From inside the games industry: game+girl=advance

girl+game=advance logoThere are no lack of girls and women who are committed gamers. But the industry itself is dominated by men, and games are suffering as a result, says Jane Pinkard. Working on one of the big conferences for game developers, Pinkard also maintains gamer blog girl+game=advance. She took some time out to talk to me by email.

How did you get involved in the games industry?

Well, there may be some debate as to my actually being in the industry, as I’m not a developer; I work on a big game developer conference, though, called the GDC, which takes place in San Francisco in March. GDC is a place where industry professionals come to connect with the community and learn from their peers. When I was working as a journalist it was my favorite conference to go to, so it’s a real treat to be able to help programme it!

Were you always a gamer?

No, not always. I was a gamer when I was really young – I remember my family got a Commodore 64 (yes, I’m old) and I played a tonne of games on it. Loderunner, Jumpman, some of the old text adventures. Somehow I phased out of gaming when I hit my teens. I was into other stuff then, I guess – I was in the drama club and I wrote a lot of poetry and so on. I re-discovered it in college, when my friends got a SNES and we played Super Mario Kart (still the best racing game ever, in my opinion) and Mortal Kombat. Then I discovered Marathon II for the Mac (I guess they were called Apples back then?) and then Civilization and it was all over from there. I’ve played games pretty much ever since.

Do you think the industry under-serves women, and if so, why?

Absolutely. Why? Like most tech fields, it’s always been male-dominated. That’s the short, easy answer. But I’ve come to wonder lately if it isn’t also because the industry doesn’t actually really want to serve women, unless those women will behave like men.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for boy games – just as there is a huge place for boy movies, of which I happen to be a big fan (don’t go head-to-head with me on a Jean Claude Van Damme trivia contest for example, I know way too much about his films). It’s just that, until very recently, that’s pretty much ALL there was. I’m sure that some grown up men wish there was something else, too. And I think we will see more of that.

But the industry also doesn’t want to alienate their core customer – their bread and butter, those 18-25 year old guys. Maybe that’s why some of them have been reluctant to try new things. The success of the Sims, though, proves that there is something going on here that has huge marketability, and the industry is definitely waking up to that.

Do you think that’s partly to do with the lack of women working in the industry?

Yes, that is a very big problem. Lots of studios say they want to hire more women but can’t find them. Women don’t apply to game industry jobs the way that men seem to.

girl on gamecubeWhy is that? Is it partly because girls don’t grow up playing games to the same extent? What else?

Well, I’m not sure how much the problem is that girls don’t game. That’s only part of it. I think the problem is a piece of a larger puzzle. First, how many women go into computer science? How many women graduate from those programs? How many female engineers do we have? How many new female engineers do we see entering the profession every year? How many women get degrees in math and science? How about advanced degrees?

The answers are consistently depressing.

Then there is the industry itself. Say you are a qualified female programmer. Why on earth would you choose go to a game studio – with its crunch times, its boys club atmosphere, its low pay – when you could get a decent job that pays more at IBM? You would do it only if you were so passionate about games that you HAD to work in them. And once you did, who would be your role models? Are any of the executives at your game studio female? Chances are, they are not; and if you’re a programmer, chances are you may be the only female programmer.

Crunch time is a huge issue, particularly for women who tend to bear more than their fair share of child-rearing and housekeeping. Thus quality of life issues – being able to get time off work, being able to come home at 7 PM most nights – hit women the hardest. This is another area where the industry needs reform quite desperately. Many, many people are working on this – several studios are trying to instill new work models so that crunch time is not a built-in line item in a production schedule. But when you know that your single 24-year-old employees will happily crunch for you, there isn’t much incentive to change, is there?

I don’t mean to paint all studios with the same brush. I’m hearing of plenty of studios who do reach out to women, who do try to tackle their work practices and work behavior. The tide is turning, slowly; and the older that game developers get, the more they will demand that these issues be resolved.

Do you think the industry needs to change to actively encourage women to come on board? If so, how?

Yes. I think studios need to promote diversity in general. Look at Maxis – home of the Sims – it’s one of the most gender-balanced studios I’ve been in. Is it an accident that their products have such a wide reach? I don’t think so. If studios want to reach a wider audience, they have to hire more widely, I think. Having more diversity in the profession will only broaden games as an art form. And isn’t that better for all of us?

How did you get started with the blog? Can you tell me a little bit about the background of that project?

Well, I started blogging about games in the late 1990’s because I wasn’t reading anything about games that I wanted to read. Things are different now but back then, game writing was consumer-oriented: “Buy this” or “don’t buy this.” It was “It sux!” or “It rox!” There was no attempt to assess games in a cultural context, no real critique of games and gaming, no cross-disciplinary investigation of this terribly exciting new medium.

At least, none that I could find.

Being a big fan of film reviews – Pauline Kael, of course, Susan Sontag, and more recently, David Denby and Anthony Lane at the New Yorker and Tony Scott at the New York Times – I decided to start writing about games the way I wanted to read about them: Where reading is a pleasure, where it can lead to a greater appreciation of the game, the genre, and the medium, where reading is a little like experiencing it for yourself and can inform that experience in subtle and expansive ways.

There is writing like that, now, but it is still rare. Unfortunately I don’t have as much time to write anymore as I used to. It’s still my first love though, and I hope to be able to get back to writing about games some day. Maybe when I retire!

Photo by Will Pate, shared under a Creative Commons license