AJ and Dix take a look at the state of women working in the game industry.
Dix: So as regular Tappers have probably surmised, I’m a comic book fan in my free time, and so I tend to get sort of a double dose of the “female representation in creative industries” debate since that’s another realm where there’s a lot of discussion about it. One of the common responses you hear to this controversy is, “Maybe women aren’t in games or comics because they don’t want to be!”
Well, the women of comics – both seasoned veterans and newcomers – decided to at least disprove this statement, to demonstrate that, indeed, women want to make comics (even if they aren’t always superhero comics). The result: Womanthology: Heroic, a hulking hardcover of comic art and story which includes work from over 150 female creators (and, at its time, the most successful Kickstarter ever). At least some major players in the “mainstream” industry have taken notice, as IDW Publishing (who put out comics based upon many popular properties like Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Transformers, as well as exciting indie offerings like Locke & Key) has committed to publishing future Womanthology material with different themes.
From what I’ve seen, comics fandom has been much more welcoming of this initiative than, say, games probably would be, and though there’s occasional resistance, the bulk of readers seem to really want big publishers to have more women in their bullpens. Contrast this with the gaming community’s response to Feminist Frequency’s proposed series on video games, or (more relevant to this discussion) to BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler stating her opinions. Whatever one could say about the problems women face in the industry, this kind of thing certainly highlights how hostile some gamers can be to the idea that there are women making video games.
AJ: I think this issue is a demographics one. The average age of both video gamers, and comic book readers, has apparently increased over the last decade. But there’s a divide among video gamers that people are familiar with. It’s a gross oversimplification, but, there are “casual” gamers, and there are “core” gamers. Generally, when marketers think of core gamers, they think of the young male demographic, male teenagers and young adults. But the amount of casual gamers – older gamers who may sometimes also be (gasp) women – is increasing.
I think core gamers have this weird perception that the amount of games allowed to be made is finite.
Maybe they’re partially right. Games are increasingly expensive to create and produce. They are increasingly more complex – even the much-derided social game genre can take huge teams and long development cycles to create. And every group of talented game developers making a game “for women” isn’t working on the games that the loud “hardcore” players want. Core gamers have had it drummed into their heads that the amount of women playing games is increasing. And maybe they feel threatened by that.
Maybe they’d feel less threatened if they knew that the amount of women actually entering the industry has not increased very much. Women still only make up about ten to fifteen percent of the game industry. The biggest growth areas for women are on the business side, working jobs like PR or as managers or producers. When looking at straight development jobs, like art or programming, the percent of women in those roles is smaller. I have some thoughts on why that might be, but, what are yours?
Dix: Well, this is one area that I think there is a certain legitimacy to the argument that there are fewer women in games partially because there are fewer women trying to get into games, at least until relatively recently. At the Entertainment Technology Center, we have a pretty good male/female divide, but if you look at only the students for whom video games is the end goal (as opposed to film or location-based entertainment, say), the balance shifts notably toward the male end. There are women in that group, and it’s foolish to assert otherwise or that they don’t belong there, but they are a minority.
My undergrad school was once an all-female school and still has about a 60/40 women/men ratio, but even there, the computer science program had maybe half a dozen female students in it at any given time. I think it goes without saying that the reasons for the dearth of women in STEM fields are complex and being addressed at other levels with efforts to get more girls interested in such topics earlier, so it might be that we’ll just see this inequality even out a bit on its own with the next generation. These are areas that have historically been stereotyped, at least, as “guy” things, and I think a lot of the gap has to do with how these fields, and games themselves, have historically been viewed: you just don’t get lots of parents in the 80s or 90s that thought, “Nintendo! Perfect Christmas gift for my daughter!”
So I tend to point at the state of education and game marketing over the last few decades, rather than the industry itself, as the core of the reason we see such a gap. I always get a bit wary when the gap itself is pointed out as if it’s appeared out of the blue, with the sort of “guilty until proven innocent” assumption that it’s the game industry’s doing alone.
AJ: All true. But I think we do have to look at the industry itself.
I think we have to look at things like: Long hours, with crunch time. Lack of work/life balance. Often forcing families to relocate frequently to keep jobs. None of these things are particularly attractive to women.
We have to look at the “old boy’s culture” that’s prevalent in games. There was controversy this year, as there often is, about booth babes at E3, and whether or not they are appropriate. Hiring a spokesmodel in skimpy clothes is sort of a signal that the event is being held for the pleasure of men, and women are less than welcome there. And some women who are in the industry are upset about this practice, because it cheapens the role of the women who happen to be in production.
Now, you can go to GDC, and have wonderful intelligent conversations free from the spectacle of E3. But it’s harder to see that from the outside.
Dix: Don’t misunderstand: I think there’s lot of things the game industry does that could, and should, be changed. But I find the thought that these things are specifically “unattractive to women”, eh, suspect. I think they’re unattractive to most everyone regardless of sex, and to frame it like these are specifically things unfriendly to women sort of comes with the implication that they aren’t unfriendly to men – that men are somehow job-doing machines that don’t mind if their job rules their life. I’d by lying if I said I didn’t find that notion a bit offensive.
I think the kind of stuff some developers have to go through to get and keep jobs is just plain hostile, full stop. It’s hostile to family life, but we’ve seen the make-up of families and the career status of men and women in those situations change a lot. Every now and again we see the latest numbers about how “stay-at-home dads” are on the rise, that the division of labor when it comes to child care is pretty evenly split between both parents. And people tend to stay single longer and have fewer children.
