The gender imbalance in the video games business, and tech in general, is not news to anyone, but to professionals following the industry it's become crystal clear that promoting diversity across the board (not just gender) is one way to safeguard its future growth.
The good news is that women are clearly getting more involved with games - both as players and as game makers - as the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) reports that 22 percent of the game industry workforce is now women, while women also account for 52 percent of the gaming audience in Britain (according to the Internet Advertising Bureau) and 48 percent in the US (according to the Entertainment Software Association).
The 22 percent figure, however, doesn't reveal how low the percentages are for women when it comes to key disciplines within games. IGDA's report doesn't seem to match some others, like the last annual Game Developer survey, which showed that an overwhelming 95 percent of programmers and engineers in games were men, 91 percent of artists and animators were men, and 87 percent of all game designers were men. It's only at the producer level that women represented 22 percent. Not only that, but women on average were paid 14 percent less than men. The industry needs to turn these numbers around, or else it risks forever languishing in the "boy's club mentality" that will stifle creativity and ultimately revenue growth.
"To be honest, that's a struggle that we've had continuously in tech...regardless of whether the harassment has been publicized or not...Numbers in computer science have gone down and down and down and women have been moving into careers that are not entertainment"
At the recent D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, I caught up with veteran designers and educators Brenda Romero (Program Director, UCSC's Games and Playable Media track) and Funomena's Robin Hunicke (also an instructor in the UCSC program). The two women bring a ton of perspective to the table because they've witnessed the changes in the industry at both the professional and academic level.
"The rate of women graduating technical career programs is about 25 percent - if our representation is about 25 percent right now then we're doing well. But if it's at 7 percent or 2 percent, then we're not doing so great. Those girls are going elsewhere. And you can see it the same way when you look at race, when you look at gender assignment, when you look at sexuality and the way people express themselves," said Hunicke.
"In general there are populations in our culture - if we're at standard parity with those in the games industry and in tech, then great. But right now we're not. And if like hires like, we're going to stay where we are or get worse. So what we need to do is bring those numbers up and then I think we'll start to see a real difference. I started in The Sims - my first job was working [in an environment] that was 50/50. So for me, every other job I've had has been a little bit strange after having that experience of development. I think it's really, really different when you're in an environment that's truly global, where people are drawn from all over the world and from all walks of life; it really feels like a family in a different way."
Romero, who started at Sir-Tech in 1981, is credited as "the longest continuously serving woman in the video game industry" by the Game Developers Conference, which is honoring her with an Ambassador Award at this year's event. She, too, has seen the huge gender imbalance throughout the years, but things have also gotten a good deal better in this decade.
"It's an interesting perspective at least that I have because getting into the industry when I did, there were at the time five women in the game industry and I knew them all," she said. "I may not have known them personally. For instance, I never met Roberta Williams that I remember... but I knew who we all were, we all did. That said, I've seen since 2000, an incredibly large number of women coming into the industry. When I go to GDC I don't know all the women there by a long shot."
Indeed, interest is increasing at numerous universities. The number of young women studying game design has never been higher. "I am seeing it at the college level - 25 percent for the past two years of our class has been women, which is larger I would say than the percentage women occupy in the game industry. And I would say that because there's been a shift in our core demographic - women are now the core demographic, there are more women playing games than men playing games," she added.
It's certainly encouraging to see those numbers on the rise, but recent problems with harassment in the games business and on Twitter have unfortunately put a black eye on the field for some women, and it's a problem. Hunicke acknowledged that it's driving young talent away into other industries.
"To be honest, that's a struggle that we've had continuously in tech, engineering and computer science fields regardless of whether the harassment has been publicized or not. The imbalanced ratio that we experience is real and has been real for a long time. Numbers in computer science have gone down and down and down and women have been moving into careers that are not entertainment - they're going into working with computers in biotech, in finance, in other forms of medicine or in environmental sciences because they want to make a difference in the world, a positive difference, and they can do that in a gender balanced environment in other industries," she explained.
"It's important not just for women but for everybody to have that hero that you can look up to and say I want to be like them and follow the path that they followed to show you that it is possible"
Romero added, "To me I'm really heartened that there are more women in the game industry than there ever have been before. I do think the current climate, however, is causing a lot of younger women tremendous concern. I know it's scaring people away because I get the emails. I get the messages on Facebook. They say 'Hey Brenda can I get a candid opinion?' It's scaring people away who aren't even in the industry yet. And then there are people who are in the industry who are leaving because of it. The current climate makes it difficult."
