, she looks like the “realness” injection that’s gone missing so far.
Exactly. But she’s not so “real” as to still not provide the wish fulfillment and escapism that a game should.
One day, I’ll stop nerding out over Lara, but I guess that day isn’t today, heh. Are there any characters that still elicit that kind of reaction out of you? Vanessa?
Ooh, we are all FemShep. What do you think of the decision to create an “official” version of her?
It’s equal parts fanservice and gimmick, but I don’t mind, because at the end of the day, they’re acknowledging she exists.
You deal with hundreds of freelancers. What’s the best way to make you stand up and take notice? I suppose in both good and bad ways.
The good ways are to be professional, and come with an interesting, fresh idea. As far as the bad ways go, coming with a feeling of entitlement, behaving like a spoiled child, or overlooking the fact that you are, in essence, applying for a job and should behave as such.
Most folks who pitch are just really, really green and they don’t really understand what they’re doing. Here’s a great example: I had one guy send me a pitch email that was grammatically incorrect — typos, no capital letters, no punctuation. So I rejected him. He replied and asked, hey, can you tell me why you shot down my pitch? I told him, straight up, your pitch email. If you can’t care enough to write a grammatically correct email, how can I believe you can pull off an entire article?
He was shocked. It had never crossed his mind that a “casual” email, as he thought of it, would be perceived as unprofessional.
Ohohoho, how silly of him.
People don’t realize that I’m not their buddy. I’m someone they’re asking to give them money in exchange for their writing acumen. They also don’t realize that it’s not JUST about how good your idea is. It’s about what I need at that moment. If I just ran two articles about Pokémon, I’m probably not going to commission your Pokémon pitch, at least not right now. Even if it’s a good idea.
So your advice to potential pitch-ees would be to pay attention to the outlet you’re submitting to, be professional down to the last comma and….well, is there anything else?
Be creative! For the love of little puppies, don’t pitch me the “why movies about video games always suck” article. Or the “how to get your girlfriend to play games” article. Those have been done to DEATH. What makes for fun forum fodder does not necessarily make for a good feature article.
Speaking of puppies — favorite puppy? This is very important. Very, very important.
Well…mine, of course. OK, she’s not a puppy anymore. She’s four. But she’s so cute. Half Golden Lab, half Whippet. Also, Corgi puppies are omgsocute.
And with the Corgi comment, you just passed the test I made up just now.
Have I left anything out not related to puppies that you’d have wanted to talk about? Favorite game, mayhaps?
Adopt from your local shelter! Sorry, last puppy comment. And I can’t possibly pick a favorite game. Too many that I love for so many reasons.
I love Phantasy Star Online and Yoshi’s Island and Silent Hill and Oblivion and Grandia II and TimeSplitters 2 and Professor Layton and so many others.
Do you have any advice for women who are looking to get into writing about games?
Be confident. Find a mentor, if you can, or just a sisterhood to help you on the days you need a gut check. Just get out and DO IT. And if someone makes you feel like you don’t belong, ignore them or tell them to shut the f*ck up — whichever you feel is more appropriate to the environment.
It is not easy to be the only girl in the room. It can be, at times, very uncomfortable. But it’s so worth it, man, it really, really is. You have the chance to inspire others. Take it.
Tiffany Nevin is the News Editor at GamingAngels.com, which is the Web's #1 destination for women who love all things geeky. She lives in Alabama with her husband and two cats. You can follow her on Twitter (though you probably don't want to) at @kweenie.
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