Women and Video Games: An Interview With Meagan Marie
by Jennifer Culp
Meagan Marie is the community and communications manager at Crystal Dynamics, where she’s hard at work on the upcoming Tomb Raider installment. She’s also worked at Game Informer magazine, and is a widely featured cosplayer and generally awesome person.
Meagan, what drew you to the video game industry?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly one thing, but I grew up with two brothers and an engineer dad, and was perpetually interested in the newest tech; I always had gaming systems around. So, you know, the NES and the Sega Genesis, I grew up on those. That’s how I remember spending nights with my brothers — playing Track & Field or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Sonic or whatnot.
At this point, because I’m so closely associated with the Tomb Raider franchise, I’m afraid people are going to think it sounds cliché, but everything really did change when I was introduced to Lara Croft; there was this paradigm shift in the way that I looked at games. I remember that whenever my dad brought home a game, my brothers and I would fight over it, but they were just not interested in Tomb Raider. I think they were just too young to appreciate it, or … I don’t know! I latched on to Tomb Raider, though — I was so excited to see a game with a female protagonist.
I remember being awestruck by the visuals and how stunning they were at the time, and it was a moment where I realized games’ capacity to really influence and inspire people. Final Fantasy VII did the same thing for me, too. Whereas I connected with Lara Croft in Tomb Raider and felt a kind of a representation for the first time, Final Fantasy VII really showed me how character development and narrative can push the medium.
You had wanted to work at Game Informer from a very young age, even listing “future Game Informer editor” as your tagline on MySpace. Why did you want to write about games, as opposed to working in another capacity in the industry?
I don’t remember the exact age I set my sights on Game Informer. I think I was maybe in the 15- to 16-year-old range. Game Informer was my favorite magazine, I received it every month, and then I realized that they were based out of Minneapolis. It was like lightning striking, where I realized that, you know, I want to work in gaming; this is something I want to do.
When I realized that I wanted to be at Game Informer, I decided either to pursue graphic design or journalism, to position myself for work on the editorial staff or the design staff. Throughout college, I did my best to tailor my education to one or the other, but what I was most looking to do was to ensure that my portfolio represented a passion for the industry. From the design standpoint, for my branding class I did a “history of Nintendo timeline” and broke down key moments in the business and branding. It was really interesting. For my senior ethics project I did a website based on the potential concerns of restrictive video game legislation. Same thing with writing and journalism; I always tried to tailor my portfolio to reporting on the industry. My goal was to leave school with a body of work that showcased versatility but also passion. I did so, to the point that it was kind of weird! In my sculpture class, we were given an assignment to make a sculpture amalgamation of two animals, so I chose a Chocobo and a Mog from Final Fantasy, and made this really ridiculous Choco-Mog sculpture. Everybody in my class thought I was nuts.
Throughout the entire time I was in school I was also working on freelance opportunities, through community blogs for Destructoid, and I did some writing gigs with the Girls Entertainment Network, which allowed me to get into press events, network with people in the industry, and start to get my name out there at a young age.
You wrote two cover stories during your time at Game Informer: “Tomb Raider: Lara Croft Reborn” and “Portal 2: Aperture Science Returns for the People Who are Still Alive.”
The two cover stories I wrote for Game Informer were the highlight of my time working there. They were massively stressful; a team of unbelievably talented and hardworking developers are giving you the responsibility to introduce their baby to the world. It’s kind of scary! The opportunity to write up and introduce Portal 2 to the world? It was such an honor but it was also terrifying. Those were definitely some of the highlights of my time at Game Informer, sort of the culmination of all the skills I had learned.
Then you received an offer you couldn’t refuse, and now you’re the Community & Communication Manager at Crystal Dynamics. How did this transition come about?
It caught me off guard. I wasn’t intending to leave Game Informer; I adored working at the magazine. Like I said, with the amount of freedom that I had there, and flexibility and creative ownership, I absolutely loved it. And you know, growing up and not having to move away from the family, getting to keep all my friends, that was a huge bonus, but after writing the Tomb Raider cover story I had such a good relationship with the Tomb Raider team. I think it was quite obvious that I genuinely, as a massive, long-time Tomb Raider fan, believed they were making the right decision with the franchise.
