Pioneering Women in the Videogames industry

Adrian and I have been talking about women in the videogame industry a lot recently (as have many others from what I can gather). One of the weird things I’ve noticed is that what most people mean by women is white/American women (see this article for “The Most Important Women in the History of Videogames”). What about the contributions of women in Japan to videogames, I wondered? I am not going to contest the indisputable fact that women are under-represented in the games industry globally; this is undoubtedly true, and there are many factors for why this (women are under-represented in all STEM industries). I decided to do some research for myself into the matter, specifically to look for Japanese women developers.

I found some interesting women in the industry I hadn’t heard of before, and decided it was worth putting it out there. Because of my interest in a redressing the balance of most US-centric lists – and therefore reflecting women’s contributions worldwide – I’ve deliberately left out well known Western women who are covered in other lists. I also left out a number of women composers (of which there are many, especially in Japan), in order to focus on the game design/production side of things.

In short, here is a list of a couple of awesome, pioneering women (from all over the place) in the videogames industry that I think we ought to salute:

Kris Zimmerman and Tamlynn Niglio (nee Barra)

kris zimmerman and rp

Kris Zimmerman with assistant producer Ryan Payton.

I tried to keep variety in mind. You don’t want all your villains sounding the same.

I’ve combined these two ladies not out of spite but because I think they’ve played similar roles in the game industry. These two awesome women are incredibly influential and pioneering voice directors.

So, first Tamlynn Niglio, who I don’t have a picture for! She worked at LucasArts throughout their 90s heyday, directing the immense voice talents that went into the Day of the Tentacle, the Monkey Island series, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, The Dig, Grim Fandango and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and more to boot.

Now, onto Kris Zimmerman who is partly responsible for the most famous line in videogame history:

“Snake? Snake?? SNAAAKKKKEEE!!!”

What is so remarkable about this, in my opinion, is that Metal Gear: Solid is a Japanese game, and yet Zimmerman cast the perfect, professional voice talents in an era where terrible voice acting wasn’t only acceptable, but the norm. David Hayter as Snake is nothing short of inspired. Incidentally, she was married to voice actor Patric Zimmerman for nine years, until 1992/1993. She then hired him to voice Revolver Ocelot. As a child of divorced parents, I know what kind of professionalism this woman must have to remain friends and get her ex such a great gig.

In short, these two women were at least partially responsible for bringing the standard of voice acting in videogames up from its laughable origins. They directed some of the best voice acting ever found in videogames made in the 90s (and in Kris Zimmerman’s case, right up until the present day). You only need be familiar with House of the Dead 2 or the original Resident Evil to realise how important casting and directing voice actors can be.

Aya Kyogoku

Aya-Kyogoku

Having worked on this team where there were almost equal numbers of men and women made me realize that [diversity] can open you up to hearing a greater variety of ideas and sharing a greater diversity of ideas. Only after having working on a project like this, with a team like this one, was I able to realize this.

Aya Kyogoku is the new kid on the block. She’s the director of Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS, which sold an astounding number of copies and gained widespread critical acclaim for invigorating the Animal Crossing franchise.

Previously she worked as a script writer for Zelda games, including Twilight Princess, and before that worked at Atlus with independent developer Racdym/Racjin (who coincidentally made the Snowboard Kids series!). Something tells me she will be one to watch in coming years.

Yoko Shimomura

yoko-shimomura1

When I was learning piano as a student, I got hooked on Super Mario Bros. And really overdid it, playing it all night. I then went to an important piano lesson and my teacher asked me why I wasn’t able to move my hands…When I answered honestly that I’d been playing games all night, my teacher said that if I liked games that much, I should get into that field. But at that time, I hadn’t given the games industry the slightest thought. Then when I graduated, before I knew it, I found myself working in the gaming world.

You know that theme song? That one, that goes with everything? This is the woman that wrote it, alongside many, many other amazing tracks and songs for Capcom, Square and Nintendo. Final Fight, Street Fighter 2, Super Mario RPG, Legend of Mana, Parasite Eve, Kingdom Hearts and Xenoblade Chronicles are just some of her career highlights. But as Shimomura is a composer, let your ears decide.

Street Fighter 2 – Guile’s theme (goes with everything):

Here is a medley of Street Fighter 2 tracks from a Capcom album released in 1991. The medley is arranged by Shimomura herself. It is, frankly, awesome.

Finally, just a beautiful track from Xenoblade:

Fiona Sperry

fiona sperry

Just Be Brilliant. Don’t think about whether you’re the only woman in the room or assume others (men) are thinking less of you because of that, just be the best you can be and provided you’re working with people worth their salt then you will get on. Talent talks. 

Fiona Sperry is the co-founder and director of Criterion Games, based in Guildford in the UK. Alongside co-founder Alex Ward, Sperry turned Criterion from the middleware developer who provided the engine for Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3, Vice City and San Andreas, into a highly respected development studio in their own right. Criterion are of course, best known for their vastly influential racing games: the Burnout series, and more recently Need for Speed. They also developed the cinematic FPS, Black, on PS2 and Xbox. Sperry and Ward left Criterion recently and have set up a new games company, Three Fields Entertainment.

