Honey P. Rosenbloom is the executive director of Friendship Garden, an organization that supports developers from historically marginalized community with resources. A software developer themself, Honey believes in games as a gentle, playful, and sustainable way for players to connect with each other and themselves. Honey is also a founding member of the Alphabet Workers Union, consisting of and representing employees of Google and its parent company.
In this podcast, Honey and I chat about how to get diverse developers the media and recognition they deserve; how Friendship Garden supports developers with scholarships to attend GDC; what a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) does; the power of unions to encourage moral business practices; what a master’s degree in entertainment technology entails; the contrasts in Kentucky Route Zero; and Kickstarter’s use of blockchain technology.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Honey P. Rosenbloom on Twitter
- Friendship Garden
- Alphabet Workers Union
- Charles Huang
- Carrie Furnaces
- Gwen’s Girls
- Game Developers Conference (GDC)
- Gizmodo Media Group settles five-day strike
- Voltage Organized Workers
- Shannon Wait: The woman who took on Google and won
- Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University
- Ian Bogost’s A Slow Year
- The Quiet Year
- Kentucky Route Zero on Kickstarter
- Where Should We Begin
- What Is Russia, What Is Love
- Butterfly Fields
- Kickstarter to use carbon-negative Celo blockchain
- The Green Fallacy
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to the Polygamer podcast, episode number 123, for Wednesday, March 23, 2022. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. In the last few years, you’ve heard about a lot of companies that aren’t so great to work at, like Activision and Electronic Arts and other companies that are doubling down on diversity, equality and inclusion efforts like IBM. But what does it actually mean to be engaged in those efforts? How do you make changes from the inside or even from the outside?
Ken: Well, today we’re going to be talking to just such a person. I’m delighted to be speaking with Honey P. Rosenbloom, the Executive Director of Friendship Garden. Hello, Honey.
Honey P. Rosenbloom: Hi, Ken. Thanks for having me.
Ken: My pleasure. How are you tonight?
Honey: We are exhilarated and exhausted and really, just having a great time with all the possibilities showing up in our life at the moment.
Ken: Oh, my gosh, that is so wonderful. It’s so easy to be thinking about all the things that we’ve been deprived of in the last two years, and here you are with opportunities showing up. I’m excited to be talking to you tonight about some of them. But first, let’s get some background for our listeners, who may not be familiar with you and your impressive and expansive portfolio of work. As I mentioned, you are the Executive Director of Friendship Garden. In a nutshell, what is Friendship Garden?
Honey: Friendship Garden game developers is a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing inclusion in the games industry. We do this by funding, promoting, and providing resources to game developers from historically underrepresented backgrounds through events like Megabooths, Mixers, Pop Up Arcades and Showcases, as well as doing DEI consulting work, facilitation and mediation for Game Studios looking into broadening their equity initiatives.
Ken: That is awesome. How long has Friendship Garden been around?
Honey: It’s been officially around since November of 2018, although it’s been sort of a dream of mine since 2014.
Ken: Wow. So, what transpired in those four years or so when it went from concept to reality? What were the challenges or the delays that you experienced?
Honey: It was a lot. I think that it first started becoming a little seed of a concept when I was taking a course called Race and Pop Culture in undergrad. And looking at how the cinema and serialized media industries treated subject of color, queer subjects, and how those stereotypes and portrayals perpetuated false narratives and continued discrimination that led to really real impacts such as the over incarceration of people of color and violence and fear towards Asian Americans. I felt like games, as such a powerful interactive media, didn’t have a lot of those initiatives to bring underrepresented voices into the fold and have them elevated and their stories heard.
Honey: After doing some research and asking some questions. It seemed like the biggest thing that was really missing was funding and connecting developers to that funding. So, we initially concepted Friendship Garden as almost like an incubator program where we would take in studios, fund them, pair them with publishers, get their games released, and then take a cut of the profits for funding the next step. And then as we were developing, I don’t have a lot of business development experience. I’m an event organizer. I’m a community organizer and planner, and my co-workers and our co-founder, Charles Wong, who was at the University of New York for a period of time when we met and he’s now continuing to doing streaming and his own game production. He goes by muditaheart on Twitch and Twitter.
Honey: We were both like, “Okay, we want to make something that is going to allow more people to have their voices heard. But we don’t really know how to get the funding, and we definitely don’t have the funding right now. So, what are we going to do?” And he suggested that we start by buying space at a conference. It was Play NYC in 2018 and then, essentially loaned the space out to developers that had no ability to pay for that sort of publicity and exposure.
Honey: So, we fronted the money and then we had pay what you can, as little as $0, as much as 350 to cover your personal portion of the booth. And we had eight developers present their works at that booth, and that was sort of like the first iteration of Friendship Garden. We officially incorporated and got our nonprofit status and just sort of like been doing events up until COVID.
Ken: So, are you putting on your own events or are you providing space at other established events?
Honey: Yes, so we’re putting on some pop-up arcades, just small events in-person for people to come and play games made by people that don’t often get heard in games to see games that represent a plethora of people and diversity of perspectives. And we had, I think, one pop-up arcade at a Sammis Musical Fundraiser. It was a benefit concert, that’s the word, benefit concert for Gwen’s Girls here in Pittsburgh. We got to go to a music festival at the Carrie Furnaces and have a small arcade lounge space. So, we got to go to spaces and provide that entertainment.
Honey: We also just did like a pop-up arcade just once in the middle during a game festival. And then, we also provide spaces at conferences like the Play NYC Megabooth. We have been doing a Friendship Garden GDC scholarship for the past three years, where we are able to send developers to GDC. And for the past two years, we’ve been running a mentorship program attached to that, where we do resume reviews and portfolio reviews, as well as networking practice, and just some resource sharing as part of going to GDC.
