Last month, I opened an email sent to me by an aspiring video game developer named Esther. She was just starting on her degree in Game Art, but something was troubling her – she’d watched a documentary about women in the game industry, and many of them said their work was valued less than equivalent work done by male teammates.
So Esther had written to ask me about equality: “Have you ever seen a woman having more problems finding a job or being appreciated for her work? Have you ever noticed that a gender inequality exists in the game industry?”
I love the game industry and I love the people in it, so I didn’t want to scare Esther away from her future career. But I had to be honest with her. So I replied to confirm the hard truth that she already suspected: that unfortunately there is a gender inequality in the game industry, and in the tech industry as a whole.
But I also told her that, as a male, I’m not particularly qualified to answer her question with much personal experience or expertise. Instead, I wanted to ask my friends in the game industry who are women, and get their thoughts and insights to share with up-and-coming game developers like Esther.
So today we’re hearing from two professional game designers, who share their thoughts and experience on gender equality in game development from a female perspective.
Kim McAuliffe is an award-winning game designer whose work spans platforms and genres. She was the publishing lead designer on Kinect Nat Geo TV, which won a Golden Panda award for New Media, and a senior designer on EGM’s “Best Xbox Exclusive” of 2013, Project Spark. She’s spoken at numerous conferences, including the first #1ReasonToBe panel at GDC.
My N. Tran is a San Francisco Bay Area-based game designer. Called “one of the brightest young stars shining in our industry today” by free-to-play game design legend Scott Foe and “Maestro of Monetization” by Gamesauce Magazine, My also conceived and launched the24bit.com, a site which celebrates the game developer lifestyle.
How does gender inequality in the game industry compare with other tech jobs?
Kim McAuliffe: Tech in general suffers from a lack of women, so the gender inequality is similar. But games have an additional layer of gender complexity, created by the products themselves.
Video games have long been viewed as primarily for straight boys/men, whereas tech companies might make software for any number of different audiences. So the process of developing games adds to gender disparity, with things like needlessly sexualized character and armor designs or the lack of female protagonists or female characters with agency. And then sometimes you get unnecessary shower scenes awkwardly posed for the camera, the ridiculousness of which becomes clear when a male character is swapped in to replace the original female model.
So there is a battle on two fronts: being in a minority group at work in general, which is isolating; and then fighting battles over whether or not women are a significant part of the audience, or debating whether or not character designs are sexy enough.
What are the most tangible ways that gender inequality impacts women in game studios?
Kim: I think I covered this a bit in my previous answer, but some more tangible ways are: financially and mentally.
Financially, there’s a pay gap that’s hard to quantify, but the environment tends to favor aggression and negotiation and some women either don’t want to or don’t feel like they can negotiate when it comes to salary or promotions.
Mentally, there is a feeling of isolation if you find yourself to be the only woman in meeting after meeting. Women like me who aren’t naturally loud or aggressive get talked over in meetings, and either stop contributing or learn to fake assertiveness so their ideas get heard.
Finally, there is stereotype threat, which I will try to sum up as: when someone feels they’re at risk of validating negative stereotypes about their social group, causing personal stress and potentially impacting their performance and becoming self-fulfilling.
Do you think men in the industry tend to be aware of gender inequality issues?
Kim: Some men are great allies, some men are sort of aware but have huge blind spots, and some men think the whole thing is overblown silliness. Sexual harassment at work and at industry parties and events is still a real thing that happens much too often in 2015. Every man in the industry isn’t a harasser, of course, but almost every woman has more than one uncomfortable story.
There are definitely men out there making an effort to improve things though, bringing more women in for interviews and searching for more women to speak at events and generally educating themselves to make their workplaces somewhere women and minorities want to be. The hope is for industry men not to simply be aware of issues but to take an active role in changing them, because we all want the industry to be a better place. Men make up the majority of the industry and its leadership; equality and fairness for all marginalized groups (not only women) isn’t going to happen without them on board.
My N. Tran:This question brings up two thoughts: I don’t think we should focus on just the men in the industry; and, I don’t think awareness is the problem. I think we should ask what percentage of the people in the industry truly give a damn about fixing the industry they are part of. Gender inequality is a huge issue.
I have met and worked with awesome men, supportive men, clueless men, disrespectful men, selfish men, and so on. I have met and worked with awesome women, supportive women, clueless women, disrespectful women, selfish women, and so on.
After a few jobs I learned some life lessons quickly. And one of the things I learned is that it doesn’t matter what gender, race, educational background, etc. a person is – no matter where you go, you will encounter awesome people, and awful people. Lumping people up is only going to hurt you. Treat everyone you meet as an individual. Befriend and support a person based on their actions, how they treat you and others, and how they treat the games industry.
