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By 2020, make the game industry 50/50

Behind the closed doors of the industry, a culture of virtual guns, babes and ammo spills out and spoils what could otherwise be a revolutionary design space for new kinds of thinking, learning and collaboration — if only the industry would diversify.

Mary Flanagan PhD, Blogger

March 18, 2014

5 Min Read

"I want to do something that I enjoy. My only problem is that it seems like most video game designers and what not are men. Can girls become video game designers, too?"

These words from a 15-year-old girl named Maddie on a Q&A board moved me. Yes, girls can be video game designers, too. Right now, women designers are among thousands rushing about the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to hear the latest developments in their profession.

Unfortunately, there aren't many of us here, certainly not as many as could be.

Contemporary video games are arguably this generation's favorite medium. The average age of a game player is 34 and the numbers now show men and women play games equally. According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project and Mills College survey, 97 percent of American youth play video games at least two hours a week. Many kids want to grow up to be game designers, but it may be a long road for some of these idealistic youngsters, especially girls like Maddie. In 2013, women represented 13 percent of the industry, including business and legal positions. Women are routinely paid on average 25 percent less than men, even on the art team.

From “Candy Crush” and “Minecraft," "Journey” to “SpellTower,” we are witnessing the emergence of novel types of gameplay that fly in the face of gaming stereotypes — who plays them, what they look like, and, yes, who makes them. While not all of the games people play could be called high art or philosophically provocative, they’re not all violent, weapon-filled tanks of depravity, either. Yet, behind the closed doors of the industry, a culture of virtual guns, babes and ammo spills out and spoils what could otherwise be a revolutionary design space for new kinds of thinking, learning and collaboration, if only the industry would diversify.

I've heard from friends, particularly at companies making Triple-A, big-budget 3D games, that gender is the last thing a creative team wants to "deal with." Last year's Game Developer's Conference reverberated from women’s horror stories in a Twitter revolt (#1reasonwhy hashtag). These tales are complicated by companies that want productive, happy, dynamic teams, not disruptions, accusations and issues. No one wants to ask development teams to self- censor. What if that hurts creativity? Why deal with this at all? Wouldn't it be easier to just avoid women altogether? That’s certainly what a group of players of “Battlefield 3” did in 2011 to “eliminate the problem.”

Yet here's the stone cold truth: Women make great games. Ever play “Jenga” or “Set,” the card game? How about “Portal” or “Boom Blox” or “Centipede”? You guessed it: These are examples of women making games! As the co-founder of Sierra On-Line, Roberta Williams crafted scores of early games like “King's Quest” that shaped the early days of the game industry. In fact, the original U.S. game industry was founded by a woman: Anne W. Abbott of Massachusetts, credited with designing the first board game published in the United States in 1843. Her card game, “Dr. Busby,” sold 15,000 copies in 18 months. And in 1904 Lizzie Magie submitted the first board game patent for The Landlord's game, later co-opted by Charles Darrow to become Monopoly. I'm not sure how "game design" evolved to become a "man's profession," but it certainly didn’t start out that way.

Thought leaders such as Malcom Gladwell and Steven Johnson agree: Innovation comes from fresh voices and new ideas. Rather than keep a team insular, they need to be mixed—across race, gender and age. Why? Because as Scott E. Page has shown in his book The Difference, diverse teams combat group-think and produce cognitive diversity, which leads to innovation and creativity.   In other words, Innovation comes from difference

Why does it matter who makes our games? The Alien Game project shows that games made by girls have broader appeal across both genders than games made by boys. So it matters to women who feel excluded from a livelihood. It matters to kids who can't grow up to be someone they want to be. It matters to consumers who worry over violent games and lament the lack of diverse games out there. It matters to game aficionados looking for amazing game innovations. And it matters to all of us as we expand the role of games from entertainment to being a platform on which classroom learning and everyday communication takes place.

From textbook companies to the military, public health to classrooms, games are being created across nearly every sector of social interaction. We need to make sure the games we make speak across gender, race and class lines so learning and health is accessible to all. If not, the stakes are quite severe. How many parents want their kids playing shooter games to learn science? That is what we will get if we don't provide a broader base of experts who are empowered to innovate in the game space.

What can be done? First, women in the game industry need to volunteer to speak up more: Ask to speak at conferences like GDC, propose panels and volunteer to be the visiting game expert at a local school. Men in game development can refuse to speak at events unless women are included on their panels or in workshops. Organizers should consciously seek out underrepresented designers. Teams need to realize differences are OK and are actually beneficial. Game design educators need to intentionally include women designers' work, have women as guest speakers and commit to attract women to fill half their classes.

If we add more diverse voices to the video game industry, we will create vastly different games that reflect a diversity of thought and social values. Bring us different games, those that inspire, teach, entertain and open minds. By 2020, let’s revolutionize the game industry by making it 50/50.

Dr. Mary Flanagan is a veteran award-winning game designer and researcher, and the Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College. She directs the game design thinktank Tiltfactor.org.

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