Women and girls in STEM: Cherie Davidson

Video game developer Cherie Davidson talks Gamergate, ADHD and why underrepresented creative voices are essential.
Photo of Cherie at a desk with 2 screens, a keyboard and a games controller. One screen is showing computer code, the other 3D modelling software

Cherie working on a game in her home office

Cherie Davidson has many people’s dream job – making video games.

‘Video game development is so fascinating because it requires deep, thoughtful collaboration between people with widely different perspectives and skill sets to create a single artistic work.’ Cherie says. ‘Every game development process is different – there’s always some unknown being explored and you never know quite what you’re making until you’ve made it.’

A freelance developer, Cherie specialises in both game production and programming. As a producer, she guides the development team and fosters the creative cohesion that makes a great game. When working as a programmer she’ll design detailed system architectures or go deep into the code to prototype gameplay mechanics and fix bugs.

‘These days, there are game engines that let developers construct games with very little technical knowledge,’ she says. ‘But the vast majority of commercial games need one or more programmers with a decent understanding of spatial mathematics, Newtonian physics, algebraic analysis, logic and algorithms. Game designers often also benefit from a good understanding of player psychology and probability.’

From Sailor Moon sketches to Sony studios

The child of an artist and a technology teacher, Cherie is a proud lifelong nerd. ‘I spent my high school years making silly websites, playing computer games and drawing Sailor Moon and other anime characters,’ she says. ‘But it wasn’t until I started looking at tertiary education and saw courses on game development that I realised making video games could be an actual career.’

Cherie’s art portfolio earned her a spot in a digital art degree at RMIT. She took a few computer science electives during the course, which exposed her to programming for the first time.

‘The code bug had bitten me, so when I graduated I immediately enrolled in another undergrad course, in games and graphics programming.’ Cherie says. ‘This taught me more foundational computer engineering skills. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but by working on cross-discipline, collaborative and creative team projects I also learnt skills in project management.’

Cherie’s big break came a few years after graduation, when she won a Film Victoria producer residency at Media Molecule – a prestigious UK-based Sony studio. The residency turned into a full-time role that included working on the PS4 platform-adventure Tearaway Unfolded.

A couple of years later Cherie brought that valuable real-world experience in game production and management back to Australia. She’s since worked on cult hit Untitled Goose Game and other critically acclaimed games like Wayward Strand, Necrobarista and Paperbark.

What the industry is like for women and neurodiverse people

Cherie was just starting her career when the online harassment campaign known as ‘Gamergate’ saw many women in the video games industry targeted by misogynistic abuse.

‘It was alarming to see how quickly blatant misogyny spread in online circles and the backward justification for that behaviour that followed,’ Cherie says. ‘Ironically, these events forced women and other people of underrepresented genders to band together and create support networks that were, and still are, orders of magnitude more powerful than the temporary screeching of internet trolls. It taught me pretty early on that if I need allies, I’ll be able to find them.’

But Cherie is well aware that women game developers are still the exception rather than the rule. ‘I’ve rarely faced direct gender discrimination, but the gender ratio of the industry isn’t great. And it’s challenging having very few role models, particularly mothers, demonstrating what it could look like to work in the industry 5, 10 or 20 years from now.’

‘That said, the games industry is also one of the most inclusive and diverse creative spaces to work in. I struggled with anxiety and depression until my late 20s, when I received an adult diagnosis of ADHD. Finding out about how ADHD manifests in adults, and particularly women, completely upended my understanding of myself and recontextualised my love of game development. With all their moving parts, shifting requirements and choreographed chaos, games present me with a new challenge every day and keep me on my toes. I can spend one day using my outside-the-box creative talents to bring a team together, and the next hyper-focusing on a technical code problem.’

‘A lot of neurodiverse people are drawn to game development, and companies are building more-inclusive work environments to better support us. Many studios have been trialling a 4-day work week and, since the pandemic, the vast majority of studios are remote-work friendly. On top of this, it’s a very casual industry – there’s no dress code, and it’s not unusual for an indie game team to start their day at 10 am.’

Photo of Cherie using a laptop while sitting on an armchair. A small white dog is on her lap.

Cherie working from home with help from her dog Ollie

Improving diversity in gaming

Cherie has some concrete suggestions for how organisations in the video game industry can improve staff diversity.

‘Step one is to have a diversity and inclusion plan. Use inclusive language in your job postings, have graduate or mentorship programs, and engage with local educators and communities. Offering flexible working conditions is also really important for parents and people with disabilities.’

‘Being transparent about pay ranges, career progression and work expectations is also critical. Diverse individuals are disproportionately impacted by poor working conditions, and supporting organisations like Game Workers Australia help improve conditions for all professionals.’

‘Maybe most importantly, studios and funding bodies need to recognise the value of having underrepresented voices in key creative and leadership roles. Time and time again, we’ve seen creative directors from underrepresented groups find success by reaching under-served markets.’

‘Creatively diverse games can also inspire the next generation, because it’s much easier to envision yourself as a game developer when games tell stories you relate to. The stereotype of a gamer is a teenage boy playing a violent shooter. But statistically, the average gamer is a 35-year-old playing smartphone games. It’s important we dispel this stereotype as it does a massive disservice to the rich, complex and diverse stories being told through games.’

So what advice does Cherie have for aspiring video game developers?

‘Start making games today!’ she says. ‘Download one of the hundreds of small accessible game engines and start telling your story. You never know what you’re capable of making until you’ve made it.’