Unity and women in games

October 31, 2013 in Community

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.

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Imre Jele is a co-founder of Bossa Studios, developers of the Unity Award runner-up Surgeon Simulator 2013. He 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 hashtag 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.

Comments (21)

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  1. James Griggs

    November 8, 2013 at 6:28 pm / 

    I should also say, my wife is white woman, who is an avid console gamer. Our 7 month old daughter is definitely going to be a gamer (I can see it developing). And I have nieces who have an interest in developing but they don’t have that many role models for that so again, great article. It’s helped me.

  2. James Griggs

    November 8, 2013 at 6:22 pm / 

    Here is a link that may add to the discussion. http://blackgirlscode.org/ This article helped me go and find this link.

  3. Andy

    November 6, 2013 at 3:22 pm / 

    Male artists do not draw male characters by default, particular in modern times. Any visit to a nearby art gallery will confirm that.

    Instead, it’s more a reflection that games are still the same FPS or D&D variants as in the early 1990s and that few woman major in computer science or vocational tech schools that teach computer art. Ignoring that truth is silly.

    P.S. I did have in college a floor mate that was one of the few males majoring in nursing.

  4. Brian Lockett

    November 6, 2013 at 8:00 am / 

    I don’t want to validate the rather sexist attitude of “Anon” there in their comments above, but I will say that there is a good deal of truth in the statement that most women in general do not want to be game developers–even when they have an avid interest in games of some form. And before I’m labeled as “sexist” or “misogynist,” allow me to explain a bit.

    I myself, like most guys my age (I’m 26), started playing video games when I was about 3 (back in a time when a girl playing games wasn’t nearly as common as today), I was drawing my own comics as a child, I started picking up programming when I was an early teen, and by the time I was out of high school, I knew my general direction in terms of what I wanted to do, I was split between animation and game development.

    Then Unity game engine came out in the mid-2000s, and with animation school being a bit farther out of reach, I chose game development. But I was still someone who grew up immersed with games and game development. By the time most of us guys are about 20, we’ve already had about 10 years of experience making small games–many of us before the days of the likes of Unity, back when you had to CODE your engine for EVERY GAME Many of us experienced coding a “Hello World!” or making our own character designs before we even left middle school..

    Now, there are good number of female gamers my age who’ve been gamers back most of their lives. I’ve met a relative few women my age who played Super Metroid and Chrono Trigger back when it was new. But most female gamers my age I know generally picked up gaming around the post-PS2 era. I knew some girls who owned a PS1 or N64, but generally most female gamers I know personally today didn’t pick up a game controller until less than about 8 years ago.

    For most (though certainly not all) female gamers, gaming is a rather recently-acquired hobby, particularly as games became more and more accessible in terms of the Internet. In fact, where most statistics that state that half of all gamers are female fail to mention is that among the percentage they’re counting, something like 75% of all casual gamers (that is, people who play mostly lighter pick-up-and-play games that don’t require a large investment of time to reach a checkpoint or complex hand-eye coordinated skills to play–The Sims being a HUGE example here) are female. Again, this is just speaking averages.

    Of course, there are plenty of girls and women who’ll play Halo and Street Fighter, but the majority of such statistics measuring the demographic of “gamers” are all-encompassing, almost always including the demographic who casually play Bejeweled or Professor Layton or Farmville. There is nothing wrong with that at all. This is not to classify anything as “better” here–not at all. It’s just to say that the majority of such who play games more casually aren’t likely to be those who want to be heavily devoted in the field of game development.

    Chances are, if you’re just playing a couple of hours of a Facebook game a day, and you’re not one looking forward to the next Assassin’s Creed or Final Fantasy, even just to check out the art and game design, you’re probably not one terribly interested in the field of game development. If you’re a gamer who has no idea what “tessellation” means in gaming, you’re probably not heading towards a career in games anytime soon, Gaming’s not you eat, sleep and breathe–it’s just light leisure. The majority of game developers grew up wanting to do nothing but make games (or something not to far off from games, such as animation or comics).

    Most female gamers in general didn’t grow up with the similar immersion of gaming culture (both gaming and game development alike) that, by the time they were grown, they’ve had experience making games, mods, concept art, 3D sculpts, etc. While I’m sure they’re out there in some small number, I don’t think I’ve personally ever met a woman who built her own game engine. And I get a huge smile on my face when I see just one female artist out there using ZBrush. I think I’ve meet about two female computer science students my whole life, even though I know more do exist. The numbers just aren’t there, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the industry in general’s fault for this.

    My point is that, the general culture among many male gamers who eventually enter the gaming industry tends to be far, far heavier and the general culture among most female gamers who eventually enter the gaming industry. By a very wide margin. While it’s good to encourage more women into looking at game development, and I personally would like to see more women making games (the gaming world’s plenty big enough), it doesn’t make sense to see as some kind of “problem” to fix, necessarily.

    Individual cases of outright-blatant sexism aside, the issue of women in game development largely comes down to cultural immersion, which comes down to personal interest. Maybe we could show the more hesitant among the female demographic who might be interested as artists, coders, and designers to see the world of game development as open opportunity for them, but in terms of trying to make the field some kind of better-even percentage of women to men, that’s just not realistic.

    Again, it comes down to a culture that comparatively fewer female gamers personally exhibit. Even among most male gamers, most aren’t interested in game development. If anyone’s interested in making games at all, it was from long experience, great personal interest and a career commitment to be the ones making games instead of just playing them. Though, give it another decade, where many female gamers would have lifelong experience in games, and the interest among them might grow on its own.

    - Brian Lockett (Macro Man Jr.)

