Gamer Girl Spotlight: Olivia Haines

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Olivia Haines is an independent video game developer based in Melbourne. Although Haines has filled DIY with her creations for the past few years, earlier this winter, her popular TikTok about the “urge to only make video games as a form of self-expression” helped nudge her over to the mainstream.

I discovered Haines through that TikTok and became immediately charmed by her particular style of video game. They’re nostalgic, serene, and candy pink-and-blue, often encouraging slow, heavy introspection, like if FromSoftware gave all of its players a fuzzy pen and diary instead of a black screen telling you you died. Instead, Haines’ games have a silver latch on life, and we chatted over email for this installment of Gamer Girl Spotlight.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you first got into video game development. How would you describe your personal relationship with video games and the video game community? Has it changed at all over time?

I hadn’t considered a career in games until I was in grade 11, when I learned that game design was something you could study at university. It felt perfect for me; I’d been fascinated by video games from a young age and spent all my free time making digital art, and it felt like the only field where I could potentially find work for my art.

I assumed I would work towards a concept art or design job and didn’t imagine making entire games by myself. It wasn’t until Bar SK opened in Melbourne — an exhibition space for independent games — that I was exposed to a whole different side of the industry: creators who made experimental, weird, and personal experiences without a team or goal of financial gain. I felt encouraged to try making and releasing games using my existing art skills and limited 3D knowledge, and as soon as I published my first project on I was hooked, and knew I’d made the right career choice.

My relationship with games and the community has had its ups and downs, particularly during university which I found really difficult, as well as the struggle to find work after graduating. 

Now I’m in a place where I feel extremely secure and confident in my abilities, and truly believe that my work has value in this industry.

[Source: Dollhouse]

What motivated you to make this TikTok about games that focus on self-expression rather than traditional “gaming”? How has the response been, and has anything about it surprised you?

I spend a lot of time on TikTok and “the feminine urge to [insert something here]” was a trend I was enjoying. A lot of them are pretty ridiculous and I wanted to join in on the trend and make it about my games, since they have a very “feminine” look and feel. 

Originally, there were a lot of angry comments from people who didn’t get the joke format, and as I saw it continuously climb in numbers, I worried that the negativity would escalate, but it didn’t take long for these comments to be overwhelmed by so many kind, enthusiastic and encouraging words. 

For a long time before the viral TikTok happened, I’d believed the audience for my work couldn’t possibly get any bigger and that I’d reached the maximum amount of growth I was ever gonna get on social media. Turns out my work is very appealing to a lot of people — they’d just never seen it before! This has been the most encouraging surprise ever and I’m so grateful that it happened.

[Source: Station Street]
What has been your experience so far as a woman in game development? Have there been any particularly rewarding moments that you want to share?

It’s thankfully been mostly good, especially in recent years as I’m very lucky to have found an amazing group of friends in games. Earlier on in my career, one of the most annoying things was being treated like an anomaly and having men compare me and my work to other women in games, as if we’re all in competition with each other (for their attention?), but thankfully I didn’t let that stop me from pushing forward.

My partner Andy is also a game developer which has led to situations at events where I’m treated like his poor girlfriend that was dragged along, but we always laugh about this and he’s been the biggest supporter of my work from the beginning.

My most rewarding moments have been any situation where I’ve been able to work with kids. I love kids! I can very clearly remember being a child/teenager and how I felt, my insecurities etc, and I think I’m good at connecting with kids and helping them feel safe and confident. I didn’t know any grown women who liked games when I was young but I know I would’ve idolised them if I did, so I like to think that I can be that cool adult in young girls’ lives that inspired them to get into game development!

[Source: Surf Club]
What does the general public not know about video game development that you think they should?  

Game development can be one of the most difficult things in the world — I’m not gonna deny that — but at the same time, it doesn’t have to be. There are a lot of people in the general public that want to make games, but feel very overwhelmed, but you don’t need to master every kind of game dev skill in order to just start making games. This is a point I’ve been sharing on TikTok with several advice-oriented videos. I’ve been trying to bring awareness to tools that soften the learning curve of game development — GB Studio, Bitsy, RPG Maker, etc — and I hope to encourage people to just give it a go!

I could barely 3D model or use Unity when I made my first game, but I kept my scope small, stuck to my strengths, and released it anyway. You will learn so much from that process regardless of how good the game is. You don’t have to work your way up to making a large commercial project either; some people just keep making tiny games, and that’s cool.

[Source: Surf Club]
Some girls/non-binary people get intimidated by the very white and male dominated gaming space. What advice would you give to those people, who are also often underrepresented in gaming? 

There may not be equal gender representation in gaming spaces yet, but there are growing groups of underrepresented people within the community that look out for each other. Here in Melbourne, there’s the Women & Non-Binary Gamers Club run by ACMI which offers a safe space to enjoy games and make friends. Freeplay (the world’s longest-running independent games festival) celebrates games from every kind of background, and it’s easy to find friends and games that resonate with you at these festivals.

It can be an intimidating world, but things are getting better and your contribution to the space helps. You’ll be helping to break the status quo and let younger generations see themselves in game spaces, and things will only continue to improve from there.

[All images courtesy of Olivia Haines.]

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Ashley Bardhan
Ashley Bardhan is a writer from New York. She thinks about Bloodborne a lot.