Can you really encourage someone to enter an environment that devalues their experiences and knowledge because of their gender? More men in game development say they want more women in gaming, but they do nothing to make the industry more accepting of women.
All eyes have been on the gaming industry since one year ago. Mainstream media began covering sexism in gaming after #GamerGate, which began as an ex-boyfriend’s attempt to harm game developer Zoe Quinn, adversely affected women making and writing about games. Out of this there have been strides from Intel to commit to workplace diversity as well as Etsy to pledge grants to diversify applicants for technical jobs at the company. Because enough people, often women and people of color, have called for greater diversity in the tech spaces, companies are starting to put money forward in hiring people who aren’t just white men.
Male game developers are also publicly announcing their wish for more women to join the industry. Recently for the BBC, Craig Duncan, the studio head of Rare, said the industry needs to diversify teams in gender and age because “the more diverse culture we have as a studio the better games we produce for everyone.”
We already know all kinds of people play games. Duncan believes game industry professionals should encourage students to pursue their passion for making games. But what about when they graduate and face more pressure within the industry than their male peers? What about the women who are already here?
Duncan isn’t totally wrong; if we want people who are usually deterred from making games to enter the industry, we need to encourage them. Programming is considered a more masculine career for the same reason boys are encouraged to pursue STEM while girls are encouraged to pursue humanities: there is no reason. It’s a result of society gendering things that have no gender. Not only are the masculine-coded careers considered more prestigious or important than the feminine-coded careers, but when women show an interest in them, they’re frequently met with hostility. Hostile pushback, such as pressure for women to act a certain way that meshes with the men who already exist in that space, forces women out of the clubhouse. Even when there’s zero pushback, as the only woman in the room it’s hard to feel like you belong if there isn’t somebody there encouraging you. For a time in middle school, I was interested in programming, but specifically web development. I took some elective classes in school, but every time I was the only female student in the class. The boys in my class weren’t aggressive toward me, but they rarely spoke to me, and my teacher, a man, didn’t particularly encourage me. My English teachers, almost always women, were enthusiastic about my writing. Guess what I pursued.Honestly, the game industry looks unappealing. The International Game Developers Association compiled a detailed quality of life report in 2004 that discussed long hours, extended crunch periods (working late repeatedly to meet milestones), high turnover, job instability, and poor organization. It found a poor work-life balance was common in the industry, and this still hasn’t changed. Last year the IGDA announced the results of a survey of developer satisfaction in the game industry. Most people join the industry to pursue a love for games and to have a career in a subject they enjoy, yet the top reason for leaving is for a better quality of life. Other reasons included getting a job with better pay and hours, and others reported feeling burned out. Only 19% of respondents reported not having to work in a crunch period over two years; half of the sample said crunch was expected at work. Even outside of crunch periods, people in the game industry reported being expected to work more hours beyond the standard 40-45 hour workweek. A Kotaku report on crunch this year shows little has changed in a decade.
The working conditions in the gaming industry are even worse for women. The same issues concerning work-life balance affect women more. A Pew Research report this year found women bear more of a burden than men in maintaining the balance; 51 percent of working mothers surveyed said being a working parent made it harder to advance in their career while only 16 percent of working fathers surveyed reported the same. Women are more likely to experience career-interrupting events because they are expected to care for members of their family. The same is not expected of men. The United States, where the majority of game development takes place, still does not have guaranteed maternity leave. According to the IGDA, one-quarter of the developer satisfaction survey respondents reported employer-paid leave, and approximately 15 percent reported a combination of government- and employer-paid leave.
Being a new or soon-to-be mother is also enough for potential employers not to hire women in gaming. Several mothers in the game industry discussed their struggles with the game industry in this Gamasutra article; a few went into independent game development determined not to let “getting pregnant end my career in games development.” Another developer in the industry said she is wary of taking days off to look after her child because of a worry her coworkers are “going to stop seeing me as a person and start seeing me as a ‘mom,’ the demure, sweet caretaker.”
Offering paternity leave would take the pressure off of moms, and changes to company culture need to address what’s expected of employees.
Affecting all women, regardless of whether they have kids, is a culture that either treats women as weak and in need of protection or expects women to be conventionally attractive. Attitudes portrayed in games also make trans women the butt of mean-spirited jokes and define women to limited roles. Women in the industry are assumed to have not worked on the game they’re representing at an event, and harassment is considered a norm. Drinking cultures at work encourage men to be boisterous and annoying after consuming alcohol, but women are judged for doing the same. If men really wanted more women in the industry, they would be changing their entire workplace culture to eliminate microaggressions and inappropriate “jokes,” promoting women to senior positions, and encouraging women to speak their minds.
You can’t expect women to buy into empty gestures in the games industry when there’s still so much work to be done. We can encourage young girls to explore their voices by making their own games, but if nothing changes in the industry, they’ll just end up miserable when they get here.