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Women in Games

Two of the keynote speakers from this week's conference offer their thoughts on the industry's gender divide

One of the oft-debated issues facing the games industry - and a number of computer science-based industries - is the issue of the gender divide, and why the genre has been so slow to equalise.

This week's Women in Games conference, hosted at Warwick University in the UK, is looking at a number of subjects around that issue, and to find out more GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Karen Brennan, research assistant at MIT Media Lab, and Karen Clark project manager at Bioware - two of the keynote speakers at the event.

GamesIndustry.biz What's the current gender landscape in videogames as far as you're concerned?
Karen Brennan

Being a relative outsider to the videogame industry, I’ll rely on other social markers. When I search for "popular videogames" on Google, most of the listings are stereotypically masculine - violence and sports. That's not to say that women can't enjoy these genres or that there aren't alternatives; it's just that the representation of possible genres seems fairly narrow given the broad collection of interests and skills that exist in the world. To me, this narrowness indicates a gender imbalance in who plays, and in turn, who creates, videogames.

Karen Clark

The International Game Developers Association conducted a survey in 2005 that showed about 12 per cent of the videogame industry workforce was female. In the three companies I've worked at in the industry, women are between 10 and 20 per cent of those employed.

Thankfully, I have a wide network of female colleagues in the industry, and I know of many prominent women in each domain. However, there is always room for more diversity - more women, more people of colour, more differently-abled people.

Increasing diversity in the videogame industry through involvement with Women in Games International, and the Women in Games conference, is one of my passions.

GamesIndustry.biz Are there more women working in videogames now than in the past?
Karen Brennan

Yes, but participation is still far from gender-balanced. This imbalance is not unique to the videogame industry. Women are underrepresented at the Media Lab (where I work and study) and in computer science more broadly, so it would be great to introduce more females to these research areas.

Karen Clark

I haven't been in the industry that long, so it's difficult for me to say. When I worked in the software industry, there were very few technical women at the small company where I was employed - we had exactly one female engineer. I think there's an imbalance in the percentage of women in engineering in general, which of course touches our industry.

Many women 'break in' to the industry by taking roles traditional to our gender: administration, marketing and human resources. I think that these can be key entry points for women in many industries, including construction, electrical engineering and so forth.

That means that it's doubly important for us to offer career paths for all people in the industry so that we can help them move forward into other roles, if they wish.

GamesIndustry.biz But why is there still such an imbalance?
Karen Brennan

My colleague Annina Rüst recently completed her Master's thesis, which discussed these issues of imbalance. What she presented therein demonstrated what I have personally reconciled between experience and research. It is not inherent lack of interest or lack of capacity/skill that influences participation - it is work environments that are perceived as overtly or insidiously hostile that potentially discourage participation.

Karen Clark

We aren't doing everything we could be to get women into game jobs. I've been a gamer since I was seven or eight years old. It took me twenty years to realise that I could actually be a part of the industry, and that realisation came only once I'd given up hope on a technical role in traditional engineering. I had to go out and find information on working in games, make connections and really pursue opportunities.

Thankfully, because of my experience in software I was qualified to join the company I desired. It's not easy to break into the industry: there has always been a lot of competition, and we don't do enough to recruit women out of schools and get them involved.

GamesIndustry.biz What's the weak link in the chain?
Karen Clark

It's not that simple, in my opinion. It's a systemic issue that has many causes. In the past, fewer women studied science and engineering than men. In the past, fewer women played video games than men. It doesn't surprise me that a decade ago, there weren’t a lot of women making or playing games. It stands to reason that the more girls who grow up playing games, the more natural it will seem to them to want to work in that field.

Additionally, the more women study engineering and science in school, the more women will be interested in pursuing technical roles, and hopefully some of them will be drawn to the video game industry.

GamesIndustry.biz What steps can be taken to improve the balance?
Karen Brennan

If hostile work environments are indeed a large part of the participation imbalance, then addressing this hostility would hopefully improve both attraction (which would be improved by having more women who could speak favourably about their experiences in the industry) and retention (which would be improved by having environments that were legitimately more supportive) efforts.

