Should anyone be satisfied?

A response to the GDC State of the Game Industry 2021 Report.

Many moons ago, four women innovators and educators, Janine Fron, Tracy Fullerton, Jacqueline Ford Morie and Celia Pearce, produced a paper called ‘The Hegemony of Play’ which you can find on the Digital Games Research Association website, here:

The premise of the paper, was that ‘a complex layering of technological, commercial and cultural power structures have dominated the development of the digital game industry over the past 35 years, creating an entrenched status quo which ignores the needs and desires of “minority” players such as women and “non-gamers,” Who in fact represent the majority of the population’ (Fron et al, 2007)

This powerful piece, critiquing the global status quo, is sadly only fractionally less relevant today, fourteen years on. In 2007, Fron et al quoted from a 2005 IGDA report in which 88.5% of all game workers were men, and now, in 2021, GDC’s report quotes a figure of 73%. 

Should we be satisfied with GDC’s latest statistics showing the ratio of women to men in the game industry as 21% – 73%?

The latest GDC Game Industry report contextualises these numbers by pointing out that there has been a 1% rise year on year, and that ‘women are gaining ground on men’ because ‘three years ago the ratio was 80:17 in favour of men’.

Surely it is very difficult to see this as progress, when so little ground is being made, so slowly.

While the latest GDC State of the Industry Report is based on information sourced from companies based in the US, Women in Games’ insights from our global community affirm that the findings of the report are relevant across the sector, not just to those in the US. 

In 2007, Fron et al quoted a 2005 IGDA report respondent who said : 

‘The industry is not diverse. The people interested in games and computers in general are not diverse. Most programmers are men – because men tend to like programming more often than women do. It’s just the way it is.’ (Quoted in Fron et al, 2007)

In 2021, the GDC State of the Industry Report asked participants ‘What are the issues you see around diversifying your studio?’ One respondent replied:

‘Not enough under-represented groups (women etc) are getting through the early stages (high school, university) to get to the job application stage. Often game environments are hostile to these people – especially if you don’t already have a support system in it’ (GDC Report, 2021)

So while the language has moved on to acknowledge ‘under-represented groups’ (women etc!) the reasoning is not that dissimilar. Young women don’t get to the job application stage, perhaps implying that ‘that’s just the way it is’. But there is an added component. The respondent acknowledges a hostile environment. In 2007, perhaps that hostile environment was simply less openly visible. 

The Hegemony of Play makes the case that it is simply good business practice to be inclusive of women: ‘Far from being a commercial death knell to the video game industry, such a focus can actually serve to expand the game market to be more diverse, inclusive and welcoming across a broader demographic range.’ (Fron et al, 2007)

And so to the business decisions of the present – as we have seen anecdotally during the pandemic, games companies have been expanding – hiring new staff to respond to the phenomenal growth and success that games have been enjoying.

The report cites expansion rates at 47%, which shows no lack of opportunity for companies hiring new staff to put in place measures reflecting fairness, inclusion and gender balance. This figure is ‘virtually in line with the previous year’, which in turn would indicate that this expansion pre-dates the pandemic, and can be seen as more of a pattern than a one-off.

So are companies that are recruiting bringing in policies that address issues of fairness?

Interestingly, in terms of accessibility in the games that they are producing, 31% of companies replied that they had implemented accessibility measures for those with sensory impairment, motor impairment, or other impairments into their games (although 42% said that they had not), which must go to show that there is a business rationale behind the appetite for change and progress in once overlooked areas of concern.

Nevertheless, there is no section in the report that asks questions about parity in pay or remuneration, and while the UK government has suspended any scrutiny of the gender pay gap, the question of how to tackle this particular inequality is an increasingly urgent one. One way – unionisation – is reported in the analysis of responses as being the aspiration of 51% of the existing workforce, but their belief in the possibility of this happening is strikingly low, at 20%.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workforce, over a quarter of studios (26%) have not focused on staff inclusion and diversity initiatives at all. 

Perhaps this survey response might be representative of the difficulties studios face when confronted with the ‘status quo’ problem:

‘We’re an older studio (average >8yrs, with many employees beyond the 15yr mark and several beyond 25 yrs). The hiring culture has previously focused on ‘cultural fit’ and the sense that the studio is a family; this has resulted in a monoculture. This is gradually and tentatively shifting; managers responsible for hiring have focused energy on getting more diverse candidates. So far, this has resulted in only minor changes.’ (GDC Report 2021)

It would seem that the minor advances year on year in addressing gender imbalance in the industry are reflected in these ‘minor changes’ in the ‘monoculture’ of the studio described here. Another respondent, when asked ‘What are the issues you see around diversifying your studio?’ replied:

‘Lack of knowledge about how to identify and approach diverse candidates, discomfort discussing systemic bias’ (GDC, 2021)

Should anyone be satisfied with this glacial pace of change? If topics that have been difficult to discuss in the past, such as accessibility, have now become much easier to approach, should ‘discomfort discussing systemic bias’ be an obvious target in the battle to bring about gender equality? 

Removing barriers – no – positively encouraging knowledge exchange to provide studios and employers with the understanding they need to approach women and attract them into the workforce is an important and valuable aim, and one which Women in Games is lending its experience and expertise to. 

Events such as Women in Games Careers and Networking Expos, the Ambassador programme, incorporating events aimed at Ambassadors, and the yearly Women in Games Festival and Conference, are all initiatives that demonstrate how much talent and value women bring to the workforce. Women are half the population! Should anyone be satisfied with the underrepresentation and possible underpayment of women in an industry that can gain so much from bringing in gender equality?

Find the GDC State of the Games Industry Report here: