Cindy Miller

Cindy is an Independent Game Developer currently working on a social change game called We Are Chicago. We Are Chicago is a narrative-driven experience with a focus on telling real-life stories about growing up on the South Side of Chicago through a video game. She has worked in game development for the last six years, four of which were at Disney Interactive Studios. She has worked on games for PC/OSX/PS3/Xbox360/iOS/Android/Wii/WiiU, most notably Disney Infinity. Cindy is one of the founders of Voxelles, a Chicago-based group for women in game development.

CINDY MILLER 
Independent Game Developer

COMPANY
Culture Shock Games

EDUCATION 
Columbia College Chicago: Bachelor of Arts in Game Design

WEBSITES
www.CynthiaLM.com

When did you first start playing games?

I first started playing games because of my dad. I was around six or seven. My dad was really into Sierra adventure games, Warcraft, Myst, Sims games like Sim Farm and Sim Ant… He was an electrical engineer, so he was pretty nerdy. I remember sitting on his lap when I was a kid and “helping” him play. I have two older siblings and one younger sibling, and we would all play games. We got the first Nintendo and we just played the heck out of that thing. My family always had a family night, so every family night, we would play card or board games. So, I started playing games really early.

One of my previous interviewees, Elise Motzny, had almost the same story! She would sit in her dad’s lap and help him play Wolfenstein 3D

My dad would not let us watch Wolfenstein. I think he played it, but he wouldn’t let us watch it.  The rest of my family is Mormon, so they did not think that kind of violence was okay – which I kind of agree with at that age. He had a policy that we couldn’t beat it before him. So he wouldn’t let us play games until he finished them.

What made you want to start making games?

“That’s what I’ve always wanted to do with games – make people feel things through a medium – like what people do through movies, music, and literature.”

Probably when I got my Super Nintendo for Christmas. I was super excited for it, because I got it when it came out with Donkey Kong Country 2 bundled, and I was like, “OH MY GOSH, this is the BEST.What I really liked was that my parents gave it to ME, and not my brother or my sister, it was MY console.

Donkey Kong Country 2 cover art

Donkey Kong Country 2 cover art

I really wanted to make games at that point, but… I kind of assumed that I couldn’t. I was interested in art, and I really liked playing games, and I liked computers, but… I didn’t think it was a valid path. Which, looking back on, I really don’t know why … I guess society told me that video games were a “guy’s thing” still. I mean, this was like 20 years ago.

Another thing that made me really want to make video games is that I was/am very into music, movies, and reading. I loved how it all made me feel. There was music that I could listen to that would inspire me to feel something different. I feel like video games are a WAY better way to do that. With We Are Chicago, our company is taking an experience and putting it into a game, and then people can live that experience. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do with games – make people feel things through a medium – kind of like what people do through movies, music, and literature. I really believe that games can help human beings empathize with each other, and make this world a better place.

“I really wanted to make games at that point, but… I kind of assumed that I couldn’t. […] I didn’t think it was a valid path. […] I guess society told me that video games were a ‘guy’s thing’ still.”

Did you feel like it wasn’t a real profession? Or that it was more of a hobby and you shouldn’t try to make money doing it?

Hm, no, I never really felt like that. I was like, “Oh, people are selling games, so of course it’s a real, professional industry.” That’s what some people do when they grow up, but I didn’t think about being able to do that when I grew up.

I was in college and taking Graphic Design classes because I knew I wanted to do something creative, but I was really unhappy. I was speaking to my older sister about it, and she said “Why don’t you just make video games, since you like them so much?” And I was like… “Oh! Why DON’T I do that?”

Do you think more schools should offer video game design as a degree?

I’m kind of torn. Design is really hard to teach. A lot of it is experience, hands-on. You have to watch how people play, and have an idea of how your target audience plays; what they want to do, and how they act. Some of the best designers have years of experience. So at that point, can you really teach years of experience? Hmmmm.

Whether more colleges should do game curriculums in general…? I don’t know, because it seems like the ones that we already have are… pretty loose.  They’re not very good curriculums. I’ve heard of people coming out of some of the ones in Chicago totally unprepared for the real-world industry. I think in the long run, yes, more colleges and universities should offer a degree. BUT… I think people really need to shape up what the curriculum is.

“I think the games industry needs to grow up.”

What’s a game you recently played that inspired you in some way?

Dishonored, by Arkane Studios. I’m still pretty in love with that game. I really enjoyed the gameplay, the choices, the story, the environments, and I always liked the level design. They did a really good job doing environmental storytelling, and making the world believable. I felt like it inspired me to think about the story, the world, and the characters differently.

In Dishonored, you have to make choices that impact the characters and the story. These interactive moral decisions differentiate the experience from traditionally linear stories. While assassinating targets is the simple way to accomplish the mission, it is far more difficult to non-violently neutralize the targets. The fact that the game contains both good and bad options, even if one promotes violence, makes choosing to be good more meaningful.

It was a smaller studio, owned by Zenimax now. They weren’t a company that had previously made any huge hits, so I thought it was cool that they worked on this thing and it was really good. It’s really inspiring to me that, like, you don’t have to be a Call of Duty franchise to make a good game that sells well.

