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Rovio: Leading the way on gender balance

With Angry Birds Stella, Rovio is taking inclusive game development seriously

During the E3 Expo last June, Ubisoft announced that there would be no playable female characters in Assassin's Creed Unity. It must have seemed like such an innocuous decision to Ubisoft that it was announced quite casually, with a minimum of fuss, but on this occasion the public reaction was ferocious. Ubisoft's initial explanation that it was a matter of cost vs. benefit simply didn't cut it. A few years ago, that sort of decision would not have been met with such outrage but, as Ubisoft discovered, times have changed.

Thanks to the efforts of Nintendo and the boom in mobile and social gaming, it can no longer be said that males are the dominant gender in the marketplace for games. However, the response from publishers hasn't always been impressive, often manifesting as separate products for women on the side of male-focused productions - games in specific genres, characters wearing specific colors, and played out with simplified mechanics. Women remained a niche despite the clear potential for this new wave of casual gamers to become more engaged with the medium and seek out different and more challenging experiences. The economic decision to neglect female consumers in a mainstream game is neither understandable nor acceptable anymore, and yet the problem persists.

"We are always trying to hire the best talent with a match on the personality side as well. We've always wanted to be as diverse a company as possible"

Niklas Hed, Rovio

Our very own Rob Fahey pointed to the number of high-level decisions that are still made by men as a significant contributing factor. The IGDA has claimed that, as of 2014, women comprise 22 per cent of the total games industry workforce. That is more than double the ratio from 2009 - a major improvement, but at less than a quarter it's still far from ideal. Moreover, when looking at leadership and executive roles, women have far less representation than at lower levels. This sort of imbalance is true in many other industries, of course, but it's all the more blatant in games than elsewhere.

Fortunately, there are exceptions that are leading the way towards a more inclusive future, proving that an alternative is possible and tenable. Today I'd like to focus on one of them in particular: Rovio Entertainment.

In December 2009, when Angry Birds first hit Apple's App Store, Rovio employed 18 people, most of them men. In focus groups sessions, however, women and children were always included, as it was Rovio's clear intent to remain true to "E for Everyone" - a "four quadrant brand," as Hollywood calls it. Angry Birds' blend of physics, humour, destruction and cute character designs appealed to both genders, to the point that the split among Angry Birds players is 50 per cent male, 50 per cent female.

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As a natural consequence of its flagship product, the number of job applications Rovio received from women was almost on par with men - highly unusual for a game developer. Furthermore, in 2011, shortly after the launch of Angry Birds Rio, Rovio took the important decision to reposition itself as an entertainment company rather than merely a game studio. Rovio set out to build a Consumer Products division and an Animation department, two sectors that have had a more equal gender balance for decades. The company also established a Books department, hiring its first female vice president to run it: Sanna Lukander, formerly of Tammi Publishers, the third biggest publishing house in Finland.

Sanna beefed up her team with former employees and colleagues, quickly shaping the first division of the company in which the vast majority of employees were women. Rovio's founders, Niklas Hed and his cousin Mikael, could have resisted, consciously or unconsciously, the influx of women into the company. But being of Finnish upbringing, it seemed natural to them to embrace it instead. It so happens that in Finland - and in Scandinavian countries in general - gender equality is a part of the culture. There is a high number of female CEOs in Finland, and a high number of women at key power positions in politics, including the President. They were raised to choose the best candidate, no matter the gender, and so they did.

Rovio Founder Niklas Hed explains, "We are always trying to hire the best talent with a match on the personality side as well. We've always wanted to be as diverse a company as possible - that's the way to ensure that our games are suitable for all audiences. Probably when you start having more females in the company it encourages more to join in."

As the business grew, Rovio had to expand its Marketing and Communications department to keep up with the growing number of business proposals and opportunities. More women joined the company in positions of high responsibility as a direct result. Marja Konttinen started as an account manager and, after acting as one of the two project managers on Angry Birds Space, she was promoted to head of business development. Saara Bergström moved over from Nokia to lead Rovio's consumer engagement, and eventually became its head of marketing. When Bergström left Rovio to join Helsinki start-up Next Games, her successor was also a woman, Blanca Juti. So is Sara Antila, communication director since 2012, and Rachel Webber, who joined from Tumblr to lead the Animation division.

"Today there are more women joining the gaming industry, which is a good thing for our goals and I would personally like to see a 50/50 gender split"

Niklas Hed, Rovio

Rovio currently employs almost 900 people worldwide, a third of them female. Even more laudable, from VP, SVP, EVP, C-level people and higher executive positions, around one third of positions are filled by women as well. Founder Niklas Hed says, "All in all, today there are more women joining the gaming industry, which is a good thing for our goals and I would personally like to see a 50/50 gender split."

