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Muriel Tramis | The First Black Female Game Designer

Gamingtodaynews1e - Muriel Tramis | The First Black Female Game Designer
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The following is a post from my blog that I decided to post here. Took me over 6 months of research to find her. This post also contains our full interview. I hope you enjoy the story.

In February of this year, I decided to do a list video that would highlight the contributions made by people of color to the video game industry. The video was meant to go up during black history month. It did not.

Halfway through the list, I realized I only had black men. So, I wanted to include women, and then a thought came to me, “Who was the first black woman to work as a game designer?” I didn’t know the answer, so naturally, I went to Google.

(imagine an image of a google search here)

Yup, I googled “First black female game designer”, and Carol Shaw was the top result, the answer that Google with its sophisticated algorithm decided was the best fit for my query. I entered multiple variations of my search, even trying advanced searches, and yet, Google had no answers.

To be clear, Carol Shaw is an amazing woman and certainly deserves all of her accolades – and then some – for being the first female game designer. However, she wasn’t the person I was looking for.

I was shocked when Google had no answers, and furthermore, I didn’t even see anyone asking the question. How could this be? It seemed like such a simple question, but then, I had to take a good long look at myself, too. I pride myself on my knowledge of gaming facts and information, but I didn’t even know the answer and hadn’t thought to ask until now.

After Google let me down, it was time for some good old-fashioned research. I grabbed a few books, one of which was Women in Gaming: 100 Professionals of Play by Meagan Marie, which is a series of interviews with and facts about women in the gaming industry. My fiancée went through and highlighted all the women of color in the book, while I went online to find a lead. I started my search by looking into companies from the 1970s through to the 1990s. I went through the company photos from the various video game studios, looking for black female employees. I went through page after page of lists of employees who worked at these companies, checking nearly every name and cross-referencing them with a list of known black IT graduates. After that, I looked up each name to see who they were and what they did. Originally, I was only going to look up feminine sounding names, but a combination of FOMO and paranoia had me look up every name, just to be thorough.

A couple of months later, and the only lead I had, was from the book I mentioned earlier, Women in Gaming. My lead was a woman by the name of Muriel Tramis. The beginning of her career was the earliest date I could find of any other black woman working as a game designer anywhere. I was fairly confident she was the first at this point, but I needed to be sure. My worst fear was overlooking someone.

I decided I needed help. I got in contact with Ed Smith, one of the first black men to work on a gaming console, by reaching out to Benj Edwards who wrote a magnificent article about Smith and the Imagination Machine.

Ed and I exchanged emails, and I asked him if he was aware of any black women working in the industry as a developer or designer at the same time he was. Unfortunately, he did not, so my next step was to reach out to to others who specialize in gaming and technology.

At this point, I have to take a moment to thank Tanya Depass the founder and director of I Need Diverse Games, an organization that supports projects, research, and creative works by marginalized people. I was starting to get some pretty heavy impostor syndrome and didn’t think I was qualified enough to handle this story. Her advice really helped me through that.

Tanya also suggested that maybe there was already information on the first black female game designer, and it may just be behind some university’s paywall. So, I reached out to several professors who specialize in either gaming, communications, or technological history. Dr. Kishonna Gray was particularly helpful. She went above and beyond, quickly responding to my emails and even asked people she knew that work in the gaming industry for help. Mind you, this happened right after the tragic murder of George Floyd, and I, like the rest of the black community, was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. So, I can’t put into words how appreciative I was of her hard work.

After my extensive research and reaching out, all the information I gathered pointed back to Muriel Tramis, so much so that I am now confident in saying she was the first ever black woman to work as a game designer. I started to read more into her life and various projects, and I have been impressed beyond belief.

You can watch us summarize Muriel’s career with excerpts from this interview in this micro-documentary.

https://youtu.be/rHM0U-IBqxc

Muriel’s story began on the Caribbean island of Martinique. From a young age, she loved board games and eventually became interested in games that were based around strategy, like chess, go and Monopoly. It didn’t take her long, however, to realize that she’d rather be the one making the games than the one only playing them. So, she started creating her own games, such as authoring crossword puzzles and eventually, moving on to more elaborate things, like planning murder mystery parties for her friends.

After graduating high school, Muriel left Martinique to pursue a degree in engineering at the Higher Institute of Electronics in Paris (Institut Supérieur d’Electronique de Paris). She then landed her first job out of school working for Aerospatiale, an aerospace company where she was responsible for optimizing maintenance procedures for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). However, Muriel eventually realized this wasn’t what she wanted to do.

After 5 years with the company, Muriel left Aerospatiale, took some time to study marketing, and then got a job at Coktel Vision, a video game development company that, at the time, was just starting up. Quickly recognizing her talents, Coktel Vision had Muriel start to design what would become her first video game: Méwilo.