Karen Clark

We should introduce game design and programming to children in school as a way to develop problem-solving skills. That will help introduce girls to games who may not have another way to experience them. We should also teach people that games can be fun and serious - that they can be used to solve problems and enrich lives, as well as entertain us.

GamesIndustry.biz What steps could be taken to improve things, but in your opinion probably never will?

I guess I'm an optimist, as my first instinct is to not dwell on the "probably never" case! I think that if I were particularly cynical, then I might argue that any steps that involve distribution of privilege or power will never be realized.

I don't believe that any of the issues we face are insurmountable.

GamesIndustry.biz Are there unique qualities that women can bring to games development?
Karen Brennan

I find it difficult to talk about a homogeneous vision of "women". That said, I think there's value in having a multiplicity of perspectives, particularly in creative work. Whether diversity is framed as gender diversity or racial diversity or epistemological diversity, there's much to be gained by introducing new voices or maintaining a mixture of voices.

Karen Clark

I don't want to perpetuate any stereotype by saying that a group of people offer something that can’t be duplicated by any other group. To me, the ability to learn and gain experience is incredibly important. That being said, the experiences that a woman has in life are biologically different that those of a man, so they will naturally bring a different perspective on some matters.

GamesIndustry.biz Is there a correlation between more female developers leading to more female gamers?
Karen Brennan

Again this is a question of diversity. By having a diverse group of developers, the resulting products have the potential for greater diversity, which could in turn attract a more diverse audience.

Karen Clark

The more people who like games - people who respect their place in entertainment and education - the better it is for the industry. When a person is contemplating a career in engineering, for example, I think they are more likely to put the videogame industry on their list of potential employers if they have a positive image of both the product and the creative environment in which they are made.

GamesIndustry.biz Does it concern you that sometimes the reasons/attempts to recruit more females into the industry misses the point somewhat?
Karen Brennan

Outside of the games industry, at least, I've seen some gender-equity recruitment efforts that seem more problematic than beneficial. I would broadly categorise these as "the problem with women" and "get more women in".

In "the problem with women" case, some efforts put what I feel is undue negative focus on women and their participation, instead of the context or environment itself. That is, why are we asking "Why don’t any women work here?" instead of "Why is this work environment not broadly appealing?"

The other case, "get more women in," can lead to mistrust and create a sense of injustice. If I found out that I had been hired primarily because I am a woman, I (and my colleagues) might question my capabilities, in an 'imposter syndrome' way. I think there are ways of bringing more women into technology environments without being unintentionally demeaning or demoralising.

Karen Clark

This is a difficult question to answer. History has proven that progress doesn't always happen due to the goodness in people's hearts. Sometimes change is painful. I think we can look back at those who came before us and thank them for breaking down barriers, making it possible for us to be here today.

GamesIndustry.biz Have you ever encountered sexist attitudes yourself?

I don't know anyone who hasn't experienced sexism at some point in their lives. However, I can't think of a time that I felt I was being prejudiced against in the industry. I feel like I've always had the same chance to succeed, and have not seen my colleagues express sexist views against my female peers at work, either.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think that you've ever had an advantage/disadvantage in the workplace because of your gender?

I don't think I’ve had an advantage or disadvantage. I feel that I've always been evaluated based on my abilities and not my gender, skin colour or any other aspect of myself.

GamesIndustry.biz Is the future of games companies an equal split? If so, what does that mean for the future of games?
Karen Clark

The future of games is a vast array of options for gamers - options as diverse as the people who play them. Equality is about a lot more than numbers; it's about attitudes and action. The more open we are to diversity, the more interesting the industry will become. That can only have a positive effect on our games, and that makes me very excited for the future!

Karen Brennan is research assistant at MIT Media Lab and Karen Clark is project manager at Bioware. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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