Of course I was skeptical at first, the first time they [spoke about the change in the franchise’s direction] I thought, “What are you going to do to my Lara?!” But after the demo I believed in it. A couple of months after the piece was out and had hit print, they had an opening and I got a call, and after a couple of questions, a few weeks later I was packing up and getting ready to move across the country. The story and the relationships I had formed acted as a catalyst, which is one of the reasons I always encourage people — even if you’re not looking for a job and are happy where you are — make sure you’re always putting your best foot forward. People will remember it!
What sort of activities does your current position involve? As much as there can be said to be any day-to-day, what’s your day-to-day like?
It’s a very demanding and engaging job. Basically, my job is to act as a liaison between the fans and the studio, to create and curate content, and to engage fans and act as their voice. So, usually in the mornings I work on the forward-facing communication — I update the blogs, I update Facebook and Twitter, I check on news from the night before and see what kind of coverage the game is getting, share stuff that’s interesting, and really interact with the fans. I spend a lot of time on forums, I spend a lot of time talking to people on blogs, and I try to make sure that my face is out there and the fans know that I’m listening.
The behind-the-scenes stuff is more difficult to describe! There’s so much there, working on various PR or brand initiatives, exploring licensing opportunities, writing press releases or newsletters, recording podcasts, and so on. A lot of it’s actually technical stuff too — analytics, checking out new monitoring tools, and evaluating budding social media platforms. I get to play the game, too, and sometimes do something fun like record a bit of temporary VO. Travel is still in the cards. My first week, I was flown out to an event for E3. I also did a lot of international travel in October of last year to meet with the community and show off the game. It’s a very all-encompassing job. Again, no two days are the same.
I know you can’t talk about Tomb Raider at this time, but I don’t think this will compromise you: just how amazing is it to be involved in shaping the future of your childhood idol?
Tomb Raider and Lara Croft have been so unbelievably influential in my youth that I could not have imagined having the opportunity to work on the franchise. When people would talk to me when I was working at Game Informer, I said Game Informer was my dream job. And it absolutely was; that has not changed! The fact that I left Game Informer doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a dream job; it means that I literally had never even dreamt that this was an opportunity. I had never even imagined that there would be a chance for me to act as a voice for other Tomb Raider fans, or to work for this establishment. Every once in a while I still get these moments where I’m just kind of dumbstruck, just so surprised and honored that this is where my career took me.
Haha, so you’re not just living the dream, you’re living the unimaginable.
Of course, even living the dream can have its downsides. Obviously the pros wildly outweigh the cons, but do you feel that you make any sacrifices in service to your career?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back there has definitely been a degree of sacrifice throughout my career, which started soon after I graduated. I’m extremely career-oriented, and it took me a long time to realize just how important my profession is to me. I didn’t necessarily have a group of people in my life who understood that drive or that passion. I remember having a lot of people telling me, “You’re working too hard, you’re working too much.” After some time, I realized it wasn’t only said entirely out of concern; it was laced with a degree of criticism about the emphasis I’d placed on my work instead of more “traditional” outlets. They didn’t understand why I was investing so much of myself into my job…my future. They didn’t relate to my insatiable desire to break into the industry, or to contribute in a meaningful way once I was established.
I actually had some people get fairly resentful towards me, that I didn’t have a lot of free time to see them. Essentially, I didn’t have like-minded people around me who realized that this is what made me happy. That working hard and pushing my limits is what I wanted out of life. The idea of settling or becoming complacent terrified me — even when I secured an amazing job. At one point in time there was sort of a mass exodus of people from my life who weren’t necessarily able to handle that degree of commitment, I suppose, that I had to my job. I finally got to a point where I stopped apologizing for something I didn’t need to apologize for.
Since then, I’ve found that I’ve gravitated toward more like-minded people. We may only be able to see each other once a month, but when we see each other we have so much to talk about. I’m in a very good place now. When you find those people you don’t have to explain yourself to, who just get you, it’s phenomenal.
During your time at Game Informer, you changed your name from Meagan VanBurkleo to Meagan Marie. I had a very early marriage and divorce, and after changing my own name back to my birth name (which I’m sticking with from here on out), “Meagan Marie” leapt out at me like a beacon from the Game Informer masthead when it first appeared. The Hairpin’s own Jane Marie recently made a quite similar (same middle name!) change of her own. Care to talk about names and life changes and career?