To help write the story, Muriel collaborated with French writer and longtime friend, Patrick Chamoiseau. For the story, they looked to home and decided to base the game off “The Legend of Gold Jars”, an old Martinican legend. In the legend, it is believed that during the slave revolts, the masters of the plantations would hide their gold by telling a slave to place it in a jar and bury it. Once the holes were dug, the slaves were killed and buried with the gold, so their restless spirits would keep outsiders away.

The game is a first-person point-and-click adventure that has you play an expert in the paranormal on May 7, 1902, a day before the eruption of Mount Pelée, which was a real-life occurrence that killed approximately 29,000 people, making it the deadliest eruption of the 20th century. In Méwilo, the goal is to learn about the history of the island by investigating different areas, solving puzzles, and interrogating people who live there.

The following year, in 1988, the same year Super Mario Bros. 2 was released, Muriel released her second game, Freedom, a game about slaves fighting their masters.

Phil Salvador of The Obscurity said it best when he states:

“Freedom still shocks today, and that it debuted the same year as Super Mario Bros. 2 is almost unfathomable in the traditional framework of game history and culture.”

This isn’t to say that Mario and the other games of the time weren’t amazing and groundbreaking. To the contrary, those games were (and still are) excellent and deserve their praise, but an argument could be made that because they are so popular, they helped form the idea that video games were only for children and the child at heart. Even today, we still debate if video games are a medium that can handle serious topics appropriately.

Though recently games like the Last of Us, Tell Me Why, and a handful of others are just now in the last decade bringing heavier and more serious themes and topics to video games, Muriel in a way foreshadowed that just because it is a video game, doesn’t mean its story can’t be taken seriously and handled appropriately in a mature manner.

Muriel worked at Coktel Vision for many years, arguably helping to develop the company’s most recognizable games. But in 2003, after over a million copies of the games she helped work on had sold, Muriel left Coktel Vision and started her own company, Avantilles, a company that develops and publishes 3D and virtual reality products.

Though the video game industry still remains quite non-inclusive to women and people of color, Muriel counts herself lucky to have worked at a company that was as diverse and supportive as Coktel Vision.

Despite not facing discrimination as a woman or person of color in the early days of her professional career at Coktel Vision, Muriel realizes that women are still underrepresented in the fields of technology and science. So, for years, Muriel has traveled to advocate for and speak to young women to encourage them to consider careers in science and technology, stating that:

“Young girls are still too often pushed into so-called female jobs in art, psychology, or communications, while young boys are pushed into hard sciences. And We should work on girls’ ambition from an early age”

She has also worked to put a focus on prominent people of color in these fields to help show young people positive role models in order to inspire them by allowing them to see someone who looks like them do something that they want to do, making it a little less scary and little more encouraging because they have a reference for success.

Though many of us in the States may not have heard of Muriel’s groundbreaking hard work, her dedication to video games and activism have not gone unnoticed. In 2018, Muriel was appointed a Knight of the Legion of Honor (Légion d’honneur) in France, which, if that sounds impressive, that’s because it is. It is the highest order of merit for civilians and military in France. This made Muriel the first female and second ever game designer to receive the merit.

We’ve put together a micro-documentary if you’d like to learn a bit more about Muriel. Also, at the end of the interview in this article, there are links to other resources, so you can find out more about Muriel and her incredible story.

What follows is an interview between Muriel and I that was conducted in August of 2020 in which we go over everything from the upcoming game release she’s most anticipating to her take on the Black Lives Matter movement.

An Interview With an Icon

Editor’s Note: Muriel Tramis’s answers have been transcribed and translated from French to English, and we have lightly edited them for clarity and grammar.

The Icon: When did you first start to suspect you were the first black female game developer?

Muriel Tramis: Well, it was very late, when I was given the opportunity to be a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 2018.

So, I will explain what the Legion of Honor is. It is a medal of honor in France, so I’m not sure if it would be known outside of France. The medal is given to decorate people who are considered most deserving. Initially, it was mostly for people in the military and then it became for civilians, too.

So, in my case, the Ministry of Culture nominated me. In fact, I received nominations from all the existing French Ministries that submit nominations to those they find deserving, and then the Chancellery chooses the candidates. So, my nomination coming from the Ministry of Culture means that my video games have been considered a ‘cultural tool’.

So, there it is, I found out I was the first woman – a pioneer so to speak – in the video game industry to design video games since my career started in 1987.

TI: Have you ever spoken about being the first black female game developer?

MT: Only the American media tells me about my Afro-descendant origins probably because the concerns of the community are widely accepted in the US; whereas in France, there is more reluctance to talk about this aspect. The French media has mentioned my Martinican origins, but they have mostly focused on my gender because the digital industry is predominantly male.

TI: What would it mean to you if when someone googled, “first black female game developer” that your name and picture appeared?

MT: You can speak in the present tense, since it still happens if you google it in French. I’m very proud of my family, my friends, my engineering school and my country of origin (Martinique).

If it appeared in English as well, I would be very proud for all the sisters (and brothers) in the world.

TI: Initially, what got you interested in technology and video games?

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MT: First, I have a degree in basic computer engineering. I really started my career in armaments . Back then, I was programming military drones, which now drones are really trendy. And voilà, I started in the military field. After 5 years doing this work, it became far too much. I started to feel conflicted.

I wanted to change my field of work. I wasn’t sure where to go, but I was sure that I didn’t want to spend my entire professional career in that field. So, at that time, I took training in marketing to develop a complimentary skill because I didn’t want to be stuck solely in tech. After completing this kind of training , you always have to do an internship to apply your new skills.

The school wanted the students to find an internship for themselves that would hire them afterwards. When looking for this, I was already starting to play video games. While doing my research, I came across a game development company that was starting to market educational games. Then someone told me about this small start-up company called Coktel Vision.

So, at the beginning I did a marking ad for them. This allowed me to see how they worked, to meet the different employees, and I liked it. At the end of my internship, I proposed to program a video game about the history of the West Indies .

TI: Do you have or have you had any mentors that you look up to?

MT: Yeah, I do have mentors, not really mentors, but people I admire from history. Also, I’m still sensitive to black people’s fight for civil rights. For example, like many black Americans, I admire Martin Luther King, Jr. and also Mandela from South Africa who both fought for black people’s rights. There are more people I admire in France, such as Christiane Taubira, though I do not believe she is well known in the United States.

TI: This is a bit of a personal question. You said that you didn’t want to program the drones anymore. What made you conflicted about whether or not you wanted to do that? Was it that you had a moral objection to it, or was it something you were no longer interested in?

MT: Well, it was both actually. It was already a moral question because I was around arms dealers whose mentality, I didn’t like at all. Secondly, I did not find this field of work creative enough, though really I hadn’t realized it at the time. It was afterwards, in retrospect, that I realized I wanted to create my own material and not program things I was forced to do.

TI: You once said you were spared from dealing with any real sexism or racism in your career in video games. Does that still hold true today? If so, how have you avoided such issues?

MT: Ever since I finished my studies, I have only worked in a male dominated universe. So anyway, I’m used to being an exception. I was confronted, not with sexism, but with the astonishment of the men around me that I was a minority and I had this label of ‘engineer’, so I asserted myself through my skills. Thus, I didn’t have to deal with sexism or racism at least during all that time working in weaponry.

After that, I spent 15 years with the company that produced educational games . I stayed with that company for 15 years because the atmosphere was cosmopolitan, meaning that all the employees came from different backgrounds. I think this was mostly because the CEO of that studio was very open-minded, so there were people of all colors.

TI: I see, so it just goes to show why it’s so important that companies do create a safe space for people of different ethnicities and different genders.

TI: Many of your games deal with sexuality and slavery. Because the industry was in its infancy when you started, did you feel the need to pioneer these issues as a way of setting the industry on the right course as a place for telling adult-themed stories that celebrated diversity?

MT: I would say that video games are similar to cinema, like film d’auteur. I wanted to propose my own scenarios, like a movie director who desires a subject to be about something pleasing and motivating to them and makes them want to put it into cinematic pictures. Well, it’s a bit the same in video games with the themes that I wanted to explore, like sexuality or slavery. These are difficult subjects on which I wanted to experiment, and I had a way, a medium that allowed me to express myself.

TI: Not only is there a push for diversity in the video game industry, there is also a push for it in Hollywood. If cinema fully embraced diversity, do you think that would also help the video game industry?

MT: Yes, I think that would help, given that video games are a very close medium to cinema. Moreover, video games use the same language as cinema in narration, in the staging, in everything, even actors. One can find film actors in video games, like Keanu Reeves from The Matrix is going to be in an upcoming game. So, yes, the two industries are very, very interrelated.

TI: You talked about the importance of the company that you worked for, that they were diverse, and they were open-minded. Today, there is underrepresentation of people of color and women in video games, both as characters in the games and as employees in the actual industry. As someone who has fought for diversity most of her life, what steps do you think the industry can take to help improve its issues with diversity?

MT: I think it’s comparable to cinema. I find it is a comparable medium. Even today, there are not many black people in films or on the other side of the camera directing them. And, I think it’s the same in video games.

A change is coming. The actions we can take are those I have been taking from the beginning, like actively joining associations that will raise awareness among young people. For example, I am in an association here in France called “Women in Games” that works to promote careers in the video game industry to young women, though it is not specifically about cultural diversity.

