Hello and welcome to “Women Don’t Want To Work In Games (And Other Myths)! Allow me to introduce myself: my name’s Elizabeth Sampat. I’m a senior game designer at a mobile game company called Storm8, and they’re kind enough to let me make weird personal projects in my spare time. I’ve been in digital games for about three or four years, maybe? And I‘ve been involved in the tabletop and hobby game industry since 2006. I’m also on the advisory board for the IGDA Women In Games Special Interest Group, which is why I’m doing this talk. I’ll get to my personal story as a woman in games eventually, but here: if you know me it’s probably because I yell on Twitter, or because I wrote a polemic about Penny Arcade that went viral, or because I was on the #1reasonwhy/#1reasontobe panel last year.
The years I’ve spent as a game designer have been some of the most rewarding, most fulfilling times of my life, and it’s important to me that other people get the opportunity to discover all of the amazing things that this life has to offer. So as you might imagine, I am really and truly passionate about our industry, and about cultivating diversity among its workers. And now that I’m here, in front of so many people with such a strong interest in furthering our industry’s reach, it’s my pleasure to tell you that everything regarding the lack of gender diversity in the game industry is solved. I know! I’m just as surprised as you are.
I really am sorry that you came all the way here, but in doing the research for this talk, I came across a lot of really congratulatory glad-handing articles about how everything has been fixed, so I guess it HAS to be true, despite the fact that, you know, only ten percent of workers in the game industry are women.
See, here’s the magical thing that has fixed the gender gap: right now, there are a lot of initiatives to get young girls to use computers. Heck, there’s even a game design badge in the girl scouts! With all of this interest in teaching our progeny how to code and hack and— whatever the kids are calling it these days— everything’s going to be juuuust fine. So instead of digging any deeper than we already have, we can all pat each other on the backs, say “Good job!” and just wait twenty years for the industry to fix itself.
Early outreach is important, definitely. But we need to start looking for solutions that work now. It may seem like the industry will be an egalitarian, gender-parity utopia by the time that we’re all playing Angry Birds Fifteen on the holodeck at the old folks’ home, but that doesn’t fix the homogeneity of voices in the games now, or the behaviors that have lead to an industry dominated by white men under the age of 45.
But even nurturing young women and girls interested in games isn’t enough to change our future. If we don’t change the attitudes, hiring habits and retention issues that have lead to the current gender disparity in the game industry, then no matter how much passion we instill in our youth— no matter how many proficiencies we teach them— all of that work will be for nothing.
The best ways to bring more diversity of experience and perspective into our industry is to face our mental barriers head on. Here’s a spoiler: the problem isn’t with the women who supposedly don’t want to be here. The problem is with us.
Myth #1: Women don’t want to work in games
This is the most common sentiment— we can’t FORCE women into the industry. We’re not going to put guns to their heads. We can’t make people do jobs they don’t want to do! Women don’t want to be here, there’s nothing to be done, so let’s just continue to have men make all of the first person shooters and all of the Farmvilles and all of the everything in between. I just have one question for those who think women don’t want to work in games: have you asked them?
I have. Using Facebook, Twitter, mailing lists and word-of-mouth, I polled a large number of women who are currently employed or seeking employment in the game industry about how long they’ve been here, what they did before, and how their priorities, experiences, and lives have impacted the paths that their careers have taken.
On the surface, the numbers aren’t surprising. 45% of responders said that they “have always known” they wanted to be in the game industry! This adds an air of truth to one of the other forms of the “women don’t want to work in games” myth— that the game industry is ONLY for people who were born cradling their own copy of Chrono Trigger. The game industry requires passion, dedication, and true love— and anyone who doesn’t have those things from the get-go will be eaten alive. That’s the common narrative.
But let’s take another look at that number. 45% of responders to my poll said that they have always known they wanted to be in the game industry: that’s almost half! Or to put it another way, that’s LESS THAN HALF. 55% of responders got into the game industry in a wide variety of ways that had nothing to do with their lifelong aspirations of game-developer fame and fortune— and for some, all it took was being approached by a recruiter while they were in school.
Just talking to someone— just asking someone if they’ve ever considered a job in games— is an incredibly potent recruitment tool. But it’s one few people ever think about, because it’s in direct opposition to the prevalent narrative: “Who needs to be given permission? Who would ever need to be ASKED if they want into this amazing industry we all love? If the candidate doesn’t already know how fantastic making games can be and how much of a privilege it is to even be employed bringing joy to so many people, this isn’t the place for them!”
