Game changer: How a U of A grad is reshaping video game culture from within

As a writer for the hugely popular Call of Duty series, Shelby Carleton is changing the narrative for female characters — and for women in the gaming industry.


Shelby Carleton shows off the latest iteration of Call of Duty — Vanguard, one of the most popular video games in the world. (Photo: Supplied)

As a teenager growing up in Fort McMurray, Shelby Carleton played Call of Duty so hard she literally wore out the disk.

Some 15 years later, Carleton is now a narrative designer for the video game, one of the most popular in the world. She helped shape some of the characters in the series’ latest release, Call of Duty: Vanguard, based on the African campaign in the Second World War.

“I never in a million years dreamed this would happen to me,” she said. “To work on something that childhood Shelby would have thought the world of is pretty cool.”

Carleton always loved reading, writing and telling stories. But it wasn’t until a narrative designer from BioWare gave a presentation at her high school that she had a life-changing epiphany: people actually write the stories that drive many video games.

“I never really connected the dots and saw that writing for games was actually a thing.”

That’s when everything clicked and her future flashed before her eyes.

Shelby Carleton gives a TedX talk in 2018 about sexist tropes in video games.

“The presenter from BioWare said, ‘I went to university to get this job. I was an English major and a creative writing minor.’ So I was like, done — I’ll do that too.”

Carleton pursued a degree in English from the University of Alberta with a creative writing minor, and took the certificate in computer game development to prepare for a career in the gaming industry. She graduated with a bachelor of arts in 2019.

Her training included a placement as an associate software engineer at BioWare, an opportunity that followed a summer job in an artificial intelligence lab.

Despite her passion for gaming, however, there was always something that irked her about the games she’d played since childhood, something it took years to fully grasp.

Why were female characters always so lame?

“I noticed there weren’t a lot of women characters to choose from, or they were dressed in ways that didn’t make sense for a woman about to fight an enemy. It really confused me as a child.”

Her first course in gender studies “showed me how the world worked,” she said, giving her the tools to see through that confusion and fully articulate the toxic gender bias often found in video game culture.

“Then I was really angry all the time because I thought this was ridiculous, so silly … I thought, ‘How can we fix this?’”

It’s a problem that still cries out for fixing across the industry, going well beyond gender stereotypes in characters. Late last year the leading video game company Riot Games — maker of League of Legends agreed to pay $100 million to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit with California state agencies and more than 2,000 current and former female employees.

The settlement is considered a watershed moment in gaming, one that sends a strong message that, in the words of one plaintiff, “women in gaming do not have to suffer inequity and harassment in silence — change is possible.”

Carleton sees herself as an agent of that change. Now working as a narrative designer for Sledgehammer Games after a few years in other studios, she is helping shape more rounded characters and advocating for a healthy workplace culture.

She also firmly believes in speaking out whenever something doesn’t seem right.

“It’s something I’m really trying to work on this year. I haven’t always had the drive or confidence in myself to be able to speak up and say something, but it can make a difference.

“I realize that comes with a caveat — there’s not always a person willing to listen.”

Fortunately at Sledgehammer the leadership is willing to listen, she said. It’s one reason she feels lucky to have landed with the company.

In her interview for the job, her employer stressed that gender parity was important to the company (her writing team consists of three women and three men), as was “telling stories that everybody could relate to, and creating characters that were interesting and complex human beings.

“There are a lot of wonderful people in this industry trying to make it better,” she said. “It’s been happening for the last little bit and it’s continuing. It’s amazing to be part of it, to help advocate for that change.”

For young women coming up in the industry, especially those honing their skills at university, her advice is unequivocal.

“Honestly, don’t take shit from anyone,” she offered without skipping a beat.

“This is a time where you can push back, and not be afraid of losing your job. The classes are here for you to challenge the system. If you feel you’re not being treated right — that anybody isn’t being treated right or the material is leaving some people out — challenge it.”