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‘Being pregnant changes everything’: The game industry awkwardly grapples with maternity

(Sara Gironi Carnevale for The Washington Post)

Games developers often refer to games they’ve worked on as their babies. For Jo Haslam, game design director at Snap Finger Click, that is more literal than for most.

“My partner [who also works at Snap Finger Click] brought his laptop to the hospital when I went into labor. I gave birth at 9 p.m., and my partner pushed the release button of our game at 9 a.m. the next morning,” said Haslam. “I hadn’t made a big deal out of being pregnant, so when I posted about our new baby a lot of people thought I was referring to the game.”

Haslam’s experience highlights the relentlessness of games development, but by her own admission, she’s one of the luckier ones. “I work for a smaller studio in a senior role,” she said. “I’ve been able to have a say in our working practices.”

Others are not so fortunate, detailing instances inside game development that show the industry is awkwardly grappling with issues around pregnancy and maternity. Pregnancy, in and of itself, comes bearing an array of day-to-day challenges: Tiredness, discomfort, and an innumerable list of other possible physical changes and complications. These, in turn, can be exacerbated by working in an industry with a well-earned reputation for long hours. And in the U.S. in particular, only eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family leave policies, some of which have yet to go into effect. Taken together, these factors mean that pregnant women working in the video game industry face extraordinary challenges — above and beyond the usual travails of game development.

“I feel like I’ve lost half a year of my career as my pregnancy wasn’t smooth,” said Katie Goode, creative director of Triangular Pixels. “I had incredibly bad morning sickness so was laid up for a few months. I couldn’t actually play most games during that time or work in-engine as I would throw up with any camera movement.”

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Fatherhood has been a popular theme in gaming this past decade. BioShock: Infinite, The Last Of Us, God Of War and The Walking Dead, among many others, have all tackled the theme in one way or another. Motherhood has been far less prevalent, something some women see as emblematic of a male-dominated industry that is not accustomed to thinking about that topic and its associated issues.

“I found a ‘top 10 game mothers’ list, and it included Kangaskhan from Pokémon [a character that carries around a child in a pouch like a kangaroo] and generic Moms from The Sims, so it’s pretty clear what the current state is,” said Haslam. “The best experiences are based on what people making it know, and since the big decision-makers tend to be men, it’s only natural themes of fatherhood start to emerge."

Many of the women The Post spoke to reported being the first, or among the first pregnant employees at their company. This often meant they faced a lack of infrastructure to support them during their pregnancy and upon their return to work, such as a failure to provide sufficient breaks, private places to pump or demanding long hours.

Mélanie Christin, co-founder and co-CEO of Atelier 801, a French studio best known for the indie multiplayer game Transformice, shipped the MMO Dead Maze 10 days before giving birth. Despite the physiological changes that occur during and after pregnancy, “you’re expected to still give 110 percent of yourself to your project and passion,” said Christin. “Unlike cis men who are fathers, most cis mothers are expected to also bear the emotional and household workload all the time in some corner of our heads[.] We can’t possibly have a full, uninterrupted day of work and just log off and be able to focus on our family after 6 p.m.”

This lack of accommodations can put a strain on physical and mental health, which can have dangerous consequences for pregnant women. When Christin went into labor after shipping Dead Maze, she was actually a month early. “I underwent a complicated labor, emergency C-section, and had to recover and tackle newly discovered motherhood at about the worst of times, just post-release with a lot of issues to address,” she said, referring to the online support, bug fixes and server issues which come with running an MMO.

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Even in her executive-level position, Christin felt pressure to constantly work. “I tried my best to keep myself out of work, but failed too often, and the stress had nefarious effects on my breast-feeding supply,” she said. “I went back to work after only two months, pumping three times a day in a small closet at the office — a luxury for most lactating mothers — while answering emails on my phone.”

Several mothers described similar closet pumping stories. Supposedly private pumping areas included meeting rooms in which the mother was mistakenly walked in on, restrooms, and rooms in the office where equipment had been arranged into a makeshift barrier.

Workplace stresses present another serious problem. The final months ahead of a game’s release commonly involve long hours at the office, a period known in the industry as crunch. While many developers simply accept this as part of the job, it can affect pregnancies and new mothers in far different ways than other employees.

Breast-feeding is one example. “I think we know that women are more successful at breast-feeding when they are given ample time to bond with their child and do it,” said Jennifer Lesko, an assistant professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology with George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates. “Returning to work and not having time to pump adequately or the time to relax before trying to pump can certainly decrease milk supply. We see this often in the U.S., as women who return to work often drop breast-feeding/breastpumping at 6 months or from 9-12 months.”

Several of those interviewed pointed to crunch as the industry’s biggest negative, and a big obstacle for women.

“I would hesitate to take a job that requires long, sustained periods of crunch,” said Desiree Cifre, a writer and narrative designer. “At my first job in the industry, crunch was expected. I was young and single at the time, so it didn’t affect my personal life, but I saw the effects it had on some of my co-workers. One person broke up with their fiancee, another colleague who had a small child got divorced.”

Crunch has increasingly become the norm in the industry. A 2017 International Game Developers Association survey found that 37 percent of employees reported working between 50-59 hours, 29 percent reported between 60-69 hours and 14 percent reported weeks of 70-plus hours.

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“I’ve rarely seen women developers, and not really seen any pregnant women when working at larger studios,” said Goode. “I’ve been at studios where you have to be signed in on the minute of 9 a.m., work the hours in office, and required to work crunch. No space for babies there — you’re treated like a naughty child doing detention everyday already. If you find yourself at a place like that then find somewhere else that respects your family life, or join a union.”

Developers in America have also pointed to a dearth of federal regulations concerning the working conditions of pregnant women and new mothers, particularly pertaining to health care policy.

At the federal level in the U.S., there is only a bare minimum of protection. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act says that companies of 15 or more employees must treat pregnant women in the same manner as other employees, while the Family and Medical Leave act grants 12 weeks of unpaid leave — provided your company has more than 50 employees and you have worked for the company for more than 12 months. According to an analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is the only country of 41 high- and middle-income nations to offer no nationally-mandated paid maternity leave.

“In the U.S., the policies are terrible,” said Allison Salmon, a former Activision and Raven Software developer who now makes educational indie games. “I’ve known women whose [employer-provided health care] plans denied coverage of their 20 week ultrasound as unnecessary, and even tried to not cover an emergency C-section because [the patient] should have gotten preapproval.”

For those facing a lack of accommodations around their pregnancy, Salmon said women should advocate for themselves. “Ask for what you need even if the policies don’t exist for it yet,” said Salmon. “Sometimes companies don’t have a policy for something simply because they haven’t had a situation come up, or they’re willing to reconsider when they see the real needs that exist.”

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Several of those interviewed by The Post said the current situation could impact the number of female developers willing, or even able, to work in the industry.

“I have friends who bailed on the industry entirely after having kids,” said Bekah Saltsman, CEO of FinjiCo, who gave birth to her first child in 2011 when she was working in the industry in human resources. With the help of her husband and co-CEO of FinjiCo, she managed to juggle family life and get more involved in game development. But that doesn’t always work out for others.

“When I first started out, I dreamed of working on a Triple-A game,” said Cifre, referring to the industry’s blockbuster game titles. “Now, I have to place a higher value on working consistently, but in a way that allows me to spend time with my family.”

Stacey Henley is a writer who covers pop culture. She has previously written for IGN, Polygon, Eurogamer and more. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey.

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