Catt Small

Catt is a product designer, game maker, and front-end web developer. She has done design work for companies of all sizes including SoundCloud, Bedrocket, and Nasdaq. She started coding at the age of 10, designing at the age of 15, graduated from the School of Visual Arts (SVA) with a BFA in Graphic Design in 2011, and graduated from NYU with an MS in Integrated Digital Media in 2016. Catt also makes video games with Brooklyn Gamery; teaches game development with The Code Liberation Foundation; and draws comics.
(Interview edited for brevity. Catt’s full recording with the Voxelles will be uploaded soon.)

Video Game Developer
Code Liberation Foundation
School of Visual Arts  - BFA Graphic Design
New York University - MS Integrated Digital Media

She Builds Games partnered up with Voxelles: Chicago’s Women in Game Development to bring you a few excerpts from this interview with Catt Small.

What made you want to start developing video games? 

“It took a lot of observation of other people, asking questions, and eventually feeling comfortable enough to volunteer to be the developer at a game jam instead of being the artist.”

Basically, I found RPG Maker when I was 10, and I was kinda like, “What the heck is this? How does it work?” And I couldn’t figure it out. At the time, there wasn’t really a lot of documentation about any of that stuff. So I was just like, “Guess I can’t make games!” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But I could write ideas for them down. Then when I was about 19 or so, I ended up hanging out with some friends at a polytechnic school. We got along really well because we all liked games, and we all wanted to make them.
We started going to game jams together, and I would do art for a while; I was just the artist until I figured out how they actually worked. Once I figured out what a game loop was, and how game systems worked, and how you could make mechanics, and stuff like that, from there, it was easy to start making my own stuff.

It took a lot of observation of other people, asking questions, and eventually feeling comfortable enough to volunteer to be the developer at a game jam instead of being the artist.

Do you have any advice on how to attract more women to video game meetups, and let them feel more welcome and want to come back?

There are so many women who, if you just gave them a year, they could be making games.

Totally. Outside of Code Liberation Foundation, I do stuff with Brooklyn Gamery, and our events are open to basically everyone, although we also do have some co-ed stuff with Code Lib as well. And here are some of the things I’ve done to make sure it’s inclusive:

  • I always make sure that we have a Code of Conduct, because that alone is really helpful, I find. Like, I think a lot of people feel like if there is no Code of Conduct, then anything is allowed, and that might make some people feel really unsafe.
  • If someone is making someone feel uncomfortable, then we will ask them to leave, or report them to the authorities, depending on the scale of whatever the infraction is. 
  • Sometimes we like to explicitly encourage marginalized people to show up at our events, and we really say upfront, like, “This is a safe space where people can express themselves.”
  • We also generally like to encourage people to, when they’re writing down their names, put on their pronouns, so that people don’t feel like they’re being mislabeled, or misrepresented.
  • If we were ever doing a drinking type of event — which we don’t do very much — we would also provide alternatives like water or juice or things like that.
  • IGDA NYC has been doing a really good job of, instead of having “drink” nights, they’ll have “ice cream & coffee” nights.
  • Encouraging positive discussion — or not “positive,” per se, but if people are gonna talk about any kinds of topics, then encouraging them to be open-minded and respectful to each other.
  • One of the last events I ran with a couple of friends, we had these “social rules“… “Hey. it’s okay to disagree with someone, but make sure that you say that you respectfully disagree, and don’t turn it into a huge thing if you don’t have the same opinion about something.”
  • I think that some people are just taught to bulldoze their opinion on other people. Like, if they don’t agree with you, then, you keep saying it until they feel like they’re wrong. …So, it’s really important to keep encouraging positive discourse. And that’s really respectful.

You could also actually reach out to your community, and ask, “Hey, are there reasons that you aren’t coming to this?” and see if those reasons can help you to figure out how to make the space more inclusive. Because sometimes it’s all hypothetical and you don’t really know what the exact thing is. IGDA did a really good job of asking around and saying, “How can we make this better?”  With Code Liberation we also try to do the same thing. And it’s just a continuous cycle of asking people, “Hey, how can we improve this space more?” So the little things like Code of Conduct can help, but even more, just reaching out to people and seeing directly from the source what you can do is also a really good idea.

