Several months ago, I asked 55 female and non-binary game development professionals from around the globe about the moment the light bulb switched on for them, the moment they thought video games are for me. Each answer was unique, “I would rent Diddy Kong Racing all the time from Blockbuster or Movie Gallery to the point that my dad had to buy it for me,” said one. “I starting typing in programs from magazines on my dad’s ZX81, then I begged my parents to buy my brother and I an Amstrad CPC 464 with a tape drive when I was 8,” said another. Or, as one simply put it, “Fable 2.”
Unique, yet familiar – these light bulbs are universal. They are genderless. So why do women currently constitute only 22 per cent of the video game industry?
In 2017, where the industry is perceptibly becoming more progressive, or at least, under more scrutiny than ever before, the gender split amongst gaming professionals needs to be probed. Not only with an eye to the question of why it exists, but with a more hopeful examination of what’s being done to fix it? That message, above all, is worth spreading.
Here is what women working in video game development are saying about their industry.
As is the case with many of us, these game developers’ light bulbs switched on early. A brightness felt while playing Mario Kart with siblings, or discovering the land of Hyrule. A dawning realisation that she too could create adventures for Kirby, scrawled on paper that would later become activity books for friends.
Trawling through these responses, I discovered another series of childhood constants: many were discouraged from their passion to get into video games at a young age, or had no idea that it was a career they could pursue at all.
Many women were discouraged from their passion to get into video games at a young age, or had no idea that it was a career they could pursue at all.
“I wasn’t made aware of it in terms of it being a subject I could study until a friend mentioned they knew someone studying,” says Kirsty Fraser, from Dundee in Scotland. The tip off for Fraser came when she was 17, and like many other teenagers that age, she had no idea what she wanted to do. “Knowing I could study it made me feel a bit more hopeful for finding a job I could enjoy. Looking back I feel slightly concerned that the option wasn’t made as apparent to me – this was 2008-2009 – even in my computing class.”
Fraser’s story is not isolated to Scotland. “Had I known when I was younger what I know now, my path may have been much different,” says Bree A, from Sacramento. Similarly, when I asked Souha Al-Samkari if her game development received a mention in her Ohio education, she replied: “Oh God no”. An anonymous game developer from the UK said she didn’t see a single advert for game development in any of the careers fairs at her high school or at university. “Looking back”, she says grimly, “it’s a notable omission.”
Daria Levac, who comes from a small town near Sudbury in Ontario, believes that though there are other more publicised issues that women face in video game development, it’s the lack of education that is most prohibitive. “The apparent lack of women devs is due to a lack of communication to prospective students,” notes Levac. “I firmly believe the male domination of the field is largely due to a lack of female interest.”
Awareness shouldn’t stop at a name on a checklist, either. The idea that video games are just about hard ‘programming’ is encouraged from an early age – often ingrained by a parent’s misunderstanding, or simply a lack of information – and is prohibitive for many kids, both female and male, who aren’t necessarily mathematically inclined.
There are a wide range of roles throughout the industry, and young women just need to know that they can fill these roles and have successful careers doing them.
Jodie Azhar, who works at Horsham’s AAA studio Creative Assembly, sees more potential to illustrate the gamut of the games industry at a high school level. “Many girls aren’t aware of what jobs there are in the games industry and often don’t consider that they could be doing those jobs,” says Azhar. There are a wide range of roles throughout the industry, and young women just need to know that they can fill these roles and have successful careers doing them. “There are already women doing these jobs.”
While educational institutions may not have uniformly woken up to the business of video games, there are burgeoning initiatives in place to educate girls about game development from a young age. UK-based AAA studios like Creative Assembly and Media Molecule regularly lead and take part in educational initiatives like National Coding Week, community game jams, and developer-led workshops, while LearnDistrict’s Girls Make Games program has a singular focus to lead workshops, summer camps and game jams for girls specifically.
The Girls Make Games camps are particularly notable for their results. During their time at the three-week camp – currently held in several cities across the USA – girls will learn the basic aspects of game development before beginning work on their own games in teams. The summer season culminates in a national pitch competition where the top five teams are flown out to the Bay Area to pitch to industry leaders, with a grand prize of getting their game kickstarted, fully developed, and subsequently published (in 2014, for example, Girls Make Games raised $31,000 out of a $10,000 goal to fund The Hole Story, which launched on Steam in July 2015.)
“It’s more than a coding summer camp,” says Laila Shabir, CEO of Girls Make Games and its parent studio LearnDistrict. It’s a place where girls are no longer the exception, a sore thumb in a group of boys. “They are the norm.”
