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Ageism: The issue never gets old

Veteran game developers share thoughts on how big a problem age discrimination actually is, and how to get around it

Ageism - discrimination and prejudice against older workers - was called out a few years ago at a GDC panel, where veteran developer David Mullich led a lively discussion of the issue. But what's the reality today, and is the problem getting worse, getting better, or staying the same?

An IGDA survey in 2016 showed that two-thirds of employees are between the ages of 20 and 34, and only 3.5 per cent are in their 50s or older. Last year, a survey by hiring website Indeed showed a similar problem in the tech industry in general, as 46 per cent of respondents said the average age in their company was between 20 and 35.

The average age of an American worker is 41.9, according the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median age of a Facebook employee is 28, and at Google it's 30. What are the opportunities for the more senior workers in the games industry?

"They like the resume. Then they meet me and realize I'm older. I ended up taking a steep pay cut just to stay in the industry"

Age discrimination, as defined by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "involves treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age." Legally, age discrimination is prohibited by law for workers who are age 40 or older, and some states have laws that protect younger workers as well. It is not, however, against the law to favor an older worker over a younger one, even if both are over 40. This applies to companies with 20 or more employees, though, so small firms or startups - common in the games industry - are not covered by these laws.

While age discrimination can be difficult to prove in court, such discrimination (generally referred to as 'ageism', which encompasses harassment as well as employment practices) seems to be common in the games industry, from all accounts. Speaking with a variety of industry veterans at GDC 2018 provided interesting, and sometimes surprising, insights. As you might expect, people agreed to talk on the condition that they would not be identified, which might have an adverse effect on their job prospects. Anonymity, though, produced very candid responses to this clearly touchy issue.

"Yeah, ageism is a problem I've seen," one long-time game industry executive in his 50s, who works at a big publisher, acknowledged. "But not everywhere." Some companies, he feels, discriminate against older workers not for cultural reasons, but because they think older workers won't put in 80- to 100-hour weeks when the job demands it. "It's still discrimination," he added, "but it's based on performance expectations."

The workforce in the game industry has gotten older, and there are people who've spent their entire careers working in games that are now retiring. It seems logical that ageism may be more prevalent now than 20 or 30 years ago simply due to the fact that there are far more older workers with industry experience. Given the high level of turnover in game companies, people are going to be looking for new employment regularly, and being older can certainly be a hindrance in that search, if not an absolute barrier.

"There are people who are retiring who have spent their whole lives in the business. Is ageism really getting worse? I'm dubious about that"

Ageism can appear not just during hiring, but when (seemingly inevitable) layoffs occur. A senior programmer with many years working on AAA games at a major publisher was lured away to a large mobile game company offering 40 per cent over her current salary. It was great, she thought, to be valued for her experience. Then, when the company ran into rough financial times two and a half years later, she was laid off.

"A lot of older, more senior game devs were laid off then," she recalls. In fact, "almost everyone who was laid off were senior people they had recruited from other game companies." Is that ageism, or is it more purely financial? Perhaps the older employees were more expensive, so they were laid off first. The implication is clear, though: experience isn't valued, or the company thinks they can get the work done with younger, cheaper employees.

Since then she's encountered ageism repeatedly. "Oh, yeah," she recounted. "They like the resume. Then they meet me and realize I'm older. I ended up taking a steep pay cut just to stay in the industry." She's looking forward to a promotion, though that still really wouldn't bring her up to a salary commensurate with her experience.

Still, not every industry veteran reports the same experience. One 55-year-old game programmer said he hasn't been bothered by ageism, and he's in the middle of his third job search in the past four years. He doesn't try to hide his age. "I'm just up front about it," he said, touching his shoulder-length white hair. "If they don't want to hire me, fine. It's never taken me that long to find work." He finds that tech companies can appreciate his experience. "Sure, some of the places I've applied to may have rejected me because of my age, but I never knew that directly," he said.

"I know it's there," said another female programmer in her fifties, speaking about ageism. "It's always hard to say it's getting worse. At one point there weren't any old people in the games business, so there wasn't ageism then. There are people who are retiring who have spent their whole lives in the business. Is ageism really getting worse? I'm dubious about that."

"I started dying my hair to put in funny colors. It isn't that they mind the experience, but the gray makes me look old - and that makes it harder to get hired"

Part of the problem facing an older worker looking for a job is that they may be too qualified for the positions that are open, and they may not be able to find higher-level positions that suit them.

"What I realized is that I've reached that point where I've got too much experience for a job - or I can massively compromise on salary," said a veteran producer. "I get told, essentially, 'We can pay someone a lot less to do that job.' My wide range of experience isn't seen as bringing in value."

He believes the problem is 'experience-ism' rather than ageism, more often than not. He recently left the large company where he worked and is now looking for something new. "Now the jobs I go for aren't usually listed. They are either creating the job or it's a startup," said this producer. "The problem with startups is they usually get the two or three principals in, and then they don't bring another senior employee in because they can't afford them."

Of course, ageism can be hidden behind many masks, like 'You're not a cultural fit here' or suspicious job requirements like 'ability to hear clearly, see clearly, lift 40 pounds' when those requirements don't really seem to apply towards using a computer (or when federal law requires employers to make accommodations for medical conditions).

One long-time designer in his fifties has seen ageism affect others, but he feels that he hasn't been held back by it. "I don't see ageism personally, but I then don't present as my age," he noted, no doubt due to his having few gray hairs. "Some people dye their hair because they feel their gray hair makes them look old," he said, though it's not clear how much that helps in searching for jobs.

"You tend to collect people within plus or minus five years of your age. Is it explicit ageism? It's maybe more just who you know"

Others echoed the value of hair dye. "I started dying my hair to put in funny colors," said one programmer, but then she also saw a benefit when looking for work. "It isn't that they mind the experience, but the gray makes me look old - and that makes it harder to get hired."

The designer may not have experienced ageism first-hand, but he's certainly heard about it from those in his age group, and especially with certain segments in the industry. "I have heard from friends that it gets harder and harder as you go along to look for a new gig," he related. "Certainly in mobile and the free-to-play [market] it is very, very youth-driven. It's very hard to get a job there when you're older."

Others agreed that new game companies are a problem area. "A few kids in a startup may have more of a tendency to exhibit ageism," said a veteran programmer. "Though the brighter ones think they may need some experience. Still, you tend to collect people within plus or minus five years of your age. Is it explicit ageism? It's maybe more just who you know."

Still, younger industry members exhibit concerns about older workers. "I've been asked the direct question in an interview: 'How are you going to be able to get along with millennials? Am I going to be able to relate to these people," noted the programmer. "I tend to think young, so that's not a real problem."

Several veterans across a variety of disciplines (programming, producing, business) said they thought the industry was a little better than the tech industry in general, because the tech industry "has no memory" as one long-time designer put it. "At least people in the games industry can remember old games you might have worked on, but for tech anything that existed more than five years ago doesn't matter today," said a veteran programmer who's worked for both large firms in the tech industry and large game publishers.

"If you're old and still working in the games industry it means you've been able to adapt to changes. Ride the wave or get washed away," said a producer and manager with a long record of producing best-selling games. With the constant changes of all kinds in the game industry, that's good advice for workers of any age.

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Steve Peterson

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Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.