Words: Gabrielle Béland
Photography: Elisa Barbier & Gabrielle Béland

Dina Khalesi is no stranger to being one of the few women in a male-dominated discipline. Having done karate for nearly 13 years, she’s often found herself as the odd one out—an experience that has always driven her to prove stereotypes wrong.

“I always saw it as motivation because I want to prove to others and to myself that girls can do whatever boys can do,” said Khalesi.

Now a first year student at Concordia University in software engineering, she has noticed a continuing pattern with most of her classmates being male. She explained there are very few girls in her classes, particularly the ones related to software engineering.

“I find it’s unfortunate that certain women will be intimidated to join fields mainly dominated by men. There should be more women’s groups to encourage women to do so,” she said.

This sentiment is shared by many women in games, including Tali Goldstein, the co-founder of indie company Casa Rara, which specializes in virtual reality and alternate reality games.

Tali Goldstein is the co-founder of Casa Rara, an independent virtual and augmented reality games studio in Montreal. (Photo by Gabrielle Béland)

For Goldstein, Montreal was the perfect place to take the plunge with Casa Rara, founded in 2016, thanks to the city’s already-established vibrant gaming hub, its talent pool, and funding opportunities.

“It has this beauty of having this indie scene that is very collaborative,” she said about the city. The dynamics between the different indie studios is also very giving, she added. “We all want each other to succeed because that means we have a stronger ecosystem.”

A 2018 study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) noted women constitute 50 percent, or 11.5 million, of 23 million Canadians who consider themselves gamers. But, representation, gender and diversity issues continue to prevail in the industry.

Part of this is because there are few women in leading roles, said Goldstein. According to her, women in the industry are more often willing to hire other women, which can open up space for opportunities.

“Being a woman in itself is challenging. Tech is just a microcosm of the real world that is more male-dominated. It’s basically real life on steroids,” she said.

But, things can be a little bit different on the indie scene, Goldstein noted. For example, hiring minorities—gender, ethnic and LGBTQ+—has been a priority for Casa Rara, despite the backlash they have received for targeting specific groups from people who wanted to apply for the same jobs but didn’t fit the criteria. Goldstein explained cultivating diversity in the studio was important so they could create games with many different perspectives that their consumers could identify with.

“We cannot be telling the same narratives over and over in the same way and expect different results,” Goldstein said. She said she is tired of telling the stories of cis white men and chooses to invite women of colour to her team to create fresh and more personal content.

Pixelles: women’s gaming initiative fosters support and creativity

Samantha Cook, producer and co-founder of the Artifact 5 studio, is also among the handful of women at the forefront of Montreal’s indie game scene. Cook said she was very fortunate early on in her career and believes being a woman actually helped her get her foot in the door with a job at one of Canada’s most well-known gaming companies, Behaviour Interactive, in 2012. For the social media and community manager position she got, the company was looking for an American female—she was both.

Samantha Cook is the producer and co-founder of the indie gaming company Artifact5. She is interested in creating experimental and emotionally driven games through storytelling. (Photo by Gabrielle Béland)

Nonetheless, she also knows the industry remains mostly male-dominated today, with women typically employed in soft skills jobs or human resources, instead of in programming and other positions involving hard skills.

Cook is involved with Pixelles, a non-profit initiative that offers support for women in games. She volunteers through the organization’s mentorship program, which she views as a way for her to give back to fellow women in the industry. Pixelles also offers various monthly business workshops, writing workshops, networking events, and an incubator program that helps women develop their own games in six weeks. Cook described these activities as a great way to learn by yourself in a guided environment.

Cook noted there are a number of organizations available for helping women get started in the gaming industry, but not so much for those already there.

“It’s a little harder to find support when you’re already in it, so [Pixelles] has been trying to fill in that gap,” she said.

Kelly Hornung, who has a degree in environmental science with a minor in theatre, never thought she’d end up in the games industry. But today, she is a community manager and narrative writer at Montreal-based developer Norsfell. Hornung noted those in indie games tend to have more diverse backgrounds, which can be a huge benefit.

“I realized there is no perfect plan or perfect path to get into games. Everyone comes from different places and that’s part of what makes a great team and makes games so interesting,” she said.

Kelly Hornung is the community manager and a narrative writer for the independent company Norsfell. She also teaches writing workshops at Pixelles, a non-profit organization focused on increasing the number of women working in the gaming industry. (Photo by Gabrielle Béland)

When Hornung moved to Montreal in 2017, she knew finding a support system would be crucial, as being a woman in games can sometimes be very lonely. She said women looking to get into the industry often spend much of their time waiting for someone to give them a chance. She joined Pixelles as a way to network and explore the industry in a supportive environment. Today, she teaches the organization’s writing workshop.

Hornung noted while her company currently employs only two women, the environment has been nothing but supportive. “I have been in a very fortunate and lucky position where I have not yet faced a ton of challenges and a ton of opposition to me wanting to explore this as a career option. But you do notice trends and patterns, which [show] that in a lot of game spaces it’s generally male-dominated. A lot of your colleagues will be men,” she said.

For women looking to get into the gaming industry, or those already in it looking to expand their networks, Goldstein insisted on the importance of a strong support system. “We are stronger together and sometimes resistance is a very lonely road. It’s important to have other people who went through it supporting you,” she said.

Khalesi also remains optimistic for what the future holds for girls pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. “Hopefully women will not use this as an excuse to shy away from a program that they are interested in. If you are passionate, then you should go for it,” she said.