Women at GDC 2019 Say They Have No Fear of Being Excluded From Game Development

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Maria Ramos of the YouTube channel Grown Women Gaming at the 2019 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.  (Rachael Myrow)

An estimated 28,000 gamers and industry insiders have descended on San Francisco this week for this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC). But despite the fact millions of women worldwide play games, there’s still a giant gender divide on the development side.

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Every year, conference organizers conduct a survey of attendees. This year, the split is roughly 80/20; as in, 77 percent male attendees, 19 percent female, two percent "other" and two percent declined to answer.

"It’s a small but noticeable shift from last year, when 80 percent of survey respondents identified as 'male' and just 17 percent identified as 'female,'” wrote GDC spokesperson Chrissy Kelleher.

In other words, the gaming workforce looks quite similar to the tech workforce in general, from a gender perspective.

That was the topic du jour at this week's Microsoft Women in Gaming Rally, a GDC-adjacent mixer in San Francisco with about 1,000 attendees, mostly women, who gathered to mingle and enjoy the feeling of dominating a room for a few hours.

Male avatars, like Octavio Silva from EA's "Apex Legend Season 1," still outnumber females avatars by a wide margin. Female gamers say they want more female avatars, with a wider variety of back stories.
Male avatars, like Octavio Silva from EA's 'Apex Legend Season 1,' still outnumber female avatars by a wide margin. Females gamers say they want more female avatars, with a wider variety of back stories. (Photo: Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

"I’m not alone, and there are so many powerful women out here. It’s fantastic," said Kristie Ramirez, a program manager at Electronic Arts, who's been in gaming for seven years now.

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In addition to addressing gender disparities, gaming could also be a lot more welcoming to people of color, going beyond mixers and community groups to attract, hire and retain talent. Ramirez suggested the industry make an effort to get the word out to generations coming up, starting in middle school.

"You can be a lawyer here [in gaming]. You can be an accountant. You can be a marketer. You don’t just have to be a developer. Just get in here. We want you. We want your perspective!" Ramirez said.

Of course, many women want to develop.

Laura Dell first realized she wanted to when she was 14 years old. "I got into games because of The Sims, which is my favorite all-time game. They released a developer diary, and [watching it] I suddenly had this epiphany that people make games. They don’t just exist!"

Microsoft publicly posts its diversity statistics. Gender-wise in tech, the split is roughly 80/20 male to female.
Microsoft publicly posts its diversity statistics. Gender-wise in tech, the split is roughly 80/20 male to female. (Photo: Courtesy of Microsoft)

Naomi McArthur, a game designer for Riot Games, used to be an academic studying applied neuroscience. "I was given a lot of opportunities, and I had a lot of mentorship. I feel really lucky for that, because it let me grow into the game designer I am today," McArthur said.

Women at the Microsoft event reported their experiences varied greatly  from one company to another. "How can we be really intentional about including all different types of gamers, making sure inclusion is a part of the narrative from the very beginning?" asked Katy Jo Wright, director of Gaming for Everyone at Xbox.

A recent study from the gaming company Playgroundz found that most women stick to the mobile gaming world these days: Pokémon Go and Angry Birds Match, as opposed to games popular on Twitch and esports, like Fortnite. Today, women make up only 30% of gamers on YouTube, 22% of esports team members, and 19.5% of gamers on Twitch.

In part, it's a question of continuing evidence of toxicity in the culture (recent news that the game Rape Day will not ship on Steam notwithstanding).

But it's also a question of representation. It was literally days ago that Chiquita Evans (a.k.a. Chiquitae126) became the first woman ever drafted into the NBA 2K League. It's a milestone, but one that leaves people wondering why progress is coming so slowly.

Ashley Columbo of Ubisoft  would like to see a change-up in the story lines. "This rugged-dude-going-on-an-adventure kind of thing is the main image you see in the industry. So while it’s moving in the right direction, I feel that’s what needs to change: the stories we’re seeing," Columbo said.

For Maria Ramos, who runs the YouTube channel Grown Women Gaming, more and better female avatars would help change gaming culture. Ramos plays everything: Cyperpunk 2077, Tom Clancy's The Division 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, you name it.

"That’s how I decompress. That’s my glass of beer, you know, at the end of the day," Ramos said. When I ask what she wants to see more of, she replied, "More women lead roles in video games. I don’t want the cliche 'sexy girl,' or the 'damsel in distress,' or anything of that nature."

But Hannah Wolf, director of digital operations at Ubisoft, argued women don’t necessarily want avatars that look like them; and for that matter, neither do men. Her own 16 year-old son, for example, likes to play female characters.

"There are far more constructive ways to engage in personalities and personas that are different from who they are in real life," Wolf said.

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