I have to be very careful about discussing this out of respect, because I’m not the only party involved. Still, I think it’s an important part of my development and growth these past few years, and worth touching on to some degree.
I married my first boyfriend when I was 19, and it ended in divorce about two years ago. As with the termination of any relationship, there were dozens and dozens of factors on both sides leading to the decision.
With full hindsight, a lot of it had to do with a realization that I hadn’t evolved enough yet as an individual. As a person. With my new job at Game Informer and my career taking off, I was just starting to discover who I really was. I think it’s near impossible to be your best person in a relationship when you don’t necessarily know who that person is. I suppose it boils down to the fact that I committed myself fully to another person prior to committing fully to myself. Does that make sense?
Ultimately the separation was the right decision, even if it was unbelievably difficult at the time. The past two years I’ve found my independence and myself. I feel like I’m a better person, and a better partner, and a better version of me.
In regards to the name change, the situation did leave me with a fairly difficult decision. What do I do? My maiden name was Meagan Blomquist, and I hadn’t really identified with that in a while. My married name was Meagan VanBurkleo, but I didn’t necessarily want to use that publicly anymore. I eventually just decided to just go with my first and my middle name, because I felt that if any name was mine, Meagan Marie was it. The transition was a little weird. [Laughs.] I don’t want to sound cynical or anything, but I don’t think I will get married again; I’m not entirely sure that’s something I’m interested in, but if I did I don’t think I would ever change my name. Ultimately I want to have my own identity, my own name. I think that Meagan Marie is going to be the one that sticks.
Being a woman in a largely male-dominated field introduces a unique set of challenges. Have you dealt with sexual harassment or negative attitudes related to your sex?
I have, and it’s unfortunate because … well, you kind of expect it from the Internet culture, right? You kind of expect a certain degree of childishness and that sort of behavior on forums. That’s just the way the Internet works; it’s reductive, it’s sexist, and sometimes it’s even scary.
Being insulted on the web is sadly par for the course. It’s more disappointing when it comes from professional spheres. There have been several instances throughout my career where I’ve had offhand comments directed my way that I don’t even think people realize are offensive. Like when I started at Game Informer and I’d be meeting people for the first time, they would ask me if I was hired to fill “the pretty face quota.” You know, it’s like they’re sugar-coating something with a compliment, but it’s still an insult. It’s basically implying that I was hired for my looks rather than the fact that I worked my ass off for four years to meet this exact end. I wanted something, and I went after it. Stuff like that happened a lot.
I used to work at GameCrazy back in the day, and I would have people ask for my male coworkers because they just assumed I didn’t know what I was talking about. More than once, the same expectation was expressed on a professional level. I would be having a conversation with someone at a show, and if I didn’t know something about a particular genre or game because it wasn’t my beat, it would boil down to my gender, which was frustrating. I don’t play MMOs; I’m never going to play an MMO in my life because I somehow manage to put hundreds of hours into finite games. I’m not even going to try it! So for example, if someone asked me a question about an MMO and I didn’t know they answer, they would make some sort of snide remark about being a woman, about working in the wrong industry. That kind of thing was an example of the more passive sexism I’ve encountered.
If we’re looking at more overtly offensive behavior, I’ve got plenty of examples. My first GDC [Game Developers Conference] — and I still kick myself for it, for not getting upset and just laughing it off — at my first GDC I had a drunk CEO of some startup point to my midsection and laugh and say he “wants to have his babies in there.” The unfortunate thing is, because I was so excited to be rubbing elbows with industry luminaries, I just kind of blew it off and assumed that was the way it was.
After about two or so years I started to realize that it was unacceptable. It started to really weigh on me, the little snide comments: I had been at a formal event at GDC one year and was wearing a conservative dress — knee-length, nothing too racy about it — and saw someone the next day who said, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.” And I started to realize that people thought that was an acceptable way to talk to me. It may seem trivial, but when you’ve worked so hard to earn a place at the table, it was utterly demoralizing.