Ken: Since you’re talking about GDC, that event, as this podcast airs is currently happening. It started two days ago, on March 21st. It ends on March 25th. And we’re recording a little bit a few days before that, but is Friendship Garden at GDC or are you sending people there?
Honey: We are not at GDC this year. We sent five scholars, Matthew Webber, Oliver Hung, Sabiya Sek, Rachel Heleva, and Devin Fanslow to go to the event. They are part of our scholarship program, so we’ll be talking to them very soon. But physically, none of us could really be, could attend this year, which is I’m feeling some anxiety around it. I feel like I want to continue our scholars program. I want to have people there.
Honey: But I also feel a responsibility to make sure that their experience is powerful and safe and connecting and aligned with what their goals are. It’s a lot harder for me to do that without being present. I have taken the week off. I know that Anita, one of our other directors has taken the week off as well, so that we could have some meetings. Please, reach out to us, say hi, shoot us a message on Twitter or schedule a meeting, but we won’t be there in person this year. However, once we do return in person, we’re excited to help out with some events. We’ve been asked to potentially help out with Unparty, which is very aligned in our mission of creating an inclusive, safe space for people that don’t often feel like most GDC parties fit their vibe.
Ken: It’s great that you have the scholarship to send people to GDC. That event is very expensive, from what I understand. I’ve never been there myself. But I also understand it to be an amazing network opportunity. Unlike at PAX East, for example, which I go to every year, which is also a wonderful event. PAX has a very different focus, it’s more about playing the games, whereas GDC is more about meeting the developers. So, when you have these scholarships, remind me, where does that funding come from?
Honey: That comes from GDC. We’ve reached out and we have a partnership with them. Where as a organization focus on bringing inclusion and diversity and equity to the games industry, we are given some passes to give out at our discretion. Which so every year we’ve been doing an open call for submissions and people submit some of their work. They have a few short answer questions and we had a rubric that we sort of sorted through by.
Honey: And every year, it’s so hard to choose just five. I think next year, we’re going to try and get a few more passes because we just get so many really exciting applications. And that’s really the fun part is reading the applications. Being like, “I’m so excited to meet this person. I’m so excited to see this person develop in their career and to join the industry,” because they have so much potential and to just play and energy in a way that I haven’t seen in this space.
Ken: It must be very difficult reading all those applications. As you said, you choose just five because there is so much potential being represented there. And you have to choose just five to put them on the next step in their journey to becoming a recognized published developer.
Honey: Ken, I know it’s hard.
Honey: Yeah, it’s really been amazing that we can help with that. I imagine, as well as a lot of the scholars have said, that it’s been a positive experience. So, we want to make sure that it continues to be that, especially as we try to expand the program.
Ken: Is mainstream media actively overlooking or even subconsciously implicitly overlooking these demographics? Because if so, how do we get them to cover the work that these people are doing, even if we’re putting them right in front of each other?
Honey: I think that there are a lot of pieces to this. Initially, like we were saying how we wanted Friendship Garden to be a funding outlet, there are groups doing that sort of work. You have like the Wings Fund and Glitch and even the game developers of Color Expo has a substantial scholarship and grant for developers. And they’ve been all doing really amazing work at getting games that even just five years ago, probably wouldn’t get as much funding or as many players or even just as much marketing attention as they have been, and really elevating that.
Honey: I think that’s definitely part of it, as well as a bunch of other programs such as like Game Heads and training programs that try and get folks the skills that they need and the connections they need to enter the industry. But I also think that there is the portion of the industry that’s just not kind. It’s an exploitative industry that has historically underpaid its workers. Has historically over leveraged their abilities. A crunch is just almost synonymous with game development, and has been for a while, so just bringing more people into the space of making games isn’t a full solution.
Honey: One of the things that we’re really trying to fill a need for is this addressing the culture as it is because we still have so much management, and executives and so much stake in this old way of doing things. And this really exploitative/extractive process of almost dragging work and dragging games out of employees. So, we are really hoping to try and find more gentle, more caring frameworks that can still produce amazing playful work, but allows space for more people to take part as their full self.
Honey: I think on the part of what mainstream media and people can do is listen. I mean, I think that it’s and this is going to go into like organizing things, but I think that the mainstream media is absolutely going to overlook people. Both intentionally and unintentionally just because of how our systems built, who is in charge, how connections and networking gets made, and the role that gender, sex duality, and race play across as well as class play across. Just like so many areas of our society at the explicit and at a more subliminal level.
Honey: But what people can do is share their skills, promote other people’s shit, get it out there in front of other people, make those connections, because there’s all of us or not all of us. There are so many people wanting for games to be an inclusive space. I mean, I think that if you really ask anybody, the term gamer has so much more weight than people are willing to take on. Even though almost everyone would say, “I like to play.”
Honey: We really want to grow a coalition of folks that can stand up to what has been the way we’ve done things. And it’s through those connections and through listening to people and following up that you can hear what’s going on. You can hear these tricklings of smaller works that you can then connect to someone to say, “Oh, I know a friend or I know an organization. Let me get this piece of work in front of someone that can do something with it and to follow up.” It’s the organizing mentality of like yeah, it’s hard to do something by yourself, but if we all work together in some form of collective action, we can really bring change.
Honey: If I get not just me, but me and my three friends to message one person about my friend’s game that I think is really cool, it’s going to have more weight if I can be part of a network and get it in front of people that can then get 100 people to send it to someone. That’s going to be even more effective. It’s growing these connections and communities and listening to see what’s out there, watch and see what people are making, and really being sharing, active and caring.
Ken: And is this something that you are focused on doing at the smaller scale, like indie developers or are you also trying to get more diverse employees into, say AAA Studios.
Honey: it would be definitely a win to get people to AAA Studios, but with the way that culture is at most of them, I would have a lot of mixed feelings of having that happen. There’ll be a lot of pride, but there will also be a lot of fear as how is individuals going to fare? Are they going to be treated well and respected or are they going to be overtaxed and burnout, as is such a common pattern for people that don’t fit the highest echelon of the social hegemony. We would love to do more of our consulting and facilitation work with AAA studios, because they, honestly, they can afford it. And it would really benefit them to have a more inclusive space. We’ll see if that happens.
