Taking it up a level

October 2, 2019

As a youngster, Sally Blake was captivated by computer games. From exploring fantastical lands to creating her own worlds and characters, Sally’s thirst for gaming was unquenchable. But her real-life quest to transform this interest into a career was not without its challenges. Steven Hugill speaks to Sally about overcoming gender bias and how she is now helping others navigate a path into the gaming world and increasing diversity in the sector

Evenings and weekends meant one thing in particular for Sally Blake; gaming. Food may have provided her with necessary sustenance, but it was the family’s computer console that fed her imagination.

By escaping to fantastical realms, Sally soon discovered gaming was her world.

“My mum had a Sega Mega Drive and we’d play after school and at weekends,” she says, “and my two younger brothers Roger and Chris would join in.

“Mum loved playing Lemmings – that was her time to chill – but she would play that and Sonic the Hedgehog with me too.

“The first game I played that made me want to work in games was Zelda.

“That game was something else and I played it so much,” smiles Sally, who is a senior producer at Gateshead-based Hammerhead VR, which creates entertainment experiences and commercial applications for augmented, mixed and virtual reality.

The owner of a naturally curious mind, Sally’s schooldays twined the creative with the complex as she mixed artistic flair with the regimented theory of maths and science. Growing up in her native Bradford, she understood the importance of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) long before it was the educational totem of today.

But she also recognised the significance of amalgamating the arts into the topics and how this would help her understand gaming not just as a hobby but as a career.

“I always thought games were a combination of the creative subjects with maths and science,” says Sally.

“When I was young, I used to design characters and write stories, and used to be really interested in learning about the software because it takes all sorts of things to create a game.”

However, Sally soon discovered a new foe. Forget the pixelated power-hungry protagonists – real-life stereotyping provided a fresh battleground to overcome.

“At the time, gaming was seen very much as a thing for boys, and I got a lot of stick at school,” reveals Sally.

“People would tell me it was weird, and say things like, ‘you’re a girl, you should like this or that.’

“It was something I had to contend with, but my parents were always super encouraging and said, ‘do what you want to do.’ “School advisors were also a bit like, ‘that’s not a thing, you can’t have a career as a games tester.’

“They weren’t quite clued up on what was available in the industry and at that time it was quite hard to find routes into it,” says Sally, who studied computer animation at Bradford University.

“But I was always incredibly determined, and I had a really good lecturer at university, Kaye Elling, who speaks vocally about diversity, LGBT and women in games, and she offered great support.

“Kaye told me to carry on and ignore what people were saying.

“So that’s what I did, and my first job was as a games tester,” laughs the 28-year-old who, despite working in the North East for eight years, still retains her West Yorkshire burr.

That first role was with the Newcastle office of Ubisoft, an internationally acclaimed game development company behind action-adventure creations such as Assassins Creed Syndicate.

For Sally, it represented a major opportunity and a platform to help dispel the stereotyping she had faced.

“Ubisoft was the first role I applied for, so I was shocked to get it,” reveals Sally.

“I worked as a games tester for about a year and-a-half before moving into production.

“I was with Ubisoft for six years and did a lot of initiatives for women,” continues Sally, who has also mentored for The Girls’ Network, a national scheme founded by two former London secondary school teachers to combat sexual prejudice.

“I felt pressure to not be in games. Some people said things like I was only hired by Ubisoft as a diversity measure, and that because the first project I worked on was Just Dance, they’d hired me because it was a ‘girly’ game.

“I had to deal with those sorts of comments and attitudes and I’d rather others don’t have to or at least have a support network if they do.”

To that end, Sally founded the Women Making Games North East organisation, which champions diversity and is holding open the door for increased female influence in the sector.

“When I speak to girls in schools, they will say they don’t play games, but when I ask if they play on their phone, they say yes,” reveals Sally.

“There is almost a reluctance to say they like gaming because peer pressure still exists, though it is getting better and Women Making Games North East is all about making it better still.

“I know lots of women that have had incredibly positive experiences in the industry.

“The nuanced view is sometimes hard to get across on social media, but Women Making Games North East allows us to get the point across better.

“We started low-key with a few of us going for lunch and there are now about 90 in the Facebook group.

“Hammerhead has been incredibly supportive; it sponsors Women Making Games North East and give us money every month to run events, which makes a big difference,” adds Sally.

“I’ve got a team helping me run things and we have our website, merchandise and we run events too.

“We have a drawing meet once a month for people interested in art, and lots come to that to sit, chat and network.

“Moving forward, we want to hold more formal workshops and talks, and, at some point, would like to do a big conference.

“There is already the Women in Games Conference, which is held in London, and we hope to be the equivalent of that in the North.” But it isn’t just gender where Sally aims to make a difference.

“I care about all types of diversity,” she says. “Diversity makes games better; different cultures and experiences feed into making interesting worlds.

“Something I also really care about is supporting people from low socio-economic backgrounds, the LGBT community and the People of Colour in Play initiative,” reveals Sally.

“There are a lot of areas where there isn’t much money and people cannot afford expensive computers and software, which are requirements for the game industry.

“I want to make sure it is accessible for people.”

What is likely to provide further support to Sally’s plan is Silent Games, the start-up company she has co-founded.

Sally will continue working at Hammerhead as Newcastle-based Silent Games grows, and she is excited about its potential impact on the gaming world and the exposure it will give local creators.

“We are based in Carliol Square and are looking for funding, so it’s very early days,” she says.

“At Ubisoft I was working on things that I was interested in and passionate about. “However, they weren’t my games and I felt creating my own was an itch I needed to scratch,” she continues.

“I’d learnt a great deal from Ubisoft, have worked with studios across the world, experienced different cultures, worked with great people and gone through tonnes of project cycles, so I felt I was ready.

“We have a partnership with Teesside University, which is providing interns and covering their pay, and I’m excited about what we can do.

“I’m just this random lass from Bradford doing my thing,” laughs Sally. “It blows my mind to see how far I’ve come.”

Hammerhead
www.hammerheadhr.com
www.womenmakinggames.com

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