On cultivating a thriving environment for female game developers

Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, Design

Nota: questo post è disponibile solo in inglese.

Kenyan video game writer and technology enthusiast Wendi Ndaki attended the She Got Game panel discussion during Africa Games Week, and wrote this report.

“As I travel across Africa creating games, there’s something everyone seems to agree on…” said Bethlehem Anteneh, a trained architect, co-founder of SOSTLab and the moderator of the She Got Game panel at Africa Games Week (AGW). “Think of a bar where 90% of the people are men. The beer will be great but the interior a little wanting.  The idea is that for men, it is the function, the beer, that matters more than the environment. Whereas, if 90% of the people in a bar were women, the idea is that the environment is more appealing than the actual content. Yes, the quality of the drink matters but the first inviting thing is the environment.”

This analogy shows how spaces affect people differently. When it comes to female game developers, it’s not only about the quality of their work but also about the environment they work in. This idea was at the heart of the discussion on the 2nd of December 2023 at the AGW panel titled The Importance of an Entrepreneurial Mindset and Business Support for Female Game Developers. 

The panel united women from African and Swiss game industries, who shared their unique experiences. These women were part of the first She Got Game mentorship programme initiated by Pro Helvetia, which aims to promote equal opportunities in the global video games scene. Panellists included Bethlehem Anteneh from Ethiopia, Lúcia Ribeiro from Switzerland, Sithe Ncube from Zambia, Kathleen Bohren from Switzerland and Adeline Tushabe from Uganda (as well as Léa Coquoz from Switzerland, who could not attend due to illness).

Currently, an associate producer at Nyamakop in South Africa and an advisor for Humble Games’ Black Game Developer Fund, Sithe attributes her journey to a supportive environment. Reflecting on her experience, she shared, “I played games a lot as a child, but 2013 is when I realised I wanted to be in the video games industry. I was working at a tech incubator in Zambia, surrounded by programmers, and it never crossed my mind that we could make our own games. Then someone told me about a game developer in our community who had developed a fighting game based on their comic. I was very curious, and when I finally got to meet them, it opened my mind up to all the possibilities.” She explored game development tools and found many accessible options. The next year she participated in the Global Game Jam, connected with more people and started a whole new community.

Joining the She Got Game programme in a mentorship role, Sithe was paired with Dooshima Anger from Nigeria. She recalls, “it was 6 months of mentoring. We did 16 one-hour sessions. I started by understanding my mentee’s needs and ensuring the sessions were tailored for her. There were 12 mentors with 2 or 3 mentees each. I had only one because I was new to mentorship. I realised what was valuable for Dooshima was not working on her game but on her career and skills. So I had to go outside the intentions of the programme to fulfil my role as a mentor.” 

Each mentee asked their mentor for help on specific things which made the experience very personal. Kathleen’s mentor was Dasha from Moscow, “we met and learned how we wanted to work together and adapted. It was tough because nothing was working for me at that time. Eventually, I decided to stop and start anew.” Dasha created an environment where Kathleen felt comfortable sharing her challenges and making tough decisions. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Game Design and contributes to multiple interactive game projects. Notably, she is an animator on the project Tom the Postgirl at Oopsie Daisies studio.

She Got Game participants getting to know each other © Kathleen Bohren

Kathleen’s thesis aims to shed light on the evolution of video games targeted towards girls. She explains, “it’s super important for young girls to have access to games. Games are often the first link to computers for kids. If little girls have access to games, it means we’ll have passionate female game developers from a young age. This early introduction is crucial. More diversity means more interesting games.”

The programme also included peer exchange sessions. Kathleen humorously recalled, “I was in an open-plan office, so I had to go to a corner, put on my headsets, and say ‘sorry, I can’t work for 2 hours’. The meetings often got longer than they were supposed to, so I was kind of working and in the meeting at the same time. It was challenging but worth it. The exchange between the countries was the most insightful.”

