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Changing the Stereotype

If our development teams were more diverse, we'd see even higher quality games. But how can we get there? This post offers a few strategies: some short term and some long term.

Mare Sheppard, Blogger

March 5, 2012

8 Min Read

Many of us want to encourage more diversity in the games industry, and one of the ways people try to do that is through Women in Games Initiatives. But the problem with Women in Games initiatives and other similar programs is that they tend to address the symptoms of inequality in our culture, but not the systemic problems beneath them. When we run those types of initiatives, we are creating pressure release valves, band-aids, because it is easier and because it provides an instantly gratifying sense of satisfaction that we are getting something done.

But these initiatives are exclusive by their nature, and promote segregation, so they leave room for the problems they are trying to solve to continue to exist. It would be better to focus our efforts on more inclusive initiatives, and on changing the culture of game development so more women feel inclined to join naturally. And the good news is, it's already changing; we need to draw attention to that, and raise awareness so the changes continue to propagate.

One reason for the underrepresentation of women in the games industry is that women often perceive a lack of fit when they compare themselves to the traditional computer-science major/computer programmer (the stereotype is that this person is male, overweight, nerdy, geeky, a star trek fan,  one who eats a lot of junk food, lives in their parents' basement, who is bespectacled, snooty, prejudiced and socially awkward) (Cheryan et al., 2009). It's likely that many men find that stereotype off-putting as well.

But it wasn't always that way. In the 1960s, programming was thought of as a great fit for women, requiring "lots of patience, persistence and a capacity for detail, and those are traits many girls have"[i].  A lot of our current knowledge was built on the backs of many women programmers, such as Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Dana Ulery, Jean E Sammet, Lillian Schwartz and Laurie Spiegel, to name just a few. There are hundreds of women who have contributed in extremely important ways to shape the development of the computer programming field.

So how did we get to this point? The stereotype began to change in the 1980s as more men rose up the ranks and made big, well-publicized gains (think Bill Gates and Steve Jobs), drawing attention to the cachet that could be associated with this job, which was previously seen as mundane. Movies and pop culture began to reflect that, more and more men looked to programming as a career, and just like that, the stereotype changed.

Now we look fondly back to the 1980s and see only these giants who have shaped our modern computer science  and game development culture -- they have eclipsed their equally important predecessors. Having a large amount of reverence for the past correlates with an attitude which is slow and unwilling to change. In addition, the longer we stay the same, the belief that we shouldn't change grows stronger, our affiliation for the way things and people are increases, and it becomes harder overall to change without a catalyst.

This is important when you consider that we need to change the stereotype again. At modern conferences and events, we can see that  game developers are far more diverse than the stereotype suggests. That's not as well known outside of our industry, so the stereotype remains in popular culture. And yet, we need to go further still, to increase the amount of diversity in this field.

Why? When there is a diversity of opinion, it often leads to intellectual conflict, which sounds potentially bad, but isn't: that leads to a direct increase in the quality of debates and the most action and creative output.  That's great for teams and is great for our games as well.

Studies show that different types of teams have different specialties: Diverse teams are more likely to excel at tasks involving innovation and exploration of new opportunities, whereas homogenous teams are better at exploitation and implementation of what is known (Mannix & Neale, 2005). Both types can function in either role competently, but diverse teams are better creative teams, and homogenous teams are better at executing fully-realized tasks.

We know the game development industry is made up of generally homogenous teams, and that the AAA industry tends to gravitate towards sequels and derivative works. We can't say for sure that this business model determined team constitution, or if team constitution has determined the business model. But we can say that this is not the only successful business strategy or system that makes money.

If we want to explore new business models, and atypical and divergent ideas, this static industry needs a jumpstart, and that can come in the form of more diversity. If you value novelty, originality or exploring the possibility space of gameplay, diversity helps and that's why you should care.

