Profile: Jennifer Pankratz, Storywriter, Gamedesigner and PR worker at Piranha Bytes

Women in Tech: “Every change needs pioneers, tolerance, and time”

Jean Kiltz

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Two years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Jennifer Pankratz, Storywriter, Gamedesigner and PR worker at Piranha Bytes.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Two years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Jennifer Pankratz, Storywriter, Gamedesigner and PR worker at Piranha Bytes.

Today’s Women in Tech: Jennifer Pankratz, Storywriter, Gamedesigner and PR worker at Piranha Bytes

Jennifer Pankratz has been working as a storywriter, game designer, and in PR at the computer game company Piranha Bytes for over a decade. As a trained social pedagogue, she is a classic career changer and has turned her hobby into her profession. Having joined the company through QA, she is responsible for developing, documenting, and implementing characters, stories, quests, and game mechanics as part of a team. The games she has worked on have sold millions of copies and won awards worldwide. In addition to her work, Jennifer has been a jury member at the German Computer Game Awards several times.

When did you become interested in technology?

Thanks to my father, I sat at his C64 as a child in the 80’s and then later at his Amiga. My father showed me how to disassemble and reassemble computers and I loved playing computer games back then. I kept this hobby to this very today and still like to play on the PC or various other consoles.

Beyond that, however, I would have never imagined in my childhood that one could also earn money with such a hobby and initially I rather considered the social professions.

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How did you end up in your career path?

After graduating from high school, I chose a helping profession and studied “Social Work: Counseling and Management” at the University of Duisburg-Essen. After graduating, I worked in a correctional facility for about three years. Even though the work there was exciting and important, it became increasingly distressing for me and I switched to the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (Workers’ Welfare Association) in delegation for the youth welfare office for about a year. However, I didn’t fare much better there and by an incredibly lucky coincidence, I finally landed at Piranha Bytes and turned my hobby into my profession.

With the right sparring partner, every path is simply much easier.

A few friends were already working at Piranha Bytes and they were looking for a tester. So I started in QA (Quality Assessment) in 2008 and later learned skills in game design and story.

Did you have any kind of support?

Besides my parents, who have always put their trust in me, my husband has supported me the most. He not only helped me to find a job at Piranha Bytes, but also always believed in my abilities. With the right sparring partner, every path is simply much easier. As a project manager at Piranha Bytes, he is, unusually, not only my supervisor but also a creative companion to this day. We still work in the same office today and exchange ideas.

What obstacles did you have to overcome?

There were a few surprised faces here and there, when I said that I am now developing video games, but these were rather accompanied by ignorance and curiosity. I still have to explain today to many people that I am not a programmer, because the development of a video game covers far more different fields than just this one.

If anything, the fact that I’m a woman has helped me […].

I don’t remember ever feeling unwelcome anywhere in the industry. If anything, the fact that I’m a woman has helped me, because I’ve made people remember me more quickly.

When I started at Piranha Bytes, I was the first woman. But that didn’t make any difference at all in my perception. Now there are five women here in different areas and there could be even more if more women applied for open positions.

What exactly are you doing in your current position?

Today I design characters and quests, write dialog, think up and implement puzzles, and also do public relations. In terms of content, my work is more creative than technical. I still can’t program, but I’ll probably never need that for my job. Much more important is knowledge in the field of gameplay and a good gut feeling for what is fun and what is not.

If I can, I’ll stay with Piranha Bytes for as long as possible and continue to develop role-playing games here. By now I’m working on the fifth project and my work looks different depending on the phase of the project. Since our games are very big and we only work on one game at a time, we need about 3-4 years of development time for an open world RPG.

So at the beginning, I’m involved in design processes and in the documentation, then later in the implementation and at the end also in the marketing. Our team consists of about 30 people and can be considered rather familial. So we often work as a team, test each other’s stuff and meet regularly in meetings or in Teamspeak during home office time.

In which projects have you participated?

On Risen (2009) I was primarily involved in QA, and on Risen 2 (2012), Risen 3 (2014) and ELEX (2017) I worked on story and game design. Now I’m working on a project that hasn’t been released yet. In the last 12 years, I was also on maternity leave for a short time, as we now have two children. However, this was very unproblematic and family-friendly with our company, as I could adjust my working hours as needed and continue to work on a marginal basis by the hour even during parental leave. So I was always on the project and still had enough time for the children. In other professions, the flexibility is certainly quite different.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

I suspect that many professions in the video game industry are still not very well known, because they are being associated with programmers. So you would have to work on the level of awareness of the different fields. Because if I have a technical affinity and am good at drawing, making music, writing, creating 3D models, animating or creating effects, for example, or am interested in learning just that and like to work creatively in a team, then the industry is also interesting. Probably a lot of girls and even boys still don’t get that idea. In my perception, however, it is getting stronger.

In addition, many jobs in the field of video game development are unfortunately still often insecure, as you work from project to project, the financing of a project is not always easy and, in case of doubt, you have to be willing to travel for a job. That doesn’t always fit with a model of owning your own home or having a family. I hope that there will be more secure jobs for developers in Germany in the future, if more companies also establish themselves in the industry in the long run.

Which stereotypes did you encounter in regards to “Women in Tech”?

Interestingly enough, in my old job, I had to deal with more gender stereotypes – such as “women don’t belong in jail”.

I think just about every industry benefits from diversity.

In the video game industry, I haven’t experienced any prejudice regarding my gender in my immediate environment. However, I have heard of sexual harassment in other companies. In particular, I regularly perceive assaults on social media channels, for example, when women in the industry have problems with insults, stalkers, or sexual harassment.

However, in my view, this problem is not specific to the video game industry, but it is a general issue in many areas, which should be further discussed and solved.

Would our world be different with more women in the IT industry?

I think just about every industry benefits from diversity. Extremes tend to be bad because of their one-sidedness. That is why a team with a diverse mix of experienced and young people, people from different backgrounds or of different genders is often more diversified and better reflects our society. New ideas certainly also bring a breath of fresh air and innovation to the tech industry.

Don’t be insecure and follow your gut feeling.

However, I see the focus of the team composition primarily in healthy growth, so that the team can also grow together and not wear itself out. It has never played a role in our job postings what gender, origin, etc. an applicant has, but whether the person enjoys what we do and fits into the team. Our philosophy is that if you have fun developing, the players will have fun too. This has also been our experience in the past.

The discussion on diversity is gathering momentum. How long will it be before we see results of the current debate?

That might be a little too optimistic. However, I have the feeling that we are on the right track. Over the last 30 years, it has been steadily observed that typical male and female professions are somewhat “softening up”. Every change needs pioneers, tolerance and time. I think that this is also the case here and the next generation will certainly look more colorful again. However, it is up to us to continue to work towards welcoming everyone and, in general, to continue to work on and expose the issue of sexual harassment and other assaults in society.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?

My advice certainly applies to anyone interested in video game development. You can already look up many of the fields on the internet, with different tools and tutorials to find out what suits you best. Get smart, go to events, dare to approach people in the industry and ask your questions. Don’t be insecure and follow your gut feeling.

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Jean Kiltz works as an editor at S&S Media since March 2020. He studied History at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

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