(Published Dec 2010) With a major report highlighting that women are leaving the media industries in their droves, Animation and Games are shown to particularly lack female talent. So what’s it like for that rarest of species, the female games animator?
This is an abridged version of an article in IMAGINE magazine, available from here
In my previous article here I discussed the curious dissonance between the increasingly familiar imagery of the casual female gamer (replacing that of the male hardcore gamer in the popular unconscious, primarily thanks to the Wii and Nintendo DS campaigns) and an industry that remains remorselessly male.
Considering the shift in how we consume games, and the rise in woman gamers, why aren’t we seeing young women being attracted into the industry. Seemingly, despite being welcome to play games, they aren’t being welcomed to work on games.
The gender imbalance is a normal fact of working in games. It only achieved wider exposure recently when Skillset published their “Women in the creative media industries” report in September 2010.
Statistics often don’t reveal causes or motivation. However, if we look a little wider we’ll see that the Animation industry as a whole isn’t good either- 20% women, almost half the percentage as in the TV industry (41%).
Now, a number of social and economic factors could be at play here. It’s true for instance that other high-tech laden media sectors like Interactive Media also suffer such an imbalance (5%) and that the increasing proportion of coding and programming roles within modern games companies (and proportionately less growth in art roles) doesn’t particularly favour women’s entry into the industry since less women study those subjects at school or college.
It’s also important to discount rife sexism or lack of opportunity as factors. The few women in the games industry don’t cite chauvinism as a contributing factor. At a “Women in Film and TV” event at Waterstones Piccadilly branch in London in February cleverly entitled “Wiimen: a discussion about women in the gaming industry” the feeling of being welcome in the games industry amongst the all-female panellists was unanimous, but compounded with the recognition that women in games tended to congregate around marketing and organizational roles.
The Rare breed: women games animators
Women Games Animators are therefore doubly rare, being a dwindling section of an even smaller section in one of the most dynamic media sectors in the UK.
Like some endangered species, they are worthy of study.
What do Women Animators within the Games Industry say about gender? Althea Deane, a freelance animator for over 20 years and currently contracted as a character animator at Evolution (behind the famous Motorstorm series) states “Generally, people are just glad to see a woman in a sea of men, to be honest! However, it is quite a macho culture compared to the field of television in which I worked previously”.
“In our project, I’m the only women animator” adds Alma Salinas from Sony’s London studios, “and at my last company too” but she is also of the opinion that no roles need be male dominated “I think any role can be female friendly” she says. “The video game industry offers equal pay and a great working environment, but somehow it always feel that the girls are on land owned by others”
Ellen Holland, a games animator for five years at Rare, one of Microsoft’s big studios says “Sometimes guys don’t know how to relate to women initially so you need a bit of a tough skin and to be willing to give as good as you get, but there’s no discrimination here”
After a while, most games personnel seem to have acclimatised to this situation, which in other media industries might raise more concern.
Lisa Harmon, a Senior artist and animator with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, who has worked in the industry for ten years on titles such as TV Superstars, LittleBigPlanet (PSP version), Primal, 24: The Game and Heavenly Sword speaks for many when she says “I don’t think that a lack of women in this industry harms it, and anyway I don’t know of any women already in the industry that are bothered by it. During my time in games I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced any discrimination, but I do think the games industry is still seen as geeky and something you do as you’re growing up rather than as a career.”
This view was expressed more stridently by an animator who preferred to remain anonymous “I realise that it’s probably not a very PC answer as there is always talk of trying to increase the interest/roles for women in games but, in the end, I’ve never come up against any discrimination nor have any of my fellow female colleagues (to my knowledge). I find it raised by others as an issue when, to me personally, it has never been one”.
In other words- it’s a free country. Women just don’t choose to do animation or games. Get over it. But there must be some reasons why the figures are SO low, right?
So, if the sea of male faces isn’t so intimidating, why aren’t women animators coming through? Is it something about how animation is taught? Or does animation have an image problem, with games only being at the extreme end? Or is it all about role models- the lack of a female Walt Disney, John Lasseter or Nick Park, for instance?
Finding a Unicorn
How do women games animators explain the apparent lack of female animation talent? Firstly to most the animation department is less imbalanced than than other areas of games development. “Someone said to me recently finding a female programmer was like finding a unicorn” quotes Rare’s Ellen Holland, whilst SCEE’s Lisa Harmon states “female animators are fairly rare but female game coders are even rarer” whereas Elisa Capretto exclaims “female games designers….I don’t think they even exist!”
“Not so many women are aware that games animation is an option when they are making their career choices, I certainly didn’t” says Rare’s Ellen Holland “I attended three courses, and I must say I did notice that the more technical the course the less women there seemed to be in them”.
“There were about 25% women on my course at university and they were generally more interested in producing some kind of artistic output at the end of the course rather than making a career from it”, says SCEE’s Lisa Harmon.
Alma Salinas, who studied in Spain, remembers being surprised that on her masters course there were only 2 women out of 17 students.
Elisa Capretto, a Junior Character Animator at Ubisoft Reflections (the Newcastle company behind the famous Driver series) says, “Girls seem more interested in people-facing roles in games, rather than just sitting in front of a PC.”
