“What is best in life? Is it to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women? Well, that’s a pretty good start. But at Kixeye, we want more than that.” So says Will Harbin, the blazer-clad CEO of the social gaming startup Kixeye, in a new viral ad that tech bloggers have called “hilarious” and “awesome.”
The video, which also features a profanity-spewing young boy, an old man hollering “hot buttered beans!” before dying onscreen, and a scene in which Harbin waves around what appear to be a light-saber and a dildo, is a recruiting tool. Its goal, Kixeye vice president of marketing Brandon Barber told me in a phone interview, is to reach as many people in the company’s target employee demographic as possible, so that Kixeye can lure “high-quality hires” to its San Francisco offices. In particular, the fast-growing company is after talented developers—computer programmers—a scarce and valuable commodity in Silicon Valley today.
The ad certainly leaves an impression. And its skewering of Kixeye’s more established rivals—presumably Zynga (the foul-mouthed young boy) and Electronic Arts (the dotty old man), among others—is funny and effective, if crude. But Kixeye’s approach to marketing also represents a cultural wager of sorts. While its competitors are talking about changing tech-startup culture to be more professional and inclusive, Kixeye is betting that boys will continue being boys.
Silicon Valley, often held up as the shining future of the American economy, has had its luster tarnished of late by complaints of endemic male chauvinism and misogyny—what Mother Jones in April called the “brogrammer problem.” The problem isn’t new, but many in the industry were embarrassed by fresh examples such as the Klout ad that asked, “Wanna bro down and crush some code?” and the Path executive who bragged of winning a job by submitting pictures from a “nudie calendar” he’d created. If that’s the path to Silicon Valley stardom, critics reasoned, it’s no wonder that Newsweek’s list of the 100 most powerful people in tech was 92-percent male.
Considering all the recent hand-wringing, I asked Barber if anyone at Kixeye worried that its testosterone-driven approach—for example, Harbin’s gleeful recitation of the “lamentation of their women” line, a Conan the Barbarian reference—might turn off as many recruits as it attracts. Sure, Barber said—and if so, all the better. “That really is the secondary objective of this video, which is to weed out people that wouldn’t fit in, that wouldn’t fit in to our culture. … There are certain people that are going to respond negatively to that video, and frankly we wouldn’t want ’em around anyway.”
By “people that wouldn’t fit in,” Barber says he doesn’t mean women. In fact, the company is somewhat unusual among startups of its kind for having a number of women in senior leadership positions, including CFO and VP of Engineering. He just means people who lack a sense of humor, an appreciation of the absurd. “We seek out talent, whether you’re male or female, gay or straight or black or white or from Mars or China,” Barber said. “If you’re a female who happens to be an extraordinary talent in your category and loves games, we have a place for you.”
Besides, he added, “Chicks who are hardcore gamers, they understand that kind of humor.” I repeated the quote to make sure I had heard him correctly. “Well, don’t quote me using the word chick,” he backtracked. “That’s probably not a good idea.”*
Of course it’s possible for women to shrug off a little objectification. No doubt most female gamers have had plenty of practice over the years. And of course Barber is right that it takes a certain affinity for the teen male psyche to design the types of games that his company puts out. Still, one can imagine how even a hardcore programmer chick might be unsure whether she’d be welcome at a place like Kixeye.
Visitors to the company’s website are greeted by an animation of a plush office lobby, with a pretty, brown-haired woman sitting behind a placard that reads, “receptionist.” (She turns out to be some sort of ill-tempered cyborg, but never mind that.) Click “jobs” in the menu at the top of the page and you’re invited to take a quiz entitled, “Are You One of Us?” The first step is to choose your weapon—a handgun described as a “gentleman’s weapon,” or a rocket-propelled grenade (because “being gentle is stupid.”) Then you are asked to answer five questions, starting with “How do you describe your boss?” The options are “mentor,” “idiot,” “girlfriend,” and “douche,” each of which is accompanied by a target—a side of meat for “mentor,” a trussed chicken for “idiot,” and a dead fish for “girlfriend.”
Playing along, I fired my RPG at the word “girlfriend,” blowing the fish to smithereens. I ended up scoring 90 percent on the quiz, which concluded by pointing me to the company’s job listings.
So far, the company’s no-holds-barred approach seems to be working, at least to judge by its balance sheet. It predicts that it will take in well over $100 million in revenue this year, driven by hit titles such as Battle Pirates and War Commander. Kixeye’s explicit focus on “hardcore gamers,” as opposed to the casual (and majority-female) gaming audience of larger rivals such as Zynga, has been praised in tech blogs like TechCrunch and AllThingsD and applauded by Facebook officials. Barber told me the company’s user base is about 98 percent male.
The gaming press seems equally enthusiastic about Kixeye’s approach to hiring, including the latest YouTube recruiting ad. VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi deems the ad “hilarious.” The Escapist’s Marshall Lemon calls it “far more awesome” than the recruitment approaches of Kixeye’s rivals, which are overly concerned with conveying “professionalism.”
As to Mother Jones’s brogrammer critique, some in Silicon Valley think it’s overblown. The word, after all, started as a joke, a play on the idea that computer geeks could be frattish and macho in their own nerdy way. The notion that these guys might in fact create a culture as misogynistic as that of actual “bros”—traditionally, jocks—strikes some as implausible. “There’s no such thing as a brogrammer,” Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle declared in May, dismissing the archetype as “a fairytale figure conjured up by the confused and outmoded to explain progress in an old and stodgy industry.”
But the fact remains that computer science graduates from top schools are still overwhelmingly male. With more demand for their skills than there is supply, the programmers hold the power. And Kixeye is willing to bet a dildo and a light-saber that they’d rather have their male fantasies catered to than challenged.
Correction, July 2, 2012: This article originally misquoted Kixeye’s Brandon Barber as saying, “Chicks who are hardcore programmers, they understand that kind of humor.” He actually said, “Chicks who are hardcore gamers, they understand that kind of humor.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)