This industry isn’t going to stop existing any time soon. We need people to care and to take action in making the industry better for years to come.
How can men and women in the game industry improve the situation?
Kim: The first resource for men who want to be allies and change things for the better is a willingness to listen to what the women around them are saying. They also need to be willing to call out other men who are acting or speaking inappropriately, or to challenge a work culture that negatively impact minorities. To reiterate what I said above: men must realize the burden of progress is on them, that they need to be active participants in pursuing a better industry if it’s going to happen.
For women, the best resources are other women, reaching out to industry veterans to find mentors and building a network of peers to help navigate what can be a complicated career path.
Do you feel that progress is being made? Are you hopeful?
Kim:Progress is being made. The embarrassing #womenaretoohardtoanimate debacle happened, but at least partially in response this year’s E3 featured significantly more female protagonists. Anita Sarkeesian’s videos may not be universally loved or agreed with, but they are educating many, many developers who want to make their products part of a better industry for everyone in addition to avoiding the creativity vacuum of lazy writing and overused tropes. (You don’t need assaulted or dead women to motivate your hero – that is one of my particular pet peeves.)
I’m not enough of an expert to attempt to predict what will happen over the next 5 or 10 years, but my guess is there will continue to be slow but steady change. A major hindrance to that is the gendered abuse often targeted at industry women with any kind of public presence. Without major changes and coordinated efforts to prevent abuse and create online communities intolerant of abuse, progress will stagnate. Some women are already choosing to avoid being the public face of their games, to be less involved in community interaction, or to leave the industry altogether.
My: The explosion of mobile games opened a lot of doors in the games industry. Things are changing in the game space and we are making progress every year. We are seeing all kinds of people, all over the world, make games. We are seeing different kinds of genres in the market. We are seeing all kinds of gamers.
As long as game education and game development tools are accessible, as long as people want to make games, as long as we can share games with others, as long as we have outlets to express what we like – as long as these things are in motion, the gaming community will become more welcoming over time.
What advice would you offer to a young woman thinking about starting her career in games?
Kim: If you love games, there is probably no other career you’ll find as rewarding as making them.
- Work hard to develop the skills you need to be marketable, but also work to connect with other women as mentors and friends.
- Don’t put up with micro-aggressions. Don’t be afraid to use HR when a situation calls for it, but know that their primary interest is protecting the company.
- Do what you have to to make sure your voice is heard and you get credit for your work and ideas. Make sure you give credit to others when due; not enough people do this and it will be appreciated.
- Don’t feel like you have to be “one of the boys” to be liked.
- Don’t stay in a toxic workplace a minute longer than you have to.
- Your direct manager will have more impact than anyone else on your work happiness and career growth, so cultivate a strong working relationship with them focusing on communication and transparency. This will allow them to step in and help with potential problems early, as well as to share the great things you’ve been doing with the levels of leadership above them.
Be aware that this industry is often not the easiest place to be a woman, but positive change is happening, and most of the guys you work with will be pretty great.
My: Read this if you haven’t already: Jennifer Lawrence’s essay titled Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars? What Jennifer Lawrence said in that article resonates with me. I want to be liked. I don’t want to come off as difficult. I triple check my accomplishments with others to be sure I am not reaching for something I don’t deserve.
When I graduated in 2011 from the University of California: Santa Cruz, I got a job in the games industry a week after graduation. Five months into working in the industry and making friends with others, I quickly realized people were not paid for the same job (men and women). I quickly realized some people are promoted on the basis of potential while others have to prove every single thing they achieved. I quickly realized a lot people don’t understand that the games industry is a team based industry.
This is my advice to anyone in the game industry either now or in the future:
- You are responsible for yourself and your happiness. This is never going to change.
- There will be awesome and awful people – judge individuals based on their actions. Surround yourself with good people, don’t concern yourself with toxic people.
- Get everything down on paper. Serious. Everything. Never depend on verbal agreements. Things that were promised to you, every goal your manager said you needed to hit for a promotion to happen, acknowledgement of great work, etc.
- Negotiate hard and don’t be afraid to put up a fight. Document your accomplishments and successes and have metrics that support them.
- If the company exhausted all of your goodwill and has treated you badly – start looking for a new place that is worth your time, energy, and effort.
- Lastly, when you feel like you are no longer learning something new at your job, it is time to move on because you’re wasting your time.
The future is in your hands
I wished I’d had better news for Esther – but when she read my response, she wrote back with a message that was clear and encouraging: “I appreciate your recommendation! And no, this situation doesn’t scare me. I will fight for gender equality and fight for my future career.”
Each of us can take responsibility for driving progress and improvement of equality in the game industry, the tech industry, and the World as a whole. Esther is committed to building a better future for women in games. Are you?