Halo screenshot

Fair play: How welcome are women in games design teams?

Image credit: Games press

The #GamerGate movement claimed to highlight concerns with ethics in video game culture, but became associated with vicious harassment of women in the industry. Have attitudes changed since then?

The video game industry is booming. Global games revenue is expected to reach US$108.9bn in 2017, according to the April 2017 Global Games Market Report from Newzoo, with 2.2 billion people around the world gaming. Video games have often been looked upon as a male hobby, with games designed to appeal to boys and men. In the past you’d have mainly found female characters in games in need of saving – and also often in need of clothes – but there have been clear moves away from this video-game trope.

More strong female characters have come to the fore – take the evolution of ‘Tomb Raider’ protagonist Lara Croft. When she first appeared on our consoles, the focus appeared to be on her top-heavy ‘features’. Over the years the spotlight has moved away from her appearance to her physical strengths and survival instincts.

Today, the gender split of gamers is close to 50:50. According to the US-based Entertainment Software Association (ESA), women aged 18 or older represent a significantly greater proportion (31 per cent) of the game-playing population than boys under the age of 18 (18 per cent).

Even though a large proportion of gamers are women, the number of female game developers remains low. According to the 2016 International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Developer Satisfaction Survey, only 23 per cent of people working in development are female.

Why is this the case? Many say it’s down to the same issues that face the whole of the engineering and technology sector: that not enough schoolchildren are choosing to study STEM subjects and go into technical careers.

However, there are some that believe this industry still holds onto a ‘boys’ club’ mentality, with female developers faced with discriminatory jokes, having their appearance ‘rated’ or their technical skills belittled. Josie Nutter, for example, a US software engineer and games programmer who’s helped create titles including ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’, ‘Justice League Heroes’ and ‘Plants vs. Zombies 2’, was once called an “unhirable feminazi”.

Many who’ve experienced such issues shared stories on Twitter using the hashtag #OneReasonWhy to highlight why many women are either put off joining, or leave the gaming industry.

When she was a student studying game art in Detroit, Danette Beatty’s teachers suggested that she talk to an industry professional to get a critique of her work. However, after a few telephone conversations she could see that “it was clear that wasn’t all he wanted”.

“Jokes got lewd and I didn’t know what to do in that situation as he was high up at a company I could potentially work for, so I went along with it. By the time it became too uncomfortable to put up with, he accused me of making a move on him by allowing it to continue,” she says.

Through her own experiences, US-based computer programmer and game developer Brianna Wu quickly learnt that as a young female developer she wasn’t considered a true part of the team at work.

“On the run up to the release of ‘Halo 3’, I heard all the guys in the office whispering about the launch, and the day it was released they all played hooky – including my manager. The only two people left on the floor to deal with all the work that day were me, the only woman on the team, and the one gay guy who worked there. It very much sent a message that we weren’t part of their club.”

Breaking into any industry can be hard work, but is it tougher for women to join the game development industry than men? Talking to those already working in the sector, views are mixed.

“I believe the gaming industry is difficult for anyone to break into – it isn’t a gendered issue,” explains animator and marketing assistant Chloe Price. “Studios want people with talent and they’re not going to deliberately make it difficult for women and remove that avenue of talent. I’m a firm believer that studios will always try to hire the best person for the job and that gender doesn’t, and shouldn’t, come into it. In fact, in my experience women are more likely to be hired than men with similar skills because studios want to have a more equal gender split. There are so many people wanting to do what we do that companies are only going to take the best of the best – as they should.”

Kate Edwards, executive director of the IGDA, disagrees. She thinks it’s still tougher for women to break into the industry.

“While there are some women who had key roles in building the game industry we know today, the ongoing under-representation of women has unfortunately solidified an implicit yet inaccurate perception that women just aren’t interested in creating games,” she says. “In company cultures, this can take all forms of explicit or implicit discrimination or bias and the longer it persists, the more difficult it can be to change. Any woman seeking to work in the game industry will likely either overtly or subtly run into some issues that become systemic when their presence isn’t considered ‘normal’.”

For those women who do choose a career in the developer suite, sometimes workplace culture, such as lack of flexible working opportunities, can eventually lead to them leaving the industry.

Take the industry practice of ‘crunch time’. This is when staff are expected to work extended hours of up to 50-69 hours per week in order to complete a game on schedule. This becomes less manageable for both men and women when children come along.

“Games are always late and over budget, which always involves some sort of crunch period,” says Elaine Green, director of independent software developer Nellyvision. “I’ve had holidays cancelled/refused due to projects overrunning. The problem with flexi-time would be guaranteeing that someone could leave at a certain time each day, as meetings overrun or move, or something needs to be urgently changed because the publisher wants to see it that afternoon, etc. As games generally involve agile development, it’s not like a job where you arrive in the morning, do a set task for eight hours and leave. I’ve always had a great deal of freedom with regards to working hours, but inevitably the job comes first.”

Beatty, who now works in the UK as a 3D artist for Ustwo Games, says she also feels it can be tougher for female developers to gain respect. “While a guy might not be questioned on their experience or expertise, women still need to prove that they are qualified for the job and have to work twice as hard to back it up lest they make a mistake,” she notes.

Games designer Elizabeth Sampat is an activist for minority groups in gaming. She adds that some women also have concerns that having a family might negatively affect their career. “I think a lot of women are terrified to get pregnant – not just because of poor maternity leave in the US, but because you spend your entire career trying to be seen a certain way and then there’s a real chance that work will be undone and you’ll just be seen as a mum.”

