Where are the women in gaming?
Surveys show that middle-aged women are the largest demographic in gaming (if we include casual gamers). Even without including casual gamers, women are playing more games in general and more AAA titles usually associated with male gamers. But where are they in top management?
Julie Larson-Green’s promotion to head of Xbox got me thinking about women in gaming. Not the people who play the games, but the people who make them. Why do we still see so few women at the upper echelons of gaming? Look at the PlayStation board – with the exception of one woman and one Japanese man, they are all white men. Why aren’t there more women in senior management in gaming?
If we want to look at the present, we have to first understand the past – what follows is a simplified explanation. In the good old days of gaming, namely the 80s, there was little to no existing gaming industry. Game developers were techies from the 70s, who were male. This isn’t sexist – the feminist movement was in its second wave and women were making great strides in a variety of fields, but technology was not one of them.
The developers were men, and wanted to work with each other. This eventually led to the formation of companies and development houses that were primarily male. As a result, there was a strong “boy’s club” view of game developers, as well as gamers in general. With growth, came some interesting trends in gaming and women started to get more involved in the industry.
Then the crash in the 90s happened. Gaming was declining. The only people who saw the industry through this time period were the ‘die hard’ developers and those with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. As women were still relatively new to the industry, they were not as likely to pursue gaming in this time period.
Gaming has seen significant growth since then, among men and women. However, most women only have a maximum of 10-15 years of experience in the industry. This means that while they are moving up within the corporations, they are still “too new” to get the senior positions that the “old boys” are allocated. There are some roles where women have excelled, but they simply do not have the weight of being founding members.
The Structure of Gaming Studios
As in most companies focused on building programs, there are two main sides of game studios – the technical and the artistic. The technical department, as can be inferred, is comprised of programmers, technical directors and others who make the games actually function. They are the ones who make the game work. The artistic department, as is also implied, is made up of graphic designers, storytellers, and architects. These are the people who make the game look impressive and beautiful, with a story to tell. As a general rule, we tend to see more men among the technical team (just look at most companies’ IT departments) and more women on the artistic team. This has a lasting implication if we look at career advancement.
The third, generally smaller, arm of development is admin and operations. These are the people who make sure that the company actually runs. Once it grows larger, they are the ones who oversee everything to make sure ideas are project managed and people work together towards a common goal, with a common deadline.
As a general rule, we see that those on the technical side move from being programmers, to development managers, to architects, to chief technical officers. Once they become CTO, they sit on the board and are more likely to be promoted to CEO when the time comes, as they have technical know-how. This is despite the fact that they are often lacking in business or people skills – think Microsoft on this one. Meanwhile, in the art department, most people move from artist, to lead designer, to artistic director. There is no further role for them – rarely does an artistic director become CEO, mostly because they are perceived as unaware or unknowledgeable in the field. This stereotype is regardless of gender – most people simply believe that those with an artistic sensibility do not understand technology, let alone business. We do see some women holding project management and operations roles within gaming studios. However, they rarely worked their way up through artistic roles.
Evolution in Gaming
Things are changing in gaming. I’m not talking about more women playing games; I’m talking about more women being involved in the gaming industry, as well as changes to games themselves.
First, we are seeing more women in tech degrees. While it takes a while for education to trickle down into employment and eventually management, this bodes well for the future of women in gaming. If we can see more women on both sides of the divide, there will be a higher probability that they will reach senior management as they progress in their careers.
Second, games have moved beyond cool mechanics with pretty skins. Multi-layered storytelling, character psychology and realistic dialog are expected. While both men and women are capable of this, women generally have more developed social skills (arguably a ‘benefit’ of sexist socialization) and are better able to replicate these real-world elements.
Third, we are seeing more customer feedback in gaming. In the past, developers would create a game and push it on the market where gamers would either buy it or not. Now, with social media as well as games that constantly grow and change (such as MMOs, MOBAs and even multiplayer experiences) we are seeing the need for greater customer care and surveys. These areas are dominated by women. Over time, these women could work their way up to being the next Julie Larson-Green. Knowing your customer is a powerful tool.