A focus on education only solves part of the problem. The unconscious idea that video games are a boy’s pursuit gets under the skin from an early age, discouraging girls and women from trying to get into the industry, and building an impenetrable wall when they do make the attempt.
“There is a social stigma to gaming: games (and STEM subjects generally) are typically ‘male’ pursuits”, says a game developer from the UK who wishes to remain anonymous. The stereotype of the unattractive, introverted male nerd is powerful, she says, and damaging to women who tend to be judged on their appearances and social prowess. “We’re meant to wear nice dresses and go to parties and hold conversations, not sit around in our underpants playing console games.”
Mary Borsellino, a game developer from Melbourne, tells me a story of being discouraged from game creation at age 11, while her two male friends also interested in the activity were championed as wunderkinds on national TV. Borsellino’s ideas for a video game were called derivative and unoriginal, and it was suggested that she wasn’t pretty enough to be on television. “I was eleven!” she says. “Who’s found their voice at eleven?”
Borsellino’s light bulb had been switched off, and she didn’t pick up a controller again until her early 30s.
The no-girls allowed reputation around video games is further encouraged by years and years of mainstream advertising that has turned its back on the female gender (or sleazily revelled in its aesthetic). As video games continue to be primarily marketed towards boys and men, boys and men continue to primarily develop them.
“I think games will be behind other forms of tech as well, because of a lot of the subject matter and the marketing becomes a cycle,” says Tanya Short, a game developer from Toronto. It’s a feedback loop, she notes. “If you create products primarily targeting a certain demographic, and that’s the prestigious product, then the people who play that product are more likely to want to build more of that product.”
“To be honest, I would like to see a whole change in the way games are marketed,” says Vee Prendergast, a game developer from Perth. “Mainstream game advertising is still so male-oriented despite the target audience having completely shifted.”
This viewpoint is shared by Tanya Kan from Toronto, a game developer who frequently contends with the ill-educated idea that video games are, by default, ‘shooters’ or ‘gun games’, an idea as archaic as believing every video game console is called a ‘Nintendo’. “The moment I tell a bunch of strangers or friends I’ve not seen for a while that I make video games, they immediately think I’m going to make the next Halo,” says Kan. “I’m like, ‘I make pacifist games.’”
The influence of mainstream game advertising affects not just the girls themselves, but their parents. A lot of mums and dads still think of video games as the pursuit of the aforementioned introverted male nerd – a slovenly image to steer their little girls away from – while many have been turned off by the horror stories they’ve heard from the media about the harassment and general rejection of women in tech industries.
The influence of mainstream game advertising affects not just the girls themselves, but their parents.
“I don’t think it’s marketed as a woman’s career,” says Angie McKeown, a game developer from Holywood in Northern Ireland. “And until we can convince mothers to recommend it, what’s the point?
“At the moment, we are bringing girls and boys to the code clubs, and the girls are going home and their parents are saying ‘WTF are you doing that for?’” she says.“If we can’t get the parents on board, there is no point. And why on earth would the parents be on board when they hear the things they hear? I wouldn’t wish this industry on my daughter.”
Sexism, harassment and inappropriate conduct in the workplace continue to be major issues for women throughout the video game industry, as they do for women in the tech world – and indeed the whole world – at large. Many of the women I talked to (some did not want to respond to the question) had experienced one of the above on a micro level, while some had experienced it to a major, life-changing degree. Nearly all had accounts of seeing it happen to someone else.
The most common anecdotes I heard involved being ignored or doubted in the workplace by default, suggesting that women must ‘earn’ their place on the team that men were automatically invited into. “I do think that as a woman the more you progress in the career the harder it gets,” says Dana Card, a game developer from London. Some men still find it hard to have a woman as their leader or equal, she says, and the more persistent the woman, the more defensive the men. “All I can do is ignore it and hope things get better with time, even if it takes another generation.”
Assertiveness and confidence are seen as masculine attributes, reiterates Andie Sacchi from Madrid, so are not expected from women, despite the inherent demand for such attributes in the job. “You’re either seen as blunt or bossy, while at the same time, you’re expected to be like that.”
Rachel Sima from Philadelphia sees a particular discrepancy with the treatment of youth in the industry. Where young men in powerful positions are celebrated as prodigies and go-getters, young women in the same position are seen as curiosities and abnormalities. “Despite both being professionals, my male coworker of the same age is taken far more seriously than I am,” she says. “Beyond typical creepy comments at events, male professionals often comment on my age and are surprised to find I am a project manager at an established studio.”
