“You seem suspiciously clever for a blonde.”
Why I left my jobs in gaming
Let me preface everything by providing a few critical facts: In August of 2018, Kotaku, an online publication that focuses on the games industry, published a story about the culture of harassment at Riot Games. Colleagues braver than I put their names out there for the world to see, and the article bore their personal experiences. In the aftermath of the piece, more former Rioters publicly discussed sexism at the company, some sued, and current Rioters walked out in protest of the company’s forced-arbitration policy. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is also suing the company for refusing to hand over salary data about alleged pay disparities between men and women.
All of which explains why, when I tell people I worked at Riot Games, they go, “Oh, wow.” When I tell them I worked there for six years, they tend to use words like “yikes” and “Jesus.”
Video games have always been a part of my life. Many hours were spent playing games with my parents — saving the world from a sentient meteor in Maniac Mansion, trying to escape a magical realm as Mickey Mouse in World of Illusion, and mercilessly shooting demons in Doom. In college, I had a part-time job in accounting and never had any intention of going into games. I thought working in that industry was reserved for people with computer science degrees (I was studying psychology). Then, a family friend, who at the time worked in quality assurance at Riot, told me that my major didn’t matter at all. So I took a chance.
Riot makes the very popular online game League of Legends. For a long time, it was touted as the “biggest game you’ve never heard of,” mostly because it was huge in China. But chances are if you know someone between the ages of 13 and 25, they’re aware of it. In League of Legends, you’re grouped with four other players, and every player chooses a character, called a Champion. Champions have their own unique sets of abilities, backstories, and visuals — you could be a ninja assassin, a stalwart warrior, or a seductive spider-lady. Then you’re pitted against five other players, competing to destroy the other team’s base before they get yours. There’s a lot more nuance, of course, and it’s pretty fun if you’re into competitive games.
I see you worked at GameStop. That must’ve sucked, huh? The remark caught me off guard. Shortly after asking my family friend about Riot, I found myself interviewing for a customer service position while I was still in college. That question was my first taste of Riot culture, and I ate it up. It was so unexpected, so casual, so unlike a traditional office setting. The ten-minute interview concluded with, Well, I just needed to make sure you weren’t weird.
And that was it. I signed my contract in November 2010, as employee number 110- or 120-something — a contract that was meant to expire by the end of the year, and one I blatantly disregarded: They never stopped paying me, and I kept showing up.
Women in games are a novelty, and that was even more the case in 2011. Game companies are varied, from indie studios with small, scrappy projects to “AAA” developers (pronounced “triple A,” but I insist on “AAAH!”) that spend millions making blockbuster titles like Halo and Call of Duty. These companies are mostly made up of men, which is probably not entirely surprising given that video games have been largely marketed toward boys, and anyone in the gaming workforce in 2011 certainly grew up with that idea. There are hundreds of major game studios; only a handful are led by women. The number led by people of color is even more abysmal.
I spent those early years at Riot answering online tickets that players had sent in about their problems. They were mostly account related: lost passwords, refunding in-game purchases, or trouble signing up, usually because they were younger than 13, the minimum age to play. My discomfort at Riot started early. During my first month on the job, a guy (I want to say “boy” — we were all so young) repeatedly asked me out despite my having a boyfriend, then lashed out when I rejected him. I also found myself deflecting attention from another pushy colleague, who would find excuses to hover over my desk and suggest that I break up with my boyfriend because he didn’t play League of Legends. When his attempts kept persisting even though I had said no several times, I took it to HR, and he became very cold.
Then there was the time, during a three-day company retreat (a cruise), that a colleague of mine — we’ll call him John because I can’t, for the life of me, remember his name — invited me to his room even though he was married. After I declined, he took a long sniff of my hair and told me I smelled nice. The next morning, I mentioned what had happened to a friend. She was disturbed, but we didn’t talk about it after that. The following Monday, a manager in Player Support asked if he could speak to me. I heard John was being super gross to you, he started. Before I knew it, the company’s legal team was asking me to go over the details of that night and asked if I’d had anything to drink. I knew they were trying to cover their bases, but it didn’t make it any less humiliating to have to answer, Yes, one mai tai. John was swiftly exited from the company; I heard this was not his first offense. A few days later, I received some messages that John sent through League of Legends’ in-game chat system, including one saying I had ruined his life.
It was as if I had caught Riot in the tail end of its preteen stage and puberty was starting to hit. The company eventually formed an internal communications department called the Ministry of Culture and Propaganda, and we were given a list of values, called the Riot Manifesto, that described a good Rioter: Take play seriously, player experience comes first, focus on talent and team, challenge convention, and stay hungry and humble (also referred to as “humbition”).
These tenets didn’t really stick, at least with my team. A Rioter I didn’t know said, You’re really working that ball over there, when yoga-balls-as-chairs became the office craze. Another complained to our People team (what we called HR) that he could see my bra through my shirt (I learned about it days later and still don’t know which shirt caused the great offense). A third Rioter told me, You seem suspiciously clever for a blonde. Once I graduated from school, the managers of Player Support asked me to be our interim recruiter because I was “organized,” which at the time sounded like a compliment, but which now I realize is one of those words never used to describe a man.
My favorite video games have always been role-playing games, like Final Fantasy — the ones where you follow a group of characters around a strange world and wield swords and use magic against monsters. These games usually come with a hefty amount of exposition and character development. I prefer an 80-hour, story-driven journey over a fast, competitive online game. After I had established some success in Player Support, I asked to switch to Creative Design.