Now I try to share these kind of stories and tell young women that they need to stand up and say something, because if I didn’t certain people would still consider it acceptable to talk to me that way. It’s not — I can take a compliment, and I can appreciate kind words, but I’m still a professional. There are definitely lines that people have crossed, and I deserve better. Women in general don’t deserve to be treated like that.
So yes, there is some latent sexism in the industry, but the caveat to this discussion is that most of the industry is fantastic. Most of the people in the industry are not barbarians; most see the above behavior as equally unacceptable. It’s just, every once in a while you meet a bad egg that hasn’t quite adjusted to the new, slightly more diverse landscape of the industry. It can be a little bit frustrating at times, and you do sometimes feel like you have to work a little bit harder to get the respect that’s just given to your male counterparts, but I’m still glad that I’m here and I think that things are changing slowly but surely.
Women in the video game industry: you’re there! You’re working! You’re not booth babes! As far as women in the industry…
It’s funny, because I think there’s more of a discrepancy in perception than anything. There are a lot of women out there; we have a sizeable number of women working at the studio — animators and producers and whatnot — but there’s definitely a perception problem. When I go to GDC, I see lots and lots of women. Still, I never have to wait in line for the bathroom, which is awesome, but for the most part I’ve found plenty of women to identify with and strive to be like and connect with in this industry, and it can only get better from here, which is exciting.
Let’s talk cosplay! I’m a great admirer of your costumes. I very much enjoy making video game character costumes for Halloween and costume parties, but thus far have only debuted them to the adulation of drunken friends and acquaintances. How did you get started?
Tomb Raider was obviously one of the reasons I started cosplaying, because I wanted to be a super hero. I wanted to be Lara Croft, I wanted to be Wonder Woman, you know? I think that’s a natural inclination that most kids feel at some point in time, and the desire never left me. I never stopped wanting to be a super hero! During college I did some very light commercial modeling: hair shows and modeling handbags and stuff like that, but it introduced me to the world of photography and the idea of being a creative director on photoshoots. So I started getting more involved in creative, collaborative artistic projects. I would bring thematic stuff to the table, like, “Hey, let’s do this Ice Queen project with silver body paint and all this fur, and we’ll go outside in the winter and it’ll be cool!” I started bringing together the talent and scouting locations and whatnot, and eventually — naturally — things started becoming more comic book or video game-oriented. I did a Tomb Raider shoot, and a Wonder Woman shoot, really early, horrific costumes looking back at them — I did such a bad job!
Eventually I began attending conventions. Being interested in video games and comics, it was a natural progression for me to go meet up with other nerds. And then I realized that these nerds dressed up! And there was this whole culture called cosplay centered on what I was doing without even realizing it. I immediately fell in love. I was so excited to connect with other people, to share that passion and have that sense of community.
So once I realized there was a community and that there were regular events I could attend, it was all downhill — uphill, I don’t know, from there. It’s been a fantastic experience. I adore it, not just because it’s fun and I like to hang out with like-minded people, but it’s such a massive creative outlet. I’m learning so many things that I never thought that I would get to do. It’s really a way for me — I do a lot of writing now, but I don’t get to stretch my creative artistic muscles very often — to be artistic! Some of the things I do, some of the armor fabrication is just like sculpting, and painting … it’s extremely fun and challenging.
Have you had any worries about reconciling your cosplay hobby with your professional position?
Absolutely, and I genuinely struggled with it for a while. I ultimately had to come to a decision and reconcile it in my mind. I came to the decision that if I want to be a role model and want to be taken seriously, I need to not only be professional but I have to be genuine to myself. If I am being disingenuous to who I am to try to conform, then I don’t think that’s something someone could look up to. You wouldn’t look up to someone who’s fake, who’s hiding who they really are, and I absolutely adore cosplay.
Still, there were obvious steps I needed to take. I have very strict rules. It sounds strange, but I don’t shoot anything I can’t show my dad. I keep everything PG-13; sometimes I have a short hemline or a v-neck top, but I really try to stress that cosplay is more than just an end result. It’s more than just the physical costume; it’s a learning experience and a creative endeavor.
The reason I cosplay and I dress as these characters is because they inspire me, because something in them lights a spark within me and I want to be like them. Usually the characters that I cosplay as have a duality of strength and beauty or femininity, and that’s something I really like: having that strength, or that duality.