We changed our mission statement because we want to be more inclusive to other people who are also feeling similarly left out or marginalized, within the sphere of programming and gaming. 

How do you physically do these things? Do you print out your Code of Conduct and post it on a wall? Is it on your website? Where is it visible?  

Yeah! Good point. In terms of Code of Conduct stuff, we state it at the beginning of every event; so we actually have a portion of the introduction keynote where we’ll just read most of it, and then we’ll provide a link, for example, so we’re explicitly putting it up front. We might also print it out, but… we’ll say, “Here it is; you can read the rest online. Here’s the basic statement.” We also put it on the event invitation itself, whether it’s on Facebook or Eventbrite, we make sure that it’s included within that event information so people can easily find it.

We even have the “Hello my name is…” name-tag stickers at every meeting we host, and then we just encourage people during the keynote to write their pronouns in. We also usually try to have a label card that says the same thing, like, near the table with the sharpies and the stickers.

What was Code Liberation’s old mission statement, and what changes did the group make to it?

The old mission statement was, “Code Liberation is a group that teaches women* to program video games.” And there was like a little star that said, “If you identify as a woman, you’re in,” because there were a lot of arguments about that. “Are trans-women women?” “Can non-binary people also come?” Enough people asked that, that we were like, “We should expand the mission statement to be more inclusive of people who don’t fit in to the gender binary who also feel discriminated against, and we want more of them in gaming, too.” Because OF COURSE we want every woman to come to these events! We would love to have you!

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So the biggest change that we made was really just expanding it to include non-binary; we also have femme, and a couple of other gender descriptors that we put in there so that it feels more inclusive. The largest change was just making sure that more people felt like they could come without having to ask upfront.

How is Code Lib’s structure organized?

We’ve brought on more people — initially they were regular contributors — and we “leveled them up” a little bit, depending on how much they wanted to be involved. We’re learning a lot about how this whole thing works as we go through it. None of us had really built an organization in this specific way before.

We basically started to form a structure where people are asked how much they wanna be involved, upfront, so that we can correctly assign them duties and stuff like that. And we ask them questions like,

“What are your interests?”    “How long have you been working on games?”
“What do you want to learn?”    “Do you want a mentor?”

We ask questions like that so that we can figure out how we help them grow, and how we most appropriately utilize their skills for the purpose of this organization.

We do have a Slack channel. And we are actually in the process of structuring that, so we can have students from our classes who just want to be a part of a community join in.

Can you share with us more details about how you structure your organization?

Basically, what we decided upon, through a bunch of experimentation, is that we have several levels of being involved in Code Liberation.

  • From the bottom, there’s Student level. You come to our stuff, you engage in our community, you’re a generic level member.
  • Above Student is a Volunteer, who is like no-strings-attached, just shows up and does some teaching, or volunteers for an event, and that is all they wanna do. They don’t have the time or the desire to contribute more than that.
  • Above the Volunteer level is our Contributor level, which is basically someone who wants to be involved with Code Liberation as an organization, and maybe do some administrative stuff, help organize events, help organize classes. They can also teach, like a Volunteer can teach, but they really wanna be involved in shaping the future of Code Liberation somehow.
  • Above the Contributor is a Director. This person is actually running things a little bit more, they’re probably mentoring some people, they’re probably going to do speaking engagements and public appearance type things. They can also still do teaching and stuff like that, but they’re probably going to be running projects, and mentoring Contributors who might wanna also eventually do Director-level stuff.

So it’s this structure where you’ve got people managing other people, so that you can hopefully get more things done. And there are several different types of directors: there’s an Educational Director, there’s a Programs Director who cares about events, and then there’s the Executive Director, who cares more about the organizational structure and making sure that the people we bring in are clear on what they want to do, and are doing things that align with the mission statement.

And then we have a Board, because we are actually now a 501(c)(3), so you need a Board in addition to that — and so that board kind of makes sure that the entire organization is consistent according to the mission statement, and then the Directors execute based on that mission statement.

So, the hope is that by having this structure, we’ll make sure that Code Liberation is always doing things that are appropriate for the group, and what the original mission was, and also that people feel like they know what their jobs are, or what they’re supposed to be doing within the group.

