Where’s the Level Playing Field?: women in games


(First published Oct 2010) Of all the computer games consoles and gadgets, the Nintendo Wii could be said to be the one that started to change attitudes towards gaming within the general public.

Despite it launching into a marketplace that back in 2006 looked locked down by the mighty Sony Playstation and the Microsoft Xbox, it sold 105,000 units over its opening weekend in the UK, reached an unheard of six million units in 3 years, and moved on to become the most popular of all the consoles.

Advertising featured spacious airy white living rooms where games brought the family together on the sofa. Jamie and Louise Redknapp played Wii Sports and Wii Fit, whilst Ronan and wife Yvonne Keating played Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training together with their three children Jack, Marie and Ali. Fern Britton even used Can’t Decide What to Eat? to choose a special meal for her husband in one advert.

The Wii succeeded because it sold a new games lifestyle, a compelling vision of games as safe and normal family entertainment, and of a range of more useful and autodidactic software products than shoot ‘em ups and destruction. Suddenly games did you good.

it seems like games like Mirror's Edge with its proactive female characters attract female gamers, but the industry itself doesn't.

it seems like games like Mirror’s Edge with its proactive female characters attract female gamers, but the industry itself doesn’t.

It seemed the image of the teenage hard core gamer had finally been replaced in the public consciousness. A wider cross-section of women could feel that games were of interest to them. Figures purporting to show increasing numbers of women playing games abounded. One survey proclaimed 40% of all gamers in the US were women. Received wisdom is that the social nature of gaming is prized by women, and this is in the ascendancy. Zynga’s Farmville on facebook has now over 85 million players for instance.

Seemingly, games is no longer the male preserve in terms of consumption that it once was. Whilst there have always been small numbers of hard-core female gamers, there are many more casual or social gamers now playing Bejeweled, Farmville, Wii fit. Interestingly, Women gamers are leading the way on in-game spending too.

But if you look around the Games industry workforce there’s a different story. Whilst Skillset research reveals that women make up 39 percent of the film production workforce – compared with 46% of the general UK workforce, and THAT is seen as bad news- consider the Games industry. Skillset’s 2009 employment census points to only 6 percent of women in Games development.

Bejewelled the popular puzzle game credited with attracting new female casual gamers

Bejewelled the popular puzzle game credited with attracting new female casual gamers

So, 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. Despite being welcomed to play, why are they not being welcomed to work?

Now, a number of social 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, 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.

The few women already in the industry don’t seem to cite chauvinism or lack of opportunity as contributing factors either. At a Women in Film and TV event at Waterstones Piccadilly 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 panelists was unanimous, but compounded with the recognition that women in games tended to congregate around marketing and organisational roles.


Zynga’s farmville on facebook is often credited with attracting new, older female gamers (Credit: Zynga)

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 games companies are relatively more volatile, and therefore not as attractive. Our report also shows games is a young persons world- of all Skillset’s sectors only film has as high a proportion of under 35s. However, there are many games companies that have now been around for the best part of ten years or longer- so instability isn’t the full story.

It would be easy to argue that our sample was too small to be accurate, or that only certain people respond to our surveys, but our findings seem to be reinforced and complemented by 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” 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 of workers.


Silver surfers can become silver gamers

The second major factor seems to be technology. It’s often been said that men tend to populate and lead new technology areas first. Our country’s IT, computer science and programming courses are male bastions, to the often immense disappointment of lecturers themselves, who wonder where the female applicants are. That shortage maybe why both Interactive Media and Games sectors are so extreme on gender imbalance.

So what can be done? Well, this seems to be in the hands of the industry itself. The government’s new Livingstone Hope review into computer games and VFX skills will be examining the ‘talent timeline’ and is particularly keen to look at how young people can understand that by studying programming and maths they can get into the exciting industry that is games. However, the industry will be hamstrung if half the population doesn’t want to get on the conveyor belt in the first place, (because it doesn’t have the opportunity or inclination to study maths or computer science) or upon arriving in the industry, finds it rewarding but unsustainable in terms of fulfillment or family.

More work needs to be done to make IT and Computer Science attractive to girls, but this needs to be complemented with a stronger message from the industry that it can do more about flexible working hours.


What is Creative Skillset doing? Well, our research has alerted the industry, who need to decide on how to address this. It needs to be noted that the money Skillset have to follow through and address such imbalance is limited to traditional media like Film, TV and Fashion and Textiles, because of the funding agencies involved. Games has no such agencies or elevated political voices so with the absence of these resources we need to start persuading the trade associations (TIGA and UKIE) how bad this situation has become, and see if we can work together on some solutions. There is no STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) ambassador for the games industry working with schools unless I’m mistaken, unlike other hi-tech sectors. There are good initiatives like Women In Gaming and various girl’s computer clubs in schools which could be empowered or proliferated, not to mention university and business outreach work.

However, at the end of the day, it seems the industry needs to convince new recruits that it is in many ways as stable, secure and full of opportunities as other media choices. Because of the recession and student debt today’s new talent ( male and female) will increasingly make choices based on these factors, rather than how cool the ultimate product they will create is.  For talented women programmers work in the IT department of a finance company might seem to be more attractive- because at least they get the free time to enjoy playing Wii fit, an opportunity which they might not get if they worked on the game itself!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s