Honey: We’re definitely more interested in getting people into indie positions just because they happen to be more flexible, but it’s not a perfect thing overall. I think the biggest win is stuff that Glitch is doing, where they are really trying to support founders of studios that come from backgrounds that are often underrepresented. Because if you have high level management coming from a place of greater experience and a more diverse set of experiences, you would hope that the structure and the company culture will be more equitable. It doesn’t always work that, of course, but the chances of it feel greater.
Ken: You’re right, that is not just a pipeline issue. When you get somebody into the AAA space, it can be hard to keep them there because it is so toxic, as you described. But at the same time, I also know a lot of indie developers who never moved outside that space and are no longer in that space either. They were indie developers and they really enjoyed it, but it wasn’t sustainable. They weren’t ever able to achieve the sort of financial stability that they needed and thus, they dropped out and move to different industries, so it’s challenging. On one hand, they need to move into AAA studios to get that security. On the other hand, they’re trading so much of their own physical and emotional well-being to be there.
Honey: Very much. It’s such a multifaceted approach and it’s going to take generations to really see the shift, but getting more people the possibility of moving up the management chain is a step. The pipeline problem is a step. Funding for indie studios is a step to make it more sustainable. Training for AAA studios to make it more inclusive is another part. It’s all these pieces that really need to help the industry as a whole heal from its roots of being born out of tech and Hollywood, which are traditionally very exploitative of their labor and resources.
Ken: I never thought of it that way that the videogame industry was born out of those because for a long time, games were so different from movies and finally, with the advancement of technology, we’re able to create more cinematic narrative experiences like movies. In a way, we’ve always been there in terms of how exploitive the industry has been.
Honey: Oh, yeah. The video games industry has been traditionally incredibly exploitative of its labor, of its resources, and we’ve seen, especially more recently, a lot of stirrings of things changing. We just had the Gizmodo Media Group strike recently that they won some of their demands. There are stirrings at Active Lizard about a potential union. The Voltage Organized Workers united as a union. Things have been happening where we love to see labor realizing its power.
Ken: And you, I believe, know a little something about unions, because you are one of the, correct me if I’m wrong, founding members of the Alphabet Workers Union. Alphabet being the parent company of Google, is that correct?
Honey: Yeah, I was one of the first members that joined before and helped us go into public mode, January 4th of 2021.
Ken: Wow. Just about a year ago. Happy anniversary.
Honey: It’s such a ride.
Ken: So, there are 800 plus members in this union. Do you have a number of which one you were?
Honey: That’s a good question. I was less than 200, I know that much.
Ken: That’s not bad. Cool. So, tell me about Alphabet Workers Union. Why was it founded and what does it do?
Honey: It was founded very similar for the purpose that most unions are founded for, to fight for the rights of our workers. I know that there is a lot of popular conceptions that Alphabet is a super cushy place to work, and they just feed you lunch and give you massages all day. But for a lot of employees, especially our temporary and contract employees, it’s not like that at all. It’s a far more precarious situation.
Honey: Last year, we helped Shannon Wait, who was a contractor working in our data centers, file two ULP cases against Google after the company that she was working for, one of the companies that Google was contracting, laid her off. Fired her for, essentially asking for another water bottle, even though working in a data center is a lot of heavy lifting. Working around computers that are on all the time, so it’s hot work. Having a water bottle seems like pretty easy and after she vented some of her frustrations on social media, the management called it a breach of confidentiality, which was not. And through Alphabet Workers Union organizing and the help of the CWA, we were actually able to get her job back.
Honey: And there are so many other really frustrating and frankly, just cruel actions that Google often takes against its contractors or allows its contracting companies to make. In the last year, the data center workers were given a $200 per week attendance incentive to help incentivize them to come in during COVID because their work has to be done in-person working on the machines. And then in October, that bonus just sort of disappeared without any word.
Honey: So, a lot of data center workers, at that point, were members of the AWU and started organizing their coworkers and talking to management and organizing some meetings. And minutes before their big meeting to talk about this disappearing bonus happened, they got an email that this bonus was going to be reinstated and all of the back-pay was going to be issued as well. It was over $200,000 in bonuses that they were being held out on.
Ken: Wow. That is a significant sum.
Honey: Yeah. Additionally, a big thing around the treatment of employees is that full-time employees have employee resource groups. There is an employee resource group for Black Googlers, for trans Googlers, but those groups aren’t able to have any of our temporary workers as part of them.
Honey: So, when we had a contract worker that had the wrong name on his identity badge, he wasn’t able to join our Trans Employee Resource Group, which would have helped navigate the process of getting that changed. Instead, it was just sort of stonewalled by their company and saying like, “Oh, yeah, this is the badge you have.” So, part of another campaign that AWU ran Ferris heading it was to allow all TDCs to have the proper name on their identity badge, which just seems like a given for basic employee treatment, but again, a lot of the treatment of our employees is not seen by the public.
Ken: I have heard stories, both positive and negative, about companies and how they treat, for example, trans employees and dead names. And it’s baffling to me that they allow bureaucratic red tape to hold up these very important recognitions for their employees. I don’t understand, I mean, I guess I do understand because companies as large as Google, despite the sector they work in, can be very slow when you are a behemoth with that many employees. But it’s still even though I understand it, it’s still disappointing and frustrating.
Honey: Yeah, it is, it is. But what is inspiring is that there are so many of us that are interested and able to fight for our coworkers. I’m really excited for more and more Alphabet workers to realize that they have the power to change things for the better and to join.
Ken: Yeah, so Alphabet has 156,000 employees or so. What distinguishes the little bit less than 1000 that have joined the AWU? Why have they joined and what drove them to be these founding members?