I think it’s also been helpful that I’ve just been open about it. I’ve acknowledged that there perhaps could be a little bit of an uphill battle and that my professional perception could be slightly tarnished of because my hobby, but I’ve decided that it’s a part of me and I’m going to keep doing it until it stops being fulfilling. I can’t see that stopping any time soon.
Give you spandex or give you death!
Earlier, you briefly touched on the pit of terror that we fondly know as “the Internet.”
You cannot win against the Internet, ever! [Laughs.]
Maybe not, but you seem to be remarkably well-adjusted and do an admirable job dealing with it. Got any tips?
You really, genuinely have to learn to ignore it. It’s so difficult to drown out the negativity and all the voices except the ones that matter, but you have to or it’ll break you. My first couple of years, when I first started on Internet boards and forums, and started doing some cosplay and my photos popped up in random places, I remember having a breakdown. I remember crying, people commenting on my weight, my skin, my face … just these horrible, horrible comments, and they got to me.
The other, more difficult task is to learn what comments count when you do learn to drown out the vitriol. I think a degree of mature criticism is a very acceptable thing. I think you should be your own harshest critic. Anybody who wants to grow as a professional or a person or an artist has to be critical of themselves. I still read comments. I’m not to the point where I totally ignore commentary on my work. In my opinion, you should aim for the point where you’re able to throw the stuff that is said for the sole sake of being negative, and keep the legitimate criticism. Being able to take the constructive criticism and learn from it, not take offense to it, and grow from it is something that’s very hard to do.
I know at one point Kotaku featured my Mad Moxxi costume, and there were tons of comments about me not being properly endowed. Those comments didn’t even register with me. I really couldn’t care less; I’m sorry, but there’s absolutely no way I could be as endowed as that character. However, there were several recurring comments about how my costume was too pristine and how it didn’t necessarily fit the apocalyptic setting of the game. And you know, a light bulb went off: I was so happy with how the costume turned out that I was terrified for anything to happen to it! I wanted it to be perfect and overlooked that it’s not perfect in the game. I haven’t had a chance to wear it again, but I definitely took that feedback to heart and I’m going to adjust my costume for the next time I show it off. I’ve matured a lot from reading commentary on my writing, too.
It’s really difficult to get to that point and again, the first step is learning to weed out critiques from the venom. From the angry or hurtful people, who sometimes don’t even realize that you’ll end up seeing their comments. They feel so disconnected from the subject they don’t realize what impact their words carry.
My last bit of advice is not to let Internet negativity stop you. If you’re doing something that’s fulfilling, you’re doing yourself a major disservice to let dissenting voices stop you from doing something that makes you happy. It would be so heartbreaking to see people stop doing things that they appreciate because of the negative fuel that the Internet runs on.
It takes a lot of that to keep the Internet running.
It does! And also try to get yourself in like-minded communities with people who are going to be supportive. Ultimately it’s not the anonymous voices that matter, it’s those of your peers — the people you respect, the people you work with — their voices, and yours, should be the ones that matter.
How it that for a piece of advice, right: “don’t let it get to you”? It’s a shitty piece of advice, because it’s something you have to do within yourself, but it’s true. The Internet is not going to change; the only thing that you can do is try to ensure that you take the best out of the situation and you just don’t let that mess of voices keep you from being you.
Last question, and OBVIOUSLY the very most important: Number one video game crush. I’ll give you two answers: current and all-time. GO!
Currently … currently it would have to be Kaidan from Mass Effect, because I feel like this is the first time I actually connected with a character. I had a choice, and I chose him. I think that BioWare did a commendable job fleshing out a believable, complex relationship. I know a lot of people hated Kaidan in Mass Effect, and they can eat it. I stand by him. I loved that he was challenging my decisions, and that he was keeping me in line. He was trying to support me, but also testing the strength of my resolve, which I loved and I adored. I waited for him through Mass Effect 2, and it was totally worth it! So I’d say that he was probably the most meaningful, legitimate video game crush that I’ve had.
I can’t say of all time … because I don’t think that’s actually registered with me because my favorite characters have actually been females. But one that I’ve always thought was kind of hunky is Chris Redfield. Especially in RE5. I mean, if we’re going off renders alone, Chris Redfield’s kinda …