Which means you can accomplish BUSINESS.

You said in your TEDX talk that Code Lib tried to do too much in too many places, and your community suffered for it. Do you have any examples of lessons that you’ve learned the hard way?

[Laugh] Yes! Definitely! All the time! I think everyone’s learned the value of time management. For a while, I was like, “Yeah! I’m gonna do a ton of speaking stuff, and have a full time job, and I’m gonna go to school at the same time, and still run Code Liberation!” And we all kind of realized, like… you CAN’T do that. You gotta slow down, or you’re gonna burn out. So that was like, Lesson Number One.

Lesson Number Two was making sure to define intentions upfront. For a while, we just pulled people in who were really excited about Code Liberation without asking them what they wanted to do, or giving them explicit roles… and so people just kind of sat there for like, a year, and just didn’t know exactly how to contribute.

We’ve always been really ambitious about Code Liberation’s projects. Like the video lessons, for example. We’re actually now JUST being able to figure out what is the right method for doing those. Because, for a long time we were like, “Yeah! We really wanna do them,” we bought the video equipment… “Crap. How do you, like, form a video lesson curriculum? Like, we’re pretty good at teaching, in person, but like, how do videos work? How are they structured? Who’s gonna edit them? There’s so many questions that we didn’t answer! And so we had to take time to actually answer all of those questions.

We realized we just need to sit down and plan things out more. We also need to build a “road map” so that we can say, “This is what we’re doing RIGHT NOW. This is when we want to do this other thing.” And planning things 6 months to a year in advance rather than like, 2 months, or even less than 2 months, is REALLY important. So, we’re learning a lot more about structure and timing.

How did you arrive at the three methods of teaching that you mentioned in your TEDX talk?

When we initially started the classes and the group, Phoenix was very adamant about making sure that the classes were like very hands on. I’ve taken programming classes where it was just like: you walk into the room, and someone lectures you for three hours, and you never actually do anything. We made sure that every time we teach something, we should practice it in the class, like immediately, as we’re talking about it. Then people can actually understand the reasoning behind that kind of stuff, and so by actually practicing it right after talking about it, it’s really helpful for them. ps-teaching

Phoenix Perry originally had the idea for the Code Liberation Foundation.  She was doing a lot of adjunct teaching at NYU, so she had a lot of teaching experience, in terms of “How do people learn best?” Especially when it comes to programming. And so she used that experience as a mold, of sorts, for what Code Liberation became, and how we started teaching.

Can you elaborate on the importance of acknowledging mistakes?

Totally! I think people really relate when you’re open and honest about your experiences with programming. When you say things like, “Hey, this didn’t click for me immediately, and I had to practice it like, 10 million times,  then they understand, like, “Oh, it’s not that easy to do… Everyone has this frustrating experience.” 

Sometimes we’ll be typing something on the screen in class, and someone will say, like, “Hey! That’s not the right sign to use there.” Or you might have misspelled something. And we’re just like, “Oh yeah! Great! That’s a really good catch!” and … we hope by doing that, that it decreases the stigma of making mistakes. Especially when it comes to programming. And that it makes people feel more like making a mistake is a natural thing, that people do all of the time… and that it’s okay. And that’s really important in terms of stereotypes.

You mentioned “stereotype threat” in your talk. Can you tell us about that?

“Stereotype threat,” specifically, is a thing that happens to marginalized individuals who are often expected to represent an entire group of people. Even though we’re all individuals, they kind of get placed as that ONE.  THEY represent every single person that is like them. And so it’s really important to have spaces where they can be amongst other people who have whatever that similar quality is.
It’s really important to feel like when you’re making mistakes, that you’re NOT representing that whole group! Because when you feel like you are, then you tend to make more mistakes. And it’s a really scary feeling. Because you think if you make one mistake, or you mess up once, then it’s like, “Ah! ALL women just can’t program!” or like, “ALL women are bad at math!” or whatever one of a million stereotypes could be applied at any time.
By having this group of people who’re marginalized together, the hope is that, by saying, “Oh yeah, I made a mistake!” and that it’s okay to ask stupid questions… people will just feel comfortable being themselves, and being honest with other people, and making mistakes.