Honey: There are a number of reasons. I know personally I joined because I want better treatment for all of my coworkers, as well as I want to be able to, as a collective unit, pushback when the company does projects and takes on work that I think is morally compromising and against the company’s values, such as contracts with the military, hosting servers that run our AI for automated drone strikes, selling a search engine to China for surveillance. These sorts of things that potentially infringe upon human rights and liberty.
Honey: As workers creating this, we have a say in what we get to build. And since we are the body of the company, there’s definitely an argument to be made for not doing that work and not allowing it. So, I think that’s definitely a large reason there is this standard work and a fighting for better working conditions for yourself, which a lot of our temporary employees are joining. Because we are focusing on issues that concern our temporary workforce, because they are the most at risk.
Honey: I think that’s one of the spaces where, yeah, we have temporary workers joining because they stand to benefit the most, but also they are in one of the most precarious positions. The other being visa status, where the company is sponsoring your visa. Those are I feel like the two most precarious positions that I constantly run into with employees.
Honey: The people that have joined are the folks that feel secure enough in their job and want to help out their coworkers. They are the people that realize that they deserve to be treated better and they deserve equitable pay and equitable compensation and equitable treatment. And they understand that by standing together as a collective, we’re stronger than trying to change those things on our own. And the people that don’t join are either afraid of retaliation, which is a very real thing, or haven’t heard of us yet, because it’s a large company. It’s hard to get word out all the way, or just really don’t understand what being a union is all about.
Ken: I was going to ask you if fear of retaliation was a factor, and I’m sorry to hear that it is. What sort of forms can that retaliation take?
Honey: We have seen people be shifted to managers that mismanaged them out of their position, essentially, by giving them less work, so that their performance review gets really scarred. We have seen some managers directly meddle in someone’s performance review. Trying to shape teams around, trying to keep people away from social events, and then, finding really any excuse to fire someone. We’ve seen some people be threatened on incredibly flimsy grounds, such as complaining about a water bottle being a breach of confidentiality.
Ken: That just strikes me as so bizarre. If you have an employee who’s doing good work, why would you want to let them go? Why would you want to make their life so much more difficult on, as you said, such a flimsy excuse? And that’s partly a rhetorical question, because who knows what’s going on their heads?
Honey: No idea. We do know that there are union busting consultants that Google has hired. So, they’re going to try a lot of tactics from pizza parties to threats, just see what they do.
Ken: I’ve seen statements from companies that say that they preferred to deal directly with the employees as opposed to the union, as if those are different things. The union is the employees.
Ken: That is so strange to me. So, one of the things you said is when Google or any company that has a union takes on work that might be considered unethical or detrimental, you work to change that. I’ve never really thought of unions as focused on the good of the community, the world, the business. I thought it was more about protecting the employees. And here you are trying to drive Google to remember their original motto of don’t be evil, don’t do evil. So, can you tell me more about how the Alphabet Workers Union chooses what missions to tackle and how they go about doing so?
Honey: It’s all driven internally through interest in buy-in. We have a few groups right now working on trying to get Google to cancel all its military contracts. We have people working around just the environmental aspect of our machine learning. And I think that there is a way you can tie that into employee well-being if you really think that that’s all a union is about. I have a different perspective. But if you’re like a union is an organization of workers fighting for their own well-being. Okay.
Honey: These are all workers that join a company to try and push forward a world of technology for everyone. So, it is damaging to our mental well being and our performance when our work directly contradicts that. That’s an argument that can be made. I personally think a more compelling argument is that the workers are the body of the company. They are the physical manifestation, doing the labor, making the things happen. And if your body or if you tell your body to take poison, it’s going to throw it up. If the body of workers collectively decides through conversations with each other, that it is not good or right to do this thing that is for the better.
Ken: At the same time, when you choose to join that body, you signed a contract to do what the brain tells you to do. So, is pushing back against that, contrary to your prior agreement?
Honey: I don’t know about you, but I tell my body to do some stupid things sometimes. It often lets me know, so it’s whether or not I’m willing to listen to that really change the outcome, but I feel like it’s really similar where, yeah, we did sign the contract that says we are going to be the body. We are going to do the labor. But also you are still our employer and we are doing the work for you. So, if you tell us to do work that we don’t even think is going to be good for you, there’s reason there to watch out for our brain.
Ken: No, that’s a very true point. And one I haven’t thought about in a while, which is that you should listen to your body before you make decisions about things that will affect it.
Honey: Yeah, it’s pretty smart.
Ken: Yeah, and a lot of people forget that. I’ve worked at companies where they made decisions that I considered unethical, and I was very vocal about it. And at one such company, I was called into a one-on-one meeting with the CEO, who was let’s say, my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss.
Ken: None of those people between me and him reached out to me. It just went directly to him and he called me into a one-on-one and it was just to chat. I never at any point felt threatened. He just wanted to better understand why I felt the way I did and he was talking to other employees who shared my views. And ultimately, I don’t think it moved the needle, the decision was still made, the one that we disagreed with. But at the same time, it didn’t impact my employment.
Ken: So, I feel like on one hand, at least the company fosters a community where those disagreements were permitted, and to a degree even encouraged. On the other hand, does it matter in the end? In that case, I don’t feel like it did. I don’t know if that is a case where maybe I should have unionized. I don’t know if that would have made a difference.
Honey: Yeah. I mean, I think the joy of organizing is that you get to connect with a lot of people. And when you said that, was it useless or did it have a point, it makes me immediately wonder what did your coworkers think? What did all of those managers in between yours and the CEO think, like did you leave an impact? And my guess would be yes. The impact could have been higher had you connected with other coworkers and got them on the same page, sure, but there was still an impact. If your goal was to make the change, then organizing is definitely more of a solution. It definitely takes more energy, but I found that the connections that I’ve made through it have really been both rewarding and fortifying in a lot of ways.