Every time you perpetuate the myth that the only way to make it in games is to have always wanted to be in games, you’re reducing the potential talent pool you’re recruiting from by 55%.
And of that 55%, there’s a second demographic that is almost as potent as lifelong burning desire. Among the industry women in my poll, 41% of people became interested in games as a career because they either had friends, family, or acquaintances who worked in the industry, or else had someone directly suggest to them that they consider working in games. For a lot of women— even women who grew up loving games!— the leap from “enjoying games” to “making games” is one that is difficult to make without support.
It’s almost a Catch-22. Because only 10% of the game industry is made up of women, it’s a career that never even occurs to a large number of women who would be very happy here. And because so few women realize it’s an option, the number of women in the game industry remains incredibly low.
The best way to deal with this particular problem is fairly self-evident, then: actively talk to women about the game industry. If you yourself are a woman, be vocal to friends in tech and outside of the industry in general about what you do and why you love it. If you represent a company, sponsor game jams for people who have never made games before. When you’re in an interview, quit looking for lifelong dedication and start looking for curiosity and current interest.
But Elizabeth! you might be saying. Are these hires— the ones who haven’t been burning with a passion to create new game titles since they were old enough to hold a controller— quality hires? Do we NEED people who lack that lifelong dedication? What could these dilettantes possibly bring to the table?
I’m glad you asked. In 2006, I moved to a small Massachusetts town about 10 minutes from the border of Vermont called Greenfield. I lived two blocks down the street from Vincent Baker— one of the most highly-esteemed tabletop roleplaying game creators in the independent hobby scene, responsible for titles like Dogs In The Vineyard and Apocalypse World. His wife Meg is also an award-winning tabletop game designer. Across the street was my friend Julia Bond Ellingboe, a fantastic tabletop designer whose critically-acclaimed Steal Away Jordan explored and celebrated the heroes she grew up with— escaping and runaway slaves in the antebellum south.
A few exits down 91 was Northampton, Massachusetts— home to Joshua AC Newman, acclaimed designer of the tabletop roleplaying game Shock: Social Science Fiction, and the lego mech-warrior miniature strategy game Mobile Frame Zero, which blew past its Kickstarter goal by almost one THOUSAND PERCENT.
I hung out with these people, I played their games with them a few nights a week. And it wasn’t until I was aggressively pushed by my friends to try my own hand at game design that it even occurred to me I was capable of such a thing!
I eventually published my first tabletop roleplaying game, It’s Complicated, and brought it to GenCon— the oldest and possibly largest tabletop game convention in the United States. On the Saturday of the convention, a man came up, plopped twenty dollars down on the table, and announced he was there to buy my game— and hopefully talk to me. The man introduced himself as Ryan, and the first thing he said to me was “Have you ever considered going digital? This design would port beautifully to a computer game.”
We talked for a long while, and he left me his card. It turned out that he was Ryan Scott Dancey, the then-CMO of CCP games and the former senior Vice President in charge of tabletop RPGs at Wizards of the Coast, responsible for the successful launch of Dungeons and Dragons: Third Edition.
If Vincent and Meg and Julia and Joshua had never convinced me to try to make my first game, I’d still be struggling to come up with new and innovative concepts as a freelance stock photographer. If Ryan had never told me, rather forcefully, that I had a future in the digital game industry, I’d probably be writing exciting new encumbrance rules for the next edition of some White Wolf RPG. I love what I do— now that I make games every day, I can’t imagine my life doing anything else. But it took a lot of arm-twisting and encouragement for me to get out of my own head and to step out of my comfort zone.
If you’re not worried about the industry losing the next me, that’s fine. But if we don’t actively reach out to women, we might lose our next Robin Hunicke. In her #1reasonwhy talk at last year’s GDC, the former executive producer of thatgamecompany’s groundbreaking title Journey and the current founder of the game company Funomena freely admitted that, despite a path that lead up to and circled around the game industry, it wasn’t until Will Wright mentioned game development to her that she considered a career in games.
Myth #2: It’s Too Late, There Are No Women To Hire!
This myth concedes the point that, okay, perhaps you could interest women in the game industry, but that doing so is useless. Even if you somehow convinced women to apply, or show interest, it’s too late! Look at the number of women currently in game programs at universities, or recent graduates. There are so few women who have the necessary skills we need in the industry that there’s no point in pursuing them.