While I’m less familiar with Criterion’s recent output, I cannot say enough good things about the Burnout games. And I know I’m not the only one with glowing things to say. For further reading I’d strongly recommend checking out Sperry’s blog for her insights and opinions.

Junko Kawano

Kawano_Junko

She also really loves cats. LOVE HER!!!

Interviewer: What is it like to be one of the only female game producers in Japan? Did you have a tough time breaking into the male-dominated field?

Kawano: I don’t feel like I’m the only one…I’m asked that question a lot, but I don’t find my position strange or unusual.

Best known for: her work with the Suikoden series (she worked her way up from character design and writing on the first two Suikoden games to writing and producing Suikoden IV) and Shadow of Memories (aka Shadow of Destiny).

Kawano is an exceptionally talented character designer, writer, director and producer. She joined Konami in 1993 and never looked back. I’m going to be totally honest and say though that the main reason she is on this list is because she wrote, directed and designed the characters of one of my favorite games of all time, Shadow of Memories on PS2. You have to be one smart, smart person to think up such an innovative approach to narrative and story.

junkokawano

I just can’t help but imagine I would have the most awesome conversations with her… From Left: Two IGN guys, Noritada Matsukawa (senior producer), Junko Kawano (producer) and Masayuki Saruta (team director)

 Rieko Kodama

reikok

As for women in game development, it’s changing. Gradually, and slowly, but it’s changing. I think it’s a bit more common for women to want to get into this field here in Japan. Playing games as a recreational activity for young girls is much less common than it is here. But if they play games they find very enjoyable, the desire to make their own games will certainly go up. I think that as more and more people start playing games, the number of female game designers will gradually increase.

Couldn’t have a list like this without the one and only Rieko Kodama. She is a legend. Her career trajectory goes from the very beginning of Sega to the dark, dark present – the high points and the low points. As a designer in the early days, she worked on lead titles, including Alex Kidd and Sonic 2. She went on to create the Phantasy Star series, and directed the fourth game, widely acknowledged as the best in the series. Later in the Saturn era, she directed and produced the final games to be released on the Saturn in America and Europe respectively: Magic Knight Rayearth and Deep Fear. (why oh why didn’t Kodama hire Kris Zimmerman and Tamlynn Niglio for Deep Fear?! So offensive to my ears.)

She also produced what is arguably the best RPG on Dreamcast (or maybe even just the best one ever?!) Skies of Arcadia, and the enhanced Gamecube version Skies of Arcadia Legends. Most recently she has produced 7th Dragon on the DS which is meant to be pretty good, but it’s Japan only so who knows!

Kodama has to be applauded for her loyalty – she has stuck with Sega from the very start (before they even had a console) to the bitter days post-console. She’s followed them more loyally than any fanboy or fangirl, consistently worked on iconic Sega titles. It’s hard to imagine Sega without such a visionary RPG-focused writer, producer, director and designer.


Anyway, I hope that this was the searching journalistic piece: it certainly felt like real journalism, writing it. If I have left out any glaring omissions let me know.

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3 comments

  1. Sir Gaulian

    Great article. I knew about some of these, but I think you’ve highlighted a pretty important point, that there are plenty of amazing women in the industry but most of them go unrecognised. That’s an intrinsic problem with the industry, I think, and while some of it comes down to how the japanese industry operated in the early days with most artists working under pseudonyms, a lot of it is the fact that the industry is dominated by males. That’s something that won’t be fixed by videos, woe-is-me blog posts, or making one’s self into a victim – it will be changed by the brilliant creative and technical female minds in the industry coming out and beating their chests saying “HEY WE’VE BEEN HERE ALL ALONG!”.

    But if I may represent my great country, Siobhan Reddy from Media Molecule (also ex-Criterion like the aforementioned and amazing Fiona Sperry), is also an unbelievably influential woman in the industry.

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayprofile/siobhan-reddy2c-studio-director2c-media-molecule/5839758

    As you point out, they’re there at the forefront breaking incredible ground in the industry, here’s to hoping they continue to get the recognition they deserve.

    • veryverygaming

      Thank you! Siobhan Reddy is an honourary Brit, so you can’t claim her anymore 😉 See: http://www.mcvuk.com/news/read/the-top-100-uk-women-in-video-games/0112138
      This post was actually pretty difficult to write because of the nature of making videogames; I meant to write it somewhere, but because it is essentially a team effort/a collaborative process it automatically undermines the concept of individual genius. The few game developer celebrities we have are more often than not part of the marketing campaign.
      Bah, there is so much more I could say on the subject. I’m feeling to do a follow-up post of sorts in the near future. Suffice to say, women have been in the industry all along as you say – even if there is still a ways to go in all the STEM subjects in terms of women employees. I like what Kodama said, which is simply that we need games which service women so that we will actually consider videogames as a career option. This has only recently happened for young women in the film industry (before Twilight, was there anything in film which catered to young women/teens in quite the same way? Even if the content is questionable!). Women need to be respected as a discerning, worthwhile audience – and I would argue that there have been many moments in videogame history which managed this.

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