Wigi CEO Joanie Kraut “One of the biggest things for us is finding the problems, finding the barriers, and then eliminating them.” cover image

Wigi CEO Joanie Kraut “One of the biggest things for us is finding the problems, finding the barriers, and then eliminating them.”

Esports.gg sat down with WIGI CEO Joanie Kraut to talk about the organization’s mission to advance equality and diversity in gaming. #sponsored

Women in Games International (WIGI) is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to bringing resources to advance economic equality and diversity in gaming. We sat down with WIGI’s CEO Joanie Kraut at the Esports Festival on March 11th to talk about WIGI. 

Joanie Kraut is the CEO of Women in Games International
Joanie Kraut is the CEO of Women in Games International

Joanie had been a featured speaker on a panel in carving out a space for women and non-binary community members. With that in mind, we spoke with the organization's CEO about WIGI's goals and some of its programs to aim at carving out that space in gaming. During our talk we touched on tabletop gaming, how to make a game more inclusive, and some examples of doing it right.

This coverage is powered by Women in Games International.

Introducing WIGI

First things first, can you just tell us just a little bit about WIGI for people who might not know about it, how would you introduce WIGI?

Joanie: We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organisation, we're focused on cultivating resources to advance economic equality and diversity in the global games industry. We don't need to be the expert, we just want to find and highlight the expert and get that in front of our community.

We're trying to eliminate barriers to entry. We're trying to make sure that people have access to technology. And then we have actual mentorship programmes. We actually have over 90 programmes, workshops and initiatives slated for 2022, which is very different from when I started. 

I've been with WIGI for about three years now. And during that time we’ve completely revamped the program's portfolio. We've been fundraising, we've raised almost $2 million in the past year. And we're trying to just really normalize women, non-binary, and femme-presenting individuals having careers in the games industry.

And we're doing that through representation, and then really just a lot of empowering them to open the door for themselves with workshops, panels, things like that.

You’ve said that one of Wigi’s biggest goals is carving out that space for women, non-binary, and fem-presenting individuals. What kind of initiatives do you have for that currently? And what kind of things would you like to see in the future that could help carve out that space?

Joanie: We really built our portfolio around the idea of “I wish I had known X at X stage of my career.” So for example, I wish I had known how to negotiate my salary in the beginning my career and I didn't, so I took the lowest salary, because I felt like they would tell me, if I was worth more. They would right, they would give me more if I was worth more? Then I waited for a salary increase, because I thought they would just know my internal hopes and desires and hand it to me when it was time. They would know when it was time to increase my salary, right? And that's not true.

We’re trying to teach women how to have those difficult conversations, how to stand up for themselves, how to self advocate, how to do all the things that I wish I had known how to do in the beginning my career. And that's, that's really one of the biggest things for us is finding the problems, finding the barriers, and then eliminating them.

What can we do more in the future is we really want to focus on doing a global study. We want to identify more barriers for more people in different areas, different backgrounds, different and find different opportunities, and then eliminate those barriers.

So what does it look like to somebody in esports ,versus somebody in table top versus somebody in video games. We are really truly trying to focus on the global games industry, and then how to get more diverse people within like the entire thing.

So that’s interesting, I didn’t know WIGI had tabletop gaming in their focus as well. I'm a big Dungeons & Dragons and TTRPG fan myself. TTRPG is traditionally very much a boys club. So what kind of unique barriers does that industry have?

Joanie: Yeah, so tabletop gaming, there's a lot more barriers because it's very in-person. With online games, you might not realise the person you're playing against in Fortnite is a woman until they speak. In tabletop, you don't have that. You're gonna see the person, you're going to talk to them. 

And again, we focus more on the professional side than the individual gamer. So we want more women working in tabletop gaming, we want more women CEOs who are running and creating games. But it’s all linked.

So if you don't have the access and opportunity to play tabletop games, a lot of you might not have the access and opportunity to create a new game because you haven't seen all the games.

So having those different conversations and creating that space where you can continue to kind of R&D by playing is still important, and it's something that we're really trying to create through representation [in Tabletop gaming]. 

Building games for inclusivity

WIGI partnered with ESI as part of the Esports Festival event on March 11th (Image via ESI)
WIGI partnered with ESI as part of the Esports Festival event on March 11th (Image via ESI)

Going back to esports and gaming, one of the things that came up during the recent panel at the Esports Festival in Manchester, UK, was the idea that in the culture at the start of a game sticks. If a game allows a toxic culture and an anti-women culture to get in early, you're not going to get it out. What would you suggest a game developer do the start to stop that happening?

Joanie: Yeah, it's such a tricky question. Because a lot of times people lean into making it family friendly. And developers feel like if it's family friendly, and your kids would play it, then your wife is probably safe. And it's like, that's great. But we want to be able to play competitively, and still play a competitive game and not have it be necessarily a family-friendly game.

I think Valorant has done an amazing job. I think one of the biggest things is the characters in Valorant. It's not just the male dominated. You know, CS:GO, you're a dude. So you're a white male dude, no matter what. But Valorant You're sort of you have different characters. And Overwatch. there's so much diversity within Overwatch, you just had, you know, different opportunities. So you're creating that representation. So more people who have that background, don’t feel uncomfortable playing that game. And so it's kind of creating that community by having that community in real life. That's such a huge piece for sure. 

