“Hello. My name is David, and I’m a quinquagenerian.”
Game industry veteran David Mullich kicked off a panel discussion on game industry ageism today at the 2015 Game Developers Conference like he was introducing himself at a group therapy session.
It was a light-hearted way to address an insidious problem.
“I've been developing games for thirty-six years, and I’ve produced over 60 titles,” said Mullich, including The Prisoner, Heroes of Might and Magic 3 and Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.
But Mullich has seen more and more job rejections as he's gotten older, including one on the same day he saw an article listing one of his games among the top titles of its generation.
“I’m still creative! I still work crunch hours! I still like video games and roller coasters and Dr. Who!” said Mullich. But while his self-perception hasn’t changed, the way the industry perceives him has.
Mullich gave some examples of the common rejections he got: seeming “burnt-out” or “too arrogant” for high-level design jobs commensurate with his experience.
But when he pursued lower-level positions, he was rejected because employers were concerned he’d leave for a higher-paying job elsewhere. More often than not, Mullich was rejected for “not fitting into the culture” — a polite example of the sort of subversive ageisim he perceives in the game industry.
26 percent of people who play games are over 50, but according to statistics provided by the ESA, only one percent of game industry workers are over 50. This is evidence enough, in Mullich’s eyes, that “ageism is a thing.”
“This isn’t going to be a pity party,” proclaimed Mullich, to scattered applause. “One can have a wonderful career after the age of 50.”
As an example, he points to his own experiences consulting, teaching, and volunteering as a mentor for young game designers.
“I tweet. I do YouTube videos. I do Pinterest, I do Facebook, I do LinkedIn,” said Mullich. “I do everything I can to promote myself; Now I find my career is actually more active than ever,” because the hustle to remain active in the industry has led him to new and unexpected opportunities — consulting on a live-action escape-the-room game, for example.
In the game industry, 'old age' is younger than you think
More than one panelist pointed out that it's not just developers in their 50s and 60s who need to take Mullich's advice about hustling to heart -- it's anyone who's aged out of the "game development sweet spot" that are your 20s.
“What does old age look like?” asked panelist Jill Miller, an HR consultant with a long career in the industry (she was employee #17 at Electronic Arts.)
Miller pointed out that “old age” in the game industry often looks like someone in their mid-30s. So what happens to game developers when they survive their “old age” and remain in the industry into their 40s and 50s?
“If you’re trying to grow, innovate and compete for talent,” said Miller, “you need those people.” They’re reliable, experienced and ready to share their knowledge with less-experienced members of the industry.
So why are older game developers leaving the industry in droves? “It’s because their careers are being torpedoed,” said Miller. “First, by outright discrimination, but also by biased marginalization,” the tendency of our industry to make arbitrary judgements about someone’s skills based on their age and appearance.
“If you are a company that wants to make a difference, and realizes that you need to have older workers in your workforce, what will you do?” challenged Miller. It starts with leadership — Miller believes game industry executives must make bigger, more visible efforts to welcome seasoned workers into their endeavors. But developers also have a lot of responsibilities.
“Check your attitude,” said Miller, and make sure you keep your confidence. Stay current, and participate in the game community as much as possible so other members of the industry see you as a person, not an “old.”
Also, “pay attention to your fitness and grooming,” said Miller. “We really need to fight the geezer factor.”
PlayScreen CCO William Volk took the stage to recount his history in the industry and his tenure at companies like Avalon Hill, Activision and Lightspan.
Adapt and survive
But ultimately, “this isn’t about complaining about ageism,” said PlayScreen CCO William Volk. “It’s about learning to survive difficult situations.”
The Activision veteran offered the following advice for developers looking to survive and thrive in the game industry: Know your inherent abilities. Try not to burn bridges. Be helpful to all; you never know when it will come back to help you.
“Back in ’89, I was asked by someone at LucasArts something about CD-ROM technology,” said Volk. “I gave him the answer. Roll forward to ’94, I’m interviewing at a major startup, and he’s the person they call for a reference.”
Make an effort to keep current with culture (“I actually came to like old-school rap a lot!”) and provide value beyond your raw skills.
“You can’t always stay current in programming or tech, but you should know where the rocks are in the coastline” of game development, said Volk. “You’ve been there before, and you should be able to provide advice.”
Mike Sellers, a professor at Indiana University whose career spans 3DO, Electronic Arts, Kabam and other ventures, took the stage to advise all developers — not just those over 50 — that what got you here won’t get you there.
“What got you the job you have now…won’t get you your next job,” said Sellers. He recommends all developers learn to never stop learning.
“What’s happening on blogs? What’s happening on Gamasutra? What are people talking about in scholarly papers?” asked Sellers. “You have to be ready.”
Game development is one of the most challenging technical fields, said Sellers, because “no one has to play a game.” Your customers don’t need you, so you have to work harder to create things that will grab — and keep — their interest as the industry expands.
But the rapid growth of the game industry is also opening up new markets that are desperate for experienced talent. Laura Buddine, CEO of Iacta, makes games for seniors. Inspired by the idea of interactive television, Buddine built her career as an executive in the set-top box game industry.
Embrace new audiences
“But then the stock market went to hell,” said Buddine, and she lost her staff at a time in her life when she needed developers more than ever to take any available work. Out of necessity, she taught herself to make games (she was over 50) and reinvented herself as a developer of games for seniors.
“Seniors, as it turns out, absolutely love games,” said Buddine. “It’s a market that’s only growing.”
Seniors love games for all sorts of reasons: they feel like old friends. They keep their minds occupied. They can be welcome distractions during painful times.
But making games for seniors brings with it some unique design challenges: developers should consider making games that are playable with impacted vision and shaky hands, that don’t force “social” gameplay on players, and that remain upbeat and cheerful. It's a market hungry for games that demand nuanced design from experienced hands; a prime opportunity, said Buddine, for older game developers looking for the next step in their career.
Mary-Margaret Walker, who now serves as CEO of the Mary-Margaret Network, got an early boost to her career with a stint at Origin Systems working on games like Ultima VII. She went on to work at a variety of other game industry endeavors, and she took the stage today to draw attention to the “elephant in the room” — discrimination in the game industry.
“I know we take every form of discrimination seriously,” said Walker, but she remains disappointed that many discrimination-busting endeavors in the game industry — including Intel’s recent $300 million diversity initiative — don’t explicitly target ageism.
The industry can (and in Walker’s view, must) do more to destigmatize age, and Walker joined her fellow game industry veterans in reminding the audience that it’s ultimately up to every developer to work to make the industry a better place to work for everyone — regardless of age.