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Women, make games!

There is a lot of talk about women in games, but one topic is not nearly debated enough: why are there so few women indie game creators? As a woman myself, this is my try to introspect my own excuses, scold and lecture myself, and call for friends!

Laura Bularca, Blogger

December 11, 2013

12 Min Read

I've been playing games since about 10, in a fresh post-communist country where not many people even knew what computers were, much less saw one. I’ve been writing about games since about 19, in a post-communist turned “democratic” country where most normal, young people now knew what computers were, but not many could afford one. I’ve been making games professionally since 2009, first in the same post-communist turned democracy country and then abroad, wherever the promise of a higher level of development took me. I've been trying to get into indie game development since 2010 and I’ve got my share of struggles and stories that made me feel everything from a lazy, self loathing coward to an unbelievably alive and happy person who is privileged to know and experience the fact that you can fight for your dream and stand a chance to make it happen. But sometimes I feel like I am alone, and there is a question that I cannot quite figure out.



You see, I am a woman. I am a 32 year old married woman who wants to make my own games. And the question that I can’t quite figure out is: why are there so few women who make or contribute to making indie games? Because, not only as a woman, but also as a gamer, I am pretty sure I’d love to play what they would do. And I am pretty sure I'd love to hear what those women have to say, to learn from their stories, to share their struggles and to befriend them. Because as a game making, game playing obsessed crazy lady, I can tell you that sometimes I feel terribly alone. And I am sure I am not the only one out there with this problem, but I think that at least partly, I am responsible and a part of this problem.



The "women in games" subject received quite a lot of attention lately, but it took a rather one sided turn. As women game creators, everybody knows that we have been marginalized, humiliated, placed into a corner and ignored, or worse.  

According to the GD Mag salary survey, we do not exceed 23% of the workforce in any of the traditional game development roles, with the lowest chunk awarded to programming (4%), audio (4%) and QA (7%). Most women in video games industry seem to be producers (23%) - like myself. We are also disadvantaged in terms of pay, on top of all the other bad things that happen to us.



These alone are great reasons to stay away from game making, even though we do seem to play a lot and, as gamers, we have demands. In fact, we demand powerful characters we can identify with, which can only mean we consider ourselves powerful and wish to be portrayed truthfully. And that is certainly true for myself as a gamer, but as a woman game maker, I feel I do not act according to my demands.



You see, as a woman game maker wanna be, today there is no excuse not to follow your dream.



Yes, it is true that there are pretty few women game developers out there, but that is not because they would be rejected should they apply for a job. Quite the opposite; there are quite a few studios out there, and especially those oriented to casual games, who actively search to recruit women developers. However, they are struggling to get any interest from us. As a producer for a niche genre, I assure you even we would welcome an increase in lady colleagues, but from all the CVs we received in the past couple of years, measured in dozens if not hundreds, we only got 2 from lady game makers. As a matter of fact, when it comes to job opportunities in the video games industry, I think right now we are favored as women, if we apply - our CV stands out and there is a lot of press lobby for strengthening our numbers, lobby which is not left unheard by employers.



Most successful indie start-ups are founded by people with previous experience in professional game development, but not all of them. Even if we choose to say no to the now welcoming but nonetheless biased and dangerous industry for a career path to build up experience, there have never been better times to become an indie developer. No development tool out there, most of them free, powerful and increasingly easy to use, is available based on gender - they are all up for grabs for everyone, and if there are a lot of self taught male indie developers, I cannot see why we cannot do the same. Unity, GameMaker or InkScape or any other free tool out there can be used to explore different, unbiased game ideas, and we really cannot complain by the lack of resources to hone up our skills.



We do not lack role models, either - there are successful women out there whom we can thank for some awesome experiences - not necessarily indie. Anna Anthropy,  Sarah Northway (do play Rebuild!), Kim Swift, Siobhan Reddy, Kellee Santiago are just a few famous examples, but there are other ladies out there whose stars are about to shine bright - like this lady, for example, as well as this awesome project, too. Furthermore, more and more initiatives pop up and gain publicity - just for us and focused on us, which is actually more than our introverted, shy, spoiled but nonetheless marginalized counterparts can say.  



Yet despite those excellent opportunities, just a quick scan on Kickstarter or even the many indie dev related Gamasutra articles prove there aren’t so many women who contribute to the indie scene. And I believe the reasons are mainly intrinsic; that they are important to discuss and they have been ignored during the countless fashionable “women in games” debates.



