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Our Voices

Sticking it to Sexism in Gaming

Sasha Boersma, Co-Founder, Sticky Brains Studios

Sasha Boersma grew up playing video games.

Both her parents played. Her mother was especially interested in ones based on stories and puzzles, recently testing out one that Boersma is developing. Boersma was a fan of games made by Sierra Entertainment, a woman-owned and led company co-founded by Roberta Williams.

So, she never understood the perception that women don’t enjoy video games. She co-founded her own company, Sticky Brain Studios, in 2013. But a year later, the GamerGate controversy exploded and Boersma saw indie women game developers and critics horribly harassed online, some even leaving the sector because of it.

That’s when Boersma determined that video games are not the problem—the toxic masculinity within the community is. She recognized a lot of things needed to change—and that she could lead that change, making the digital content company she founded with colleague Ted Brunt a feminist antidote to an often sexist industry.

Building a diverse team

The cofounders met while working together at Marble Media in 2008, Boersma in business affairs and Brunt in content strategy. Both were helping create interactive digital content for TV with a strong focus on kids. While each of them ended up leaving Marble for their own reasons, around 2012 they found themselves getting hired onto the same projects as freelancers, with Boersma in business development and funding, and Brunt in content strategy and development.

They soon realized they had complementary skill sets to run their own studio and combined their 30 years of experience to start Sticky Brain, focusing on creating family-friendly digital content primarily for young Canadians.

Having worked together before helped the partners hit the ground running. Neither wanted a hierarchical structure for their organization, a primary reason they decided to employ people on a freelance and contract basis. It has freed them from having to manage a full-time staff and given them flexibility to work from home and on their own time. As a result, Boersma, who is neurodiverse, and Brunt, who is an active dad, are able to plan their days in the way that works best for them.

That strategy has also enabled them to work with a wide range of people, including other stay-at-home dads. Says Boersma: “In the digital and tech sector in a heterosexual relationship, the women take the year off and have a kid but, often, they’re highly educated and they want to get back to work. And then the dads are like, ‘I want my time with my kid.’”

Boersma and Brunt both knew a slate of stay-at-home dads eager to work around their kids’ daycare and nap times. “It’s funny,” Boersma adds, “because sometimes we think about feminist business practices as all about supporting women with kids. But I think of the fact that we can support dads’ engagement with kids, in a way that supports women too … to me it’s about supporting what a family unit needs.”

Cutie Pugs: Games for a Preschool Television Series

Working with a diverse group of people has also helped Sticky Brain create diverse digital content, including the award-winning Bath Time and Peekaboo Pugs video games for kids based on the Cutie Pugs live-action TV series; and The Restricted Adventures of Raja, a digital graphic novel and game created for RedRover, a US charity that helps animals rescued from disasters or neglect as well as animals with life-threatening illnesses. The aim of the Raja project is to teach children aged 7-11 empathy for animals and how caring for them will mean fewer animals suffering in shelters.  

Most recently, Sticky Brain launched Kimono, an app that enables users to design kimonos and dress up kimono dolls—while they learn about Asian culture and the role clothing plays. Created by a team of Southeast Asian developers, Kimono is the brainchild of Sticky Brains artist and animator Connie Choi.

Creating feminist content  

When taking on projects, Boersma says the Sticky Brain team considers two things: is the content is family friendly; and does the organization employing Sticky Brain want to work collaboratively? “Are the clients our partners? Are they wanting to be engaged? We’ve worked with a number of small independent studios in Toronto who love working with us because they enjoy the fact that we’re collaborative. We don’t just take the idea and go away and say, ‘Here’s the final thing, approve it.”

Cheesy is seeking to visit the 7 Wonders of the World!

Sticky Brain is currently collaborating with Bloom Digital, a Toronto-based feminist narrative gaming company led by independent game designer Miriam Verburg. Their first game, LongStory, is an LGBTQ+ friendly dating sim (think simulation) designed to foster stronger relationships and inclusivity. Sticky Brain is also turning LongStory into a web series about queer teenagers that Boersma hopes will encourage conversations about different gender identities and sexualities amongst teenagers and the gaming industry as a whole.