Adeline’s experience echoed Kathleen’s sentiments, emphasising the value of cultural exchange. Her mentor, Yasemin from Switzerland, provided help with her project, and they even created a new one together. Adeline shared, “my highlight was when Yasemin offered to playtest my game in her company. They created videos, and I could see them playing the game. During the playtest, six people played at the same time, and I noticed they laughed at certain texts, which was great. It gave me a good perspective on game design and how people actually play our games compared to how we think they will.” Based in Kenya, Adeline is passionate about creating immersive gaming experiences and has diverse experience in game development projects, from mobile to PC and VR.

Lucia’s journey into game development was quite coincidental. She was introduced to her co-founder Robin by a mutual friend. Robin had an idea for an educational game and needed a graphics and UX designer, which Lucia happened to be. “It was so new to me, so I learned a lot and had a great experience. Working with a team of 6 people with diverse knowledge was really interesting. And when we started to see the results of the game and the impact it can have, we decided to establish the company and keep going.”

Lúcia is the co-founder of Pestorosso Games and serves as the studio’s graphic and UI/UX designer, focusing on game interfaces and visual materials. When she joined the programme, her game was already out, but she wanted to get a game published. Seeking guidance from her mentor Dajana based in Denmark, she shared, “Dajana helped me learn how to present my game to a publisher and how to talk in public, so that was helpful. She talked to me about the education system in Denmark, suggesting future opportunities. It was also nice because she said we could keep in touch and if I needed her help I should just reach out. We are still in touch. It doesn’t stop because the programme came to an end.”

Bethlehem reinforced Lucia’s thoughts, saying, “this is one thing I see happening in programmes like these and even when events like AGW occur: It’s easy to say to someone, hey, I like what you’re doing, let’s get to know each other, and it never stops afterwards. It’s beautiful!” 

In line with the panel’s theme, Lucia also stressed the importance of an entrepreneurial mindset, saying, “you have to know and learn about business. If you just stay as a game developer, I think you won’t go very far. Put on your business hat and be willing to change your game so that you can get support. Because if you make the game and there’s no audience for it then it doesn’t allow you to make more games.”

Kathleen Bohren, Léa Coquoz, Adeline Tushabe and Lúcia Ribeiro take a selfie from below while enjoying a glass of wine.
Cheers to more women game devs © Léa Coquoz

This brings us back to the bar analogy. She Got Game and similar programmes are aspiring to create an attractive and conducive environment where female game developers and entrepreneurs can thrive and step into leadership roles in the video game industry. After all, as Kathleen and Lucia said respectively, “more diversity means more interesting games” and “both women and men enrich things.”

I enjoyed attending a talk where 90% of the audience were women, and it’s inspiring to see initiatives like the DCI Intermediaries Short Course by Wits University, Epic Games’ Women Creator Program, Women in Games Mentorship Programme, and Swahili Esports Champions supporting women in the digital creative industries (DCIs).

Kathleen’s sentiments on the importance of introducing video games to young girls early on resonated deeply. My journey started with a gamified app on my mother’s laptop during my teenage years, sparking my passion for games. The African gaming scene is actively encouraging women, with events like Swahili Esports Champions that celebrate female talent and entrepreneurship. The 2023 edition featured exceptional players from Benin, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia.

As a graduate of the all-women DCI Intermediaries Short Course, I have learned a lot about entrepreneurship and registered my own business that aims to demystify the rising African video game industry. Similar to She Got Game, the course funded my trip to a digital creative industry event—the Fak’ugesi Festival in Johannesburg—where I showcased the work of two creatives. The impact of in-person meetings was clear from the She Got Game group, who were inseparable at Africa Games Week and Playtopia Festival. Much like the inviting atmosphere of a bustling bar inspired by Bethlehem’s words, they aim to revive their silent Discord channel. It’s their way of brightening the environment for fellow game developers to continue connecting and growing as professionals in the industry.

Four She Got Game participants are walking on a path in the mist on top of Table Mountain in Cape Town.
Exploring Table Mountain © Léa Coquoz

About

Pro Helvetia supported a delegation of African and Swiss game developers to attend Africa Games Week and Playtopia in December 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. The aim of the visit was to stimulate exchange, new networks and possible collaborations in the interactive media field between the two contexts. Focused around women in games, the delegation included participants from the first edition of the She Got Game mentorship programme.