The Women's Game Conference

by Amanda Eubanks


The Women's Game Conference in Austin (TX, USA) in 2004 was intended to open dialogue about women's issues in gaming - How to increase the number of women in the gaming industry, and how to reach the female gaming market. The conference addressed these topics in a series of lectures and panels. Below is a synopsis of some of the issues addressed and some of the questions posted. As is usually the case, there were more questions than answers but the asking of these questions proved to be a good step towards solving the problems.

Identifying the Issues
What's the current state of the market? What problems are we trying to solve?

In a recent survey of people working in the game industry , men and women both noted that some of the problems with the industry were as follows:
- Issues of balancing family and work and social life
- Long hours and extended crunches
- High turnover and job stability
- Company organization - lack of clear communication

Men and women surveyed were similar in ranges of marital status, in satisfaction with their career, and both worked roughly the same hours.

The differences were:
Women generally had been in the industry less, and were more likely to say they're leaving within 10 years. Women were more likely to work at larger companies and less likely to start their own company as a way of breaking into the industry. Women were also more likely to object to game content, and refuse to work on a game because of it.

One interesting difference was that women perceived themselves as working less than their co-workers; however, the hours men and women worked were roughly equivalent.

So what accounts for these differences? Are women just not interested in games? Do they tend to spend their time on things other than computers? Stats would say otherwise: There are 70 million women with PCs, and 53 per cent of PC titles are bought by women. In Korea 69.2 per cent of women own at least one console. Females and elderly users are the new main consumer segments, with the average women gamer in the 30 to 35 year of age range.

Some of the factors that affect women's game choice are:
Time limitations - women tend to prefer shorter portable games of arcade style games. Social options - women tend toward MMOGs and "party" games like the Eye Toy, Karaoke Revolution, etc.

Some of the adverse factors are:
Women tend to make less then men.
Current game advertising is often offensive to women.

In the game industry, women account for only 9 per cent of artists and designers, 2 per cent of programmers, 3 per cent of managers, and 26 per cent of marketers.

Women in the industry
What is the industry currently like for women? What can we learn from them?

Risk and economics are a current stumbling block towards change in the industry. As the stats show there is obviously a potential market for women, but making new games has gotten more risky as game budgets have skyrocketed, so many companies still aren't actively targeting the female market.

Problems with getting and retaining women in the industry can be traced to internal and external factors. Women tend to have lower self-perceptions of achievement than men and tend to self-select themselves out of the discipline, either in college, or later in the industry (i.e. doing badly on a test: women blame themselves - they weren't smart enough, men blame the test or not studying).

Internal factors can involve insidious sexism: comments/ideas by women in meetings can get dismissed and young good-looking women can have trouble being taken seriously.
Note: A related book to this topic is called "why so slow?"

However, most women in the industry alluded to having positive experiences and good working relationships with their male counterparts. They mentioned that being a woman in an all male environment can be a good thing, because you're different and you don't get lost in the crowd.

The challenge of balancing a career with a family/social life, while trying to get ahead in a career that's mostly a men, was an issue faced by most of the panelists.
Note: A related book to this topic is called "going to the top".

But from their experience, they advised that people with initiative can grow themselves into other jobs and hence upward. Additionally, they strongly highlighted the importance of mentoring. Getting someone to tell you what you're doing wrong is critical. Even mentors on other teams can be helpful for advice or discussing issues.

The panelists also addressed the question of how to grow ones career during periods of company stagnation. They stated that advancing your career isn't always about moving up, that people should focus on increasing the breadth and depth of your skill set. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. That broadening can later lead to moving upwards.

Quality of Life
What can we do to address the current Quality of Life issues systematic across the industry?

The Quality of Life panel was one of the more heated discussions at the conference. One panelist felt strongly that the energy and enthusiasm for making games was being irresponsibly directed into sinusoidal periods of activity. He said that the industry is proud of the way it suffers for its games, but needs to get out of that mentality. Hiring people from within the game industry hires people "acclimated to our stupidity." However he believed that hiring outside the industry brings in fresh ideas.

Many panelists agreed that the current pattern of long hours and long crunches is not an efficient way to run a business - it leads to lower retention rates, and more time and manpower spent on rehiring and training. Some had noted that during crunches worker productivity decreases and more mistakes were likely to be made. The overall sentiment seemed to be that if things don't change, we'll continue to lose people.

One manager on the panel attested to having shorter hours and shorter crunches and saw an increase in productivity. He mentioned that giving people the freedom to go home actually increases productivity, because they're clear headed, and often continue to rehash problems on the drive home.

Game Content and Marketing
What are women looking for in a game? Is it the content that's wrong? Or is marketing actively turning women off instead of giving them a chance to be interested?

Maybe it's not always the content, maybe its how games are sold to women - the industry is marketing against them in the quest to market to young men. Even buying games can be a barrier - game stores are often male-oriented and intimidating for women.

A common theme in the conference was that women want female characters - it lets them identify with the character and hence with the game. When characters aren't designed with women in mind, or options aren't presented to alter the character - i.e. hyper-sexualized female characters - women distance themselves from their characters even if they're connected with the game. "ok, that's what I look like." Women want the choice to create their own identity.

Overall, it's important not to make gender assumptions - women play in many ways and men play in many ways. For example, MMOG play patterns are out of proportion to the actual percentages of genders playing; a high percentage of men choose female characters. The ultimate goal should be to make games more accessible to all genders - games should try to give more options so there are lots of different game experiences.