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La Mirada tras el Pixel: Alysia Judge
Clara Doña

La Mirada tras el Pixel: Alysia Judge

La traducción de esta entrevista en español la podéis encontrar aquí.

I’ve had a long burning desire to sit down (albeit through the medium of screen) with Alysia Judge and pick her brain in relation to all the many articles and interviews I’ve read and followed over the years. Alysia has already had a somewhat impressive career – from working in IGN to popping up at Nintendo, on Channel 4 news and in The Guardian. She is a regular at the BAFTA’s where she is a member of the jury a presenter and a host of masterclasses. Alysia is also part of the MCV 30 Under 30 and the Games Industry Future 100 List. Whilst she’s blazed an incredible trail, what interested me most were not only the myriad of other fascinating appearances she’s made within the industry, but the content of her discussions.

Alysia has experienced so many facets of the gaming world and has consistently championed its evolution and progression. Although I met Alysia outside of the gaming industry, she carries her passion wherever she goes. This interview is not only demonstrative of that passion, but the discussion regarding the improvement of the industry and its related issues is packed with optimism and an understanding of the nuances of human emotion – rarely delivered in such analysis. 

Hopefully this makes for an interesting read. The interview certainly was, an absolute pleasure.

Terebi Magazine: How has the idea of gaming developed for you, personally and throughout your career through your life/career? How do you think this personal development relates to the industry’s development?

Alysia Judge: Growing up, I had no notion that video games were perceived by some as nerdy, and I certainly didn’t know that they “weren’t for girls”. My earliest memories are playing Tomb Raider with my Dad, and my closest friends at school were girls who loved games as much as me. Games were to me like films and books – wonderful ways to tell stories, and a central part of pop culture. The first time I realised that there was a set notion of what it meant to be a “gamer” was when I went to buy Call of Duty for the first time. The clerks in the store (who weren’t much older than me) asked “Is this for your boyfriend? Your brother? Your Dad?”. They couldn’t fathom that a girl would want to play an FPS. 

At university in freshers week, I kept my door open so people could wander into my room where I’d usually be playing PlayStation. New friends started saving me in their phonebooks as “Alysia Gamer Girl”, or exclaimed “you don’t LOOK like a gamer!” (an observation that people still tell me today). Because they thought that gamers were, put simply, men and boys. That gaming and to be a “gamer” was not only intensely gendered, but associated with a lifestyle that didn’t look like mine. Their imagined gamers are teenage boys playing games in their underwear with the curtains drawn and empty crisp packets littered around them.

And while these assumptions are tiring (and by now, very old) a part of me is proud that simply by existing in the space I love, I’d changed one tiny cog in a person’s head, and recalibrated their expectations of what people who play games look like. Thankfully, it feels like people who say this are becoming less and less common, perhaps because games culture is being embraced by other forms of culture (for instance, musicians putting on concerts in Fortnite, or the V&A Museum in London hosting a huge video games exhibition).

A view of the «Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt» exhibition space. Credit: V&A

I think the thing that I’ve learned about games (and the thing I now love most about them) is that they are the heartbeat in a body of creativity. So many types of expression are found in games: acting, art, music, programming, behavioural science, animation, comedy, tragedy – everything! No other form of entertainment encompasses so much. It is a part of every ring of culture, and since culture is never static (because human beings are never static – we constantly challenge and are challenged, with our ideas shifting and evolving) games are a really exciting pulse to press to understand what is going on in the wider world. And, since they now encompass so many areas, the needle has to shift. There are too many ways to express ideas in games for them to not be diverse (and thus eventually attract a diverse workforce) by their very nature.

«We need to start fixing some of the issues at the base foundations of society before we’ll see a more diverse games industry workforce.»

