Unity and women in games
When Siobhan Reddy, studio head at Media Molecule, said that she demanded that one of the Tearaway characters be female, it raised a few eyebrows and made some headlines. She wanted to encourage women in games to speak up and everybody to consider diversity as an issue in game development. But is it really so important?
Well, yes. For example, 45% of women in the US play video games. However, the proportion of women in the industry is only somewhere between 6% and 11%, depending on who you ask. And that has an effect on the way we work. “The industry does not hate women. It’s just that gender is a barrier to identification, and male artists draw male characters by default,” says Siobhan Reddy.
But Unity grows with success of independent game developers and if one gender is excluded by default, we’re all losing business. So I went to the European Women in Games Conference in London to find out why there is currently so little gender diversity in game development and more importantly, what can anybody do about it.
Start with the kids
It seems that the best time to act might be long before anybody actually enters the industry, because by the time graduates leave college, it is already too late to narrow the vast gender gap.
According to Caroline Norbury, CEO of Creative England, 92% of A-levels (a secondary education exam) in Computer Science are awarded to male students in Britain. The proportion of Technology and Science degrees awarded to women has actually fallen since 1985.
Lady Geek is a campaigning agency, which aims to make technology more appealing and accessible to women. It’s CEO, Belinda Parmar, says that the lack of diversity in the sector is not a woman’s issue, but a missed business opportunity for everybody. Besides the HER in Hero campaign, aimed to inspire girls in schools, her company consults corporations like Sony or Microsoft on how to transform the way tech and games companies speak to women, to gain more female talent and widen their consumer audiences.
Imre Jele is co-founder of Bossa Studios, developers of the Unity Award runner-up Surgeon Simulator 2013, is 100% sure that a better gender balance would be good for the team and for the bottom line. He thinks that people who are hostile towards women in this industry need to grow up: “Showing negativity towards diversity is just bad for business and it just tells me how inexperienced you are”.
How to get a job
However, it is really hard for him to recruit women: “We certainly don’t discriminate, there are just no female candidates!”. And with deadlines for big commercial projects coming up, there’s no time to wait for some to show up. His advice for both women and men to get hired in the game industry is to build a strong portfolio of projects in your free time and find allies on the inside who can help you out and give you feedback.
Here’s where women who are already in the industry can and should help. Game Jams are a great way to meet new people and build a portfolio, but being the only female in the room full of people you don’t know can be pretty intimidating.
Teresa Mardel was wondering why she felt much more comfortable during the all female XX Game Jam: “I realized it was just so relaxing not to be the “elephant in the room”, the only girl.” Working with more experienced female designers, artists and coders helped her to get more confident about her own skills.
“The standard was as high as any mixed game jam. The only difference was that we offered to provide help with accommodation, travel and childcare costs so that those were not a barrier for women attending,” says XX Game Jam organizer and Director of Operations at Auroch Digital, Debbie Rawlings. She’s trying to build the confidence of women, especially beginners, who see mixed game jams as too competitive.
Game designer Whitney Hills wrote a brilliant blog post recently about her experience in the industry. She says that we all need to concentrate on open and honest communication and name what we’re actually feeling, not tiptoe around people’s sensibilities or hide our own frustrations.
Coming out as a woman
It seems that active mentors role models like Debbie and Whitney are the single best tools we have at our disposal. Rhianna Pratchett is a scriptwriter and narrative designer who is best known for her work on Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge, and more recently, Tomb Raider. In London, she was inducted into the European Women in Games Hall of Fame. In her acceptance speech, she said that she always thought that her gender was irrelevant to her work.
“But after Tomb Raider came out and I was interviewed in the media, I started getting all these letters from young girls, asking how to get started in games. So I realized that even though my gender might be irrelevant to me, professionally, it’s important to other people to see somebody more like them in the industry.”
After that, she decided to, in her own words, “come out as a woman” and talk more challenges as well as possibilities for women in the industry. She even started the #1reasontobe hashtags on Twitter, which is all about celebrating the good things about the business.
Robin Silcock and Jess Magnus are 3D artists studying at the Norwich University of the Arts. Their models were a part of the prestigious Student Showcase at the conference. Both definitely see a lot of reasons to be in the game industry and for now, are not really aware of any barriers. “We were four girls and two guys for the latest game jams we took part in. It was definitely nice to have a balance in the team, but we got along just as well with the guys as with the girls,” says Robin.
It actually turned out to be the shared toolset that brought the team together, not gender. “We saw the programmers working in Unity and I thought: I could do this too! With the other engines we tried, it was just impossible for me to follow what was going on. Unity is much easier for the artists to work with, we felt that we had a much better connected team” says Jess.