Kim Belair co-founded Sweet Baby Inc. to feel safer in the video game industry and continue working in it. Three years ago, she and her co-founders were working at Ubisoft, the developer of Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, when Belair realized she’d have to try something else if she wanted to move up.
“I was just starting to see that there weren’t a lot of ways forward, especially for women, especially for marginalized identities,” Belair said. “And Sweet Baby started simply as a way for myself and two of my colleagues to kind of work in the industry together.”
For years, the video game industry has been grappling with issues of toxic behavior, sexism and institutionalized racism, echoing conversations in other industries. As the latest high-profile example, the Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation into Activision Blizzard, the company behind the Call of Duty franchise.
At Sweet Baby — which designs narratives for a variety of games, including the recently released Sable — Belair hopes to address some of the larger problems in the game industry and promote the idea that it can provide a safe working environment. “I think that part of our job is just kind of showing, ‘Gee, these structures need to change,’” Belair said in an interview with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: Let me quote you back to yourself from a piece you wrote last year about this topic and Sweet Baby and all of that. You wrote, “It shouldn’t take founding one’s own company to feel a little safer.” Talk about that a little bit.
Kim Belair: Yeah, I think I wrote that last year during this sweep of #MeToo events happening across the industry. A lot of sexual abuse was being showcased. All of these people were being named, and people were realizing just how dangerous it is for women in this industry, for marginalized identities, for people who don’t have a place. And I realized that, you know, as the CEO of a company and as part of my own company, I’m able to create a culture within Sweet Baby that is very, very helpful to me. I realized that, you know, that’s such a small experience in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, people who are in this industry are going to work for larger companies that might not have that kind of culture. And my hope is that they don’t have to create, you know, that little vessel, that little submarine of safety, to navigate the harsh ocean waters of prejudice and toxicity.
Ryssdal: That’s a good analogy. But, you know, my sense is a lot of people are probably vaguely to more-than-vaguely aware of the misogyny and some of the really terrible behavior by male gamers. There’s some despicable conduct. I don’t imagine that people are aware that inside the industry, there is an analogy.
Belair: Yeah. I think that a lot of time, people kind of know it as an idea, right? They know that it’s something that exists, but a lot of the time, they don’t know what it looks like. And so they might say, “Yeah, I haven’t seen this” when they don’t realize that a lot of the things that affect people are, are microaggressions. And so I think that perception of the industry is, at times, either people will look at it and go, like, “Yeah, sure there’s some problems, but it’s overall good.” Or they look at it and they go, “Oh well, I see a lot of very loud people saying a lot of very toxic and awful things. That must not be an industry for me, so I’m going to pull out of it.” And so I think that part of our job is just kind of showing what we can do to fight it and showing, hey, these structures need to change.
Ryssdal: Right. The catch here, of course, is that you’ve got to run a business. So, here comes the business question: How is business? How’re you doing?
Belair: Thank you for asking. [We’re] doing very well. We announced our involvement with Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2 and Wolverine. We have Suicide Squad coming up with Rocksteady. We have Goodbye Volcano High with the folks at Ko_op. We’re doing a lot of work. And I think that what’s really, really interesting about that is that it’s not something that I thought we would be able to do, given the position that we have. You know, these are all creative projects at the end of the day, and I’m very heartened by the business and the clients that we’ve gotten because it lets us collaborate on a scale that people can really see the change that we’re bringing.
Ryssdal: There’s a chance that this question I’m going to ask is going to come off as indelicate, but bear with me for a minute. I wonder if it’s extra-stressful for you to be running a business when you got to concentrate on nuts and bolts, but there’s an enormous amount of subjectivity involved.
Belair: I think the hardest part of any creative industry is that feeling of subjectivity, where, you know, if the numbers balance in an accounting job, you know you’ve done a good job, right? But I can write a story, and three years later it’s in the game and I’m just hoping it’s good. You know, you end the day and sometimes you write a script, and you’re like, “Oh, man, I don’t know if this is good.” And then someone reads it and goes, “Wow, this really shines.” Or something you spent a lot of time on and someone’s like, “Yeah, I didn’t really feel anything for that.” So, it is a very subjective business. And I think that subjectivity makes us have to be really sure about what it is we’re making, what we’re doing, and kind of develop a sense of storytelling that is our own, that we feel confident in to guide us through. But the only way to measure that success is, do clients keep coming back? Do the games resonate with people? Do the stories resonate with people? And that’s all we’re looking for.