Truth be told, there are very few successful indie games out there made by one developer alone. Most of them are made by teams, and it is my own unproven assumption that as women, it’s harder for us to join or form an indie game dev team. If we are not gender biased ourselves, in most cases this would mean reaching out and interacting with male developers, who are not exactly famous for their social skills. As a woman, I’ve pondered frequenting development forums like Unity, TIGForums or the dev related reddit channels, and finding a team there. I didn’t, because when it comes to joining a team, most indie projects advertised there do not appeal to me as a gamer, and when it comes to exposing my own ideas, they generally tend to be ignored, misunderstood or dismissed by male game devs. I openly admit I never really had the courage to prepare and “sell” one of my ideas publicly, and that I have turned to game dev friends - including my husband, who shares my passion and has the same career -  for evaluation, with discouraging results (for now :) ).



We are also intrinsically risk averse, with a whole history to teach us of women adventurers (in any industry) as the exception, rather than the norm. We are all the product of our current and past societies and yes, as women, we have been taught to obey and to conform, but we fought to change this, and now we face a situation where we do not reap the benefits of our victory. Instinctively, when I get home from work (and I work in game development, crunch stories included), I prioritize cooking and cleaning over development and this is so deeply rooted in me that I really cannot sit by my computer if I know that the food has not been cooked and the dishes not cleaned. And I don't even have kids. The risk related fear here is not a financial one, but one related to time. As women, I think we have more chores to invest our time in than men, and that the results of that invested time provide instant gratification, unlike game development. As a test, how many womed do you know of, that left their job and went indie like many other men did? They are out there, indie studio creators and successful Kickstarters, too, it’s just really, really hard to learn about them. I wonder why?!



So what’s to do? I think the first thing to do is to talk about it, to stop dramatizing our situation* and to take action. Are you a woman who dreamed of making a game and couldn’t? I’d love to know why. What stopped you, what do you lack? I think oftentimes, we just lack a bit of support, some encouragement, even just someone that we can talk to, who can listen.


Next step, form teams, act and speak up. Stop being a chicken and just reach out and expose your idea and expertize (and now, I really am talking to myself too, and scolding myself publicly, as I deserve, for I have no excuse not to have at least one well done game design draft I can point to, and a well thought plan). What is missing here? I have had trouble reaching out to other women game developers, even though I pay attention and connect to those I can in any way I can think of - LinkedIn, Twitter, you name it. But when it comes to saying hi… Is it just me that is shy, or are there others with the same problem?


Step three: just do it. Make games, in any way, shape or form you can think of. Be creative - the world needs that :) Take any opportunity you can to join a team and learn. Go where you can, meet other devs, talk and write about it. Whatever you can do, as small as it seems - just do it, and speak about it.


Exclusive tip: Follow Along is an online make-a-game initiative targeted to women, which will teach us how to make our first (or second, why not) game, homework included. I signed up! Thank you, Tanya!


(Shameless self praise starts here)
In the first paragraph, I mentioned something about being an unbelievably alive and happy person who is privileged to know and experience the fact that you can fight for your dream and stand a chance to make it happen. I did that, I managed to join a team and launch an indie game and the feeling is awesome! The game is called Know Inc. and it is a Wikipedia based puzzle game currently just for Windows Phone 8. It puts you in the shoes of an Internet agent whose task is to uncover and preserve valuable information from a not so distant Internet cluttered with meaningless junk (sounds familiar?). I believe it's a meaningful game that I am proud of, even though the idea belongs and was pitched to me by my friend, Victor, a software developer at Microsoft (hence the Windows exclusivity). Together, we turned yet another woman into an indie game developer - Ruxi (who is actually a professional QA Tech Lead at Gameloft) makes the art! We work in the evenings and in weekends and it is actually quite challenging since we are all located quite far away from one another (US, Romania and Sweden) and Victor and Ruxi never even met face to face - but at about midnight Swedish time on November 24th, we were together in a Skype conference to push the button and submit the game to the Windows Phone 8 marketplace. Know Inc is out now (you can play it unrestricted for free, if you can cope with the ads) and was bought so far by about a dozen people. I will follow up with a post mortem, and until then I hope to meet and read about more indie projects made by crazy women like me!


I would like to thank Tanya X Short for great feedback and tips for this article!

* That's not to say that I don't support or that I am not grateful for all the effort made to create awareness on the "women in games" subject - that is awesome and very much needed work which I support and am thankful for. 

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