There’s also being very loud about the rules, and allowing for people to elevate issues and report people, if there is an issue. That’s so powerful. So what happens in your game when you report somebody? Do you hear back in three weeks, and they're like, “oh, sorry, you're right, that person was not great. But they're gone now.” Or, you know, in World of Warcraft, you can block somebody. So they are usually completely blocked and you won't ever see what they're saying, again.

What are the intentions behind those different reporting opportunities, and what are the next steps? What does that actually look like? 

"...developers feel like if it's family friendly, and your kids would play it, then your wife is probably safe. And it's like, that's great. But we want to be able to play competitively, and still play a competitive game and not have it be necessarily a family-friendly game."

Joanie Kraut

On the panel, we talked about you know, somebody's just going back and creating a new account. And, then there's not really accountability because one account got banned, but they don’t care, you know. They just make another. That’s not a good system.

So it’s about finding opportunities to create that community, and then really, promoting that positive community in a very loud and public way. That’s definitely something that I think has been the biggest, you know, opportunity to create a good space for women in your game.

For example, if you look at it, you know, Final Fantasy XIV, not an esport obviously. But if you look at the organisational stuff, they have such a strong, positive community. Their lead developer, producer [Naoki Yoshida] loves to play the game, you know. So it's like you create that love and that passion for the game. And then people want to continue to replicate that.

It’s funny you mention Final Fantasy XIV. One thing I find quite interesting with that game is that there is no explicit kind of representation in terms of like, LGBTQ characters. But the LGBTQ community has jumped in, embraced that game, allowed it to flourish. Why do you think that you seem to be the case? Is it just that there are all these systems in place where you can just press a button and you don't have to deal with that person anymore?

Joanie: Sure. I think it's also because it feels warm and friendly and inviting, you know, from the ground up. It's not jump into a map and start shooting people in the head. It's their story. And there's context. And so I think, you know, the role playing games do have a little bit more of that opportunity to kind of expand into that sort of community. The idea versus you know, when you get super competitive some people just seem to associate competition and competitiveness with aggression, instead of skill. And so, the louder you are, the ruder you are like, the better you will play.

It's a very, 13-year-old boy mindset, but it's something that I think I think it's something that we need to explore and we need to stop though. So if there's somebody else in that space to say this is not okay. Also, ofcourse, representation. Who's your streamer? And who are you supporting? If you have Asmongold going out for your game, that’s very different to someone smaller on YouTube promoting your game.

That's an interesting streamer to name, obviously quite a contentious one. He’s kind of traditionally someone who you would expect him to be part of the boys club. But more recently, he has kind of come out quite vocally supporting female content creators, but he's done it in a way that hasn't alienated his traditional audience. Do you think that that's kind of a good example to follow up?

Joanie: I see what you’re saying, and it kind of links to my very first Esports tournament. When I showed up, there were guys that were like, “are you someone's girlfriend,” or “are you someone's sister,” like, “why are you here?” And they were genuinely confused. And honestly it wasn't rude. It wasn't aggressive. It wasn't like “get out of my house.” It was like why genuinely? Why are you here? Are you really interested in this esport? Are you really interested in this tournament? And it was a genuine curiosity. 

So I think sometimes, some of these jokes or some of these snide remarks aren’t meant to be truly meant to be funny. It's just, you don't realise that humanized aspect of “what you just said, really affected the rest of my day, week, year”

So I think [Asmongold] is recently acknowledging that what’s been said in the past is supposed to be a joke. And then trying to move forward with it, and that it was not truly meant to degradate anybody or take somebody down. 

So he's done a lot with, and not just him specifically, but there has been a lot more outreach into including more women in streams, including more women and non-binary people within, you know, tabletop games. It’s so important having that representation, and having those voices and acknowledging them and including them, it's simple but still powerful. So I think there's definitely a lot of opportunity there.

Returning to the panel again, you were talking about how important representation in games is. For example you joked that for a long time the only girl you saw in games was Princess Peach. But then Lara Croft comes along, Sylvanus, and all that kind of stuff, and shows “Oh they can be the protagonists as well.” But if there's not the moderation, the community behind it, it’s just pandering, it's not going to work. What's the balance there between getting the characters in for representation and the moderation? Like, if you're, if you have maybe a smaller studio, what do you focus on?

Joanie: So I think the biggest thing from my perspective is bringing in somebody who actually has that background, having more diverse people at the table. If you're creating that authentic communication, I think that is really important. That more than anything else. Otherwise, if it's not authentic, if we're gonna see through it.

WIGI’s Get in the Game Program

WIGI's Get in the Game program gives its partners the tools they need to get a job in Esports (image via WIGI)
WIGI's Get in the Game program gives its partners the tools they need to get a job in Esports (image via WIGI)

One thing you mentioned you wanted to talk about is the Get in the Game Program. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Joanie: Well, when I was younger, we were on a single income, so we didn't have a lot of money. It was a struggle. And I remember my mom being really upset because we got free tickets to go to the circus in Chicago. And we couldn't afford free tickets, because the gas, the food, the parking. It was a massive undertaking. So just because they eliminated the barrier to entry, quite literally in the case of a circus, it didn't do any good, because there was still so much extra before I could get there. 