One way we can attract a more diverse set of applicants is to repackage the idea of the field of game development so it's not so polarizing. "Personality traits which are typical of a given profession often are mistakenly thought to be necessary to the practice of the profession" (Spelke and Grace, 2006) -- but you don't need to be a geek to work here.

Surely you read, play or compose music, write, watch tv, enjoy sports, create art or craft, work with people or animals, have hobbies, or more generally pursue other goals outside of the game development world. If you have a devblog, why not devote some posts to your other interests?

These other interests are what filter in and keep our games interesting and unique, so talking about them makes sense in the context of development. It also helps reshape the traditional image into a more well-rounded and accurate one (Blum & Frieze, 2005), which assists unsure outsiders see that we are more than just stereotypes.

If you are hiring, pursue a gender-neutral environment that strikes a balance between action figures, game merchandise & comics, and plants, graphic art & minimalist clean lines. Show people a space that treats them as equal, allows them to bring their own personality, rather than asking them to fit into a less broadly defined and potentially limiting architecture (Cheryan et al., 2009). Also, it's possible to circumvent bias by examining applications and resumes without names or indication of biological sex attached. We often unconsciously assume that stereotyped behaviour or traits are required for some jobs[ii] [iii], but if we make our decisions based on qualifications alone, this bias disappears.

We also need more, and more visible, role models. Aside from being inspirational, there is evidence that visible role models will eventually help change gender stereotypes over time[iv]. Lagesen (2007)[v] conducted some interesting research, evaluating "which of four inter-related ways to attract more women to pursue and receive degrees in computer science was more successful.

The first addressed problematic aspects of the hacker culture and weaknesses in teaching, by arguing for educational reform. The second was concerned with the lack of a critical mass of women students. The third argued the need to alter the ‘masculine’ image of computer science. The fourth took its point of departure from feminist critiques of techno-science and addressed the need to change the content of computer science to accommodate women’s interests.

The main efforts concerned the second and third strategies, where there was an effort to create a critical mass through quota and through advertising campaigns to change the representation of computer science from technical (masculine) to more social (feminine). The increase of the number of female students resulted in a fundamental change in the social environment which became more attractive for women when they weren’t a minority anymore."

The conclusions drawn are that that the gendered image problem in computer science can't be changed only through efforts to critique and redefine it. Taking measures that provide more role models to change the manifest appearance of gender is also crucial in effecting lasting change. A combination of both techniques helps change disseminate faster.

The idea of a meritocracy is key in moving towards a game development industry that is as fair and welcoming as possible for all people. It's a good thing to attract new ideas and new people, because that will keep this industry fresh and vibrant, and prevent it from becoming an echo chamber.

But it's important to note that the problem of lack of diversity will not be solved by throwing women or other minorities at it. It's not about numbers. What this industry really needs is more creative and passionate individuals who are enthusiastic and talented and love what they do, inclusive of all genders, races, ages, sexualities, social statuses etc. We need to focus more on skill and talent and less on the value of categories to find them.


For more, see:

Fine, Cordelia. A Mind of Its Own. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

Fine, Cordelia. Delusions of Gender. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.

Gender Stereotypes and Gender Attitudes in the Assessment of Women’s Work

[i] I.J. Seligsohn, Your Career in Computer Programming, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967.

[ii] Heilman, M.E. (2001).  Description and prescription: How gender stereotypes prevent women’s ascent up the organizational ladder.  Journal of Social Issues, 57, 657-674.

[iii] Uhlmann, E., & Cohen, G. L. (2005). Constructed criteria: Redefining merit to justify discrimination. Psychological Science, 16, 474-480.

[iv] Dasgupta, N., & Asgari, S. (2004). Seeing is believing: Exposure to counterstereotypic women leaders and its effect on automatic gender stereotyping. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 642-658.

[v] Lagesen V. A. (2007) The Strength of Numbers: Strategies to Include Women into Computer Science, Social Studies of Science, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 67-92.

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