These TikToks are a playful look into the harsh realities of game development
Leslee Sullivant approaches the camera curiously. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail, and she’s dressed in an olive green button-up against a bar background. “Are you one of the new hires?” she asks. “Oh, you’re the intern!” She offers to sneak you a drink when she learns you’re underage and asks about your boyfriend. You’re not like her wife, she says. The wife doesn’t really get the whole gaming thing. “If you’re looking for a mentor, I’m your guy,” she concludes. The caption on the TikTok video is “grooming.”
The games industry struggles with #MeToo-style reckonings every few months, and Sullivant’s video is a pitch-perfect impression of one of the many insidious ways those problems happen. On TikTok and Twitter, where she later shared the video, people can relate.
As one woman put it: “raise your hand if you’ve met this person.”
Sullivant’s TikToks are more than a way to pass the time — they’re small performances of digital activism and education. “I’m always trying to find a way to make [the industry] better,” she tells The Verge, citing stories of abuse and harassment endemic to the field. “I don’t know how to fix it. In the past, I have raised issues internally only to get punished for them. I have written an article about my time in games, and that’s not going to move the needle. It’s really hard for one person to do something about it. Barring me raising money to start my own studio, which will what? Impact 10 people in 10 years?
“I’m desperate to change the industry for the better. This seemed like one of the ways maybe it could be far-reaching and impactful.”
Through TikTok, Sullivant, a producer with a long career in games, has a chance to reach new audiences she’d never find through other platforms. It’s lower effort than a YouTube video, allowing her to edit in-app and get her point across in less than a minute. The app’s algorithm surfaces videos to users more organically than a place like Twitter, where Sullivant will repost her content to her followers. And the playfulness of TikTok makes it easier to tackle these issues in a direct, albeit tongue-in-cheek, way.
In one video, Sullivant plays a pair of writers interrupted by an executive with terrible advice and impossible standards. In another, she gives two employees, Todd and Amy, performance reviews. Todd gets high marks and feedback. Amy not so much: “Says here you’re a huge bi—” The video cuts.
“I think a lot of these things happen and there aren’t a lot of great avenues to talk about them,” Sullivant says. “I think a lot of these discussions are discouraged, or they have to be done in secret.” That can make it hard for people to speak up at all, let alone find each other for support.
“A lot of these videos talk about stakeholders or people in power,” she says. “God forbid you bring that up at work, or you run into that kind of thing. I’m hoping this is providing an outlet for that kind of emotion and validation.”
Sullivant’s early TikToks are fashion-focused — they were motivation for her to get dressed even while working from home in a pandemic — but she was interested in making videos about millennial work culture. It just took some courage to put her face on camera. “I want to do something that really speaks to my actual work experience and the way I like to cope with my experiences in games, and that’s by poking fun of stuff that happens at game development,” she says.
She aims for “self-deprecating and also trying to highlight the weird issues” that come with a career in game development. And although she says some of her content does have some inside baseball talk, it’s still accessible to someone who doesn’t work in the industry — and maybe even still relatable for someone who doesn’t. “People don’t have to be in the know about how the games industry works to understand the impact of the thing that’s being explored in those videos,” Sullivant says.
Her videos aren’t based on any specific experience, she says, but rather a sort of conglomeration of her 11 years in development. “I was very scared at first, and I always have that sense of regret immediately after publishing a video,” she says. “Is this the one that’s going to get me doxxed?” Her aim isn’t to discuss players or the gaming community, but rather keep it within her industry, and what her peers — or future peers — experience. “The amount of people being like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize this was a problem,’ or even the more senior game devs who were like, ‘I absolutely can see it now, but I didn’t in my 20s, and I want other young people to see this,’ was eye-opening,” Sullivant says.
“We can do a little bit of education and hopefully improve things for the better.”