August 1956 saw thousands of South African women, from every colour and creed, protesting political issues on equality for their country. So much has changed since then, but we still take a day out of every August to celebrate the lives and achievements of everyday women working hard to make life easier, to provide for their families and communities and to be the best woman they can be. For August, we’ll be looking at a few South African women within the gaming and entertainment industry, and see what they’re up to and where they’re going.
Within the gaming industry, there is certainly one name that pops up on everyone’s lips, and that is Pippa Tshabalala. Meeting her, she is what you see is what you get - and what I got was an incredible human, who just happened to also be a gamer woman (not girl) and a mom.
Pippa was introduced to the gaming world when she was very young. She grew up with two older sisters who enjoyed playing video games, and jokes about having a photograph of her playing TV games in nappies. The interest she had in video games gave her the dream to pursue making them as a career one day.
When she reached university, gaming development was not available as a course or study direction, and instead, Pippa settled on studying Fine Arts. “I wanted to do the arts side of it, refine my art skills, so I went and did that.” However, while doing an internship at a local gaming company for her Masters, Pippa realised that she liked the idea of making games more than actually doing it.
“I must’ve been about 24? It was not at that point, not that I wanted to have children immediately, but I realised I wanted to have a family. I wanted children, and these guys’ average working day was seven till seven. I don’t want that, I don’t want to be that person that gets home late and is missing out on the kids.”
Pippa completed her Masters, but was stuck on the revelation that making games wasn’t what she wanted to do. So, instead, she went on a trip to visit her gran in Australia. There, a friend who had kept in contact with her through her thesis, suggested Pippa’s name to organisers of a gaming conference.
“I didn’t realise it was as big a deal as it was. Turns out, I was on the opening panel. The other people that was on the opening panel with me - so, the one was the guy that held the first patent to Rendware, which, if you’re in the gaming and animation industry, that’s a very, very big deal. The other guy was quite a well-known video game developer, and I only realised it while sitting on this panel.”
“But I found that I quite enjoyed speaking about it and people asked questions, and I could answer the questions. That was quite empowering - I do actually know what I’m talking about, not just talking cr*p.”
After the conference, Pippa returned to academics to lecture in 3D Animation. It was here that she got her big break locally. Her boss asked if he could give a friend her number, as he was looking for a female host for a gaming show. After a screen test, a pilot was recorded for the show PlayR, and thereafter, The Verge.
And so, Pippa got into the public side of gaming by accident.
[Image Credit: Sharon Schultz]
When asked if she had any trouble getting into the industry, Pippa tells me a story of something that came up just after starting on PlayR.
“I remember a comment popped up on a forum saying something like, 'This girl doesn’t play video games, she’s a pretty-faced b*tch,' which really annoyed me at the time. There was an element of, you have to prove yourself, which I never really appreciated. If I’d been a guy, you wouldn’t have even questioned me. I’m lucky in the sense that I have proved myself. At least people know that I do know what I’m talking about.”
Pippa also believes that getting into the industry now compared to then still has its challenges, though those challenges have started to change direction, with less focus on a person’s gender, but within the amount of space and the openness for newcomers.
“When I started in the industry, people knew that there was 'enough' for everyone, because the industry was so small. There was space for it to grow whereas now, 10 years on, it’s become much more closed. People are like, 'Who are you? You coming to take my piece of the pie!' They’re not as welcoming as they used to be. People feel threatened because you continuously have to up your game, you have to be constantly cultivating relationships.”
Of course, it’s been a few years since PlayR and The Verge for Pippa, and these days, she’s rocking a day job in the TV industry, but she still enjoys the gaming industry as a side hustle.
“Unfortunately the gaming stuff tends to take place after hours. I do it after they go to bed. I’ll come home, we have dinner, I’ll put them to bed, and after they’ve gone to bed, I’ll be writing an article or working on something. And then there’s occasions like this, where I’ll just bring them along.”
Indeed, I got to meet the two young ones at Nexus Café, where they enjoyed a Breakfast Waffle, followed by some running around (Plants vs Zombies in the courtyard) and some play time on the Nintendo Switch consoles upstairs.
This made me wonder how it works at home, with Mom’s love of games. Pippa tells me all about it.