This particular myth comes with a secret consolation prize— when people ask why your game company has so few women, you can just smile and shrug. “There are only so many women with the skill sets required to make games,” you can say, while furrowing your brow in empathy. “It’s a numbers game. Until more women graduate with the skills necessary to make games, the pool of potential female candidates will remain low, and not every company will be able to woo them.”
If that dog-whistle is a little too high for you to hear, let me make it even clearer: I once spoke with someone in charge of hiring at another company, and they had a really interesting excuse for an all-male workspace: “Women are probably in really high demand and can ask for whatever they want, because everyone wants to be diverse. That just makes them too expensive.”
We’ll sidestep the implication that the only reason those women may be in demand is because of their gender for the time being, and address the broader point— the idea that there aren’t a ton of women who have the appropriate training and necessary skillsets to be a necessary and effective part of a game company. And, yes, if you’re only specifically looking for senior software engineers who have gotten at least three titles through the gold master process on two different consoles, the pickings are probably a bit slim.
The thing is, though, that a game company is first and foremost a company. You need people to keep the lights on and the books balanced; you need people to keep the company part going as much as the game part. I understand that there’s a mindset that a lot of game-makers have that says HR, and marketing, and office management don’t count— but study after study has shown that the best way to attract women candidates is to have women as employees.
If you say you want to attract women when talking to software engineers or designers and they notice women are absent from even the non-technical departments, they’re not going to take you at your word. Actions are important. Employ women wherever possible, and treat those women with respect; believe me, the female candidates who interview with you will notice, even if the women they see aren’t in their department.
And by the way? When I say “treat those women with respect,” I also mean respecting their jobs, and how those jobs are vitally important to the growth and success of your company. The pervasive idea that HR, marketing, and office management “don’t count” or aren’t “really” part of game development at your company or in the industry as a whole is, in and of itself, sexist— those are the roles that are most often coded as feminine, and the roles where women are visible, even in male-dominated companies. And it’s not even a matter of those roles not being “core” to design and production. Have you ever noticed that the game industry will occasionally champion the unsung importance of QA, and yet a no one ever talks about the vital role that Community Management plays in a game’s success? And as for the stereotypical woman in a business role, she’s still considered — well, Shanley Kane put it best in her blistering article titled “Misogyny and the Marketing Chick:”
“She’s not in tech, she’s around it. She doesn’t understand engineering. She’s not a programmer. She probably got her job because she’s pretty. Or how did she get that job, she’s not even pretty. She probably got her job from sleeping with that guy. She probably does social media. She’s helping out with the conference. She’s doing the launch. She’s setting up the meetings. She’s writing mass emails. She’s composing tweets.
What is to be done about her? We need to make sure the marketing chick can’t infiltrate our industry, make sure we don’t accidentally aid and abet her rise. So we’re going to assume all women in our industry are like her unless they can prove to us they’re not a marketing chick. Now even women hate the marketing chick because they have to prove everyday, in every meeting, in every conversation, that they aren’t that.”
Every woman you invite to the office for an interview will watch to see how the other women in the office are treated and referred to. And if the women you invite to interview never see another woman, well, they’ll notice that too.
Does this seem recursive? I’m sure it does, but honestly, the best way to combat the myth that there aren’t any women to hire is to understand the inherent, subconscious biases that are keeping you from hiring the women that are already there in front of you.
Research in numerous studies has demonstrated that invisible bias hurts the prospects of women in all industries, not just tech. People look at men’s resumes for potential, but look at women’s resumes for proof. By removing the names of candidates and doing blind resume reviews, you’ll be surprised by how many women candidates suddenly seem viable. And by respecting the women in your employ and making them visible to the women you interview, you can show candidates proof that you take them seriously.
Myth #3: We Can’t Find Any Women Who Are A Culture Fit
Startup companies love to talk about “maintaining a strong company culture” and being sure that new hires are “good culture fits” the way that white people love calling shit their spirit animals. Ask any casual game company what makes their company different from the other companies working on the latest card-battling RPG with real-time casino feedback, and they’ll tell you that the thing that makes them special is the PEOPLE, that the secret sauce that will make you happier working there than anywhere else is the company culture.
You might think that I’m about to go on a rant about how “culture fit” is complete and total bullshit, and you’d be— well, wrong, actually. As I mentioned before, I work at a mobile company called Storm8, and I’ve been there longer than I’ve been at any other game company. Hopefully I get to stay there for a long time to come. The size of Storm8 has almost doubled since I joined, and the thing that’s been amazing to me is that it is still, at its heart, the company I fell in love with, and a large part of that is due to maintaining the company culture as the company has grown.