However, when focusing exclusively on Rovio's games unit, things look less rosy, with only about a fifth of the employees being female. With artists and designers the proportion of women is higher; with developers - including programmers and QA engineers - it's lower. Like most game companies, Rovio has long suffered from gender imbalance in development positions. It is a harsh reality of the market that there are fewer female coders out there than male, but Rovio has vowed not to sit idle in the face of that reality.

Rovio's efforts go beyond their own walls. It has vowed to increase the amount of female software engineers in the world at large, and they are taking several long-term steps to make it happen. There is a book, Futuremakers, written by Tuuti Piipo, which will be released as part of the Rovio Visions line later this year. The target of Futuremakers is to give young girls a panel of female role-models to whom they can look for inspiration. As part of its "Fun Learning" initiative, Rovio is also working on games that teach children the logic of code, and they are adamant about making young girls a priority target for this.

Speaking with Mighty Eagle Peter Vesterbacka last December in Rovio's Espoo headquarters, he was clearly very proud of an Angry Birds themed game about teaching code logic. While showing me how the game works, Vesterbacka said, "It is very important to me because I have a little daughter. The other day, I was showing her the game and to see her understand the logic of code was really awesome."

Like the team that designed it, the original flock of Angry Birds was mostly male. The sole exception was Matilda, the white bird that drops eggs when you tap the screen. In August 2012, a second female bird was introduced in the Angry Birds universe. Her name: Stella, who was designed to be an explicitly female character, and was introduced for the first time in the "Back to School" update of Angry Birds Seasons.

In January 2013, CEO Mikael Hed extended a challenge to the Operations team. He wanted to see another division take on building a brand, so that it wouldn't just be the Games team steering the ship. Naz Cuevas, Rovio's global head of consumer products and licensing, accepted the challenge and pitched to upper-management the idea of building Angry Birds Stella into its own franchise, under the code-name "Pink on Purpose."

"Right now, the Angry Birds demographics are 50 per cent male, 50 per cent female. So it's unisex," Cuevas said when we met at Rovio's HQ. "Female customers are used to adjusting to unisex products. It's not necessarily made for us, but we [women] make it work. Yet if we make products that are specifically designed for the modern woman, it passes the message that 'We care.' Angry Birds Classic will still be for everybody. However, to really create a franchise, you need to tailor the brand to target different demographics."

Over time, Angry Birds Stella was nurtured by all of Rovio's departments, each adding extra nuances and subtleties. The games team, the animation division, and the entire brand department, from marketing and communication to consumer insight representatives, they all participated week after week, for over a year and a half, in order to build upon the original vision.

"With CPL [consumer products licensing] and Games leading the way hand in hand, the Books & Publishing unit stepped up in a huge way to seed Stella and build a robust lineup to help continue tell her story," Cuevas said.

And it's not just Stella anymore. Stella now has a flock of BFFs, five female birds and one male who likes to hang out with the girls. Beyond the game, Angry Birds Stella will be fleshed out into its own complete universe, with its own full 52-episode animated series and a full array of consumer products, all designed with the specific tastes of young girls and young women in mind.

The announcement of Angry Birds Stella in February wasn't met with unanimous praise from the press. There was criticism in a couple of editorials here and there, most notably from TIME Techland, which expressed concern over clichés and "pinkified ghettos."

However, while explaining the positioning of Angry Birds Stella, CMO Blanca Juti was quick to point out that the new spin-off is aiming for exactly the opposite : "While it's true that it's designed to talk to modern girls and women, we are creating a brand that aims to talk to everyone, but brings strong female characters to the fore."

"If we make products that are specifically designed for the modern woman, it passes the message that 'We care'"

Naz Cuevas, Rovio

Peter Vesterbacka also rebuffed those claims when he took the stage at SXSW in March: "It's not Angry Birds for girls, but if you look at how boys and girls play, there's a lot more social gameplay in how girls play together. So one theme is that there are differences in how boys and girls play, and that's just how it is. We will try to create an experience that will be fun for everybody, just like all Angry Birds games, but maybe some of the gameplay patterns will be more attractive to a female audience. It's way too simple to say it's just Angry Birds for girls though: we are not into enforcing these stereotypes."

Stella is not a princess and she doesn't need rescuing. Stella is pink like the protagonist of Orange is the New Black is blond - one can only discern so much on hair colour alone, or feather colour, for that matter. The fact that there is controversy about the positioning of Angry Birds Stella will not discourage Rovio. This is one company that ensures that female voices are heard, and the project leads and VPs listening in, talking back and meeting the audience halfway are also all women. This, in and of itself, is a swift move away from the traditions of the games industry, when so many products were created by men for a male target audience. Angry Birds Stella represents a sincere attempt by Rovio to address that imbalance, and the same can't be said about all game companies.