“Funnily enough, my eldest one (7) wasn’t really that into it till about four, and I was given Skylanders to review. I had tried to get him into it before but he wasn’t really interested. Even like Lego games, and he would be ‘Hmm….’ And Skylanders was the hook.”
The hook is what Pippa believes to be that one game that appeals to any person on whatever level. It’s *the* game, and everyone has a hook.
“And I watched him, in the space of a week - You know when you get a new gamer, and they always try to jump and move forward at the same time and they just jump up and down on the spot? They can’t get that coordination? He went from jumping up and down on the spot to timed platform jumps in a week, whilst fighting enemies. I just looked at his fine motor control. And he loves it. And my small one, he got into it at a younger age, because he now had a brother and his brother had someone who he could play with."
After a brief discussion on their futures, I brought up the topic of initiatives and programmes to bring not only more women into gaming, but gamers in general. Pippa firmly believes that a lot of those types of initiatives are already starting to happen around us.
“There are already people working on doing that - men and women! Not just women, but a lot of men are doing the same thing - they’re working to make it a more inclusive environment across the board. People are aware of the challenges and of what needs to change, what needs to happen, there’s always going to be a resistance to those things. We just need to go with it and try to change it from within.”
This includes the esports scene, where organisations like Mettlestate are running their second year of the Valkyrie Challenge. This challenge is a female gamer only tournament, which has been met with both excitement and backlash. RUSH 2018 also saw a mixed CS:GO Tournament, but the differences were noticeable, even if the inclusion was tremendous. But what makes it so that an individual tournament becomes a necessity within the industry merely because of gender?
Pippa believes there’s a sense of safety in an all-female tournament, “because you’re not competing as a woman, but as a gamer.” These tournaments become a place where people competing as players who are on equal footing and only differentiated by skill levels. “You’re not differentiating any other way. You’re competing against other people who are in the same situation as you, your skill is what sets you apart.” This is said in comparison to competing in a mixed tournament, where there’s a girl team competing against the guy team and people automatically expect the male team to be better, merely because of the age-long stereotype that ‘men play games, girls don’t.’
“That said, I would like to see at least in a few years, something that does become a little more inclusive across the board. It’s not the kind of sport that’s dependent on gender. For example, men's’ athletics will always be slightly different to women's’ athletics because it has an actual physical aspect to it that is - it’s just biology that sets them apart in different ways. Which is why people like Caster is so controversial, in that sense. But, by the same token, video games don’t do that.” I completely agree; Gaming is a mind sport, requiring skills and making decisions, and anyone has and can do these on some level.
On a more creative (or narrative) side of gaming, I brought up the new conversations around having female lead characters, such as Lara Croft, Sylvanas and Jaina and even Ellie (which caused some sort of controversy in the E3 announcement trailer for The Last of Us 2). As Pippa explains, it’s a double edged sword. “On the one hand, you want people to be making those decisions because it’s the best decision for the game. Not because they’re trying to make a point. But, it is nice to see more inclusivity in a variety of ways on the other.”
“The fact that the Tomb Raider franchise has evolved so much, that it’s no longer just, you know, you looking at her *ss the whole time. It’s much more about the character herself, and her progression, her hardships and what she goes through as a person as opposed to as a woman. It’s a big deal. In the earlier games, I don’t even think I considered the fact that she was a woman growing up, it was just, ‘There’s this awesome thing,’ and ‘This awesome character.’ But, I do like the later games because it was more about her and what she was doing.”
Closing off, what are Pippa’s plans for Comic Con Africa and rAge?
“Interestingly, Viacom is a media partner for Comic Con, so I’m working on that front - I’ll be working for work - but I’ll probably also do a side hustle with other stuff like Glitched. As for rAge, I’ll be there. I’m always there.”
After an hour and a half of chatting, I can see why Pippa is where she is, and I celebrate her efforts, her work and her steadfast thinking within the industry here in South Africa, and how she has, and still does impact on not only the women, but all gamers.
[Banner Photo Credit: Sekwa Tshabalala]
A conundrum of killing all the things, but also into unicorns and glitter pens. Wears her allegiance on her sleeve. Lok’tar ogar!
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