Is the games industry open to working class people?
UK census data suggests it isn't -- here's what you need to know to give yourself the best chance, from people that built careers
Breaking into any industry is often a mix of hard work, a constant commitment, and being in the right place at the right time. Things become far trickier when you consider that sometimes you can simply be born into the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time. It gets even more aggravating when you feel as though you can't afford to be anywhere even close to the right place or time because you're working so hard just to eat.
The UKIE gaming industry census showed that the gaming industry is still very white (90%), very male (70%), and generally rather middle-class, too, with 62% of people in the industry coming from a background with a parent in a managerial job.
"A lot of [game events] tend to be focused around London -- so again you're limiting those who can attend"Gemma Cooper
It's not just in the UK either. In the US, 96% of the respondents to the 2019 IGDA's Developer Satisfaction Survey had some college/vocational/trade school education, which goes to show that the vast majority had access to higher education, something which those with low-income backgrounds are unlikely to be able to afford.
It's something that can often be seen in the media but might be less obvious when it comes to the makeup of those on the other side of the industry -- the people actually making, marketing, or otherwise participating in the creation of the games we all love.
The barriers working class people face
The two biggest issues you can face here are money and location. It's no coincidence that the two are often linked, but they're not an insurmountable obstacle to overcome. Gemma Cooper, PR manager from Bandai Namco was born in Liverpool.
"The biggest issue was the location -- I was in Liverpool some 200 miles away from most major studios in London that could afford to take me as an intern or trainee... Realistically you need at least £22,000 (as a salary) to move to London to pay for your accommodation, bills, and so on, which is obviously a lot easier for those who can live with families close by. And not all game studios can afford to give newcomers to the industry (interns, trainees, placement students) £22,000 straight up -- so you're immediately only able to look at a few select places who can give you a chance."
If you look at where the vast majority of games events are held in the UK, you'll find it to be very southern-focussed. It's a barrier that makes events of most kinds less accessible in the north, as Cooper explains.
"A lot of them tend to be focused around London -- so again you're limiting those who can attend. A lot of young people attend these events, so that's where the little spark of interest in video games comes from -- and if it's only ever in the south, you'll mostly only ever get southern attendees."
Cooper was lucky enough to have parents who could help out with her first flat deposit and who could help her budget her money better, but it's not a luxury most working-class people have.
There are plenty of people with no safety net at all and the lack of one can impact people in a lot of ways. When you factor in things like the necessity of an expensive university degree in some jobs, the cost of moving to another city, and the fact that internships are often unpaid, finding your way into the industry costs a lot more than some people can afford.
"Many don't understand how expensive it is trying to get into the industry, in terms of money, effort and mental health"Nida Ahmad, Netspeak
As Nida Ahmad, UX designer at Netspeak, puts it: "Getting in the industry is expensive. Playing lots of games, keeping up to date with events and attending, going to conferences... Many don't understand how expensive it is trying to get into the industry, expensive in terms of money, effort and mental health. When you don't have access to resources to start with, it can be tough."
The UKIE census showed that 62% of people in the industry have come from a background with a parent in a managerial job, which shows that many of those without that kind of safety net simply can't afford to risk it. It could also just be that those who are working-class or underclass simply don't realise they could get a job in the games industry. Without exposure to it or savvy parents, it's hard to know what you'd even be doing, though hopefully, things like tutorials on YouTube and more open threads on Twitter can help with that issue.
Breaking into the industry
- Go to events
One of the most important things you can do when trying to break into the games industry is to go to events. There are plenty to go for in the US with GDC or PAX and in the UK with EGX, Develop: Brighton, the Yorkshire Gaming Festival and more.
People say that it's not what you know, it's who you know. While knowing all of the right people won't get you anywhere without some skills to back you up, it'll certainly make your life easier, and it's definitely harder meeting these people without going to events.
The issue that this presents to those who don't have much in the way of disposable income, is that attending these events is pricey. When you add up the cost of hotels, travel, food, and the event itself, you're likely looking at a couple of hundred pounds if not substantially more depending on the event and the location. That's not cheap, but you can lower the cost in other ways. Cooper found a way in by volunteering at events.
"[They] didn't require too much of my time and detract from my studies and offered to pay me alongside covering my expenses and accommodations. This meant I was able to slowly take a step into the industry without committing too much financially, and ensuring I was still doing my studies in the background in case it didn't work out for me."
Going to events can help you learn more about the jobs available to you too. People think that all there is to do in the games industry is to code, but that's not the case. If you're not sure what you could do with your current skills, then often, just trying to go to events can really help.
"I would attend (and sometimes sneak) into events, parties, random talks and just chat to people about what they did," Alexis Trust, community manager from Chucklefish, explains. "I'd met several people I would now call friends, who spent time helping me understand the industry and how I could use/sell my existing skills to get a job."
Don't feel bad about asking questions to the people you meet either. Trust advises to be polite and respectful, but firm when you do so. And just because you've not had a job in the industry doesn't mean you don't have relevant skills.