In the face of change you can resist and fight back, or embrace it and lead. The latter option is more worthy, and very often more lucrative. It is a reality that, today, women are playing games in greater numbers than ever before, and not only in genres that are stereotypically associated with their gender. Products like Angry Birds Stella are an excellent start, but even opening up the typically masculine world of AAA games to this huge and growing audience isn't that difficult. It is simply a matter of making that extra effort to be more open-minded and inclusive, from the first day of production to the last.

"If you build it, they will come" applies to both genders.

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Latest comments (15)

James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada3 years ago
The Stella line could use less pink in the physical products and marketing shown if they want to diversify. Looks like a cool game, will be interesting to see if they can take on the established players in the genre.
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Meh... Stella seems, literally, pink washed Angry Birds. I mean, in the time when there is pressure to make gender neutral toys, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/10288057/Toys-R-Us-to-stop-gender-biased-marketing.html , making game characters pink, pastel and with long eyelashes and saying "this is a game for girls" seems... almost sexist? I know they said it's more social and all and that they are not enforcing girl-boy stereotypes, but that's how it looks.

In the matter of fact, I think that the original Angry Birds really were gender neutral. Maybe it's because, at least for those of us who are not ornithologists, it's hard to tell male and female birds apart in real life. In original Angry Birds, I never though that the Red bird, Yellow bird , small blue birds etc. would be male. Or female either for that matter. The white bird, laying eggs and all, was clearly female and Mighty Eagle had masculine outlook, now that I come to think of it. But the gender was never an issue in those games and I doubt anyone though them that way. Stella is much more gender oriented than previous games in the series. Beneath the pink and eyelashes, it's still the same game though.

Clash of Clans is good example of being gender, and race, neutral. As is Boom Beach. Supercell has gone above and beyond making games that have real diversity.
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Andrew Ihegbu Studying Bsc Commercial Music, University of Westminster3 years ago
Correct me if I'm wrong, but in my experience children's games, puzzle games, hell casual games period don't really suffer from the kind of gender sufferings that "core games" do.

I would usually say that adding pink characters, bows and pretty flowers to a game has to be the most vapid and shallow attempt to stereotype the desires of females that I have seen, but then this is a game that very much tries to be very kid friendly and bear a Nintendo-like gender neutrality. Nobody is banging down thier door asking for a female Link or Mario, so why would they when the characters arent even human? was the problem really here to start with? As far as I could interpret things as a guy, females wanted to be represented in the same manner as males and part of that is about giving their characters more depth (which i dont believe Angry birds should even strive to do), so I'm of the opinion that Angry Birds Stella is a pear and thus Rovio is being compared to a bunch of Apple trees.

Edit for clarity: Rovio makes games that do not have life-like proportions, themes, or have the remotest connection with realism. Why we would compare them to Assassins Creed when I would challenge a female player to feel alienated by nearly any casual game on the basis of her gender is beyond me.
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Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andrew Ihegbu on 8th September 2014 7:59pm

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Show all comments (15)
Daniel Mesonero Producer, Studio 493 years ago
I can't see how Angry Birds Stella is not marketed as "Angry Birds for Girls". The color palette and art style is a departure from all their previous franchise games, and definitely goes into the realm of "girl games". It's impossible to believe that this product hasn't been focus tested quite extensively, and claiming that it is meant to be gender neutral is just PR.

I think it's great that a game has some diverse female protagonists, and that it does not suffer from the smurfette principle like the previous Angry Birds games (contrary to the author, it is actually a problem that Mathilda was made explicitly female, since this makes all other characters male even though they previously were androgynous).

In the end a company can decide to pink-wash all their games marketed to women if that's what they want. Just expect to be called out on it.

On a side note: Maybe contributors to GamesIndustry.biz should drink less of the company kool-aid?
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Renaud Charpentier Game Director, The Creative Assembly3 years ago
Sooo, this Barbie like line of toys is supposed to target my daughters?
Because... it's pink, with hearts, which any female is supposed to be atracked to? And this is fighting stereotypes?

Do you know what my 7 years old daughters enjoy? Good games... on hundreds of games on an iPad they chose, by themselves, to stick to Jetpack Joyride, Cut the Rope, Asphalt 8 and they just finished (yes, finished, I couldn't) the superb Monument Valley.

If they didn't played Angry Birds for long, it's not because the main protagonist was a red, angry looking bird... it's because the sling controls were too delicate and 30% of the time they would missfire when starting to interact with it.

Then they went to beat scores on the "manly", "bullet fuelled", "laser and gun themed" Jetpack Joyride.
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Wesley Williams Quality Assurance 3 years ago
I think claims that Stella is a pinkified/pinkwashed game are far from the mark. I can show you plenty of games those terms would fit, but Stella wouldn't be one of them (and I've played quite a bit of it). The playsets that accompany the game can definitely be criticised for that, but not the game itself. For all intents and purposes Stella is just another Angry Birds game with a different team, where the majority are female. In that regard I think it's a positive step, especially when I consider what a truly female stereotyped Angry Birds game could have looked like.