The issue of sexism in the video-game industry was truly laid bare in the mass media in 2014 during the ‘GamerGate’ controversy, which saw heated online discussions around games journalism ethics and the representation of women in the industry. It was triggered by a derogatory blog post written by the ex-boyfriend of US game developer Zoe Quinn, which shared intimate stories of their relationship and led to unproven accusations that she traded sex for positive reviews of her latest game.

GamerGate did bring about important discussions about ethics in games journalism, and the gaming press was made to look closely at its relationship with developers and publishers. However, it also gave a group of anonymous misogynists the opportunity to launch an online harassment campaign against female games creators.

Quinn, anyone who came to her support, and sometimes even those that didn’t, were targeted for online abuse by a small group of trolls (people who make intentionally offensive or provocative online posts) who went as far as sending rape and death threats to many women working in the sector. After a year of abuse, Quinn moved from Boston to Seattle to start over, and has since created the Crash Override Network, a support group for victims of large-scale online abuse. She also continues to make games.

Although trolling and internet abuse is in no way unique to the US, from the small group of developers interviewed across the UK, Europe and America, ‘sexism in the developer suite’ seems to be a much worse problem in the US than elsewhere. Many European female developers have experienced little, if any, bad treatment.

“I can hand-on-heart say that I have never experienced any kind of sexism from the animation, VFX or gaming industries,” says Chloe Price, who is based in south-east England. “I’ve never been made to feel like my skills or opinions are less important because of my gender. I believe gaming is one of the most accepting communities.”

“I didn’t leave the game industry, but I did leave the American game industry and move to Denmark,” adds Sampat. “It was the best decision of my career, and in many ways, I didn’t realise how tiring the institutional biases in the US actually were, because they were all I’d ever known.

“A few weeks ago, one of the higher-ups at my company called me ‘ambitious’ and I had to actually stop myself from apologising and denying it, because in my entire career I’d never heard a woman being called ambitious as a compliment before,” she notes.

A harrowing experience for all involved, GamerGate has left its mark on the industry.

“I think mainstream media coverage opened a lot of previously unaware eyes to the type of harassment that female developers experience regularly,” says Nutter. “In some ways, this continues to have a negative impact – discouraging women from entering the industry and motivating certain companies to distance themselves from controversy in ways that are disproportionately detrimental to their female employees. Despite those things, growing awareness has really helped rally more people against bigotry and online bullying,” she adds.

“The underlying problem represented by this incident still persists, and targeted harassment continues off-and-on,” notes Edwards. “For individual women developers, it’s made some paranoid and wary of remaining in the industry, while most are much more aware of the steps they need to protect themselves online as well as better recognising and responding to harassment.

“Yet in the end I believe the overall impact to the game industry was a net positive because this episode raised the level of dialogue about the critical need for diversity and inclusion, and has spurred coordinated efforts to earnestly make that happen industry-wide, including the IGDA’s stated goal to double the number of women working in the industry by 2025.”

Sampat says it’s a mistake to believe that the furore of GamerGate ended sexism in the sector. “In a lot of ways it sucked being a female developer before GamerGate, and things are slowly getting worse because people treat ‘women in games’ as a solved problem – like GamerGate was a weird year-long blip and now sexism in our industry is gone. (But) the boots on the ground are still there being assholes to women.”

Having written about anonymous harassment of women in the industry during the height of GamerGate, Brianna Wu began to receive threats of her own. She believes there’s now a better sense of the issues out there, but policies aren’t necessarily changing in response. Feeling so strongly about equal treatment in the workplace, she’s now running for Congress.

“What makes me want to scream is that no one knows me for my engineering work, only my views on women’s equality. I’ve worked so hard to become an engineer, but the truth is you’re put in this impossible situation where you can smile, go along with the system and get fewer opportunities, or speak out and be put in this box. There’s a heightened awareness, but these congenital problems aren’t really solved. I believe women need to step up and run for office, and I hope to use my position to hold hearings on sexism in the tech industry.”

Other responses to GamerGate have included promoting the hashtag #OneReasonToBe. This was started by games narrative writer Rhianna Pratchett so women could share positive experiences about working in the industry and reasons why they love games. This has gone on to spawn a popular annual panel at the Games Developer Conference (GDC), highlighting great things the sector has to offer women.

Clearly there’s still a long way to go, but Edwards does believe mindsets towards women in gaming are changing for the better. “Many companies have become more self-conscious of their diversity – or lack of – and I think this level of awareness is crucial for long-term change to occur. It’s also been encouraging to see more companies focus on the problem of unconscious bias.

“In addition, we’re seeing games companies slowly realising the need to address problems of scheduling and crunch time if they want to attract more women. I think the reality is that games companies understand they’re in competition for talent from the broader tech sector, [where many firms offer] greater benefits and perks. In order to stay competitive, they must evolve their business practices into something more inclusive of all potential talent.”

Female developers can also find support and networking opportunities through groups like Women in Games, conferences aimed at women in the industry and awards highlighting gaming industry diversity and successes of women in gaming.

The next task is to engage with schoolgirls to show the career opportunities available to them in the sector.

Edwards says: “We need to ensure there is a clear pipeline for young women to realise that game development is a solid career choice, and that there will be resources available to help them succeed.

“This can be a challenging place to work when you’re in the minority, but at this juncture you may need to be the pioneer – the only woman in a company, or among the few female programmers. Someone has to fulfil those roles now of being the pioneers and helping to diversify this industry, so it might as well be you because your example will inspire many others to follow your path.”

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