Women in the Game Industry, and UnicornsComplications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
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Saturday, November 29, 2014

If you go to a game convention, and even more to at a game awards show, the ratio of men to women is appalling, a sea of men punctuated by a few women.

It's peculiar, because no one I know actually wants the game industry to be so ridiculously masculine. (Not to say no one wants it; only no one I know.) Everyone thinks, in the abstract, that it would be good to have women environmental artists and animators and programmers and designers. However, it's rare to find a company that is more than 15% women. The games industry is as much of a meritocracy as any creative field can be. People hire the people they think are best, and the people they think are best tend overwhelmingly to be men. No one is willing to hire a less-good programmer or a less-good environmental artist simply because she's a woman.

On Contrast we had two women on a team of ten: our concept artist and our animator. Now we have two women, our concept artist and our lead programmer. At one point we had a woman environmental artist. In almost any other field, that would be considered a sexist workspace. In games, we're considered fairly pro-women. (It helps that our last game starred two women, and passed the Bechdel test.)

How did this come about? The conventional wisdom is that when games started, you had to be a programmer. People like Jordan Mechner made their own games, which meant they had to be programmer, graphic artist, animator and storyteller; but above, all, programmer.

The thing was, there were vanishingly few women programmers. In my Intro Comp Sci class at Yale -- the one required for the major -- we had 60 students, of which three were women.

Why was that? Because in most universities, you were expected to already know how to program if you wanted to take a programming class. That meant either that you happened to have a great computer lab at school (as Bill Gates did), or you had a personal computer. But personal computers, such as the TRS-80 (affectionately known as the Trash-80), were marketed to boys.

So girls arrived in Comp Sci 221 and all the boys already knew how to program, and they were left behind. And then they didn't go on to make games.

What's mysterious to me is: why did women continue to drop out of computer science?

Personal computers really hit around 1985. Oddly, that's when there were the most women computer science majors. There are now many fewer, as a percentage -- even though pretty much every middle class kid has access to a computer, and the Internet does not ask whether you're a girl or a boy.

Is it that games is, outside my happy little indie company, a truly sexist, female-hostile world? Or is it just passively hostile, bro-culture? Or is it that until recently most games were built for 14 year old boys, and girls didn't come into the business to make games because no one was making games for them?

At MIGS this year, Manveer Heir gave a passionate speech about needing more women and minorities in games. Our game designer, said, "Okay, I agree, but what am I supposed to do about it?" He's a white bro dude. The best answers I could come up with is: (a) Go out of our way to find great women candidates for jobs, and then hire the best person. (b) Make games that women dig, which will inspire women to join the industry.

No one's going to hire someone who's less good, just because they're a woman. But I think it's legit to look a little harder to find women candidates. And it's just good business to make sure your games reach both halves of the human race.

What do you think?


I don't have the data ready to hand, but I've read reports suggesting that groups that make additional effort to recruit women as applicants do find themselves with a higher number of female hires.

Do you know Brianna Wu? She runs an indie gamedev studio and has a lot to say about this. Her company is Giant Spacekat, and you can find her on Twitter @SpacekatGal.

By Blogger glassblowerscat, at 2:37 PM  

Thank you for posting this, Alex! I'm a project manager at a female-led startup. I'm also a former gaming blogger (which I quit due to the response I got from bro culture). The question you pose here is a great one, and one that I think can be answered by finding ways to make those STEM concepts more visual. There's a movement to make STEAM toys instead of STEM ones, with an added "A" for art and design. The thinking is that adding the visualization of art and design to STEM concepts like computer programming makes them less abstract and easier for girls to embrace with their natural visualization skillset.

The trouble is that most of the toys that allow for that -- LEGOs, blocks, etc -- have been deemed "boy toys" by society at large. Putting more of those in girls' hands would be supremely helpful in changing that sad 15% of women in gaming to something much closer to 50%.

Also, making games that pass the Bechdel test totally helps. :) Thanks for doing that!

By Blogger Laurie, at 4:56 PM  

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