Ken: Well, I want to talk to you about another aspect of that sort of rewarding internal work, which is diversity, equality and inclusion or DEI for short. Your first stint at Google was as a DEI analyst, which I’ve heard those two phrases separately. I’ve never heard them put together. What does a DEI analyst do?
Honey: So, I’m going to correct you just a little bit. It wasn’t my first role at Google. It was a six-month role I took in the middle of my time there to backfill for someone on the team that was on medical leave. I was searching for a different role and this one came up and I’ve always been passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion, so I figured these are things that I could do. And I was right.
Honey: A DEI analyst at Google looks at our diversity information in terms of hiring, promotion, and attrition. And runs the numbers across all cuts of sex, race, job level and job specification to look at the numbers of who we’re hiring, who’s getting promoted, who’s leaving. And are we going to be able to create some interventions around solving that or changing problem areas, as well as are we going to be able to hit our target numbers for the year.
Ken: In my experience, I have not worked in DEI myself, but from the outside looking in, what I have observed is that there is often a DEI group at a company. And they make recommendations and they support each other very well. But sometimes the corporate decision is not necessarily hiring, but what kinds of business a company pursues, is not informed by that DEI perspective. There’s a disconnect, where DEI is doing one thing and the corporation is doing a separate thing. What has your experience been?
Honey: It’s fairly similar. Yeah. I would say that I’m really excited and I was thankful for how our DEI department operated in terms of the work they were taking on, the way that they were planning the work and executing the work. We had, especially last year, some really amazing initiatives being developed and being worked on at Google in terms of increasing our diversity, increasing inclusion efforts, but it is a very underfunded, understaffed department.
Honey: Everyone in it was really burnt out, doing amazing work, really pushing for some change, and the credit all went to the company. Inside the department, they would recognize individual contributions, but by and large, the outside credit all goes to Google. And then they still have to work ridiculous hours with not as many people as they need to do the work. And there’s such a big pushback from higher ups.
Honey: As well as like Google is really, really, really data driven. And it is of my personal opinion that inclusion work is people work. And if you are trying to base your programs and inclusion efforts on hard numerical data that you get back, it just isn’t going to work. You’re not going to be able to focus on the right things, because you’re looking for measurable, you’re looking for quantifiable. And a lot of the skills of listening, holding space, making people feel heard and included and be able to show up authentically, it’s not really something you can measure with numbers.
Ken: Well, that’s surprising to hear, because I remember reading an article in Scientific American that it’s scientifically proven, more diverse teams are more productive. And I would think that more diversity would encompass all the qualities you just mentioned.
Honey: Yeah. More diverse teams that, and I’m not a Scientific American, but more diverse teams definitely are more productive. But I think that there is likely a caveat of more diverse teams that have a work culture that allows for that authenticity. Because I think a lot of times, even if you’re on a team, showing up to work as yourself doesn’t always feel safe or invited. And that I know for myself, that’s really been the source of a lot of burnout and dissatisfaction.
Ken: Yeah. I talked to Arthur Inacio of Harmonics on this podcast two months ago. And he talked about how working in the video game industry as somebody who is not a straight white cis man often requires being a chameleon and trying to fit in to the larger group and to their expectations of you. And that is understandable, but it’s frustrating and defeats the point of diversity.
Honey: Yeah, yeah. We want a space where we can have lots of people and have them be themselves. And not just be themselves, but be heard, be seen, and be taken an interest in. We want to foster curiosity. We want to foster listening. We want to foster communication and care. And sometimes, the company is like, “All right. We’ll just stick them together and it will be fine.”
Ken: And you’re saying that doesn’t work?
Honey: There are cases, I’m sure, there are cases. But by and large, if you just create the facade and stick it inside of a structure that is already built, you don’t get a lot of change.
Ken: Yeah, that sounds an aspect of tokenism to me. So, one other aspect of working at Google, I wanted to ask you about, is that a lot of companies have non-compete clauses, so that any you can’t produce competing works on your own time or sometimes, you can’t produce any works in the same industry, whether or not they would be competitive. For example, I used to work at Computer World Magazine as an Editor. And they didn’t cover the view game space, but it would have been a conflict of interest had I launched my YouTube channel with unboxing videos and lets plays while an editor in Computer World because they were both technology multimedia companies.
Ken: So, at Google, you presumably have some sort of a non-compete clause. And you’re also a software developer, in your own time, a games developer, which I have many more questions to ask you about. Does work at Alphabet limit your endeavors in your own time, in that space?
Honey: Luckily, no. Our non-compete clause is very flexible and up for debate. So, as long as we are not doing something that is a service Google already provides, which granted, is quite hard. Google provides a lot of different services, then we’re allowed to pursue it. And if we think that it might potentially infringe upon that clause, we can send it to a review board that will ask us follow-up questions and decide whether or not it is something that we can pursue.
Ken: I think I remember reading that Amazon employees if they make video games, it has to be made available through Amazon’s Marketplace. So Google, of course, they have Google Stadia where you make games. Isn’t that considered competition for Google Stadia?
Honey: Not anymore. There was a period of time where Google had its own team on Stadia and was starting to make games. But for the most part, they’ve pivoted towards Stadia being a platform and working on partnerships to bring games to Stadia. So, making games is no longer part of the business Google considers itself to be involved in.
Ken: That’s useful for you.
Ken: So, let’s talk about some of the games that you’ve made, and also how you came to be a game maker. You have a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, and a master’s specifically of Entertainment Technology, which I’ve never heard of. I’ve heard of Computer Science. I’ve heard of Interactive Media and Game Design or IMGD. What distinguishes Entertainment Technology from some of those more traditional fields?
Honey: Yeah. Entertainment technology is just a really broad degree. And I think that it was sculpted, so that we could have the experience in our program that we had, where it wasn’t necessarily focused on Computer Science. It wasn’t necessarily even really focused on games specifically. There were three general areas of interest for people in our program and that was games, themed entertainment, or location-based installations, and interactive media, or sorry, interactive narrative and animation.
