Script of Success: Tech Phenom Catt Small Talks Black Girls Coding, Diversity In Gaming

Thought leader of Brooklyn Gamery and Code Liberation paves her own way, and you can, too.

The hoopla made about Ubisoft and their decision to not include any playable female characters in Assassin’s Creed: Unity incited a few people to raise their own arms and cry, “Foul!” Can you speak to what obstacles you’ve overcome to establish yourself not just as a capable visual and technical artist, but as a purveyor of coding?

CS: I work on a lot of small projects by myself. For a long time, I was afraid to take on the developer role in collaborations. Now, I try to volunteer when possible and take on the developer role because I seriously enjoy it. I also write about how I’ve used code for the purpose of design. I want people to think of me as a hybrid of sorts, someone who likes art, design, and programming.

Sometimes people do forget that I’ve been coding since I was 12 and I have to correct them. I’m okay with calling people out and making them feel silly for underestimating me. It wasn’t easy to build up the confidence in my programming skill, but now I teach and advise others. If you know me and don’t know I’m a developer, you weren’t paying attention and deserve to get called out.

Smalls addresses a crowd during Museum of the Moving Image event. (Image: Smalls)

CS: Brooklyn Gamery is a game development company and community-building service run by Chris Algoo, Dennis Liaw, Xer Gata, and me. We intentionally create characters that aren’t often seen in games. For example, the main character of our mobile game in the works is a multiracial woman with colored, curly hair. A multiplayer game we recently made for a hackathon features four randomly-generated young women of different backgrounds—there are two darker skin tones, and one of the hair options are large, curly twists. I enjoy pushing my team members to include more diverse characters in our projects, and they’re glad to because we all know what it feels like to not be represented in games.

Our goal is to actively create the change we want to see in the games industry. In addition to our games work, we organize events where people can come together and make games about topics that aren’t often explored. For example, last year we hosted a game jam about motherhood. This year, we hosted one about gender, sexual identity, and relationships. By creating safe spaces where diverse people can work together and make games with each other for free, we can help make the games industry a better place.

Your other initiative, The Code Liberation Foundation, is akin to Black Girls Code in that women of all ages can learn how to create their own indie games. What was the inspiration behind that and what are The Code Liberation Foundation’s goals to round out the rest of 2014?

Phoenix Perry, then adjunct professor at NYU, founded Code Liberation on International Women’s Day. From there she secured the institutional support of NYU Game Center and NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. After laying the groundwork, Phoenix recruited Jane Friedhoff, Kay Tran, Nina Freeman, and me to build an organization that would increase the number of women-made games. The best way to do that at first was by holding free classes, workshops, and events for women in New York City.

The games industry is currently a very negative place for women in many ways. Phoenix herself had a lot of frustrating experiences, including being hit on and being looked over at jobs and conferences despite being talented and capable. The number of women programmers in general has significantly decreased over the past 40 years due to to a number of factors including negative stereotypes, sexism, and poor working environments. The 2012 Game Developer Salary Survey states that approximately 4% of game developers are women. We plan to eventually build a publishing model that will help women to create games and sustain a living through game development.

For the rest of this year, we plan to offer more workshops in addition to intensive courses for people who want to delve further into game development. I will begin teaching a 7-week intensive web game development class on July 9th. We will also host one or two game jams and run a few workshops in other cities during gaming conferences. You can subscribe to our newsletter via our website or follow us on Twitter @CodeLiberation to hear more news about upcoming classes, workshops, and events.

On the next page, check out Catt Small’s thoughts about introducing coding to the youth…

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