Granted, there is the issue of maternity leave, and I’m not familiar with common numbers for the game industry there, but my understanding is that that’s one of many benefits that’s kind of on the downturn across the board for career women. By all accounts pregnancy and childbirth are pretty taxing, and I think it’s a bit repulsive how some employers are so concerned about the bottom line to not support their employees when they make the decision to have children. And in the end, people who have more personal experience with the topic than I (that is, women) should be the ones defining what’s necessary and proper.
Now, booth babes I don’t have any desire to defend at all – the pragmatic but unsatisfying answer is that “sex sells,” presumably. It’s a marketing thing, and I’m guessing it works on the segment of their audience that they expect it to. I agree that it perpetuates the “boys’ club” perception of video games and their audience, and think that reflects poorly on video games regardless of who you are. I hope that we’ll find, in the coming years, that that tactic is as antiquated in practice as it seems in theory.
AJ: I realize the work conditions of the game industry are hostile, often, to all people, regardless of gender or their gender role. But I think balancing work and family is something young men, in particular, don’t worry about in the same way. I think that’s where you get young men who are willing to let the industry sort of “churn them out.” In that respect, game work environments – and not all of them, certainly, but many of them – are toxic, in the sense that they’d rather use young men up and replace them, especially at the bottom of the totem pole in jobs like QA.
But societal pressures on women are different, and I feel like this is hard to see unless you’re living it. A young man can take a couple years and spend some time in a hectic job before he decides to start a family. Putting aside even the pressures of motherhood and maternity leave, a woman has other expectations laid on her even without kids. She is expected to, for example, handle domestic tasks necessary for the upkeep of a household, and most of the “emotional chores,” (things like sending out Christmas cards) all while remaining pretty – but not too pretty – or else you’re dumb and clearly don’t know anything about your job.
Stay-at-home Dads are a thing, but they’re not really part of society’s narrative. If you have a working Mom, and a Stay-at-Home Dad, it’s not considered as normal or acceptable as the reverse situation. Have you seen The Atlantic this month, showing a woman trying to smuggle a baby in her briefcase? It’s a pretty common image. You might try to have a fulfilling career, but there’s going to be someone whispering in your ear that it’s not really fulfilling the “right role.”
I think maybe it does come down to societal narratives overall. And one of the narratives that we still have is “women don’t make video games.” We know that’s not true. But it’s hard to attract more women until that perception is changed.
Dix: And I suppose what I’m saying is, I think we’re seeing signs of that narrative changing. The societal narrative of the last several generations, really, are definitely a big part of why the professional landscape is what it is, but I think that we’re seeing signs of that breaking down. I suppose that doesn’t do much good for women already in the industry, or currently trying to get in, but I would predict that, even absent particular initiatives to encourage more women to be game developers, we’d start to see women occupy a larger segment of the game industry from changes in social expectation alone.
My question would be, how do we enact change in social expectations unless we break them (or outright ignore them)? Don’t we, at some point, have to choose to defy those whispers in our ear if we want to see anything change?
It sounds like a bit of a paradox – “before women will want to make video games, women have to make video games.” But I think it’s probably true. It just seems like something else needs to be the get the ball rolling.
AJ: I think these changes are really slow. And I honestly don’t think they’re going to happen automatically.
I think we should start by making video games seem like a safer place for young women. A place where they see they have role models who are working in the industry, and a place where they see that those role models are respected.
To make that happen, women need to be unafraid to showcase themselves and their talent. I have read that women are less likely to want to speak at conferences than men, and this is one place where women could really step up and show that we are here. The GDC Microtalks this year featured many talented, smart women, and it was an inspiration to see them standing up on stage.
And, conversely, men need to show that those women are respected, too. I’m not saying that they aren’t – every studio culture is different. But even if you’re just a fan, and you feel like putting someone down for being a woman: maybe not do that. … I guess that is asking a lot.
Dix: It really shouldn’t be asking much, but I’m guessing there’s at least a certain set of game fans who would find the request completely unreasonable. I think that’s part of where the challenge comes from, of course: not only that women in the industry need to be a bit more visible, but that the audience needs to be more welcoming – or at least less hostile – to that reality. And for reasons I think I will never really understand, there is definitely a segment of that audience that has zero interest in doing that – possibly even interest in discouraging it.
But speaking of role models: we’ve certainly alluded to the idea that girls aren’t encouraged to even consider games (or many STEM careers) as a possibility, even when they are still years away from making any sort of career decision. Now, we’ve all seen the numbers that show that the gaming audience is creeping toward a roughly 50/50 split, all told, between women and men, and a lot of people cite the rise of the social/casual game as the cause. What sort of games do you think are really going to encourage young girls today to decide they want to make video games when they grow up?
AJ: I’m not sure what will, but what probably won’t are the social games or “pink games.” A lot of those games are about some other kind of fantasy career in and of themselves. A lot of girl games are about being a fashion designer or babysitter or chef, so that draws less attention to the game, and more attention to the fantasy of some other career.
Maybe we need an Imagine: Computer Programmerz.
Or we need more games that are about being games, in and of themselves, rather than fantasy career simulators and “playing house” aimed at little girls. It’s hard to tell how much of this happens because girls genuinely like that sort of thing, and how much happens because that’s the only sort of thing that’s presented to little girls. I do think that “what games are designed for girls” is drifting into a whole other topic, though!
Dix: A game about making video games? That sounds like it might get a little meta.
For my part, I think we need a Bill Nye the Science Guy. But for video games. And a woman. You get the idea.
Definitely a discussion to pick up for next time!