Elizabeth Howard - Vice President of Publishing at Aspyr Media
In 2002, Elizabeth Howard started working at Aspyr Media—an influential multi-platform publisher of AAA video games based in Austin, TX. The company is responsible for bringing Call of Duty, Civilization, and other internationally renowned games to the Mac. Ms. Howard has served as VP for five years and she launched an Indie Publishing program to expand the reach of promising games to wider audiences. Additionally, this 15-year veteran of the industry leads the sales, marketing, customer support, and community teams within the company while collaborating with distribution partners across all platforms.
Ms. Howard graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] How did you initially get into video games, and do you consider yourself a gamer?
[Ms. Howard] I got into video games when I returned to the Austin area after growing up here and moving away. I was looking for a job, not really sure what I wanted to do. I had a friend who worked at Aspyr, where I interviewed to help out at the front desk and with the contract administration work. That’s where I started. I really didn’t have much of a gaming background other than the summer of 1990 when I listened to Vanilla Ice and played Mario Brothers 3. My friends in college played a little bit of PlayStation and my brother always played games, but I don’t consider myself a “gamer.” I have two boys now who are gamers, so I consume vicariously through them, as well as through YouTube, Twitch, and generally being in this industry for so long.
[OnlineEducation.com] Tell me a little about your career trajectory.
[Ms. Howard] I’ve been at Aspyr for almost 15 years. I started at the front desk, answering phones and running to Sam’s Club to get sodas and paper. I also worked under the co-founder as a contract administrator, which meant getting familiar with our contracts and then helping him with terms sheets and administrative tasks, but that also evolved into me taking over some of our accounting.
Within my first six months, we found a different solution for the front desk so I could focus on the contract and administrative side. That led me into more of a business development role where I was helping with deal negotiations. Over the years, it involved taking on more and more responsibilities. To really understand the deals you’re doing, you also need to understand what goes into selling the game; what goes into making the game; and all of the related processes. I took it upon myself to learn those other aspects of the business, which ultimately led to me running publishing which includes sales, marketing, community, content acquisition, and product strategy.
[OnlineEducation.com] Who’ve been your greatest mentors?
[Ms. Howard] I would have to give most of that credit directly to my boss, Ted Staloch. I have worked with him 15 years now and he did a really good job of exposing me to new challenges before I was experienced. He wasn’t afraid to put me on phone calls or bring me into meetings so I could more quickly understand what was going on. I really got to learn from him how important personal relationships are in business.
One of the biggest strengths we have as a company—and this has a lot to do with Ted—is that we focus on building really great relationships and trying to be good people on the other side of the deal. We try to treat people kindly and fairly. That’s been a guiding principle in everything that we do. We’re not trying to necessarily squeeze the best deal, but really to bring value to our customers and partners.
Outside of work, I’d have to say my mom and my great aunt Martha were big mentors. My mom raised three kids on her own and really pushed up the chain in her field, which was education. My great aunt Martha was a vice president at a major investment firm in Chicago in the 80s, when such a thing was very rare. Both of these women showed me what female ambition and success looked like. I never questioned my ability to thrive and succeed in my career just because I was a woman. I also saw the value of working hard for what you want in life.
[OnlineEducation.com] How would you describe the demographics of the industry? Are you typically one of the only women in the room?
[Ms. Howard] Yes, definitely more often than not. I would say Aspyr is around 15 percent female, which seems consistent within the industry. At any given meeting, often there will be one or two women at a table of ten people or so. So yes, it’s still pretty male-dominated, although in different areas of expertise there could be greater or fewer numbers of women.
[OnlineEducation.com] What are some of the areas that you would say are more male-dominated?
[Ms. Howard] All of it is male-dominated, but specifically I haven’t encountered many women in the senior leadership roles in publishing or engineering. In my experience, women typically fall into marketing, studio leadership roles, or art. There are more women coming up in design, although I think that’s probably still pretty heavily male.
For my generation, video games were not as ubiquitous as they are today. I never knew that I could have a job in video games, but that awareness will change over time. As it is today, it’s not an even playing field in terms of numbers.
[OnlineEducation.com] What do you think accounts for the underrepresentation of women in video games?
[Ms. Howard] I have two other friends that have built careers in video games that are female. One of them led a really big, international initiative and got to travel the world, and the other one has a senior sales role in a game company here in Austin. We all sort of stumbled into it. It wasn’t necessarily a passion for games as much as it was a passion for the work; it’s really exciting to work with technology and entertainment because they are such quickly evolving industries.
We’ve seen the number of women with careers in the games industry rise throughout my career, so I’m hoping that time and just having more women in the industry will help show younger generations “Hey, you can do that! That’s a possibility!”
[OnlineEducation.com] So, if I’m understanding you, it’s because a lot of women don’t necessarily know that the opportunities are open to them in the industry?
[Ms. Howard] I would say historically, yes, and I think the more prototypical gamer 20 years ago was probably male. I think that’s changed a lot. There’s much more female interest in video games these days. Men at that time were just more motivated because they were the majority of gamers; they sought out opportunities within the industry. More women and girls are gamers now, so hopefully, they will find an interest in a career in gaming; I don’t know that was as true when I was younger. This is a delicate subject right now, so I hope I don’t say anything that’ll infuriate the internet.
