When will the video game industry's gender gap close? Since the early days, making video games has been a male-dominated business, and studies have shown that nearly 9 in 10 workers in the industry are men. But the lack of female developers does not stem from a lack of female gamers, experts say.
The number of women and girls who play games is on the rise. According to research from The NPD Group, the number of female console gamers increased to 28% in 2009 from 23% in 2008.
Yet women represent slightly less than 12 percent of the video game industry, according to a 2005 report from the International Game Developers Association,
The numbers of women entering the video game field - particularly in production and quality assurance roles - have started to slowly increase. But some say the industry needs to get the word out about the possibility of working specifically as a game developer.
"The majority of [women] are coming in as producers, administrative assistants, marketing, HR, finance, and other business side positions," industry expert Sheri Graner Ray, a senior designer at Schell Games Austin, says. "There are still very few that are choosing to step into full development. We will need to reach out and let girls today know that they are welcome and wanted in the field of game development."
Alina Chau, a senior CG animator and visual development and storyboard artist at Technicolor Interactive Services, says hiring more female developers will be crucial as the industry tries to connect with a larger female audience.
Chau says she has good relationships with her male co-workers, and doesn't think they intentionally discriminate against women. But since most of her company's games target a male audience, male designers end up having more input in final decisions. "I do feel like a [female employee] does have to work extra hard...to have her voice heard," she explains.
Ray says it is important for the video game industry to create more games that appeal to the female audience. But she warns this is easier said than done.
"Ultimately the games industry has been looking for a ‘silver bullet'....one game that will appeal to all women and bring a huge new market to gaming," Ray says, adding that this strategy of appealing to women on the broad scale misses the mark.
"What it does is turn the huge, varied and rich market of ‘women' into a single genre of ‘fashion, shopping, and makeup' games. Women are not a single mind," she explains. "They are not a single genre. There is no single game anyone can say is ‘for all women.' Women are a large, diversified audience with a wide variety of tastes, interests, and needs in entertainment."
Chau says clarifying the target market is the key to drawing in new gamers. "I don't think it's problematic to make a distinction between male and female audiences....Successful products are made with a target group in mind. Diversity of products gives consumers more choices. It's much healthier for the economy."
Some industry experts have debated for years whether men and women simply have different tastes when it comes to video games. But Ray thinks game designers should worry less about the question of gender difference and more about defining the target market.
"Who is our target demographic...exactly? Are we targeting middle-aged, college-educated women who live in the suburbs? High school girls living in rural areas? How about young, new mothers? All are different with different wants and needs in entertainment. And, just like any other target demographic, will require research to figure out what they want."
Ray also points out that something as obvious as packaging design can become either a selling point or an obstacle depending on how the target market is being addressed. "[This question of target demographics] is crucial because it will make us examine what we are currently doing that is preventing a large, lucrative market from buying our current products. This can be as simple as what does the box cover art look like? Does it feature a hyper-sexualized female...? Well, if the genders were reversed and it was a...hyper-sexualized male...how many men would pick it up?
"Overall, it's not about what ‘type' of game, but understanding who exactly we are trying to reach and what barriers we may have in place that are preventing that audience from accessing that title."
Four Things the Game Industry Can Do to Help Female Game Developers Thrive
1. Get the word out about possible careers in the industry.
"Women do not see the game industry as a career objective," Ray says. "It's not that they don't like the idea, it's that it never even gets on their radar. So we have to do more outreach and let young girls know that they are wanted and welcome in the industry."
2. Find new ways to recruit employees.
"We have more people that want in than we have jobs to offer," Ray says. "Every week we receive hundreds of unsolicited resumes. So when the time comes to hire we either grab a friend or pull up one of the zillion resumes we've received in the past week and pick from there. If we do advertise, it is in the same old places - Game Developer Magazine, Gamasutra, and others, or we go to a gaming conference... all of which have predominantly white, predominantly young, predominantly male audiences. So if we want to bring women into our industry, we have to go recruit them. We have to go where they are. We have to be willing to look at complimentary skill sets rather than just hard industry experience in our candidates."
3. Interview smarter.
Ray explains that hiring staff based on gender or interests should not supersede a candidate's actual skill. "We have to teach our teams what they are looking for in employment candidates. Too often a candidate is dragged into a day-long round robin of interviews with the entire team in which the team was told simply, ‘See if the person will fit'....People will tend to like other people just like themselves, [so] this results in homogeneous teams! When a woman comes into an office that is all young white males, obviously she is not ‘like them!'"
4. Support outreach organizations.
As executive chair of Women in Games International, Ray also believes that developers can help women enter the industry by supporting organizations that support outreach and networking for women interested in the games industry. Female developers interested in the industry should contact organizations like Women in Games International, Boys/Girls Clubs, Girl Scouts, YWCA/YMCA, or Women in Technology International to learn more about supporting sponsorships and scholarships.
Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.