"Those 'soft skills' you pick up from retail are crucial for somewhere like PR. The boring data entry role actually has a lot of opportunities for you to figure out the best way to project manage and optimise processes. The army taught me how to figure out the best way to communicate with different people to get the best from them -- it's helped me immensely, and I can't stress enough that no university will ever teach you how to handle a crisis.
"Talk to people, ask them what their job entails and then figure out where the gaps are in your skillset. Come up with ways to plug the gap either at your job or in your spare time. People can really feel if you're hungry and passionate enough about something."
- Look into entry-level jobs and internships
Of course, even if you do have connections, there are issues when it comes to being able to make enough money when getting your first job. While there are internships, not many places will offer a fair wage for them, which means that a lot of people can't take them.
Shay Thompson, presenter and founder of Level Up Link Up, says it's one of the biggest issues with this way of getting into the industry: "On the topic of internships, most of them are unpaid. If you're from a low-income background, chances are you can't afford to work for free."
That means that getting an internship isn't viable for those without a safety net or a high-income family. So you need to do things in your own time to try and improve your chances of bypassing those and just getting a paid role. You can do research on the kinds of jobs there are in the games industry, try and practice skills where you can via YouTube tutorials and free software.
Ahmad relied heavily on Let's Play videos to teach herself UX. Just because you pick your skills up from somewhere unusual, it doesn't mean that they're not important or relevant. Once you have those skills, you need to show them off.
"I sent out 300 resumes, and had ten failed job interviews between my junior year of college and my game job which I got about six months after classes ended," says Jonathan Jennings, software engineer at Relaycars. "The only reason I got those 11 interviews was because of a hastily thrown together webpage with some screenshots of work I did. The work wasn't beautiful or incredible, but it was proof that I could do game development work and put me ahead of so many other people who may have better resumes but not as many examples of proven work."
With a portfolio of work, you can apply for jobs that can be above entry-level, and you can do so without necessarily having to network, though the latter will still help.
- Going through the application process
It's very rare that anybody is going to wander into a job as the perfect candidate, so you should never worry about that when you're applying for a role. Cian Noonan, programmer at Brightrock Games is a keen advocate of just going for it.
"Just apply for everything, show up and show that you're interested. Junior roles frequently expect very little upfront knowledge, in some cases they prefer that they can train you from the ground up, so there is no reason not to toss your name in."
There are other issues when it comes to the application process though, because it's rarely fast and can often take months depending on the role and company.
"Not everyone can wait around that long for work," Noonan continues. "It's also a very aspirational job; at first, it didn't seem realistic. I assumed I would be working in a much more mundane industry."
So not only should you apply for everything, but you should expect to have to work while you wait. That's a lot to ask, but there's no way of overcoming that issue aside from being prepared for it. If you're going for something above entry-level, then you need to be able to prove that you can do the job. You don't necessarily need years of experience, but you do need to be able to show off what you can do.
"Your portfolio speaks for you when someone has interest but not enough to make the call yet. I consider my portfolios my most important investment, they lead me to the success I have today," explains Jennings.
Having a way to show yourself off is essential. In any job, you're basically selling yourself, and having an easy way of showing that off will make you more appealing.
How the industry can do more
Maybe it's time to rethink how the industry hires for jobs too, or at least how more people can apply for jobs that where they don't have every single skill that's being asked for.
"I worry for people like me," Thompson says. "Those who haven't gone to uni but have a lot of useful skills from others jobs who end up falling through the cracks because they don't tick every single box on games industry job specifications in a 'traditional' way. We need to rethink the skills we assign a higher degree of value to."
There's also no one path into this industry, and nor should there be. You can find a role that will suit you, but you have to look. Both Cooper and Thompson have one incredibly important point about this too, and that's not being ashamed of who you are or believe you don't belong in the industry.
Ultimately, while some of these issues can be tackled by those applying, the industry has to try and do more too. Part of that is being a little more comfortable with either remote working in the long-term or not being London-centric, when it comes to the UK. As the industry moves further afield, it gives a wider-range of people the chance to prove themselves as integral parts of it.
There could even be initiatives to try and make sure that school children have a better understanding of what jobs there are in the industry. Plenty of kids play Fortnite, but they have no idea what goes into making a game like that.
"Funding coding in schools is a huge step in the right direction, and showing that it's not a white male space and certainly not one for those that attend well-funded schools," Trust says.
It's not enough to rely on other people to fix this; the industry itself has to be the focus of the change to be more inclusive to everyone. We need to try and do better when it comes to internships and entry-level jobs as well.
As Ahmad says: "Increase access to opportunity for working-class people -- ensure internships are well paid, have work experience programmes, support initiatives like IntoGames and DigitalSchoolHouse, mentorship schemes and more."
There are already initiatives doing work, but they need a boost in terms of availability and even funding. All of these issues can be overcome, but you need to persevere, work hard, and get a little bit lucky to be able to do so. Of course, if you're from a working-class background, it's likely that you're already expecting all of that anyway.