[OnlineEducation.com] Trolls level pretty awful comments at women, so I totally respect your position on this. Have you seen the industry demographics shift over the past fifteen years?
[Ms. Howard] Yes, I have gotten to know a pretty cool group of women in the industry in a variety of roles. That’s something new. Just in the local Austin community, there are more…I was going to say there are more opportunities for women to shine, but I don’t know that it’s more; I think it’s just that there are more instances of women achieving success within the industry and showing up on the same level, occupying roles once dominated by men.
[OnlineEducation.com] Can you think of any unique challenges that women face in the industry, apart from Gamergate and the trolls?
[Ms. Howard] I haven’t really had another professional career because I started here very young and I’m still doing it. I’m not familiar with parallel experiences in other industries. There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to being a woman in this business. For me, it’s sometimes been an advantage because it’s rare; instead of being just another voice at the table, I think my voice stands out. Of course, there are positives and negatives to that, but I’ve mostly experienced positives. I have a pretty assertive personality; I show up and feel comfortable sharing opinions and in business, that’s been an asset. Also, I’m doing business with a lot of really good people who respect the work, and I haven’t really seen overt sexism, at least as it relates directly to my work. I’ve experienced it in other dumb ways; people at parties will meet me and a guy and just focus on the guy, assuming I don’t know anything or I’m not the important one to talk to.
[OnlineEducation.com] Or people turning to the QA guy and assuming that he’s actually your boss.
[Ms. Howard] Right, but I also have people who work with me, and they always shut that down and are pretty clear on who’s the boss.
[OnlineEducation.com] They’re like, “Actually, she’s the one in charge.”
[Ms. Howard] Yes, I’ve literally had that happen. I’ve been just really lucky in terms of the people I work with and work for.
[OnlineEducation.com] With your female friends who also work in video games, do you ever talk about being some of the only women in your industry?
[Ms. Howard] The recent shakeup at Google and James Damore’s manifesto definitely got attention. We all have had experiences of being mistreated because of being a woman, so it struck a chord with the group and brought out a lot of discussion and sharing of those experiences.
I think that women have to “prove it” more than a man in a similar role. I’ve seen men in roles in which their title is bigger than their work, whereas literally every woman I’ve worked with—both at my own company and in other companies—is crushing it. I rejoice if I get to work B2B with another woman because I know we’ll just crank on getting shit done. I think men benefit from being assumed to be great or capable while women have to prove it.
Women also often bear more responsibility at home. I’m a mom to two boys and parenting is a big piece of my life, often with implications at work, specifically around travel. I’m fortunate to work for a company and bosses that really value family, but I see male counterparts in the industry that aren’t juggling as many balls, therefore have a lot more freedom to focus solely on their careers.
I’ve never been afraid to ask for what I want, what I need, or what I deserve, and my career has benefitted. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable doing that. I see that in my female friends and male friends, but perhaps more with females; either they ask for what they want
and they don’t get heard, or they don’t feel comfortable advocating for themselves.
Honestly, I feel like I’m part of an older generation because all of those sexist assumptions just seemed “normal.” Only recently we’re realizing that working harder for the same thing is inherently a fucked up construct. I always took it as what I had to do in order to achieve my goals without realizing the playing field wasn’t even.
The joke in the industry is that being a woman in video games, at least you never have to wait in line to go to the bathroom. If there’s ever a line at a video game conference for the ladies’ restroom, you’re like, “All right! The times are changing!” That’s my barometer for how ladies are doing in the industry.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s funny. I never considered that particular advantage. So what advice do you have for women who are working in the video game industry, or aspiring to work in high leadership as you do?
[Ms. Howard] Work hard. Advocate for what you need; what you do; and what your value is. And be patient! I was hanging out with a friend last night—my old college roommate—so she’s known me this whole time, from living on ramen noodles to the early days in the industry. She reminded me of the struggle. I struggled pretty hard for about a decade, but I just kept trying. I was really driven by learning; I wanted to learn more because I felt like I was capable of much more, so I needed to learn what was required of the next step. Along the way, I would ask for recognition of what I’d done, which is how my career grew. That’s the path that has led me to where I am.
My advice to anybody is just work hard; do good work; do the right thing; be a good person; advocate for your successes; and really try to understand the big picture. Oftentimes people get caught up on an individual contribution that they worked really hard on, but if that’s not moving the needle and really contributing to the bigger picture, it’s really hard to gain traction or career growth. You have to understand the big picture and how what you’re doing contributes. Oh, and find a company and culture that values those things. I got lucky landing in a place that worked well for my personality and ambitions.
[OnlineEducation.com] What about for employers? Other video game companies? Can you think of any big picture solutions or ideas in order to encourage more women to pursue careers in video games?
[Ms. Howard] That’s a really good question and it’s something I’m interested in understanding more about as an employer. Having all voices and perspectives represented is critical to the success of any company—and frankly, of society—so it’s important to figure out how to get that balance.
What I’ve done is tried to be involved in our local “women who work in games” meet-ups and various activities to get to know more women in the industry. I get to connect with other smart, talented women so that if there’s an opportunity for collaboration, I have that network of people.
I’ve also tried to just get out there more by way of speaking and interviews like these to help put a female face to leadership in the video game industry. I think the more people see women doing a variety of jobs within the industry, the more likely incoming generations will feel comfortable going for those types of careers. Those are my baby steps—community involvement and just being an example of female success in the industry.