Late last year, I was very lucky to be asked by the Guardian’s Keith Stuart (after accidentally volunteering to be on his GameCity Breakfast Panel) if I’d mind answering some questions for a piece he was writing on women working in the games industry. Being as passionate as I am about diversity (in all things, and especially so in those who create our most important medium), I was, of course, very happy to help.
The article appeared in G2 in print, though is also available to read online here. Keith did an excellent job with the piece, and I was very happy to be quoted a couple of times. The experience was particularly useful as it gave me a chance to express, in longform, my thoughts on the subject, about which I care so deeply, yet I haven’t written about properly for a very long time (and, also, since I got
older and wiser more of a clue, quite frankly).
I thought I’d share my answers, in case I do not get round to expressing this stuff elsewhere on this blog any time soon.
So, here are my long-form interview answers, posted in full. Click to expand.
1. What made you decide to get into games development?
I think the realisation hit me comparatively late that there are actually people whose full-time job it is to make the games I’d loved my whole life. I was about twelve years old or so when it happened, which, coincidentally, was around the time that I also started to teach myself programming. However, game development did, admittedly, take a back seat to my other (rather embarrassing) aspiration, which I genuinely pursued for far too long: to be an astronaut! That’s right. I even did Computer Engineering at university; secretly hoping that maybe I could still hedge my bets a bit. However, when I finally realized that the dream could not be (I was rubbish at sports), I finally knew that I was going to make games for a living. Even then, it wasn’t straightforward. After graduating, I started a videogames-related PhD at the University of Portsmouth – which I’m still finishing off – but, I also decided that if I wanted to make games, something I was genuinely passionate about doing, then I should actually, you know, start making games. So, I decided to start my own company, and make games independently.
Who knows, perhaps if this game dev thing works out really well, perhaps I can ‘do a Garriott’ and indulge in a bit of space tourism later on?!
2. How do you think women are represented in development? Are there anywhere near enough working in the industry?
3. Why do you think the numbers are so low in the mainstream industry? Do you think it’s that historically games haven’t appealed as much to women, or is there something else about the industry itself?
It’s not that games “don’t appeal to women”, to suggest that would be incredibly simplistic; instead, the reason why we haven’t associated gaming as a ‘thing that women do’ is a complicated mix of marketing, early arcade culture, and deep-seated cultural expectations, as well as many other factors.
There is nothing about the form of video games that precludes women from playing; however, there are, unfortunately, a lot of things that in games – and gamer culture – which women could point to and go “this isn’t for me”, whether that’s eyerollingly hypersexualised female characters, or just the openly misogynistic attiudes to be found within many gaming communities. There are still too many games which fulfill their own stereotypes, and that definitely makes me cringe a bit. Games don’t need to appeal to women; they just need to stop actively offending them.
4. Do you think the industry, or the education system, should be doing more to attract women into the industry?
When I was younger and naïve, I liked to think that things would somehow reach some sort of automatic equilibrium with respect to the number of women in the industry; but, unfortunately, that doesn’t take into account all the factors which are actively dissuading women from entering the industry. When I think of incidents such as the recent Dead Island controversy, in which some not-meant-to-be-seen code was found, referring to the game’s female character as a ‘feminist wh*re’, it boggles the mind; it’s no wonder that developer friends have often admitted that development feels like a bit of a boys club.
It’s a complicated issue, though, which does go hand-in-hand-with wider cultural sexism; but I do think that as an industry, we should be doing as much as possible to counteract this sort of culture. After all, the form of video games and the content of individual games, are two separate things; there is nothing about the form of games, which means we have to produce content that can potentially isolate half the world’s population. I believe that if we love our medium, then it’s our responsibility – regardless of gender – to make sure that we are maximising its potential.
The lack of women in the industry also goes hand-in-hand with the wider issue of a lack of women in other science, engineering, and technology disciplines. The responsibility for fixing this divide, I think, lies with education, at the earliest possible levels, both at home and at school. You don’t, for example, see girls being encouraged to play with LEGO as much as boys, which is sad. [Edit: This was written before the whole 'LEGO for girls' thing, which, quite frankly, misses the point entirely...]
I think games, though, are themselves a great way to get girls interested in engineering; for example, programming in isolation might not inherently appeal to some people, but the creativity involved in making something as fun as games might be just the hook they need. Indeed, when I went back to do a careers fair at my old (all-girls) high school, most girls looked a bit dubious at the ‘Computer Science’ banner above my head. However, when they discovered that I make games, they were immediately interested.
Getting kids – both boys and girls – hooked on the creativity of making games at a young age is key. Luckily, there are increasing numbers of tools which make it easy to do just that, such as Scratch, or Microsoft’s Kodu.
5. Do you think there are any games or game trends that have drawn more women into the industry recently? Everyone likes to think that casual titles and platforms like Wii and iPhone have brought in more female players – would you agree?
That does seem to be assumption, and it’s possible that with ‘casual’ titles, there is less scope for content that might potentially isolate a female player. Or, perhaps, the oft-quoted suggestion that the (majority) number of women who play Facebook games don’t actually consider it to be a game – but rather than activity that they do online – so avoid all the ‘baggage’ that the term ‘computer game’ might come with.
However, rather than creating games which are targeted at women, the solution lies partly in developing a wider range of good-quality games which appeal to kids. I think if we get kids – girls and boys – passionate about games from a young age, then that is a significant proportion of the battle won. We need to get games to a stage where they are gender-agnostic.
6. Who do you think are some of the most influential women in games development today and why?
It’s difficult to assume who might be ‘influential’ – it’s often said, anecdotally, that women are more reluctant than men when it comes to ‘promoting themselves’ (and, once again, the reasons for this are complex – but also to do with being more likely to leave themselves open to criticism which wouldn’t necessarily be aimed at her male counterparts) so it’s possible that the most hardworking of women aren’t even very well-known at all.
(That said, there are definitely numerous prominent women in the industry, whom I admire, for example, Brenda Brathwaite, Jane McGonigal, Kellee Santiago, Robin Hunicke, to name just a tiny handful.)
7. What would you say to female students or young women coders and designers thinking of entering the games industry – how would you encourage them?
Well, I haven’t ever worked for a proper, commercial studio, so I’m not sure what to advise with regards to that – instead, I’ve jumped straight into independently making games, having started my own company. Now is a great time to do just that; if there’s a direction you’d like to see games take, then do as much as you can to make that change yourself. Start making games. That advice goes for everyone, regardless of gender. I’d say that overall, my path into development has been a bit unconventional; but the truth is, I don’t think there is really a properly ‘conventional’ route into games. The industry is wonderfully eclectic like that.
8. Recently, several major titles – the likes of Gears 3, Uncharted 3 and Deus Ex – have been written by women. Do you think that having women in major development roles on games has a palpable effect on the content? In other words, do women bring something new to game narratives and construction, or is that too much of a generalisation?
Well, I think it’s difficult to assess what ‘women’ as a whole might bring to a medium; everyone is an individual, after all, and my skills and interests are probably very different to any other women’s skills and interests. However, it is fair to say that having women in major development roles would make games less likely to be actively offensive to women (and by extension, to everyone); after all, this is the only thing games really need to do in order to achieve gender egalitarianism. This also goes for any other gender or cultural identity. Diversity is a wonderful, incredibly healthy thing, and we should always embrace it.