Dishonored screenshot

How did you find this game?

I think someone at Wideload suggested it. Then [my fiancé] Michael and I started playing it.

I know there’s a lot of violence in it, and sexism, and I wanted to touch on that real quick. I didn’t really encounter some of the sexism as I was playing through this game the first time, because you can choose to be “good” while you play and use stealth instead of deadly force. At some point you go to “The Golden Cat,” which is a prostitution house in this world. But I got in through a window, climbed up, went to the employee staircase, found who I needed to find, and then got out. I didn’t see a lot of the stuff that was going on in there.

Flier for "The Golden Cat" establishment in Dishonored

Flier for “The Golden Cat” establishment in Dishonored

Then I played through it again on a different mode. I wanted to get all the achievements. I went through, and I was like “OOOH, ooh there’s all THIS stuff going on.” It was mentioned in some of the Feminist Frequency videos. They call out Dishonored as a game where you can kill the women and throw their bodies into pools and down staircases. I mean, it’s a stealth game, so you’re supposed to take the bodies and hide them. You can do that with anybody’s body, though. So Dishonored is just inherently violent.

That was really the only disappointing bit about Dishonored for me. It reused the trope of a typical female victim that gave you a reason to play the game, but didn’t address that trope in a critical way. Going back, I really wish they had a way to mod the game. I would have really loved to gender-swap the genders of the main characters. Because, you’re a male protagonist, trying to save a young empress that you have an attachment to, whose mother you weren’t able to save and was killed in front of you. How different would it feel to be able to make the empress an emperor? What would it be like if you were a woman who’s taking charge of her life and setting out to prove she’s innocent? I think that would be really cool.

I’m not really against violent games, I’m against gratuitous violence. And it didn’t seem that gratuitous when I was playing through it. Since I usually play “good,” it meant I was usually sneaking around and not killing people in gruesome ways. You can get pretty involved in the different ways you kill people, but I never really went there with that. So the question is: should we not like the game because it has that option for violence? I think that’s kind of a gray area of video games, especially with the violence in video games debate still going on.

“It’s really inspiring to me that you don’t have to be a Call of Duty franchise to make a good game that sells well.”

Is there any game you’ve worked on recently that you’d be excited to talk about?

We Are Chicago!  It’s a documentary-style interactive experience for the PC that places you in the average life of a teenager living in the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago. Based on real people and their true stories, you witness and respond to the hardships and accomplishments that really happen in places like Englewood.

We Are Chicago game

Beyond the game itself, we plan to use the game’s exposure to raise awareness, and a portion of the proceeds to help support non-profit groups with a mission to curb violence, and provide positive and creative opportunities to people living on Chicago’s South and West sides.

What is the one most important aspect of a game that you feel elevates the good games above the rest?

This goes back to what I was saying about feeling inspired by Dishonored and wanting to get into games.  If a game can inspire someone to do something different in their life for the better, then it’s a good game. And it can be all individual; people resonate with different stories and presentations.

I feel like games aren’t just meant for the majority. Games as a medium are meant for people who enjoy that specific game. You can’t say, “Here’s a book. You loved it, that person hated it. It must be a bad book.” I think games need to give a little more allowance for that. I think the games industry needs to grow up. The gamers need to figure out that just because ten people gave it a 10 doesn’t mean it’s the Best Game Ever.

Anyway, I’m not expecting such a level of inspiration from games that you drop what you’re doing and go volunteer for a non-profit. There are some people that get really into games because they’re competitive, and they’re inspired to go and beat their high score, or to work on something that they find valuable, which is playing the game to perfection, and that’s good too.

What sort of games do you think there are not enough of? (What direction do you want to see the industry take?)

I think the industry just needs to expand. Right now it’s a very narrow field of typical… white male straight gamers. So I feel like the more “not that” we can get involved will make different kinds of games. That being said, there are also white male straight people who have some really interesting ideas about games, and they shouldn’t NOT make games because of that. I hesitate to say that we have too much of any game already. There’s always a chance that you could take Call of Duty and change it in a way that makes it unique. Why should we say that we have enough first person shooters? You don’t KNOW that there’s nothing else you can do with first person shooters and everything’s been done. It’s kind of hard for me to say that we should stop making them. So I guess my easier answer to that is that we need more of every game. We need more of everything we haven’t thought of yet.

Even though there’s already so many games in existence that we’ll ever have time to play them in our lifetimes?

Yeah, because there’s too many books to ever read in a lifetime. That doesn’t stop people from reading books. There are giant libraries full of books that we’ll never be able to read through. You could probably take all of the Wikipedia pages and not be able to read through them in your lifetime at this point. I don’t like to say that’s a bad thing. However, I am concerned about how people can FIND games. As a game creator, I think there have to be better ways than what we have right now… but better minds than mine are probably working on that.

How would you involve women with the gaming community, who otherwise might not become involved on their own?

  • Have welcoming game communities that are open to minorities & women.
  • Make communities that are safe, like the Voxelles.
  • Find women and encourage them to make games, and do game jams.