What does “Culture fit” mean to me at Storm8? It means a greater number— and a greater percentage— of women and people of color than at any other place I’ve worked, including a good chunk in engineering and data analysis. It means a truly collaborative environment. It means a place where everyone treats each other with a fundamental base of respect, and men take paternity leave so women don’t feel weird about starting families, and watching the number of women in my department grow to seven times what it was when I joined. We’ve got the pool table and the hackathons, but we’ve also got free feminine sanitary products in the restrooms and flexible schedules and summer parties where I’m encouraged to bring my kids. But mostly, we’ve got the kind of company culture where me giving this talk here at GDC— and all of the other ranting I do about equality in our industry— is something that I feel supported in doing, and has never for a moment made me worry about repercussions.
Storm8 is a special company, and that’s why I choose to stay. But I also know that what I’ve just described is definitely not what most companies mean when they talk about their own company or what they mean by culture fit, and that’s part of the problem. If you can’t find any women who will fit into your company culture, have you considered that your company culture might… you know… suck?
Often times, the concerns about “Culture Fit” as a company are simply neophobic— a longing to cling to a status quo that may not be perfect, sure, but at least it’s familiar. If you’ve been doing something for a long time, and you’re given the opportunity to do something new, it can be tempting to stick to your old ways just to ensure that you don’t fail.
The idea of culture fit is useful, but the TERM itself is worse than useless— it’s actively harmful in a number of ways. There are two different types of culture fit: homogeneity and habit. If someone isn’t a culture fit because they schedule meetings at 7 PM on a Friday and come from a company where design is always at war with marketing or something, then yeah, don’t hire them— their work habits will negatively impact the work habits of the people in your company. But if someone didn’t laugh at your Magic: The Gathering joke or didn’t seem excited enough when you mentioned the company fantasy football league? Get over it.
Don’t ever, EVER, let someone turn down a candidate by saying they’re not a good culture fit. Not even as part of a broader concern, not even a little bit, nope nope nope. If someone says that a person isn’t a good culture fit, interrogate them like you’re in an episode of Law and Order. Get the specific reasons out of the interviewer— did they seem unenthusiastic about the games you’re making? Did they seem like they have preconceived notions about what project management processes work best that are at odds with your company’s best practices? Or does the interviewer avoid your gaze and just say something about their “gut feeling” that the candidate wouldn’t be happy there? Worse, do they say something about how the candidate might make others unhappy to be there?
Look. If your company is predominantly male, I hate to tell you this, but you’re not going to magically be able to find women who fit into your company as it exists now. You might get close, but in order to accommodate diversity of backgrounds and experiences, your company is going to have to grow. Why do we only think of the word “growth” as it applies to business when it comes to headcount and revenue and market-share, anyway? What would our industry look like if companies were just as proud of the growth that they’ve made as a culture?
Part of the issue is that we know what growth looks like when we’re talking about numbers getting incrementally higher, or a line on a graph arching upwards. But when we’re talking about making room for different kinds of people, adding seats at a metaphorical table— for a lot of companies, that’s incredibly difficult, because there’s no one internal that has the expertise to know what kind of culture can attract the kind of diverse work group that they want.
Good news! There are consulting firms that work with companies specifically to analyze their culture and hiring practices and recommend tactics that will lead to finding more women candidates— and more women candidates that will become employees. Places like The Level Playing Field Institute and the Anita Borg institute have the experience and insight to uncover the things about your company culture you might not be able to see, and the knowledge to help you overcome the bad without injuring the good.
But they’re not here right now, and I am. So, while I am a misanthropic loudmouth instead of an acclaimed institution, I guess we’ll have to go with my advice. At least it’s free! And actually, it’s not even my advice. Remember that survey I mentioned earlier, the one I made asking women in the industry about their experiences and perceptions? Fortunately for all of us, the anonymous respondents had a lot of things to say about what attracts them to companies— and what keeps them away.
One of the questions I asked was “What would sell you on a game company if it were mentioned by a recruiter?” In their own words, responders overwhelmingly mentioned three important things.