Sorry, this is all a rambly answer aiming to trace how the idea of gaming has evolved for me, or at least my view of it. But I think you wanted more of a sense of how I entered the industry, so here’s a potted history:

I always played games. Not Goldeneye, or Zelda, or the other games from the 90s and 00s that people tend to namecheck, but The Sims, and Zeus: Master of Olympus, and Dark Cloud, and Baldur’s Gate. I always loved stories (I think the interactivity of storytelling was what I enjoyed so much about games) so I studied English literature at university. One day, a colleague at the bar I worked at for spare cash came in, bought a round of shots, and said he was leaving for a dream job as a video games journalist at Official PlayStation magazine. I was a huge PlayStation fan, and it blew my mind you could write about games for a living, so a few months later I asked for some work experience at OPM and that got my foot in the door. When I graduated there were no staff writing positions in games available, so I became a tech journalist for a bit, and there interviewed one of the brains behind Candy Crush, Tommy Palm. He enjoyed our interview, and asked if I’d considered doing video (which I hadn’t) and invited me to run the YouTube channel for an indie games development program he was running for a summer in Sweden. So, I moved to Sweden for a couple of months with zero video experience, had a crash course in production, and from there had enough of a showreel to apply to IGN as a host. I stayed with IGN for two years, then went freelance and have been bouncing around since then!

TM: You have come so far and are a reference and an inspiration for many of us. You present brilliant ideas and convey them so clearly and confidently that one is inclined to think that you have sailed your way through. We both know that is not true, but, what struggles are most pressing for women in the video games industry? 

AJ: Ha! I don’t know about that – I get jumbled up in my head a lot! But in all honesty, I really do think the industry has blossomed for women in recent years. I see a lot of female developers, presenters, and journalists around me who I greatly admire and respect. It’s still not 50/50 representation, but psychologically both gamers and game developers alike seem to realise that gaming isn’t niche culture any more. There is literally a game for everyone – from the businesswoman killing time on her commute, to the little boy playing his Switch with friends, to the teenager with time on their hands to play hardcore AAA titles. Games culture is far-reaching, and the industry is steadily becoming more welcoming, though we’re obviously a long way from parity.

I can only speak from experience of the UK games industry, but a recent survey by UKIE (the British games industry trade body) found that 70% of people working in the games industry are male, compared to 28% female and 2% non-binary workers. So obviously a struggle for women is simply being seen in the workplace. From personal experience, working on teams where you’re the only woman can lead to being spoken over, patronised, ideas stolen, and your language being policed. 

A section of UKIE. Credit: UK Games Industry Census/UKIE/University of Sheffield

But it’s also important to point out some other figures from that UKIE survey: 10% of people working in games are Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME). 81% of the industry is educated to at least undergraduate level, and 62% of the video games workforce come from households where the main earner worked in a managerial/professional role.

So in other words, if you’re a woman and member of the BAME community who comes from a low-income family with working class parents, you almost definitely won’t be represented in the games industry workforce.

The biggest issue I hear from developers (and see in games media) time and time again is a funneling issue. Our education system and social structures don’t funnel women and BAME into games industry jobs: Games are still marketed towards men (I literally work in video games, and never see adverts for video games on my instagram feed, but my male flatmate sees them all the time), programming and coding courses are dominated by men, and games consoles are so expensive that low income families don’t have access to them. 

We need to start fixing some of the issues at the base foundations of society before we’ll see a more diverse games industry workforce: Video game characters that aren’t just white / male (I wrote a thread highlighting the importance of that here); game studios should visit schools and do talks educating young people on all the jobs and roles within games (beyond “artist” and “programmer”); more work experience places that are advertised to local communities and organisations working with lower-income families. There’s much that could be done – though the issue is complex and I don’t have all the solutions. I firmly believe things are shifting, and it’s exciting.

TM: As a gamer, what are the titles that you consider stepping-stones in your experience?

AJ: I started as a three year old by watching my Dad play games on the SNESSuper Metroid, and Street Fighter. I always remember running downstairs as soon as I heard the music, and us strategizing together on the sofa with me babbling away, curled in the crook of his arm. That was a real lesson that even single-player games are inherently social; everyone (even three year olds) will have opinions on how best to tackle a problem, and everyone will enjoy watching the story of a game unfold.