A lot of game jams have been hosted at specific places like DePaul, Columbia College, or at game studios, and that’s really intimidating for people who never went to those schools. It’s also intimidating to walk into a foreign environment and see that the crowd is all guys.

I think it’s a bit of a Catch 22 – if you have women that go, and they don’t see other women, then they’re less likely to go again. If you don’t have them going again, then no other girls are going to see them there in order to stay. I’ve heard some girls talk about indie community meetings, and how the attendance is mostly guys. And the girls will say, “It’s not really our scene.”

What can big companies like Microsoft do to bring more women into gaming?

  1. Hiring more women into the gaming divisions would probably be the first step.
  2. Hiring more women into management positions within those divisions would be the next step. (It’s fine to have a lot of women at entry level, but there are mid- and high-level women out there looking for jobs.)
  3. The next important bit would be keeping them there. You can hire women all you want, but if you can’t get them to stick around, it’s not going to help at all.
  4. Having your workplace reflect values of equality is crucial. Make sure there’s equal pay between men and women and equal rights for all genders.
  5. Provide support for harassment. Make sure there’s a zero-tolerance policy. 
  6. Sponsor gaming groups, and women groups, and women in gaming groups. Stuff like that would help, since big companies have the income where they can donate time, expertise, equipment, and people to help promote these values in the gaming world.

I’ve heard stories about bad places for women to work on games. I’ve personally been told that I was the reason the studio stopped being a guy’s club. You hear about other studios that send around porn in email as jokes, and stuff like that. THAT does not make the workplace 1) professional, and 2) inviting to women who might not agree with said content of emails. You need to have the workplace culture be welcoming. When anyone walks into a new place of work, no coworker should ever greet them by saying, “Aw, man! You got hired! Now we have to actually be professional at work.” That doesn’t really seem fair.

What can I do locally to bring more women into gaming?

Join any local women’s groups that are available. If you find no groups, then find like-minded people and start one. People can blog, game stream, tweet about games, critique games, do podcasts, anything that’s public and/or educational. That will draw people to your love of games. There are some really good women who play games and stream it, and we should get more of them! So I think that sort of public-facing broadcast of the fact that there are women who play games, talk about games, do stuff with games, is good in general. If you want to do Podcasts, then do some sort of game podcast. Bring on other women. Skype-podcast people, and stuff like that. I think there are options. Doing public stuff that will help other people know that there are women out there doing stuff is good. Also, make games. *laughs*

Have you started a podcast?

I have not ever started one. I know there are a bunch of people here in the office who have, and people who have guest-starred on podcasts, so there’s a community out there.

How do you think people with diverse backgrounds impact the game development community?

I think they make it a better place. I think the more diverse people we have, the better off the industry will be. I don’t think we’ll ever reach a point where we have enough diversity. (Unless everybody in the world is making a game.) I think that games are made based on a person’s history, experiences, and thoughts. That person has an idea of what a game should be. If you get more variations in that set of people, you’re going to get way more games. To me, that’s better.

The best thing is to have as many people in the games industry as possible, to make it more diverse. That means the industry will get a lot more competitive, but I think that’s something they have to sort out. More games are better. More people are better.

Do you have anything else to add on this topic?

With We Are Chicago, we’re telling a story about people who live on the South Side of Chicago. But what would have been the best is people from the South Side of Chicago making the game entirely themselves. Because, in the ideal world, they could. We have hired a lot of talent for the game from the South Side, there are some very talented people living here in Chicago.

There is a barrier to making games. A lot of times, that barrier is: Do you have a computer? Do you have an internet connection? A lot of people don’t have a computer still. It’s not okay that people don’t have computers; it’s not okay that people don’t have internet.

Poverty is a barrier. If they have to travel to a library to use a computer, that doesn’t mean you can work on a game at the library. Chicago is not a poor city. There are millionaires in Chicago. So why do we have such inequality within the city borders?

There are a lot of programs going on geared toward getting more minorities involved in media and technology, like 3G Summit that had younger women brought into Columbia College to make games, design them, and talk about them. But there’s not a lot of people on the South Side of Chicago that would identify as… game developers. So, we need to bring more people in to be like, “Yes, you can make games.” People might not be interested because they don’t know about the opportunities out there.

WeAreChicago3

We Are Chicago screenshot.

Where did you go during your research and interviews with people?

We went down to the Englewood-area Red Line stop, and had casual interviews. We also met at [coffee shops] and other places to interview people.

What do you want women considering a career in tech to know?

It’s worth it. If you are passionate about it, then it’s completely something you should pursue. If someone is telling you, “You shouldn’t do this,” or “You can’t do that,” they’re wrong. Once you get into the field, it’s going to be difficult. There are issues right now. But lots of people are trying to change it, so if you ever need help with any of that, there are people that you can reach out to. Other women in tech totally understand this and will totally help. (Hopefully.) You might have to deal with crap from people, but don’t feel bad, and don’t ever feel like it’s your fault. There’s no reason why you can’t pursue ANY sort of career in tech that you want.
You have every right to pursue your dreams just as much as other people have that right. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you’re in the wrong place.

Thank you so much, Cindy, for your sharing your eye-opening experiences! 

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