The Flame War
Finally, we have to address some sensitive issues. Now, this is a veritable can of worms. Just look at what happened with the proposed panel to discuss this and other issues at PAX. Open commentary is not only frowned upon, but made absolutely impossible by people who cannot understand that there may be differences of opinions on these controversial topics. Women (or race or sexuality) in gaming is a very contentious issue that has become impossible to discuss.
I am a gamer. I have played games since before I could hold a controller. I used to direct my older brother – he was the brawn and I was the brains in our gaming duo. Eventually, I overtook him as the gamer while he moved on to other interests. I have played games my whole life and have tons of opinions about games that I like or dislike, development houses I enjoy or avoid, etc. However, when I have voiced some of those opinions, I have been attacked for not being feminist enough. I have been accused of being a token woman and had to take all kinds of abuse. That’s fine, I can handle it. What saddens me though, are the women that get chased away. How many women read my pieces but are afraid to comment because of what they fear the reaction will be? If we want to encourage women in the gaming industry, shouldn’t we encourage them to have opinions, whatever those opinions may be? Isn’t the whole point of feminism that women should be judged on their merit, not on their sex or gender? People are welcome to disagree with anything I say; however, if they disagree with my having that opinion as a woman, they are emblematic of the problem at hand.
There is also an issue of perceived vs. actual sexism. Most people perceive gaming as a very sexist industry. My friends share this view, and most of my female friends have congratulated me on writing for a gaming site, for showing the guys that “girls can play games, too”. Presumably, many women believe in this perceived sexism, and are less inclined towards becoming a part of the industry – why force yourself into a group that doesn’t want or appreciate you? Not all women want to break down the walls of boys’ clubs just for feminism’s sake.
Strangely, though, most of the men I’ve encountered aren’t sexist at all, and other women are also defending men. People seem to be interested in my opinions – not because I’m a woman, but because I have expressed opinions they agree (or disagree) with on a range of topics. As such, they have a sense that if I like a game, they also might like it. Or perhaps not. Sure, there are gender specific jokes, in much the same way that we might joke about any other attribute. I’m a woman, I’m a Mac owner, I am a huge JRPG fan, I’m American – all of these are aspects for which I’m teased, generally in equal measure. If you are only going to single out the sexist humour, you do not understand the purpose of humour or banter.
That said, there is still inherent sexism in gaming. Of course there is – just look at the target market. Lara Croft is a female Indiana Jones – sexy, smart and adventurous. Neither of them is taken seriously. They’re not supposed to be. They’re just characters in a fun adventure series. You can try to make her appeal to women by giving her smaller boobs and more clothing, but that won’t change the reality of the situation. There has also been a long standing assumption that games are for men, so women may be seen as outsiders or “new” gamers, regardless of their credentials.
I have played all kinds of sexist and gender neutral games. I didn’t select them because they had male or female protagonists. I selected them because the story, game play or design seemed interesting to me. I was able to look past any sexism and enjoy the experience. If you want to complain about the depiction of women in gaming, you might as well also complain about the depiction of women in literature, art, film, advertising, and every other aspect of society. This is the status quo that can only be changed by getting more women involved in the industry at all levels.
This isn’t to say that we should just sit back and wait for women to magically work their way up. No, I have a more specific call to arms; How about supporting all women in their contributions, whether or not you agree with them? How about acknowledging the hard work, dedication and ambition it has taken for those few women to be successful in the industry, instead of undermining them and calling them “token” females?
Julie Larson-Green worked her way up through Microsoft and is highly qualified; who knows if she’ll be successful with the Xbox, but she certainly has earned the opportunity to try. By claiming that the women who are in the industry are only there to balance out quotas implies that women aren’t qualified to begin with. Judge people on their merits, which is the whole point of feminism anyway. Let’s encourage girls and women to speak up, enter into the discussion, and be a part of gaming. Of course there will be some idiots and some brilliant people – not because they’re women or men, but because they are people.