I grew up with PlayStation, playing games like Tomb Raider, Jak and Daxter and Spyro. I’ve already said I didn’t play games like Zelda or GTA, or the “Most Important Games” that have cemented themselves as canon in video games discourse. Some people raise their eyebrows when they realise I never played Metal Gear Solid, as if it makes me less of a gamer, but I was too busy playing Baldur’s Gate, and the PlayStation version of “A Bug’s Life” in 1998. Just like literature snobs scoff if you’ve never read Hemmingway, games culture can be incredibly sniffy if you’ve not played the highest rated games of a particular year. Every creative medium has a “canon” – or a body of works that is considered vital to experience by those who say they love that medium. But who decides that canon? Well, a creative culture’s canon is usually constructed by those in power within those creative spaces (media, cultural commentators, directors – all often white and male. This is frustrating in TV, film, books and so on, but even more so in games for two big reasons:

  1. Gaming is expensive. To play every game as it comes out costs incredible amounts of money. So, poorer players have to wait – and the list of “must-play” games gets longer and longer
  2. We have an archiving issue with video games. Gaming is tied to the technology it’s played on, so it’s very difficult to play a game from 2005 in the year 2020. Old consoles don’t work with new TVs, etc. Whereas literature enthusiasts can easily dip into an old book someone has deemed canon, it’s very hard for gamers to go back and experience a game that’s lauded as a must-play. 

So basically, I’m not that fussed about “best games of all time” lists. I think they do a great job in remembering the history of our industry, and celebrating brilliant design decisions. But they can never capture the breadth, depth, and experience of gaming as a medium. How many cheap free-to-play mobile games have been instrumental in a young child’s introduction to the world of gaming? Does their love for that game as an adult make them less of a gamer? If I’ve learned anything about our industry, it’s that there’s a game for everyone.

«So basically, I’m not that fussed about “best games of all time” lists. I think they do a great job in remembering the history of our industry, and celebrating brilliant design decisions. But they can never capture the breadth, depth, and experience of gaming as a medium.»

TM: The issue of diversity in gaming has been quite a hot topic (finally!) in recent years. The representation of main characters often leads us to forcefully ‘identify’ with young, athletic, white, straight males. Can the industry break through this all too common figure? 

AJ: I think it’s totally in the process of doing so. At the end of the day, we create characters that look like us – you see it in The Sims, where the first character players ever build is themselves. People like to create things in their own image, of their own experience, with characters that look like them – it’s not mean, it’s just human nature. So the simplest solution is simply to have more diverse teams, who’ll create more diverse characters. We’ll only know a studio has changed when we can count how many women, people of colour, and non-binaries are at director level.

TM: There are too many great absences in the repertoire of represented lives in mainstream gaming. In your opinion, which are they and how could we tackle it?

AJ: I guess I’ve kind of answered this in earlier questions: I’d say the biggest absences are women and people of colour, but I also acknowledge there are probably many more lives that are crying out for representation that I can’t even imagine, because they’re not experiences I’d think to build as a white woman. Again, that’s where having diverse workforces come in – both in physical variety, but also neurodiverse. Games are stories, and it’s human nature to like stories from different storytellers.

TM: Do you think the notion of ‘games’ and ‘gaming’ is bigger than the words that contain it? Can we call some games ‘games’? Which games would you invent a new concept for and what would it be?

AJ: Ultimately, I think a game is anything where the audience / player / participant has to do something to progress the story or action. That can be as complex as navigating a dangerous set of platforms, or as simple as “press A”. I remember judging the BAFTAs a few years ago when Her Story was up for an award, and the jury fiercely debated whether it was a game or not. Some people argued it wasn’t, because it had real actors in it instead of CG animation and design, and the gameplay involved inputting questions into a search bar rather than making any character move with a stick. But I believe Her Story is a game, because it requires action to go from the start to the finish. I wouldn’t really complicate my definition any more than that – beyond categorising how individual games make us feel, which I outlined in that IGN article that you reference below.

TM: In one of your articles for IGN Video games have (happily) outgrown their genre labels you make several interesting points that I want to discuss with you. First, you point that labelling video games through their mechanics has become outdated, as video games aren’t just products, they are ideas. Moreover, you point out that, if the culture categorises films and books through emotional vocabulary, why doesn’t it do it with games? And my favourite quote of the article: “Game is both a noun and a verb – something that can represent big ideas but that we also operate using electronic machinery”. These remarks raise two questions: Do you think gaming is still undervalued as a cultural product? What do you think its place is, in relation to other cultural products?