Brunt sees such projects as a way to tell and share stories that mainstream gaming companies don’t. “We love doing work that we think supports positive change in the world and that helps people who are underserved. Those are the things that are not necessarily financially hugely rewarding because that’s how pop culture works. But that’s okay with us because we’re fine making a reasonable living by making good things.” He adds that building diverse creative teams has, over the years, “brought certain people together who seem to make something greater than their individual skills.”

Implementing feminist business practices

This summer, Boersma participated in Fifth Wave Labs, Canada’s first feminist accelerator for women in digital media. Created by the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Media Lab, the program helps accelerate and sustain the growth of women-owned and led enterprises in southern Ontario’s digital media sector.

Boersma says interacting with other feminist entrepreneurs prompted her to think through critical questions: Can a profit-seeking business be considered feminist? What does it mean to give back to the community?

For Boersma, the answer to the first question is “yes”—if the vision and mission of the company is feminist. For her, a feminist business must uphold certain ethical values—paying its employees properly, minimizing impact on the environment.

“There’s a whole lot of movement around people to be like, ‘No, we’re going to shake up how we do business and how we participate in the economy,’ and I find it all really fascinating. So, I’d like to have the label of “feminist business practices” for what we’re doing. And I like that there’s other companies that are trying to do this as well.”

In an industry that is ripe with toxic masculinity patriarchal practices, Boersma says that changing the industry also requires upending institutions, beginning with digital funds and investors. “For a lot of us who are women or femme identifying, when we’re trying to get the funding, it feels like it’s much harder.”

Boersma recently applied for funding for a project with two Black Canadian filmmakers, telling the stories of enslaved African Canadians through virtual reality. The feedback she received for the proposal? Women don’t enjoy VR games.

“We have to work extra hard to show that there is a potential audience for what we’re doing because people see this work as niche,” says Boersma. “And yet study after study shows that 50 per cent of gamers are women.”

But she is not deterred. She believes the only way to change things in the industry is to stay in the industry.  

“I think in video games in Canada, we have an opportunity to grab all these stories and experiences that are not currently being told by the mainstream gaming industry and create them to serve specific audiences.”

Publishers Note:  Sticky Brains Studios is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner. Apply here today.

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Our Voices

Gender Jamming the Gaming Space

Jean Leggett, CEO of One More Story Games

LiisBeth first met Jean Leggett (also known as Joyful Jean) at the GameON Pitch Competition in 2016. She caught our eye. And it was not because of the purple hair.

Leggett is the co-founder and CEO of Canadian startup gaming enterprise One More Story Games. When we asked her why she got into this “game,” she replied like most entrepreneurs do, that it was to make money doing something she loved, but also to model, at both an enterprise and product level, how gender equity and equality in the gaming space benefits all stakeholders. Leggett recently completed Communitech’s Fierce Founder’s bootcamp program for women-led tech startups and is pretty excited about the fact that they are working with New York Times best-selling mystery, crime and urban fantasy author, Charlaine Harris (True Blood). Both Leggett and her husband of 21 years, Blair, identify as feminists.

Now that last point got our attention. Really? A feminist game company? How does one succeed as a feminist game technology startup in arguably one of the most misogynistic sectors of the tech space?

LiisBeth had to find out. So we circled back to interview Leggett on Skype.

LiisBeth: Tell us about your feminist spark moment.

Jean Leggett: Where do my feminist roots come from? I would say that growing up as the hard of hearing child in a deaf household is where I started to notice marginalization, inequality and its effects on people’s lives. You see inequality from a different lens when you’re brought up in a minority household, and when you yourself are a minority in that minority household.

I’m hard of hearing but I’m hearing enough to function in the hearing world and therefore I’m not deaf to my family. It was a difficult situation. I’m actually writing my own autobiographical story as a video game about a young hard of hearing girl who’s rejected by her family for not being deaf enough. In the story, the heroine lives in the hearing world and the deaf world but feels she belongs to neither. For me it’s somewhere in-between so my game is called Betwixt. I want it to be the first video game to have sign language in the video clips.

LiisBeth: How do you embed your passion for equality in your business?

Leggett: From the very beginning over 4 years ago, we aimed for gender equality and equity when hiring co-op students. We understood the value of being inclusive. We hired a female program member early on. She may not have been the best program member at the start, but there’s not enough representation of women in tech so we wanted to train her. Equity and inclusivity is also part of our product design philosophy.