Honey: So, the spectrum of what was being made is a lot larger than just games, although I think play is involved in all of those and it was vastly interdisciplinary. We had writers and we had producers and we had artists and modelers and riggers and programmers. We had people that had a background in theater or dance come in and want to be part of this program. Want to make creative, technological, interactive artifacts for people to enjoy.
Honey: And so, it was this really interdisciplinary program that was a lot of teamwork, a lot of project work. And we got to create things for clients, which I find really fun and intriguing. Additionally, improv was a required course, which I had been doing improv for about four or five years at that point. I’m like, “Oh, a school that requires improv as part of its curriculum sounds like a school that I want to be part of.” Because I find so many skills from improv just come into my life every day and make it so much better and more rich.
Ken: Yeah. I have a friend who co founded the improv troupe at our undergraduate and he went on to give talks and lectures about how improv is relevant to every day of his life. Now, he is the President and CEO of a software company and he says, it’s just as relevant as it’s ever been.
Honey: It’s great. I think the thing about improv is it is learning how to work collaboratively to make everyone have a good time, and acting in the moment. And usually, life doesn’t give me the script of what’s happening beforehand, so I act in the moment a lot. As well as someone that enjoys community building and connection, making other people look good and finding ways to be with others in pleasurable, entertaining, or even just authentic ways is something that I’m always using.
Ken: So, you’re saying improv can help me live in the moment and think of the right comeback less than six hours later?
Honey: It’s possible. It certainly is possible.
Ken: Wow. What a world.
Honey: I know.
Ken: Also, brief aside, you mentioned location-based entertainment as one of the fields. Does that mean that I could basically get a master’s in Escape Rooms?
Honey: Yeah. If we actually had a group of students make for one of their projects on Escape Room. And it was incredibly ambitious and way over scoped for the time that they had to make it, but it was very impressive.
Ken: Wow, wow. What a school. I’ve never even heard of this program and now, I want to drop everything and go there.
Honey: It was really fun. I had a really wonderful time learning and creating things that I know I would not be able to create in a more commercial environment as well as just making some really powerful connections that have helped me in my own game development journey.
Ken: So, you took this education and even before that and certainly after, you’ve been a game maker. You’ve been developing your own software. Your website says that you hope to use games as containers for people to connect more deeply with themselves. What kind of games do you feel do that? Can I accomplish that with Call of Duty Black Ops?
Honey: It’s possible. I think that there is certainly a set and setting where Call of Duty Black Ops can connect you to yourself, but I think that it’s often more rare and the exception rather than the expected outcome. I really want games to allow people to connect to themselves, to connect to others, and to find those moments where those distinctions disappear before they connect to the ineffable being that is. I think that for me games like Sound Self and Quiet Year, Kentucky Route Zero, Dialect, even D&D, really allowed me space to connect with people to connect with myself in creative ways.
Honey: I feel like in the Quiet Year, I’m taking on a character and I’m learning my own thoughts around what is important for survival, what is important for community, what is important for protection. In D&D, I get to experiment with identity and take on a new character. And I think that any sort of performative action or performance, especially in the sense of theater, allows you to connect to parts of yourself that you might not otherwise because you are trying to create this thing that is outside of you, but still originates from you. As well as like Kentucky Route Zero being this wonderful, magical realist journey. It touched on topics of addiction and loneliness, and connection, and just legacy and lineage that made me think about those in my life in very different ways.
Honey: So, I think that it really depends on the person and the space, but there are definitely games that more readily encourage that. I think the games that I make are really situated between the interactive installation and game space where I, for me, the games that do it most is when we are together in person. So, like couch Co-Op games, tabletops ARGs, physical games. I started getting into some LARPs. I’m really loving it, but COVID makes it hard.
Ken: Yeah. I moderated a panel at PAX-East a couple years ago about the unique power of couch Co-Op. Online gaming is wonderful, especially in a time of COVID. And I certainly don’t mean to detract from that but it’s very different from couch Co Op, too.
Ken: I’m also very curious about your experience with a couple of games you mentioned. First was a Quiet Year. I think I’m thinking of something else when you first brought that up because there was an Atari game by Ian Bogost called A Slow Year. That’s slightly different, right?
Ken: So, what’s a Quiet Year?
Honey: Quiet Year is a really small tabletop role-playing map game where you play, you’d take on the group of a community living after the collapse of civilization for a year before something really bad happens. You have a deck of cards and each card triggers an event that you have to respond to. And so, you’re essentially adding to this communal drawing of the map of your community, commune, village, whatever you want to call it. And adding to it as part of this sort of collective imagery narrative. It’s very fun.
Ken: Awesome. I will have to look that up. Thank you. And I’ll include a link in the Show Notes for this podcast as well. The other game was Kentucky Route Zero. I was one of the 200 original backers on Kickstarter, which was 11 years ago.
Ken: I was so excited when it finally came out on Switch. Unfortunately, you and I had different experiences with the game. I fell asleep playing it.
Honey: Wow. Okay.
Ken: I found the narrative very disjointed, where one moment I’m doing one thing and the next moment, I’m doing something completely different. And it didn’t make sense to me how I got from one place to the other and what the value was and what I was doing in the game. I also, I have a background in community theater and this is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen and the visual design, the set changes were so impressive.
Ken: There were moments where it was so subtle, the game had me focus on one part of the screen while it was off changing another part of the screen. And when I looked back, and it had changed over time, without me noticing, it was just magic. I love that aspect of the game. But the narrative didn’t hit home for me like it did for you.
Honey: Yeah. I really love that game. Thank you for backing it all those years ago.
Ken: Yeah sure. I don’t regret that.