AJ: On the contrary, as a cultural product I think gaming is immensely valued. Most mainstream coverage of games centres on how much money it generates, or how many players there are in the world. It says a lot that the only time I get called up to talk on BBC News as a pundit is when something has happened in Fortnite, and the questions almost always turn to how much money Fortnite makes. 

Yes, as a “product” (something that is bought and sold and used for a purpose) gaming is valued now beyond being a niche product. People understand that gaming is a huge entertainment force. But as a cultural idea? I think that’s where gaming is being undervalued. 

Inside the video games industry, we know the power of games that go beyond entertainment and directly influence culture. We celebrate games that deal with real-world topics, like grief and racism (Life Is Strange 2). We invest in games that are literally helping to cure dementia (Sea Hero Quest VR). There are YouTube channels with nearly a million subscribers that dissect how games are made with the same passion and savvy that we discuss film production (GameMakers Toolkit). But outside of games, these stories don’t often slip into the mainstream. It’s partly because mainstream media still thinks of gaming as very ‘technical’, and that people who play them aren’t interested in going deep. I worked for a while producing a show about games for a national broadcaster, and if I tried to push a story to discuss gaming’s themes, or cultural capital, or something super detailed, my manager would say “but Alysia, what about the white van driver in Stoke? Would he be interested?” I always thought that did a great disservice to the intellect of white van drivers everywhere. And besides, as media, it’s LITERALLY our jobs to explain complex ideas and stories in a way anyone can understand. 

«Until gaming and talking about games in nuanced ways is normalised to vast audiences, gaming will be undervalued as a cultural product.»

TM: In this analysis of Celeste that you made for BAFTA Games Awards 2019, you relate the video game mechanics of struggle and trial and error, to the physicality of mental health struggles… how do you think video games can best make use of these mechanics? Which is the most brilliant representation of a mechanic you have seen in a video game?

AJ: This is such a great question. The holy grail of games design is being able to use mechanics to tell, advance, or strengthen storytelling. 

A great example is in The Last of Us. During the whole game, there’s a mechanic where Joel boosts Ellie up high walls to open doors / fetch objects etc. The player goes over to a wall, presses X, and an animation plays where Ellie is boosted to her goal. But after an incredibly traumatic event happens to Ellie, during the next section of the game she’s depressed. One of the ways this is communicated to the player is by subverting the familiar wall boost mechanic. The player presses X, expecting Ellie to appear and shimmy up the wall, but the animation never comes. There’s this long pause, and the camera pans to Ellie sitting sadly on a bench, too forlorn to help. 

I love this example, because it shows how something as simple as a button prompt can be an opportunity to dive deeper into the minds of gaming’s characters. Mechanics aren’t just… well… mechanical! They can also be emotional.

TM: Now I have to ask you something that personally hit me really hard. I follow you on Twitter (@AlysiaJudge) and I saw your feud with your flatmate where you found the craziest ways to ask each other for a tea. The involvement of Troy Baker was an absolute plot twist and the best cameo I have ever seen. Was your flatmate okay after the surprise?

AJ: Hahaha my flatmate was ok, but that was the last “would you like some tea?” prank we played on each other! I think we both realised that there was nowhere to go from Troy Baker!! I’ve never actually met Troy, so I didn’t pull any favours – he has a Cameo account and I paid a small fee through the app to have him record the message! He was so sweet though to do so, especially since I think you’re meant to use platform to have celebrities wish your partner “happy birthday,” or be involved in a proposal or something, and there I am like “cAn U aSK Ma FlATMatE iF hE waNtS SOMe TeA?” 

TM: Last but not least: can you confirm for the readers that you appear in two Harry Potter movies?

AJ: Ha! Yes, I was an extra in Order of The Phoenix, and Deathly Hallows Part 2. I was lucky enough to go to a drama class that was affiliated with an agency who basically farmed teenagers out to the Harry Potter films! It was a total dream come true, I’m a huge Potter fan! I was 14 when I was cast in Phoenix, and I remember when my Mum told me I gasped “we can afford it, right??” When she replied that they’d pay ME my mind was blown. I thought it was such a privilege to be in a Harry Potter movie, surely you’d have to pay for it! But it was a lot of fun, and I’m still friends with other kids who I met on set. In fact, I went to one of their weddings last year! 

You can also read more interviews here.

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