The department was essentially the writers’ room for characters in League. We would come up with the themes for new characters (are we making an ax-wielding strongman or an ice queen?), invent names (Vel’Koz, Azir), craft the voice-over lines they’d say during a match (“You hit like a baby ram! No horns yet!”), and create biographies that outlined their personalities, backstories, and motivations. I joined as a writers’ assistant, which was a mix of running daily standups, keeping track of due dates and calendars, taking notes, and contributing my own creative work whenever I had the chance.
At some point, we posted a position for a second writers’ assistant. The department was growing, and we were exploring more projects. We brought a man into the office for a panel of interviews. The handful of us who had met with him gathered into a small conference room for a roundup, where we all discussed how our interviews went. Thumbs-up from the entire room, which wasn’t surprising. This guy was great. The head of Creative Development blurted out, We should make him a writer instead because no guy wants “assistant” in his title. There was a brief silence. My eyes darted from man to man in that room. My brain lost all impulse control. It’s the one moment at Riot I think about every day.
I have “assistant” in my title, I said. I had no strategy in that moment; I wasn’t gunning for a title change or promotion because I had been told it takes years to climb out of my role. Why is it OK for me to have that title? One man out of the entire group stood up for me. Yeah, Leslee has that title, he offered. We were both met with silence. The room agreed to talk about it later. The job candidate was hired as an associate writer.
Some time later, an executive assistant — a woman — was hired to take on the majority of my scheduling duties so I could focus on writing instead. I saw my chance to shed myself of the assistant title, and during a one-on-one with the new creative director, I asked to become a writer. I didn’t ask for a raise; I didn’t even think to do so. Nearly four years into Riot, I was simply grateful to be there.
I was able to hold onto my shiny new title for a grand total of about four months before the word “restructuring” was tossed around. Not in a downsizing type of way, but in a “get rid of the dissenters” type of way. I saw the writing on the wall — I had created a fuss about being an assistant. I made up some excuse about wanting to slide into a heavier support role to my manager, who knowingly nodded and fast-tracked my transfer.
In 2015, Riot moved into a new, sprawling campus. There was a part-time falconer to ward off the seagulls. Lunches and dinners were provided to meet all our needs as we worked late into the night. The company also started hosting “Ask Me Anything” sessions, where questions and comments, anonymous or otherwise, were fielded in an internal online forum. In response to one question about the lack of women in tech fields, an anonymous Rioter rebuked the idea of trying to get more women to apply for engineering jobs within the company, writing, “Video games are the last bastion of masculinity.”
Months later, at an in-person AMA, which was held in a small auditorium, I asked a question that would end my career at Riot, one that had nothing to do with what was truly troubling me about the company. The host was the head of International Publishing, the department I was now working in. After my stint as a writers’ assistant, then a writer, I spent a few months working as a development manager (making sure projects were getting done on time and within budget), before moving to North American Publishing, which handled marketing, collegiate activities surrounding League of Legends, and in-person events. At the AMA, I asked a series of questions about personnel changes, ones that seemed to annoy the host, who wasn’t expecting me to keep raising my hand. But it was after he said that the company’s goal was to engage as many players as possible that I posed a question he had no patience for: I asked why, if engagement mattered, he had slashed our events budget. He looked at me in front of a room of 50 and said, You’re just here to make trouble. Then he ended the AMA and left the room.
My manager later sat me down in a conference room. I’ve been getting feedback about the AMA, she told me, and I immediately felt my face turn hot. I was given the choice of putting on a smile for the rest of my time there or leaving. I chose to leave.
I decided to try my luck at a smaller company. My logic: Maybe I could avoid some of the toxicity. I interviewed at a game studio in Seattle for a producer position on an unannounced game. My husband and I had moved to the city about a week before, and I got the job. This studio was a complete 180 from Riot’s office and culture. There was no free, on-campus coffee or smoothie bar and only one conference room. Everyone had a defined role. There wasn’t a ton of politics. But still, I was a woman in games.
The flavor of sexism at this studio was more of the “your Boomer uncle” variety than the gross, insidious kind I encountered at Riot. I was once asked by a co-worker if I didn’t want children because of the “physical transformation” I would go through. An executive complimented my glittery slip-on sneakers one day, and after telling him I wore them to my wedding, he retorted, Your husband let you do that? I laughed and said my husband loved me for it. That was the worst it got for me. I could take it in the moment, but it was still exhausting. I hadn’t escaped, and I didn’t think I could as long as I made the choice — over and over — to place myself in this world.
So I decided to leave in every imaginable way. My husband got the idea of getting in an RV, traveling from California to Montana to New Mexico, and distancing ourselves from our lives, at least for a short while. And we made it happen. In that 33-by-8-foot space, I sat at a small desk and did the best work of my career. I wrote a novel about a woman living in a similar trailer, post-apocalypse. I created pixel-art projects and a tiny game prototype that featured a flawed woman as its protagonist, spawned directly from my experiences in games. I started making things that finally spoke to me even though I never planned for them to make me wealthy or famous.
None of it was glamorous or easy — dumping a black tank certainly never is — but I figured out what was important to me when all of the bullshit was stripped away. I got to see what existed outside a life spent trying to fight an entire industry. Once that grip loosened — of Riot, of all those places — I was free to build new worlds, better worlds.