Honey: Yeah, it is so beautiful. I think the first moment that I was like, “Wow, this is a really neat game.” It was that set change in the first act when you go, I think it’s still Shannon’s house and the walls disappear and you zoom in on that TV, and there are horses, a really magical moment. And then it really hit me, again, when you switch control from Shannon to Conrad and realize that you’re the director and not a character.
Honey: And those sort of playing with choices and not really being able to change much as well as using text. There were those segments where you go to a place and there’s no visuals, it’s just text. Really allowed me to think about media and medium and what each medium is powerful and good at. And why you, is it something at certain places and why I use medium I do. What it means to be a single person versus I mean, as somebody that is very gender fluid, I am exploring the ways that I present myself. And so, being able to shift all those characters, I was like, “Wow, I think this is a thing that I might actually be into.”
Ken: Wow, that is amazing. I’m so glad you had that experience.
Ken: It’s definitely a game I recommend people try because it’s going to be something different for everybody. And we shouldn’t judge it based on our own personal experiences, because that would be limiting to other people.
Honey: Isn’t that true of most games, though, where, I mean, I’m sure there are some games that you’re like, “Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend this.” But every experience is a personal experience and I can only share what I got out of it. And what I hope that you might instead.
Ken: I mean, I think we can all agree that you shouldn’t play Superman 64, for example.
Honey: I’m sure there’s an argument to be made against that, but okay.
Ken: Well, my friends, Susan and Amanda, always tell me that there are two different scales on which any piece of work can be evaluated. There is how good it is and there’s how much you enjoyed it.
Honey: I like that.
Ken: And those two things do not have to be correlated.
Honey: But how does one measure quality? I’m guessing goodness in terms of quality and not moral acumen.
Ken: Yes, that is correct.
Honey: And is this quality just in terms of craftsmanship? Like, “Oh, yeah. These textures are really well-drawn. The load times are very low. The response between my controls and the actions feel really good.
Ken: I think a large part of it is both societal norms and consensus, so that both things are going to change over time. And something that’s beautiful one day might not age well, for example, especially as society’s morals change. But generally, I think we can look at the bestsellers of books and movies and yes, commercial success and critical success are not the same.
Ken: But I think generally, we can agree this is a well-written book, whether it’s Shakespeare, or Charles Dickens, or Brandon Sanderson, or John Scalzi. And on the other end of the spectrum is Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Ken: So yes, there are arguments to be made for any one of those being good or bad in contrary to popular opinion, but again, it’s more what is the consensus in that moment in time. But back to your kinds of games, you’ve made quite a few and you listed so many on your website, that I don’t want to ask you about a specific one. Rather, I want to ask you, what are some of the games that you are most proud of that you’ve made?
Honey: I think the one that I’m most proud of is the one that I’m still currently working on. And I hope to have it at least at a state where I could release it on a small level or decide to kick start it by the end of the year. Butterfly Fields, which I started working on back in 2019 as a large scale party game. The idea was for conferences. It was this pervasive game that players could drop in and drop out at any time without changing the experience of anyone else. You could scale it up to, I think the max we had was 60 people at the same time, so really massive, really accessible, really fun. And the whole point of it was to get you to meet other people, to have engaging conversations, to act a little silly and push you outside of your comfort zone, so that you can connect in meaningful ways.
Honey: Since COVID has happened, it’s been a bit harder to play test. I have been revising the mechanics as well as adding some modular rules to allow it to play more smoothly, and a group smaller than 10 people. And I’m really happy with how it’s turning out. It’s in a similar vein as group therapy or Esther Perel’s storytelling game, that’s a name escaping me, Where Should We Begin? Yeah, Where Should We Begin? But a lot more interactive and silly.
Honey: I think, and another one I’m really excited about is I did a tabletop, almost ARG one shot called What is Russia? What is Love? And it is a tabletop game about being spies during the Cold War. All the players are told there’s a secret trader at the beginning. And there are a few big twists that I won’t reveal right away, because they will spoil the experience. But the whole game builds to this moment of self-revelation and then followed by acceptance and care.
Honey: And I wanted to mirror sort of an experience of coming out to a good community or a good family that is able to hold that and care for you. I think that there’s a lot of tension and stress around coming out as queer and whatever flavor that might land or align with one. I know that it certainly was for me, and I have a phenomenal mother that has just supported me throughout.
Honey: And I really want that experience to happen for other people, because there are many folks in my community that did not have that response. So, I wanted to share a little of that turmoil with players and then almost envision what a caring response could be or a caring future could be. And from the responses I’ve got from players, some of the mechanics that I incorporated into the game to heighten that tension, that insecurity and that fear worked really well to sort of mirror that.
Ken: Wow. That sounds like a very powerful and I hope, positive experience for players.
Honey: Yeah, it seems like it has been. We haven’t really traumatized anyone, which is, you know. We’re always trying to stay away from that, which I think is hard when you’re trying to make games that deal with such emotionally volatile content.
Ken: Sure, sure. And the game Butterfly Fields, that actually, I lied, that was a specific game I was going to ask you about because if you ever need beta testers, my company, which is fully remote, now that we are vaccinated, we’re resuming in person meetups. And this will be the first time we’ve met each other in person and we’re looking for ways to get to know each other better. If you ever need beta testers, you let me know.
Honey: I would love to, yeah.
Ken: Cool. And what is your vision for the final form of Butterfly Fields? When will it be out of its cocoon?
Honey: I’m hoping by the end of this year, I will have at least the physical game all concepted out and ready to either go on Kickstarter to be funded with a stretch goal of an app that I’ve been developing as a way to allow people the experience at a distance or more excessively without the cards. Because right now, it is entirely mediated by physical playing cards.
Ken: Well, that’s one of the reasons it’s an in-person event is because you designed it for your own birthday party, right?