Both Hunicke and Romero were effusive in their praise of Intel, which recently invested $300 million to promote diversity in tech. "Without a workforce that more closely mirrors the population, we are missing opportunities, including not understanding and designing for our own customers," Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said at the time of the announcement.
Hunicke commented, "They've committed to...diversity across the board by 2020, which is a huge commitment. They put $300 million behind the initiative not just for things inside of Intel but also to help bring women in through the pipeline that already exists, and make sure that they stay in our industry. I think that kind of initiative is a huge step forward. And I'm really looking forward to other people in games and tech stepping up and meeting those commitments as well."
Romero agreed that it's precisely these kinds of steps that can make a difference. "I would say that I am particularly impressed with the work that Intel is doing, sponsoring women in games, and Oculus is sponsoring a lunch at GDC, providing scholarships for women looking to get into computer science, into game design. These are the kinds of things that change the dynamic," she said.
For Romero, regardless of your race and whether you're male, female, transgender, gay or straight, the most important thing is to have a role model, a hero to look up to. She talked about her husband John Romero's heritage, part Cherokee, part Yaqui, and how important it is that Native Americans are finally getting some representation with a game like Never Alone. She also recalled how a young man was in tears at one QuakeCon when meeting John because he's Mexican as well.
"It meant so much to him because he could see someone like him doing that. And that's the same thing where you get friended by people on Facebook saying 'I'm a woman and I want to make games.' They just want somebody who's like them," she remarked. "The importance of us providing those role models for people [cannot be overstated].
"It's important not just for women but for everybody to have that hero that you can look up to and say I want to be like them and follow the path that they followed to show you that it is possible. Notch has breathed in just such tremendous life into the indie game community because he showed that it was absolutely possible for one guy to just achieve a stratospheric level of success. One guy could literally reboot the entire game industry, and make everybody from the top to the bottom go 'wait, what happened there?'"
Some in the industry - and we've even seen the comments on this very site - will argue that their arms are being twisted, that somehow they're being forced into hiring a diverse candidate "just because" when the typical white male candidate may actually be more talented. Romero just doesn't see that scenario playing out that way though.
"Funny enough that actually hasn't been my experience. For instance, our own program, we have a blind acceptance. So when we're looking at portfolios, we're looking at code, we're looking at experience, and I have no idea where you come from, what color you are, what your gender is and I don't know what your name is. And our class is a UN! It's been absolutely rewarding and amazing," she said.
"What I try to do is focus not on those young women, but on the men around them. And I say listen we need your help too. If we're going to get to the place where we feel safe, where we're respected and included and paid the same as everyone in this industry, we're going to need you to step up and make that happen"
"But maybe part of that is we're literally a minority run program. So maybe we are attracting a more diverse pool of applicants. But [the idea that] 'it looks like I'm going to have to settle for less.' It's a bullshit notion! Some of the most badass coders, some of the most badass designers that I know are women. And just looking at the foundation of the game industry, there are just profound examples all around us that come in all colors and all ethnicities and every single point on the gender slider (I don't want to suggest that gender is a binary choice between male and female). I don't think we need to worry that we can't have excellent applicants," she continued.
With a more diverse workforce, we're likely to see more diverse characters in games too. Nowadays it still seems that publishers even hesitate to put a realistic-looking heroine in a lead role, as Dontnod Entertainment has pointed out on multiple occasions.
"If that's true, it has to change," Hunicke commented. "That's the best way to reach the other 50 percent of this planet. It makes business sense, it makes sense for your bottom line, but it's just the right thing to do."
While the current environment in social media and at some studios may not be all that welcoming for women, Hunicke encouraged those interested in making games to stick around, and she added that men can absolutely make a difference as well.
"Keep it up, we need you," is the message she gives aspiring young female developers. "What I try to do is focus not on those young women, but on the men around them. And I say listen we need your help too. If we're going to get to the place where we feel safe, where we're respected and included and paid the same as everyone in this industry, we're going to need you to step up and make that happen. Girls can't do it on their own - we need everyone in the industry to step up and make a personal pledge to lead from within."