Most women in game development work in offices dominated by men, which can mean they face pressure to be “one of the boys” or risk isolation.
Most women in game development work in offices dominated by men, which can mean they face pressure to be “one of the boys” or risk isolation. After all, it can be easier to avoid women altogether rather than contend with the nagging feelings of guilt or insecurity over that bad joke you told. “I once had a supervisor tell a rape joke at a meeting,” says Tanya Short, “which wouldn’t have been the worst thing except that then he turned around, looked at me and said ‘Oh, sorry Tanya,’ and I realised I was the only woman in the room out of 20 people.”
An anonymous game developer from Tokyo tells me that instead of being sat with her assigned team, she was placed next to the office manager, based on the fact they were both female. “I finally worked up the nerve to say something and was ultimately placed with my team,” she says. She mentioned it to her colleague, who postured that the last time they sat a woman next to the office manager they became good friends.
“It made me wonder,” she says, “if they thought we were all interchangeable.”
Outside of the office, sexism and harassment in the online space has contributed to a culture of fear that left many women questioning whether or not getting into game development in the first place was worth it. 2014’s Gamergate was a tipping point; the harassment campaign turned culture war over diversity in video games left many women feeling that they might be putting themselves at risk by joining the industry.
“I started working in game dev the same year the GamerGate controversy happened. The massive amount of news about harassment led me to believe that could happen to me too,” says Camila Gormaz from Santiago. Samantha Wallshlaeger from Seattle says that watching women fleeing their homes out of fear made her wonder if she was brave enough to face it herself. “I was afraid someday I would have to, and I didn’t know if I could handle it.” An anonymous game developer from Toronto says Gamergate put her at a career crossroads. “I did have a moment of, well, should I be engaged with this?” she says. “Or should I just, I don’t know, write books or do comics instead?”
How do you address sexism and harassment in the games industry? In 2017, the issue has been universally thrown into the limelight. Although this year’s #metoo hashtag highlighted the breadth of sexual harassment that women have dealt with around the world, an arguably more important one was #HowIWillChange, which asked men to face up to the ways in which they contribute to the culture of harassment.
“Make people who witness but don’t report misogyny and inappropriate behaviour in work culpable,” says Angie McKeown. It’s time, she says, that the games industry stops talking about how it wants to help but feels ‘helpless’, and bring in some power. “Being able to say ‘really sorry Jim, I had to report you, I can’t afford to lose this job mate’ is a powerful thing.”
“Men need to hold each other accountable,” says Anonymous from Tokyo. “Stop treating the games industry as Never Never Land. Allow professional spaces for women to exist and have their voices heard.”
It seems like a no-brainer, but strong, manageable, publicly-displayed codes of conduct in every workplace should be ubiquitously enforced. “I’ve definitely been a participant of spaces where they don’t enforce it,” says Tanya Kan. “When I have perceived cases where someone’s being harassed or unfairly treated, and no one does anything because they don’t know how to address it. Within these communities it’s important to have anti-harassment measures, and have people know how to deal with conflict resolution.”
Supportive communities for women are also invaluable. It’s here where those light bulbs are relit, where bonds and networks are formed across all facets of the industry, offering moral support, guidance, friendship, and job and networking opportunities. These are spaces where women are told that they’re not alone, that their work matters, and that their voices are heard. “The minority who are sexist, and promote sexist or othering environments, are an old guard, being phased out by an increasingly liberal new wave of game developers,” says Anonymous from the UK. “This is not a man versus woman situation: this is a large group of creative, interesting individuals versus a small group of angry and unhappy people.”
“This is not a man versus woman situation: this is a large group of creative, interesting individuals versus a small group of angry and unhappy people.”
Communities also offer opportunities for women to see beyond their own experiences. The handful of acknowledged ‘auteurs’ in the video game industry – Hideo Kojima, Ken Levine, David Cage et al – are all men, and many women only hear about women working in games development from media stories about harassment.
“It really frustrates me how when there’s a random game development news, you sometimes see articles like ‘What Sid Meier thinks about this latest trend,’” says Tanya Short, “or ‘What John Carmack thinks about this,’ or ‘Hideo Kojima’s opinion’ or whatever. I want to know what Jade Raymond thinks about all those things. I want to know, what does Kim Swift think about Persona?”