You say you share resources and slides through an easy-to-use GitHub website. What’s been your experience organizing that?

Screenshot of Code Liberation's page

Screenshot of Code Liberation’s page

It’s been really successful, I think. Basically we have a public-facing GitHub page, and those files are updated on the administrative side of GitHub, where you upload your files, and you do the version control stuff. So, if you’re more on the technical side, and you want to clone that repository, you totally can. But if you aren’t so good with technology, or if you’re not really that great with Git yet, and you may not know how that works, we also have the public-facing version, where you can just download whatever zip files you want. We make sure to keep that updated as we create new classes and content.

It’s pretty easy, especially now that a lot of the classes we’ve done are kind of set in stone. I’ll help someone, for example, and I’ll just grab the files from whoever was teaching the class, and just drop it in a folder… upload it to GitHub, and then just make sure to write up a small description. It’s really really simple.

What can bigger companies do to bring more women into gaming?

Funding training classes for adult women so that you can immediately funnel them into the industry; I think that’s really important.

I like what Intel’s been doing. The scholarships that they did to actually bring people to game development conferences was really cool. Funding training classes for adult women so that you can immediately funnel them into the industry; I think that’s really important.

There are so many women who, if you gave them a year, they could be making games. They just need some time and investment.

Creating more spaces and opportunities for women in games. I remember when I was first starting out, it was like, “How do I get into this? Oh, I guess I need six years of experience already? Well, crap! Can’t do that!”  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So, creating that space for women to actually learn, and do internships, go to conferences, things like that, I think that’s quite important. If more companies did what Intel is doing NOW, I think that’d be really great.

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

It takes generations for change to happen.

That’s a good question. I would say… that what I want them to know is that… it’s gonna be kind of a tough ride. I think things are definitely improving. It’s always a really slow course, I think. … When I got into tech, and as I’m in gaming, I’m always like of like, “Oh! It’s 2016! How is this still happening?”It takes generations for change to happen.

 How do you find the time to do all the things you do, without burning out? 

Yeah. That is a GREAT question. I think what I usually do is — I “chunk out” my time. For example, right now, I’m not doing as much speaking, including classroom appearances and stuff like that, and I’m really trying to focus on creating stuff a little bit more. So I’m not  teaching with Code Liberation as much, although I am helping to organize and manage other people so that they can teach.

And then there are other times where I’m like, “Okay, for the next couple of months, I’m going to do more teaching stuff, more speaking stuff. I’m gonna be more heavily involved.”  I find that  taking those breaks sometimes to do certain things, and then switch into other things, can be really helpful for recharging if you ever feel like you’re burning the candle at both ends.

Do you have a favorite game engine that you recommend to use?

I think it really depends on the purpose of what you’re trying to do, and who you’re trying to reach, where you’re trying to reach people. For example, I would use something like Construct 2 or Unity if I wanted to go across multiple platforms. I really like Phaser, but, if you’re using a JavaScript game engine, it’s like, do you wanna package it for the PC, and the web, and maybe on a phone? It’s easier to do things like exporting for consoles in Unity. So, it really depends on the purpose.

Can you tell us about your mobile game, Prism Shell?

It was definitely a really small project, in terms of the size. It was mobile-focused, which is why we wanted to keep it a little smaller. We were using Construct 2, because of its ease of use, and the number of platforms it could export to. We made it at a game jam, so it was super easy to kinda work on, and prototype some stuff, and then turn it into a live product.

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It’s a semi-short game, where it’s really just like, do these objectives, then go to the next level; there’s almost 100 levels. It increases in difficulty every time. We kept discussing, “Do we go back to this game and build in more stuff?”  We’re really not sure.

Thank you for all your advice on organizing diverse and inclusive meetups!

Prism Shell is currently available on AndroidiTunes & Apple App, and the Amazon App Store. If you would like to reach out to Catt, She Builds Games, or the Code Liberation Foundation, shoot us a tweet:
 @SheBuildsGames | @CattSmall | Code Liberation Foundation: @CodeLiberation 

This audio interview will be uploaded on YouTube. Stay tuned for access to the full-length content. Thanks for reading!