For the past two years, we have also been running summer camps for kids who want to learn how to tell stories through video game technology. In 2015, 22 boys and only three girls applied. That had to change. So I raised $8,000 from sponsors like Shopify and PayPal, as well as other local companies to help us reach out to girls and underwrite them as well as other underserved communities. Last year, we had a 50/50 gender ratio in our camps. Most camps out there would normally see a 15/85 female-to-male ratio.

We were doing some work with an elementary school earlier in the year and we purposefully picked girls who showed a lot of promise and sponsored them so they could come to the camps. There is a part of me that’s conflicted about that whole process because I feel like the young boys of today have not done anything wrong and some of them are not getting the same opportunities because we’re trying to get more girls in and I don’t ever want to be seen as somebody that’s pushing boys down.

LiisBeth: What about the gender and the product StoryStylus?

Leggett: We create adventure story–based games with female protagonists for starters. I played Candy Crush. But women deserve so much better than Candy Crush. We deserve better than the puzzle games that they re-skin and put new art on. We deserve better than slot machine mechanics that are constantly probing and prodding to get us to open our wallets. We’re passionate about storytelling. That’s why it’s called One More Story Games because storytelling is where you find your characters and fall in love with them.

The game that we just produced in December is an adaptation of a short story from a female writer friend of ours called Danielle’s Inferno. Danielle, our protagonist, finds herself having an out of body experience watching as paramedics try to resuscitate her at Schrödinger Capital, her office. She’s approached by her spirit guide, a bitchy female Siamese cat named Pudding who then guides her through the nine circles of hell to uncover the meaning of life. In the game, you may or may not be dead. We’ve had people come in and play that game and weep, openly weep, at the end of the game because they did not expect that ending. I play the voice of Satan; it’s my first voiceover in a video game. You weep at the end and that’s what you want from games. I want to have made an impact on people’s lives so they’ll remember that game.

LiisBeth: What did you notice while teaching an equal gender class?

Leggett: You know, you’ve always got that one loud kid and it usually was a boy. So we would say, “We’re going to share the conversation here so I’m just going to ask you to put your hand down.” Or I would make a point of saying, “You know we’ve heard a lot from the boys, let’s go to the girls.” We have to be conscious of that dynamic. Like I said, our primary business is not about being educators, but we’ve noticed in that short period of time where we work with them in the summer, the boys are going to dominate the conversation and I think that’s because they’ve been allowed and conditioned to.

LiisBeth: Are you involved in other feminist leadership work in the gaming space?

Leggett: I am involved with women in an innovation group here in Barrie, Ont. Sort of like an ad hoc group of women in the technology and innovation space. We’re trying to spearhead some engaging and meaningful activities for young women in the community, which is great.

Other than that we do occasionally participate in the Ladies Learning Code and the Girls Learning Code activities. We’re also very focused on advocating to see female protagonists as a new game genre.

LiisBeth: Unlike many gaming companies, you see the women’s gaming market as a huge underserved market opportunity and the stats seem to support this. Focusing on the needs of women gamers sounds like a smart move. Are investors interested?

Leggett: I think it’s hindering our ability to get funding in Canada. I would love to find some feminist investors to be honest.

LiisBeth: What is your current ask to the universe?

Leggett: My current ask? I’d love an opportunity to connect with people in the magazine and newspaper world who write for women over 30 and/or publications aimed at authors. Since our focus is building smarter games for smart women, I’d love to highlight the work we’re doing and also the upcoming game adaptation – Shakespeare’s Landlord (the novel was written by Charlaine Harris, best known for her Sookie Stackhouse series which HBO adapted as True Blood, and has sold 36M+ novels) we plan to publish this fall.

LiisBeth: Are there any games you would recommend to our readers?

Leggett: Women tend to like adventure, story-driven games. I recommend the classic Nancy Drew games created by Her Interactive. The former CEO Megan Gaiser is one of the advisors and biggest supporters of our mission to positively represent feminism in games. I am also quite partial to the Gabriel Knight series, created by Jane Jensen. I’m also a huge fan of the Tex Murphy adventure games by Chris Jones. Each of these games is focused on depth of character and story, something we want to empower writers to do with our software.

Additional reading about women and gaming: 

52% of gamers are women – but the industry doesn’t know it: The Guardian, Meg Jayanth

Take a look at the average American gamer in new survey findings: Polygon, Allegra Frank