‘I was always told I was unusual’: why so few women design video games
Growing numbers of women are studying video games at university, yet they remain underrepresented in industry.
Mon 17 Feb 2020 02.00 EST
There’s a stereotype that women don’t play video games, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. The numbers don’t lie: 52% of gamers were female in the UK’s last major study in 2014. But if we look at the proportion of female workers in the games industry, it’s just 28% in the UK, and roughly 20% worldwide. If so many women are playing games, why are so few making them?
The problem lies in the feedback loop of under-representation in the video games industry. Women are less likely to see themselves represented in games, games advertising or working in games design and development roles. That means they’re less likely to pursue a degree or career, because they don’t feel like they belong.
What’s more, gaming – much like the wider technology industry – has a culture problem. For many women working in games, sexual harassment online and offline has become commonplace, pay gaps persist, and toxic work culture is pervasive.
The representation gap begins at university, where more men have, historically, studied video games design. According to Higher Education Statistics Agency data, 88% of students on video games courses were male in 2017-18.
“My course was very male-dominated. I think there were four or five women and maybe 25 men in my year,” recalls Kate Killick, a senior designer at Mojiworks who studied video games design at the University of South Wales. “At the time I don’t think I understood how it affected my experience, but looking back I can see I had impostor syndrome.”
The picture is steadily improving – the percentage of women studying video games design grew from 7% in 2014-15 to 11.5% in 2017-18. Some courses perform much better than others. Larra Anderson, the dean of screen at London College of Communication (LCC), part of University of the Arts London, says within the college’s moving image and digital arts programme – which includes games design, virtual reality and animation – more than 50% of students are now women. “This has improved year-on-year for the last three years,” she says.
Andy Bossom, programme director of games at University for the Creative Arts (UCA), also says that his institution’s games degrees have sustained a 60/40 male/female split for several years.
A more evenly balanced mix of students is a good first step. But the nature of the programmes and games that are studied can have a big impact on a student’s enjoyment of the course. “Being surrounded by people who were passionate about hardcore and AAA [blockbuster] games definitely made me question whether I counted as a ‘gamer’,” Killick says.
To address this, some universities frame video game design courses in ways to encourage diversity. Mariza Dima, a lecturer at Brunel University, says her university focuses on games design “as a creative discipline, not just a technical one”. Adam Procter, programme leader for the University of Southampton’s game design course, agrees with that approach: “It’s all about bringing ideas to life.”
To improve students’ transition into the workplace, universities are increasingly connecting them with a diverse range of role models. “They need windows into their future, through an education that gets them the skills and practices through which they can master their craft,” says Anderson. “But they also need mirrors which hold up images where they can see themselves reflected in their field as well. Without that they will not be inspired or see it as even possible for them to succeed.”
The games design courses at Brunel University, University of Southampton, LCC and UCA all invite female guest lecturers working in games. They also add games from a diverse range of creators to the course and hold events with industry experts who can share their own experiences and help students understand how they can fit into the industry. For example, LCC hosted the annual European conference for Women in Games. “Our students found it incredibly insightful and inspiring,” recalls Anderson.
An alternative for people who don’t feel like they fit into the gaming industry is to start their own company, which universities are increasingly looking to facilitate. To this end, UCA set up a games incubator studio to support emerging developers and entrepreneurs. “One of the students we supported was indie games developer Megan Wheeler, the IP owner of Cat Tap, which has had more than 100,000 downloads,” Bossom says. “We supported her post-launch by promoting her game at leading UK games conferences.”
Of course, the responsibility for diversifying the games workforce doesn’t just fall on universities. “It would be good to see a larger proportion of games companies being more forthcoming in their support to higher education: offering internships of different lengths, companies offering live briefs, and competitions to reward emerging talent,” Bossom says.
Equally, there’s a role for teachers, thinks Killick. “Schools need to be made aware of all the career opportunities in games, and tech in general. There’s such a range of job roles, different types of companies, different genres and platforms you can work on,” she says. “I’ve met parents who clearly didn’t realise game development could be a serious career. They were shocked to visit us and realise we were a serious company, and not a handful of hobbyists in a garage!”
Killick suggests that universities and industry can work together to inform teachers, parents and pupils on “what the industry is really like”, for instance through open days featuring a range of students.
Games themselves can also play a role in challenging the biases that hold women back from considering the industry as a valid career choice, starting with portraying them in a way that doesn’t play into offensive stereotypes. Similarly, addressing gendered advertising and marketing, which often panders to young men, could make a big difference.
“I was always told I was unusual as a young girl enjoying video games, but that’s just not true,” says a games designer from the UK who wishes to remain anonymous. “If I had seen women in the games industry on TV, magazines or online, I think I would’ve had the aspirations I have now much younger.”
The need for representation extends from nurturing aspirations to the hiring process. “One company made me have more than five separate interviews and there wasn’t a single woman in any of them, so the first woman I spoke to was when I actually joined,” recalls Samantha Webb, a freelance narrative designer who studied game design at Brunel University.
Dima blames the lack of flexible hours and work-life balance for limiting the pool of potential candidates: “The industry needs to understand the urgency to change its work culture and policy drastically, and the benefit and change this will bring to the sector as a whole.”
Numerous studies have shown that diverse teams create better work and are more innovative. Without this, the feedback loop continues: men create games for other men who then go on to pursue a career in games.
“Everybody is a gamer now, so it makes sense for the industry to reflect the diversity of the audience,” Killick says. “We make better games when people from different backgrounds bring their unique perspective and creativity to the table. I want to play those games, and I want to work with those people.”