'I can't stand broken systems': Game dev Elizabeth Sampat on being a 'Loudmouth'

Triple-A and indie developer veteran Elizabeth Sampat opens up about working in the game industry in her new book of essays.

Things aren’t getting better. That’s not an optimistic thought to share, but the state of the games industry (which is reflective of the politics of the world at large) is in a brutal, regressive limbo right now. Sentiments like “It Gets Better,” no matter their original context, seem to be dead-end placations of dealing with what progress is currently up against. There’s a real need for firebrands with both the determination and intelligence required to shake things up. Not for the pure sake of change, like some chaotic neutral version of progress, but rather clear-headed individuals with a structure and a process to take us forward collectively.

In terms of firebrands you’d find working in games today, the world would be remiss to not give more time and attention to the words of Elizabeth Sampat.

Elizabeth Sampat (photo: Dese'Rae L. Stage Photography). Elizabeth Sampat (photo: Dese'Rae L. Stage Photography).

As an award-winning games designer and activist, Sampat has left her mark all over the interactive map. Her background in game design has seen her oversee projects like Plants vs Zombies 2 and the most popular mobile game of all-time (with 1.5 billion downloads), Subway Surfers. As a true disciple dedicated to the betterment of games, Sampat left her day job in the triple-A industry and now spends her time developing artsy, personal titles, like the Indiecade Award Nominee Deadbolt and a Twine game developed in response to the “Google Manifesto” called 8 Vignettes From The Game Industry.

As a thought leader in her field, Sampat frequently speaks and gives presentations on women in games, the tech field as a whole, and everything she’s learned from a lifetime dedicated to fighting for fun. Now, 14 of Sampat’s most provocative and illuminating talks from her last four years are collected in a single volume. Loudmouth: 14 Talks About Women in Tech, Game Design, and the Industry We Love Hate Love contains warnings, advice, and inspiration for everyone who is entering the tech world now, and how they can create positive change.

It’s also five dollars. This is as accessible as information like this can possibly be.

In Loudmouth, Sampat assembles a bare-bones 95 pages with no need to contextualize these talks with anything more than the talks themselves. Her opening salvo, “How to Be a Woman in Games,” delivered at the Game Developers Conference in 2013, is a blistering intro into the uphill struggle Sampat and those around her have been faced within the industry, while also carrying her specific blend of crushing yet personal humor:

“It’s easy, right? Just work 18-hour days while managing an infant and an autistic first-grader and everything will fall into place. You know, maybe it would have been easier if I had just followed all of the advice out there for women who want to break in.

Be assertive. No, be aggressive. Women are taught from a young age to seek permission and collaboration, but do it on your own and don’t give a damn about whether or not people WANT you to do it! FUCK THE MAN. But be respectful. Above all else, be nice. If a male game designer is sarcastic or critical, they’re a loveable curmudgeon, but if you do it, you’re a bitch.

Don’t be a slob, but don’t dress too girly, or you’re a fake geek girl. If you don’t wear makeup no one will take you seriously, but if you wear obvious makeup, you’re just looking for attention. Make networking connections. Don’t make TOO many connections, or you’ll be dismissed as a product of good marketing. Get a degree so people take you seriously, but don’t get a degree, because real designers just make games.”

 “Looking back at ‘How to Be a Woman in Games’ is really interesting to me,” Sampat tells Zam. “[It was] long before GamerGate was a thing, right when the idea that maybe women don't have it so great in our industry was starting to take hold.”

Sampat says she found this era circa 2013 to be a hopeful time. “There was an idea that sunlight is the best disinfectant. We really thought things were going to get better,” Sampat recalls. “It's sad to me how much of that talk is still relevant to women starting out today. The only thing that makes the talk seem ‘dated‘ is that there's no discussion of the harassment you get from consumers.”

From a later chapter “On Inspiration” (presented at Indiecade in 2013), Sampat explores the emotional structure of game logic and how everyone learns it from an early age:       

“Most people don’t know that there’s actually two different types of empathy— there’s emotional empathy, right, which is when people can feel in their gut how other people are feeling, and then there’s cognitive empathy, where people are able to consciously read the external signs of how other people are feeling and react appropriately.

[…]

When I was younger, I used systems to piece together a facsimile of cognitive empathy with a series of if/then statements. In high school, I used this to stay under the radar. Example: Jennifer asks you if you’re planning on going to prom! IF other girls are around, THEN see if they’re watching you. IF those girls are snickering, THEN Jennifer is trying to make fun of you. And my systems worked, with varying degrees of success.”

There’s a lot to explore across these 14 talks, and for lack of any good recording of these presentations, it is hugely beneficial that those entering the industry can now gather all this detail in one single downloadable book. Gatekeeping, we can all agree, is bad; spending hundreds on passes to attend these talks denies the young people in the industry who need it (and perhaps the industry veterans who really need to hear it) from successful advice coming from a successful writer who looks like them. There are plenty of entries, both in books and online, about how this entire industry is overtly cruel to those who attempt to find their place in it, especially when they’re carving those places themselves. But as Sampat says herself, “If there isn’t a place for you in the games industry, then fuck the games industry.”

Loudmouth (itch.io, 2017) Loudmouth (itch.io, 2017)

“The funny thing is that I've never tried to be controversial,” Sampat tells Zam. “Trolls have said I just love attention, or hate games, or hate our industry. Here's the thing about me: I'm a college dropout, I can't code, I'm completely self-taught. The thing I have going for me, the one thing, is that I am unhealthily obsessed with systems. I see them everywhere, in everything. I see them when I close my eyes at night. The thing that makes me a pain in the ass is the thing that makes me good at my job: I can't stand broken systems. When I say ‘fuck the games industry,’ that's not me trying to be edgy. That's me filing a bug report.”

This isn’t an Anarchist Cookbook about burning this world to the ground. This is a roadmap towards building new and better treehouses where everyone feels welcome. That’s not to say Sampat is filled with plenty of scathing take-downs, but there’s much more “build-up” happening here, which makes Loudmouth an incredibly easy recommendation to pay forward.

You can download Loudmouth at Elizabeth Sampat's itch.io page and learn more about Sampat's work at her official website.