Businesses trying to expand their products to have broader appeal to both genders are stuck between a rock and a hard place because of years of entrenched genderisation of toys and games, which has influenced the choices that generations of children have made in how and what they play with. It takes time to redress the balance and I think games like Stella are a positive step in the right direction. Hopefully whatever comes next will go further.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Wesley Williams on 9th September 2014 2:08pm

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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments3 years ago
Sorry, this comes across as rather worrying "pinkification" to me. Girls were playing angry birds already - there was no reason to make a "girls" version. Also, whether the existing cast were male or female is somewhat open to interpretation (other than ones that lay eggs, and pigs with moustaches), so I'm not sure adding a rather stereotyped female is a good thing.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.3 years ago
Sound like Rovio simply trying to cash in on the gender equality bus and got a flat tire on the way to the bank.

As already noted, casual games tend to be very gender neutral to begin with. Angry Birds being one of them. Do we need a pink Tetris now too?
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Jason Schroder Senior Programmer, Io Interactive3 years ago
The game is awash with pink, as are the physical playsets. Which according to the advertising material linked, are aimed at girls ages 6 through 9 (featuring dollhouse play).
"It's way too simple to say it's just Angry Birds for girls though: we are not into enforcing these stereotypes."
Please tell us more about your gender balancing product.
And it's not just Stella anymore. Stella now has a flock of BFFs, five female birds and one male who likes to hang out with the girls.
Let me guess, the male is their GBFF who likes to dress up and gossip with the girls on weekends?

The subject of gender balance in games is of course controversial currently, but I don't see this game as the shining beacon of hope we should all aspire to. It's nice they're putting some focus on games for girls though, and trying to encourage women into game development, I highly applaud that effort. Perhaps it's a bit soon to claim they're "leading the way on gender balance" as the headline lures us to believe. The whole article comes across as a bit of native advertising.
However, when focusing exclusively on Rovio's games unit, things look less rosy, with only about a fifth of the employees being female. With artists and designers the proportion of women is higher; with developers - including programmers and QA engineers - it's lower. Like most game companies, Rovio has long suffered from gender imbalance in development positions. It is a harsh reality of the market that there are fewer female coders out there than male, but Rovio has vowed not to sit idle in the face of that reality.
A lot of women just aren't interested in video games today, period. A lot less are interested in making them or have any idea about how they're made. However, getting girls interested in video games at a young age, and introducing them to programming concepts is a great starting place for the future.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee3 years ago
This game was announced some time ago now and signalled an interesting move. Not too sure how it will address the gender equality issue in games but then again, I think many misconceive what that actually means.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.3 years ago
To sum up, with this game, Rovio is not leading the way to gender balance.

There are other companies and products that have been leading the way to gender balance for a decade if not longer. This is not one of them.
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Wesley Williams Quality Assurance 3 years ago
Jason, just wanted to respond to your statement about Stella being awash with pink. I've no idea how far through the game I am, but I've sunk in over five hours game time minimum and I'm not seeing a lot of pink. The playsets I completely agree with you about, but I'm not seeing it in the game itself.
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Steve Wetz Reviewer/Assistant Editor, Gamer's Glance3 years ago
For a casual game developer, including female characters is not delivering the message "we care" so much as it is delivering the message "we know our audience." Women make up a massive percentage of casual gamers, particularly on mobile. Releasing games which target a female audience is good business sense.

I don't necessarily agree that putting a game in pink makes it necessarily female friendly, but let's remember that a third if this company and its executives are female (and that's really progress). Also I am not sure how to design female avian orbs without including pink as a design cue that they are meant to be females... Perhaps you would have preferred then to include breasts for the females and swinging genitals for the males? Hell, then they wouldn't be aerodynamic, not realistic at all. The previous statements may seem ridiculous, but I would be willing to bet someone at Rovio had to have this design discussion in a serious tone. At the end of the day there isn't much to an angry bird except a rudimentary shape, some facial features, a color and a sound effect. Let them have their pink birds.
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Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus3 years ago
I hadn't heard of this game until I saw it in the App Store, briefly, after which I immediately started buying the Terry Cavanagh specials, infinitely better games.

I'm not sure pink-washing Angry Birds with a "sassy" pink character with eyelashes is the answer to gender inequality in gaming, or to the noxious origins of GamerGate, or to any of that... come to think of it, it seems like feminism, circa 1975.

Come to think of it, isn't this one of the things Anita Sarkeesian pointed out as being a trope? http://www.feministfrequency.com/2013/11/ms-male-character-tropes-vs-women/

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Christopher Bowen on 11th September 2014 4:52am

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Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus3 years ago
By the way: was this a news article, or a freaking press release? I couldn't tell. Was this sponsored?
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