According to a 2019 study conducted by the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, 21% of women are full time employees in the Australian gaming industry and as of 2017 in the US, women make up 22% (IGN). For a long time, the gaming industry has suffered from a lack of gender diversity which has been to its detriment on numerous occasions (I’ll continue that point later). Reducing the gender disparity in the gaming industry is such a universally positive change that could occur, having the potential to influence game design and workplace behaviour for the better; of course, these changes are stopped by a few roadblocks.
What are the benefits?
A diverse team is more likely to produce a more innovative game design as having a wide variety of perspectives can open up a lot of doors for developers in terms of ideas. Especially in terms of story and character design where you can have someone who could understand the experience of a character and be able to write realistically about them rather than having someone who does not understand a character writing them blind or just from secondhand research. Whether or not these ideas can actually get past the video game publishers is another situation entirely.
When you have a team of like-minded people with similar experiences and perspectives, it can severely limit the potential of the end product- not to say this is always the case. Essentially, more diversity in game development teams can produce a higher quality product and also allows developers to broaden their intended audience.
The inclusion of multiple perspectives through diversity is also helpful not just for the sake of more ideas but to spot potential issues in game design. For example, in a peer review session for the 2013 RPG ‘Dragon Age’, a female writer pointed out a big issue with the plot-that there was a scene that could “easily be interpreted as a form of rape” which other women in the team also saw (Dewinter and Kocurek, 2017). The scene was subsequently taken out of the plot. Without the input from women, the male developers would not have seen the issue and the scene would have remained, waiting to publicly criticised upon release.
One of the writers, David Gaider reflected on this in a 2013 blog post, wondering if that woman had been the only one to speak up about the issue, would she have been disregarded as over-reacting? It’s probable that her concerns could have been tossed aside as this is true of what already happens in technology workplaces; there is a common culture of isolation and silence among female employees. Regardless, women are able to inform others on the female perspective which could end up broadening their game’s appeal/demographic. If more women were involved in development roles (like seen in the Dragon Age example), it would become easier for them to speak up without the fear of being disregarded but what often happens more often than not is that there is a sole woman in a group of men, causing the issues of isolation and silence.
On a financial note, the Australian Human Rights Commission (2013) found that having a diverse team could lead to 22% more productivity and 27% more profitability.
The false meritocracy and the ‘culture fit’
One frequent response to the argument that there should be more women in development positions is that ‘the candidates with the best skill should be employed regardless of their gender’. This argument is flawed for two reasons:
Firstly, that argument indicates that having diversity means that the necessary skills and ultimately the quality of the game has to be sacrificed. Women of equal and greater skill are applying for these jobs and yet the gender disparity persists.
Secondly, while it would be nice to believe people achieve success through hard work (a meritocracy), it is simply not the case. If people were hired based on skill, there would be a relatively higher level of women in the gaming industry.
As of late, candidates applying to semi-large gaming companies are often not employed based on credentials or skill alone. For example, Riot Games was exceptionally picky when hiring female employees as detailed in the 2018 Kotaku expose, seemingly obsessed with hiring people who were explicit ‘culture fits’ and expressing a desire for ‘core gamers’. A woman recalled her 1-hour long job interview with Riot in which she was questioned about her experience with the game World of Warcraft in some sort of fact-checking cross-examination in an effort to prove she was a ‘real’ gamer; afterwards being told she would not have experienced the same tone of interview if she were a man.
The idea that the employee must fit the company’s culture is a regressive notion that doesn’t allow for change. Former Riot employee Mattias Lehman wrote that after bringing up his concerns over the marginalisation of women and general lack of diversity in the company, he began to worry about his job security. Peers at work would tell him that he was being too aggressive in his approach to creating change, that he should ‘win people over with love, not criticism’ and in a meeting with a manager he was told that his ‘job performance was great, but [his] cultural misalignment was concerning’ (Lehman, 2018). It’s not the best sign when you get ostracised from your peers and have your job position questioned because you criticised their company’s toxic work culture.
Will things change?
The facts are there, diverse teams are better than non-diverse teams, positively affecting the workplace culture and game design itself.
Despite this it doesn’t appear like the mainstream gaming industry is going to go through any gender diversity changes anytime soon. Many companies don’t seem to want to acknowledge there’s a problem with their culture- on the other hand, perhaps many employees don’t even realise there is a problem because they don’t experience the same level of harassment and marginalisation that other other employees do.
What seems to force companies to change is from journalists writing about these toxic cultures and from current and former employees speaking out about their experiences- as seen with the Kotaku expose on Riot and more recently with Bloomberg’s Ubisot scandal. This lets people understand the perspectives and experiences of others.
Many companies are trying to hire a more diverse set of employees but these attempts are not as effective as they could be. Women have a quit rate twice as high as men in the technology industry due to the emotional toll they experience (CTL, 2014). This gender disparity has a lot to do with a problem of workplace culture.
If companies actually want to achieve gender diversity (or any diversity), they should focus on changing the company culture and be willing to change.