Also , there is help from the CNC for information and awareness about video games. It is an organization that is under the Ministry of Culture and helps both the cinema and video game industries. The CNC has a special diversity branch.

Voilà, these things should encourage authors to create video games and films concerning diversity with more diversity in the cast and the scripts.

TI: Do you think games like Grand Theft Auto and Mafia, have helped or hurt diversity in gaming?

MT: I think they have not helped. I think it is the contrary because they only show people as fighting, violent, and delinquent, such as all the theft and robbery. It was similar in cinema and rap music, showing theft, robbery, and violence. It’s like the scripts or scenarios could have been made by a Neo-Nazi. For sports, it’s not as bad. Sports are more uplifting of diversity.

TI: Why do you think it’s important to have more women in the video game and tech industry?

MT: Well, this is going to be a feminist activist response. Women are 50% of the population playing video games, so I think they should be 50% of the video game designers.

TI: I love that answer, and you know what? You don’t have to warn us about being a feminist. We love feminism here at The Icon so be very feminist.

TI: You mentioned before that you loved playing board games and that they inspired you to get into video game design. Do you still play board games? If so, do they still continue to inspire you today?

MT: Yes, I have continued to play letter games, not so much on paper anymore but often on TV, like the show Slam, not sure if you’d be familiar. I also love games on knowledge and quizzing, for example, Question pour un Champion, I’m not ashamed. So, these are more game shows rather than board games.

Regarding inspiration, yes, I still get it from games. For example, I was asked to concoct a scenario for a game specifically for learning history, and I was interested in board games that revolved around that same question. I played around with them a bit to find some inspiration. So, yes, it happens that I actually go back and forth between board games and video games.

TI: Do you still play video games today?

MT: Very little, but I do watch what is coming out. However, I don’t like every style. I don’t watch fighting games, “shoot ’em up”, or platform games, etc. I tend to watch adventure games.

TI: Are there any recent video games that have come out that you find interesting, or are you looking forward to any games coming out?

MT: The Walking Dead.

TI: How do you feel about the current Black Lives Matter movement?

MT: I was very moved and impressed. I was disgusted by what happened , to see a murder in action. I was feeling like everyone else in the world, and I think it is a reaction of good sense. Even in Martinique, there was action to destroy the statues of racist figures. I don’t know if destroying the statues is the right way to go. I think it would be better to put the statues in a sort-of museum of ‘bad actions’ or something like that, maybe build statues of ‘positive’ figures next to them.

TI: What’s next for you, Muriel? Are there any new projects that you are working on?

MT: I am working on a project, another historical video game. I will again return to the themes of my first two video games concerning the history of the West Indies … To elaborate a bit, for now, it is called ‘Remembrance’. It is based on memory, on recollection, and you will explore Creole society when Martinique was still a French colony. You will be able to compare two time periods, before and after the abolition of slavery, through a saga over several familial generations, specifically of three characters who have known slavery and their descendants born after its abolition. And the player will understand the origin of “color prejudice”, which is the cause of the discrimination we still suffer today.

TI: Apart from being the first black woman to develop a video game you are also the first female game designer to be appointed a Knight of the Legion of Honor. To say you are a trailblazer, I feel would be an understatement. What lessons and ideas would you hope that a young woman could take away from your life and experiences?

MT: There are two mottos I would like to share: “Don’t dream your life but live your dream” and “She didn’t know it was impossible, so she did it”.

Throughout my career, I have followed my desires and passions to the point of having created my profession. When I started, the digital industry was in its infancy, and the game designer profession didn’t exist. Today, this discipline is taught in schools. There are still a lot of jobs to be invented. Go get ’em, girls!

And one last piece of advice, also valid for boys: increase your scientific culture, develop your critical mind and never forget literature and history.

TI: What advice would you give people of color who are interested in entering the tech and video game industries?

MT: I would not tell them to do things according to the color of their skin, but rather to integrate into the environment with their energy, their ambition.

Muriel’s story is an exceptional one, and it really is far from over. It’s time that we recognize her as being the first black woman to work as a game developer. In a time when very few women or people of color were even working in gaming, she was both. So, I hope you take it upon yourself to learn and share more about her.

It was honestly a joy and an honor to have gotten a chance to interview Muriel. She is truly an inspiration, and I hope her story and interview motivates those reading it to push forward with their passions, whatever they may be. The tech and video game industries are certainly big enough for all of us, and, what’s more, varying perspectives and experiences are needed today to help keep those industries evolving.

It’s diversity that makes our world and those industries amazing.

I spoke earlier about how seeing someone who looks like you, doing something you want to do can inspire you. Be inspired and in turn be someone else’s inspiration. The world will thank you for it.

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