So with that in mind, I wanted to create an opportunity for more women and not like your young people to get into games, industry conferences, a lot of times it's who you know, and not what you know. And we wanted to create that segue, as well as create the opportunity to just meet people who are like minded and in the industry, right.

So creating Get in the Game Program in we cover, travel to the airport, hotel and the conference. We are also working with Dress For Success, which is an organisation that will tell you what to wear to an interview, what to wear to a networking event, what to wear to any opportunity, and they'll really listen to your style. So being your authentic self, really listening to who you are and your favourite colours. Finding out what that style looks like, but being also appropriate within this space. So having that professional demeanour and how to carry yourself there's an executive presence that also goes along with that training thing. 

"We couldn't afford free tickets, because the gas, the food, the parking. It was a massive undertaking."

JOanie Kraut

We're also working with Esports Makeup to talk about, day versus night makeup and networking makeup versus like… there's so many different ways that you could wear your makeup and just kind of speaking to what that looks like

Overall, we're really trying to gear people to put their best foot forward in meeting people at different industry conferences. So we've identified esports and video game conferences and we're trying to just get people into those events. And the other thing that we do is we do a mentorship breakfast. So every morning we talk about daily goals, setting a goal of like “I want to get five business cards” or “five LinkedIn profiles” by the end of the day. 

We also do a networking dinner. So we have an invite only industry networking dinner where we have industry professionals come and meet our mentees. And then throughout the course we do coaching and mentorship for all the attendees as well. 

So in terms of program, there are some real proven results?

Joanie: Yes! So we have an almost 100% success rate and every single person that we've taken on this conference has gotten a full time job offer or an introduction from doing this programme with us.

That is actually phenomenal. How do you think it works?

Joanie: So it's a lot of destroying the imposter syndrome. People are applying and going, I don't know if I can really do this. I don't know how to network. I'm an introvert, I don't know what to do. And we teach them, we work with them. But then we empower them to have those conversations by themselves. We're not hand holding. We made it an introduction, we walk away, but they know the skills now. And they know how to do that. It's empowering them to open the door for themselves instead of waiting for somebody else to open that door. And it's been a really great program. And we're actually doing one with ESI in Washington and ESI in London as well, hopefully.

I did notice we had a big panel there on a disadvantage that women and non-binary people have withrepresentation. The irony being I suppose that the representation within the audience wasn't huge. So this is exactly the kind of thing that you would be trying to help with?

Joanie: Exactly. We've had a lot of people apply the first time we did it, we only have like 20 applications. The last time we did it, we added 60 applications. So it's as people hear about it, and understand what it is, it keeps growing and growing. But we really want to get it out there because we're doing it both in the US, and in the UK, and in Germany. We also are doing an on-campus at Gamescom in Germany. And we're trying to just identify the most meaningful networking opportunities within the industry to get more people in the industry on a professional level. So not just gamers, but CEOs, you know, people in studios. We just did DICE and GDC is the next one. There's a lot of really great opportunities there and I just want to promote the show!

I want to wrap it with one more question. If you could only give one piece of advice for women trying to get into gaming, and esports professionally, what would it be?

Joanie: When I got into esports, it felt very male dominated. And I was fine with that, you know. It was the dude-bro culture, and I would just kind of conform to it. And it was whatever, it was fun, it was fine. It wasn't a big deal. When I did my Master's capstone project, I actually researched a Danish company's expansion into the Asian market, which means I had to understand both the European market, the Asian market, and the US market to be able to understand this.

And so I had to do just massive amounts of research into esports, what it meant from an economic standpoint, and from a sociological standpoint, what it meant and where, where it came from, and where it was going and understanding that whole dynamic. And in that research, it was really hard to find anyone, any women at all, in all of that massive research that I did. Going back to 2005, before esports was even being called esports. Which was crazy because I knew they were there.

"It was really hard to find anyone, any women at all, in all of that massive research that I did. Going back to 2005, before esports was even being called esports. Which was crazy because I knew they were there."

Joanie Kraut

I think the biggest thing from my perspective is, we're not just getting into esports. Women aren't just entering into esports, they’re not just showing up now. We've been here. We've been here since the beginning. We just haven't been taking up that space. My biggest things would be to squad up, find your community, find your people, find your cheerleaders. And use them, listen to them when you start to feel alone. Talk to them and tell them the struggles you're going through. Chances are they've already been there. If not, they'll take a third perspective to be able to kind of walk you through and figure out your next steps. 

And the other one is to take up that space. You don't need to apologize for your question. You don't need to apologize for winning a tournament or for beating somebody or for being better. Or for sucking! If you suck, practice more. Just get get back on it and keep going.

Thank you so much, it's been a pleasure.

Joanie: You're welcome!

WIGI's latest initiative took them to the annual GDC, where the organization held their annual GDC After Party, supported by Activision Blizzard. For more information about WIGI and the incredible initiative they're apart of visit their official website.