Shannon Loftis, who lives in Seattle and currently works as GM of Microsoft Publishing, recalls confiding in her female friends at an E3 during the mid-nineties, when “booth babe” mania was at its delirious, shortsighted height. She and her friend Bonnie Ross (now Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Studios) organised a dinner with a small group of women that night, and agreed afterwards that it was the best part of the whole week. “So, we agreed the following year we would do a, ‘hey, invite a friend, and have a friend invite a friend’ thing,” says Loftis, “and the crowd got so big that we ended up having to reserve an entire restaurant for that dinner the second year.”
Loftis and Microsoft eventually formalised the ‘Women in Games’ dinner, and with that came a renewed focus from the company to support diversity within the industry. Microsoft’s current “Games For Everyone” is a program designed to encourage and support diversity and inclusion within Xbox products and services, to make sure representation is “based one-hundred per cent in respect,” as Loftis puts it.
When I reached out to Twitter for a list of public-facing communities dedicated to supporting women in the industry (many, understandably, are kept private), I was told of several: Women Who Code (born in San Francisco), FemDevs (born in Spain), Girl Geek Academy (born in Australia), Pixelles (born in Toronto), Voxelles (born in Chicago), and DMG (born in Toronto).
These are just a handful of organisations that offer networking and mentorship opportunities, meet-ups, resources, and scholarships, all with an eye toward empowerment and practical career advancement. As Crista Megee from Michigan notes, communities can come from anywhere. “I will say for any aspiring game devs out there the very best thing you can do is get a group of friends together and make something,” she says. “Join a game jam. Teach yourself to code or art and make it yourself. There are free resources out there if you’re strapped for cash and videos online are a wealth of information – use them!”
Communities and organisations are not only important because of the support they offer minute to minute, but because the industry itself is a leaky boat. According to the IDGA’s 2016 IT/Developer Satisfaction survey, 45% of women leave the tech industry after they’ve entered it (there isn’t solid research on the tenure of women in games specifically, so we’re going on the assumption that games mirrors tech as a whole).
If a woman feels like she has a great opportunity, she is absolutely willing to make the hard trade off and to work long hours.
If you pay too much attention to conventional wisdom, you might be inclined to think this is because women demand more of an equal work/life balance than men do, or require more flexible hours because of family commitments when none can be given. According to Jen MacLean, Managing Director of the IGDA Foundation, this is a spin.
If a woman feels like she has a great opportunity, she is absolutely willing to make the hard trade off and to work long hours, says MacLean. “But you see consistently a trend of men being promoted for potential, and women being promoted after they have an accomplishment.” And so women tend to leave tech in general, and this is true for games as well. “They don’t feel like they have an opportunity that makes the sacrifices worth it.”
If you don’t give women – and indeed, all minorities in the games industry – a feeling that there is an opportunity, says MacLean, that there is a next step for them, and there is progression and excitement ahead, you’re going to lose that talent. “As an industry, we do not understand or respect the impact of losing the talent on our creative processes, on the quality of our products, or also on our businesses.
“There is great Human Resources research out there that shows the cost of losing an experienced professional can be as high as six months of their salary. When you think about what it costs to have a female engineer who has five years of experience leave the industry, that’s huge. And it’s something that we should all be very concerned about, because this an incredible drain on our talent, on our opportunity and possibility, and frankly also on our business.”
In 2016, MacLean and the IDGA joined forces with Xbox to specifically address this problem. IDGA Foundation’s Next Gen Leader Programme was built to help women and minorities already in the industry navigate the particular hurdles unique to them. First, they are matched with a mentor chosen for their professional interest. Secondly, they are brought to GDC where they have two days of personal and professional workshops which may cover everything from “difficult conversations” at work to mental health, to managing their careers through turmoil. The IDGA will follow up with them throughout the year, before they’re brought back for a second GDC as a programme wrap up, and finally given the chance to mentor some of the younger participants in other IDGA foundation programmes. It’s a cyclical effort that rewards everyone involved.
“It is really a chance to show off their leadership skills and the skills set they’ve gained,” says MacLean, “and a way for us to say, as an industry and as an organisation, we believe in you, we see you as a leader, and we’re giving you the opportunity to lead.”
This spirit – women lifting up other women – came through in almost every woman I spoke to. The media is often a space where female game developers read about the worst sides of their industry, and many wanted to see more light with the shade; especially with an eye toward the up and coming generation.
“I find the industry as a whole to be sensitive to the issue of harassment/sexism/othering, and I see people trying to open the discussions around inclusivity. It’s a delicate moment in the industry – we are setting standards for those to come,” says Corina Diaz from Ontario.
It’s a delicate moment in the industry – we are setting standards for those to come.