Family-friendly: this phrase came up the most often, even from women who are not and do not plan to become mothers in the near future. To respondents, this implies flexibility— one example was a “core hours” setup where all employees are mandated to be in the office during a set of four to five hours for collaboration, meetings, and face time, and then are able to work as much before or after core hours as they wish. Other things mentioned were flexible hours, occasional telecommuting, and a general atmosphere where families would feel comfortable, even if you didn’t have a family of your own— a place where fun doesn’t always mean alcohol and objectification. Interestingly, some women also mentioned that they want to see dads in the office; if men are taking time off for family things, it makes women feel more comfortable if they want to do so in the future.
As one respondent said: “It currently doesn't affect me personally, but looking to the future, a company that offered on site child care might be appealing; even if I never have children, I think the benefit to coworkers who did would make for a better work environment. (If it matters, I was inspired to think this would be a really good perk by a male coworker who was sad about not getting home before his daughter went to bed.. I don't think its a mothers-only benefit, but I do think men can be more hesitant to vocalize it.)”
Collaboration and Trust: the majority of women who responded to my survey weren’t looking to bow at the feet of a single visionary. Many women spoke about their desire to work in an environment where they had the ability to feel ownership over parts of the production process, working hand in hand with peers who understand and respect what each person on the team brings to the table. They want companies that are invested in seeing them learn and grow, personally and professionally, and are willing to invest in them to ensure that growth.
One respondent said the best thing a recruiter could tell her would be: “We need you on our team, and your voice, and we're also interested in experimentation. The "we need you" part would really sell any position for me. I'd like to know that I could lend my real perspective, and not just participate in the production of something on a surface level. There's a difference between being an artist, and just using a skill. “
Good, Clear Communication: This is one answer that surprised me. I mean, sure, there was an overwhelming response from women who would be interested in knowing that the workplace was already diverse, and the family-friendly business wasn’t exactly a shocker. But the most surprising popular answers all revolved around a desire to work in a place where communication skills are highly prized— environments where expectations and hopes are spelled out, problems are found quickly and addressed even more quickly, and everything is communicated with professionalism and respect. The women who responded to my survey feel that the best way to ensure good work is through transparent and open communication, and therefore prize it highly.
As one woman put it, “good communication (and human contact!) is one of the best ways to fuel creative inspiration.”
But enough about all of the things that you can be doing right. What about the things you might be doing wrong? I also asked the women in my survey about what recruiter-mentioned “selling points” would actively turn them off from applying. The answers probably aren’t that surprising.
Brogrammer-speak: The word “Brogrammer” might be one of the most commonly-used words in all of the responses. Many anonymous respondents called out specific companies they never even interacted with, but whose recruitment drives and presentation choices alienated them forever. Here are a couple of examples:
“I will NEVER consider working for Riot Games thanks to their previously used 'No doesn't always mean no' internal recruitment campaign. I know from employees that worked there that people approached them to complain about the practice/terminology, and those people were told that if it bothered them, perhaps they didn't belong at Riot games. As a rape victim I refuse to work for asshats like that.”
A ton of women specifically mentioned Kixeye’s recruitment video, but one woman put it best: “That Kixeye video that was going around a while ago contained everything that turns me off about a job posting. If the word "brogrammers" is used without any sense of irony that's a red flag for me. If a lot of the studio staff is very young because they're unable to retain anyone past the age of 30 that's a red flag. If I get asked if I'm cool with a "non-PC work culture" during an interview that's not a good sign (Yes, I was actually asked this once during an interview.) “
The Wrong Perks: A substantial number of my survey respondents look at the typical “selling points” of game startups with serious side-eye. Anything mentioning a strong culture of alcohol— “beer Fridays,” booze at all-hands meetings— rubbed a number of women the wrong way. Again, even for people who like to partake, nothing says “bro” like crushing a beer and then crushing some code. Additionally, the more freebies a company has that are designed to keep people in the office, the more skeptical they are of the company’s commitment to work-life balance— something that’s extremely important to women who wish to have friends and family outside of the workplace.
As one woman put it: “I actively avoid the types of ads I see now that repeatedly scream "we're badass and devote all of our lives to the games we make", Really? That makes for such an unhealthy fertilizer for creativity. I want a company that prides itself on being well rounded.”
But, of course, not all women want the same thing.
Myth #4: I’m A Woman, I Can’t Be Part Of The Problem!
I’m just going to let this sit there for a while.
Yeah. So. There’s an idea that if you’re here, in the trenches of the game industry, simply existing as a woman, you’re Doing Something. And honestly, that idea isn’t com