  5. Anon

    November 5, 2013 at 11:34 pm / 

    >We need more women in game development! Having women around the office is good for balance and morale. Nothing worse working in a room/office with only men in it

    That depends entirely on the amount. When you start to get large numbers things go downhill quickly and creates an awful working environment filled with bitter rivalries and silly fights. Women are very emotional and are masters of manipulation and gossip.

  6. Anon

    November 5, 2013 at 11:31 pm / 

    What nonsense. More radical feminist propaganda backed up by logical fallacies. There are few women in game development because MOST WOMEN DO NOT WANT TO BE GAME DEVELOPERS. There is absolutely no discrimination happening here and women have never faced any kind of discrimination in the tech industry.

  7. Alex Baley

    November 5, 2013 at 8:41 pm / 

    I don’t blame the industry I don’t think that you can, but I just want to make my students aware of different avenues of making money or to try things that they may not have thought of trying. I try and get a lot of or black students to try lacrosse I try and get them to do things they may not think they will like.

  8. Grim

    November 5, 2013 at 3:18 pm / 

    This article is very nice and I understand where they might be coming from but, I get a bit annoyed that people seem to still be blaming industries and the world for a lack of diversity. I am a black male on my way to becoming a game designer, I could care less how many people of other genders are about in the industry. I plan to get my things in order and go to my goal with our without help, the only person unable to succeed is the one who decide they have no hope or have already failed. The world has no obligation to make your life easier, it would be nice but by far not required. That said I do like the effort that the people who have strived for their goals and acchieved them put forth to assist others along the way.

  9. Obaid

    November 5, 2013 at 9:09 am / 

    Well, I am Arab and I say there is lack of Arab people making games, there is pretty much lack of something in everything, but I don’t see a real reason why there should be, I mean if they want to make something who is stopping them?

    I think the general impression of video games contains guns, weapons and killing is to blame.

  10. Amanda

    November 4, 2013 at 6:39 pm / 

    I know lots of women developers, but they are all indies working for themselves.

  11. Moses Kamau

    November 4, 2013 at 2:59 pm / 

    Very encouraging stuff i am from East Africa, Greatest wish is for more a people and girls from africa to start using unity

  12. Greg Quinn

    November 3, 2013 at 11:44 pm / 

    We need more women in game development! Having women around the office is good for balance and morale. Nothing worse working in a room/office with only men in it.

  13. Ashkan

    November 3, 2013 at 1:04 pm / 

    Women has an additional kind of problem compared to minorities like black guys in the US. The work environment and culture of the industry in some places is not welcoming women. Different girls talked about this and about their experiences on the issue in gamasutra and other places.

    About the interest thing i think as pschologists say men and women are generally interested in different things. Skill and engineering kind of creation are stuff that men are more interested in but due to nature of games and the kind of creation they are, even if it’s mostly engineering women can be very interested in and the amount of difference in intesrest is less than it seems.
    Actually women don’t think of tech industry majors and jobs because they’ve been tought that tech is for guys otherwise those who did it were successful as it.

  14. Lud

    November 3, 2013 at 11:00 am / 

    @PIXNLOVE

    Yes very true, I hardly see females getting interested nor studying Computer science.
    Connecting this general social phenomenon to Gender issue sounds a bit hysterical to me

  15. pixnlove

    November 2, 2013 at 6:32 pm / 

    I remember when I study my Degree in Computer science, there was 3 females in our section, when I study for my master degree there was only one.

    Computer science and Game Development is simply something that it is not appealing to female in general. Just like reading is not appealing to young boys in general.
    I am not being sexist here, but just talking from previous experience as a computer science teacher.

    Girls are sharp when it comes to using a particular program, they usually pick on skills quicker. They usually pick up programming very quickly but do not have long term interest, which is ashame.

    I very much value any initiative to attract girls into this wonderfull world of Game Design.
    I usually make my student realise that a good game is not done by good programmers.
    A good game is done by Good writters, Artists, Composers, Programmers, Administrators, Sale and Market Advisers.
    There is a role in Game Development that Everyone can play regardless of the Age or the Gender.

  16. Alex Bailey

    November 2, 2013 at 5:30 am / 

    Same here I am a black male and I am still in the process of learning Unity. I started with Unity then I learned Unrealscript for UDK. I try to get some of our black students interested in game development also. There are not many in the field. I should probably also start talking to my female students about game programming.

  17. Alex Bailey

    November 2, 2013 at 5:28 am / 

    Same here I am a black male and I am still in the process of learning Unity. I started with Unity then I learned Unrealscript for UDK. I try to get some of our black students interested in game development also. There are not many in the field. I should probably also start talking to my female students about game programming also.

  18. James Griggs

    November 1, 2013 at 9:55 pm / 

    Obviously this post talks about women, but it is really relevant for any minority group that is not being well represented in games or the development of such games.

  19. Koblavi

    November 1, 2013 at 7:07 pm / 

    Black African male. Just a week ago, I was advocating for black Africans to start using tools like unity to tell stories. This is a really encouraging post. Thanks so much

  20. Anthony Madden

    November 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm / 

    I am a black male, I am a game developer. I am going admit, yeah it was challenging at first but you have to continue to push forward. I am from chicago, and i know tons of African American people who are interested in Game Dev. but don’t either know how to get started or ever given a chance. This is why I try to encourage people to explore unity. With this tool, and practice anybody can prove what they are truly capable of through their games.

  21. James Griggs

    November 1, 2013 at 1:25 pm / 

    Similar to the lack of women in games, there is also a major lack of black people as well. I am in the U.S. and that lack of African Americans in the game industry is sometimes very discouraging. I can imagine it feels the same way for women. Imagine if you were a black women you would feel completely left out. I have four sisters and a few nieces to which I will be forwarding this post. I really appreciate this post. Just a really nice post.

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