“Gamedev women are spectacular,” says Mary Borsellino. “I’ve had so much support and enthusiasm. The men I’ve encountered have been as well, of course, but there’s such goodwill between my female colleagues, a willingness to lift each other up.”
“I’m experiencing an uprising of feminist initiatives in games and technology and I can’t be thankful enough for that,” says Andie Sacchi. “Having a community behind me, helping and listening, has been key for my confidence and determination.”
There can be a conflict when talking about what it’s like to be a woman in the industry, and how to balance being honest with how bad it can be, but also wanting to be encouraging. Most of the women I spoke to had their eyes firmly forward, looking toward the future.
“I do want to say that in my short career so far, I’ve been given unconditional support by dozens of other game developers, and I’m in a workplace where I’m treated with utmost respect,” says Alexei Pepers. “I did a lot of mentally preparing for the worst before entering the industry, and I still care deeply about improving the treatment of women, but I also think it’s important to say that it’s possible to be making games and working with great people who respect and support you, even as a woman.”
When I ask Lea Miller from L.A. if there was anything she wanted to add beyond what she’d already answered, she reiterates that getting girls into gaming early was vital. “Supporting an equal playing field from the get-go could help change the industry’s gender landscape for future generations,” she says.
Miller sent me a picture of herself at three years old playing 3D Dinosaur Adventure on PC with her Dad, her first memory. The look on her face, wearing the dorky 3D glasses popular in the early ‘90s, is of unabashed amazement. You can see it: the light bulb, switching on.
Bree A is currently organizing a Startup Weekend women’s event that will take place in February. Though the focus isn’t solely on game development it is focused towards providing a safe space for women to pitch their ideas and launch a startup. She can be followed on Twitter at @BreeAea.
Tanya Kan is the founder of Vivid Foundry Corp., and is currently developing the 3D visual novel Solace State. Her company strives to create a niche of games that explore artistic experimentation, civic empowerment, and a welcoming environment for examining the political and social issues of our time.
In June, Rachel Sima was elected Chair of IGDA Philadelphia. She has been working to promote a healthy and positive game development community in the city. You can follow her on twitter @rachel_sima
Souha Al-Samkari is VP of Truant Pixel, which released its second VR title, 2MD: VR Football in September 2017, and is hard at work on development for Akash: Path of the Five, a visual novel slated for PS4 and Vita.
Tanya Short runs Kitfox Games, and is currently working on Boyfriend Dungeon, coming 2019.
Alexei Pepers is a game designer at Beamdog. You can follow her on Twitter at @ampepers.
Kirsty Fraser is a programmer at VooFoo Studios. You can follow her on Twitter at @kirstysays.
Andie Sacchi is currently working on Idearum, with the studio she cofounded with two other women (Anna Bobreková and Marta Gil), Tahutahu studio. She’s also finishing her studies at CICE in 3d art and game design and she’s organising events for women in the industry in Madrid. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @mahatmandie.
Lea Miller is currently writing freelance on a couple of small projects, still in their early stages. You can follow her at Twitter @lelemills13.
Corina Diaz is a games community developer at Lighting Rod Games and is an editor at The Game Dev Cafe, which celebrates the video game industry. You can follow her on Twitter at @corecorina.
Jodie Azhar is currently working across Total War projects with the recently released Total War: WARHAMMER II having a new ‘laboratory’ mode added free for players from the 14 December. You can follow her on Twitter @JodieAzhar.
Dana Card is a game developer and BAFTA winner. You can follow her on Twitter @dana22cc.
Samantha Wallschlaeger has worked as a writer on Guild Wars 2, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Star Wars The Old Republic. You can follow her on Twitter @StillNotSam.
Shannon Loftis is General Manager for Studios 1st Party Publishing on Team Xbox. Shannon has been with Microsoft for 23 years, and making games for the vast majority of that time. Most recently, she was responsible for the establishment of the PICS (platform alignment/content support) group in Xbox focused on broadening Microsoft’s game offerings to all Microsoft platforms.
As the Executive Director of the IGDA and IGDA Foundation, Jen MacLean works to empower and support game developers around the world and build a more inclusive game development community. She was named one of the “Game Industry’s 100 Most Influential Women” by Next Generation, one of the “Top 20 Women in Games” by Gamasutra, and is a frequently-requested speaker at interactive entertainment industry events. You can follow Jen and her work @IGDA_ED and @jenmacl on Twitter.
Thank you to all the woman who spoke to me for this piece. I wish I could have included all of your interviews.
Lucy O’Brien is Games & Entertainment Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. Follow her on Twitter.