A major factor seems to be technology and how it is taught. We tend to think of animation as craft, but the increasing levels of programming that are impinging on games animation could be one explanation. It’s long been thought that women tend to opt out of technical subjects when they choose University courses.
However the UKRC suggest women chose a wide range of technological subjects, but then don’t see the career path into jobs.
The UKRC is the UK Government’s lead organisation regarding the under-representation of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) and they highlight revealing figures regarding who studies Computer Science courses at university. 16.5% of students are female, whereas in strategically important specialist subjects like software engineering there are only 760 women on university courses in the whole of the UK (out of 6,400).
This lack of female talent has repercussions for various industries. The ICT professional workforce consists of 59,059 women which may sound a lot, but is only 12.5% of the 474,000-strong sector. Maybe that’s why both interactive media and games are so extreme on gender balance. As modern games animation practice relies more and more on technical fixes, on games physics created by code to produce animation (as opposed to keyframes crafted by animators) are the skills needed migrating from the arts to the computer sciences?
Nice work if you can get it?
Maybe it’s a mistake to look for a single determining factor. Work patterns might also contribute. Skillset’s “Women in the Creative Industries” report found that representation is highest in sectors comprising larger employers in which more stable, permanent employment models are common, such as terrestrial television (48 percent), and it could be said that animation and games companies are relatively smaller, more volatile, and therefore not as attractive. However, there are many games and animation companies that have now been around for the best part of ten years or even longer- so instability isn’t the full story.
Julie Prescott, a PhD student from the University of Liverpool whose own survey of 450 women in games across the globe found 43 percent felt that long-hours culture was adversely affecting their health and well-being. 31 percent were unhappy with the work-life balance. 22 percent reported working between 46 and 55 hours a week, and 10 per cent more than 56 hours a week. 80 percent felt that their company had a long-hours culture.
So it may be the so-called “Crunch” work cycle in games production that marks it out particularly as an acute case, with ever evolving workflows and technology meaning it’s as hard as ever to predict deadlines, and the burden of extra hours is expected.
Animator Althea Deane seems to agree- “It’s primarily the butch ‘crunch’ culture in games. Even women without children prefer jobs that allow for a life outside the studio, and for women with children, (who are still the primary care-givers in this country), the long hour culture must make the games industry an extremely off-putting prospect. As for animation as a whole, outside of games, I’m less sure why more women aren’t involved. Possibly the uncertainty of working from one short-term contract to another, with few of the benefits of a permanent job – pension, sick pay, paid holidays”
It therefore may be significant that the admin roles that women tend to cluster around in both games and animation have the advantage of more regular hours.
“The games industry needs to shake off its macho ‘work or die’ image. This will mean more careful planning of schedules and less assumption that it can work its employees over their required hours for weeks on end. It should also try to project a more fun, less aggressive image generally. We’re making games, not annexing Poland” says Deane.
The animation gene pool
Could it be that work patterns and culture combine with a creeping procedural approach to animation into a potent toxic mix, keeping women away?
“The most significant difference between videogames and movies is the pipeline….in games you do not have the same freedom of interpretation as in tv and film” explains Sony’s Alma Salinas “The animator has to be able to perform functional animations, responding and exchanging with the technical team. The animator must also understand the limitations of the games engine they are working with. They have to enjoy the technical part of the job.”
Elisa Capretto, who previously worked as a character animator on a short film agrees “While animation for tv is more straightforward and immediate, game animations needs to be processed and compressed, and rigged carefully to fit into the memory budget of the game”. The process can be tedious and long, and usually needs a lot of iteration between the technical and art teams.
All this is conjecture, and the statistics aren’t granular enough to really come to conclusions. But at least we’ve heard some female voices on the subject. No-one is suggesting that all jobs need to feature equal proportions of the sexes, but a gross imbalance like games animation raises questions about whether the industry is getting the widest gene pool of talent. If 50% of the population won’t really consider working as games animators, even for arbitrary or mistaken reasons, then that’s an issue. If, once informed, they still choose not to make it a career, that’s their choice. However such information isn’t getting through to girls at the key points when they make decisions about what to study, or what is even possible. It just maybe the animation and games industry are missing a trick by not promoting themselves to half the population, and therefore a lot of raw talent drifts elsewhere.
The Wii revolution and the rise of the female gamer is a five year old phenomenon, and as such maybe not long enough to change attitudes, university choices, career destinations. “Maybe we should just wait for the new generation of gamer girls to grow up. I think it will take some more time” says Ubisoft’s Elisa Capretto.
Ellen Holland from Rare suggests we might be starting to see the green shoots of this new generation of gamer girls. “I attended The London Games Industry Career Fair this year and did notice there seemed to be quite a lot of young girls looking to get into the industry. It was really nice to see. We need more events that aim to get girls excited about technology and change perceptions about what it’s like to work in the technology industry”.The Women in creative media industries report is available here You can find my full Missing In Action article in IMAGINE animation magazine December issue 2010. Thanks to all the animators who answered my questionnaire and gave a human perspective to dry statistics!