Honey: Yeah, I designed it for my birthday party. When I had just moved to the Bay Area, I had a lot of groups of friends that I knew and then groups of friends that I was just starting to meet and very few of them knew each other. So, I was like, “How do I get these people to come celebrate me and make other connections?” Because, I don’t know about you, but my friends are pretty cool. And I think that they would like each other a lot if they just knew each other. So, that was the idea behind it.
Ken: Yeah, it can be challenging when different social circles suddenly start to interact. You know that they’re all cool, otherwise, why would they be your friends? But how do you get them to be cool with each other and having something that helps you tear down those barriers can be extremely useful.
Honey: We had people rolling on the ground and laughing and splashing water on each other by the end of an hour. So, I was like, “All right. We’re good.”
Ken: That’s a success. Wow. Well, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it and whenever and whatever form that is. And if there’s a Kickstarter, you let me know. I will back it. I will share it on the social media. I’m a huge fan of indie games on Kickstarter. I think it’s a wonderful way to bypass the traditional publisher model and retain control of your own intellectual property. So, yes, please do that and please let me know.
Honey: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for the support.
Ken: Of course.
Honey: We will see. I know that. And this is certainly off topic, but what are your feelings around Kickstarter’s decision to start going on to the Blockchain?
Ken: Well, if this wasn’t the first time I was hearing of it, I’d have a more informed opinion. I did not know about this. The sector that I work in day-to-day, I was more aware that one password was going into cryptocurrency. I didn’t know about Kickstarter. What is Kickstarter doing with Blockchain?
Honey: I can send you a link. I’ve heard tell that what Kickstarter wants to be doing is building their infrastructure on something that is Web 3 compatible. So, essentially building their, it’s changing their site to be integrated with Blockchain. Potentially for transactions, for better cataloguing of projects that go on there.
Ken: Yeah. Okay. I’m seeing their press release now. I don’t see a publication date on it, but I assume it’s recent. And oh, here we go, December 8th 2021. Maybe it’s my own misunderstanding of what Blockchain is, but I don’t feel like it contributes enough value for so many people to be adopting that, the way they are. For cryptocurrency NFTs, I’m not commenting on the value of NFTs, but I do understand how Blockchain enables it. I don’t understand what Blockchain would enable for a company like Kickstarter.
Honey: Right. I am similarly confused. I also just really dislike the way that Blockchain is integrated into so many things and marketed these days. It feels almost like the green fallacy, but in the Four Data.
Ken: I’m sorry. What is the Green Fallacy?
Honey: For green consumerism where there’s such a push to like, “Buy an electric car and recycle and use compostable things.” Where the real issue with our environmental shift is company’s pollution and unregulated pollution for the sake of production and capital. You can drive all the electric cars throughout and not use all the straws you want, it’s not going to make a dent in international air travel.
Honey: It feels similar in the sense that things being on the Blockchain is like, “Oh, look, you’re going to have to pay for every transaction you make on the internet, because no longer is the Internet Service Provider going to be the one dictating how you get on the internet. It’s a distributed network that you get to join. But in order to do things on it, you’re going to have to pay.” Which I’ve heard the argument that it makes the cost of using the internet more transparent.
Honey: But as something that’s become such a utility to so many people, it feels that cost, both doesn’t cover what’s needed and neglects the very real environmental cost of mining all the materials that goes into the computer, running those computers, getting the material to power those computers. It doesn’t seem to just be offset by me buying a piece of cryptocurrency every time I want to do something online.
Ken: I hear you. Kickstarter is a public benefit corporation, so it’s a little bit different from a traditional capitalistic organization. So, I’m not surprised that their press release about Blockchain says that they will be using a carbon negative blockchain. One of my objections to Blockchain is how terrible it is for the environment. I would have to read further to understand how a Blockchain can be not just carbon neutral, but also carbon negative. I mean, I’m initially suspicious, but that describes my reaction to a lot of things.
Honey: I appreciate the initial suspicion. I think tech skepticism is a good way to not get taken advantage of.
Ken: Yeah. And on Kickstarter, I think being skeptical is very much necessary. And that’s not a comment on the public benefit corporation that is the platform. It is a comment on the projects it hosts. I mean, they’ve even put up a disclaimer when you’re checking out with your pledge, “This is not a store. You’re not buying a product. Let’s be clear about that. Check this box to make sure you understand. Okay, now we’ll take your money.”
Honey: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ken: Well, that was a fun tangent. Thank you for educating me about something I didn’t know about, which you’ve been doing for the last hour and a quarter, but particularly about Kickstarter.
Honey: I’m really just enjoying chatting with you.
Ken: Well, I’ve enjoyed chatting with you. We’ve covered so much ground: Friendship Garden, the Alphabet Workers Union, your own career, Carnegie Mellon University, Kickstarter. We could have made a full podcast about any one of those things. I appreciate your willingness to provide a broad overview of all of them.
Ken: For those who are interested in these topics, let’s give them some links where they can follow up online. Let’s start with Friendship Garden, where can they find that online?
Honey: That is at friendshipgardengames.com.
Ken: Fantastic. And of course, from there, there will be links to all your various social media. What about the Alphabet Workers Union?
Honey: That is alphabetworkersunion.org.
Ken: And last but not least, yourself, Honey P. Rosenbloom. For people who want to follow you online, where do they go?
Honey: Gasp! You want to follow me??
Ken: I do, I do!
Ken: Fantastic. There’ll be links to all those in the Show Notes. And I did notice on your website of, sorry, was it Mystic Cyborg?
Honey: Queer Cyborg Mystic.
Ken: Queer Cyborg Mystic. I did notice that and I was like, “You know what? There’s a lot to unpack there. Maybe we’ll just save that for the next episode.”
Ken: Well, Honey, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. Again, anybody who wants to follow you, the links are all on polygamer.net. Honey, thank you for your time.
Honey: Thank you so much for your questions, Ken. I’ve really appreciated your presence and your curiosity and your, just, precision. Thank you for this opportunity, and I hope to be in touch.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.