Jude Ower, founder and CEO Playmob
Reaching out: Jude Ower says new technology such as tablets is increasing the appeal of gaming across the sexes © Charlie Bibby

The archetypal image of a computer gamer is of a teenage boy goggle-eyed in front of a video console. While that might have been largely accurate in the 1990s, fast forward to today and many more girls and women are addicted to games — and a growing number are involved in their development too.

Huda Mahdi graduated with an MSc in computer games technology from City University, London, in 2013. She now works as software developer at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in its applied technologies department, but remembers the time when she started to look seriously at the subject. “No one wants to be ‘the exception’,” she says, “especially when you are so young. Games and tech are still considered ‘masculine’ areas.”

“Ten years ago, you would have been hard pressed to bring together 100 women from the whole gaming industry,” adds Jude Ower, founder of Playmob, an organisation that links UK charities with game developers. “Now there are entire award events for just the top 100.”

Yet despite their success, sexism is still rife in the video games industry. Last year, female game developers and commentators were harassed online in a concerted attack that gained its own Twitter hashtag, #gamergate. The women received death threats and were subjected to “doxing” — the leaking of their private information on the internet.

“Women in the industry have been consistently harassed, received extreme threats, had their personal information leaked and, worst of all, have been told it is not a problem,” says Christine Clark, co-creator of The Veil, an adventure game. “Sexism is real, and as an industry and a society we can no longer minimise it.”

Decades of male perspectives in game design have left “deep discrepancies”, research suggested last year. The Women in Game Design report, commissioned by Wacom, a maker of digital interface products such as pen tablets, revealed that only one in 10 playable characters was female and advertising was heavily skewed towards presenting male heroes.

Put simply, more games are marketed to a male audience, so more men play them, leading to more men joining the industry and creating games for themselves and their (probably) male friends. “Which came first? Male-dominated gaming or the male-dominated industry?” asks Ower. “I think it was the industry.”

Cosplayers attend MCM Comic Con at ExCeL convention centre in London, England on October 25, 2014
Cosplayers (gamers in costume) at a convention in London © Getty

Salary discrepancies remain rife across the tech industry. Men working in software development can expect a median salary of £34,939, according to data from PayScale Human Capital, an online employment database. For women, the figure is £30,187.

In the US, the picture is the same: the median salary for men working in software development is $84,027, compared with $69,716 for women.

But drill down further into games technology specifically and the gap widens. The average man in the US industry can expect to earn $85,345, but women receive a median salary of just $48,400, albeit based on a small sample of 26 men and four women. A further study in 2014 suggested that women in the US made 86 per cent of the salary of their male counterparts.

There is also an intrinsic gender bias in the industry. The vast majority — 89 per cent — of software developers are men, according to PayScale. “This is a massive issue, both in and outside gaming,” says Clark. “These problems are systemic, and a conscious effort needs to be made to enable change.”

Attendee Tara Cobb is dresses a Turret Sentry from the video game Portal on the third day of the 45th annual Comic-Con, in San Diego, California July 26, 2014
A 'Portal' fan © AFP/Getty

Efforts are being made, however, to effect change, not least by women themselves. Clark herself was a finalist in the Canadian Videogame Awards 2014, while Ella Romanos, commercial director of Strike Gamelabs, was named as one of the top 30 under 30 in 2011 by Develop magazine. Ower at Playmob is a member of MCV’s Brit List: Women in Games Top 100, chosen from more than 400 candidates. Siobhan Reddy, studio founder of Sony’s Media Molecule games developer, was not only in MVC’s list but also made BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Power List 2013 of the UK’s 100 most powerful women.

But while award ceremonies may raise the profile of women in the industry, much more needs to be done, argues Reddy. Referencing the efforts of the UK’s 30 Percent Club to put more women on company boards, she says: “I would love us to get to 30 per cent female representation, not just at the board level but in the teams. But that needs a lot of work.”

With new technology, though, has come increasing equality. “Technology always was male-heavy but the industry is changing,” says Ower. “Games are developing and more women are playing. The rise of the tablet has created a wider reach across the sexes and so gamers are changing the industry.”

Thanks to the spread of smartphones, which obviate the need to buy a console, more women are playing games than ever before. According the Entertainment Software Association, 35 per cent of all users play on their smartphones. Over the past 12 months, women accounted for 41 per cent of all games purchased.

“The demographics of games and gamers are changing. Even my parents are playing games,” says Reddy. “It is wonderful that the audience is now almost 50:50 male to female, as we can consider our female customers more. Before, it was harder to make a business case, but this will definitely influence the design and marketing of games.

“Diversity means more than just hiring more women. We need a spread of people from various backgrounds, culture, sexuality and gender. I love the fact that we can create unique projects from a team of people who bring a different frame of reference. Diversity behind the providers creates the diversity you need in games.”

Next level for education

The Next Gen Skills Academy in the UK aims to bring more diversity into the industry by helping young school leavers with apprenticeships and hands-on experience, and by developing a nationally recognised qualification.

Internships are also helpful. “To recruit qualified women, involvement in postsecondary education is vital,” says Christine Clark, co-creator of The Veil. “Companies can invest in women by hiring them as interns, by making an appearance at portfolio shows and maintaining those connections. It is also valuable to provide scholarship assistance if it is financially feasible.”

Education is critical. Universities have developed courses in games technology, but so far few women have entered the programmes. “It is hard to say why there are so few women [in the industry],” says Greg Slabaugh, senior lecturer in computer science at City University in London. “Perhaps it is because schools have historically skewed technology and games programming towards male students.”

On City’s undergraduate course, approximately one in 20 students is female. There is just one woman on the computer games technology MSc, of about 10 students. She is taking the course part-time while she works for a tech company. In 2014, there were no women.

Slabaugh says the benefits of inspiring A-level students can be immeasurable. “We have talked about effective ways of promoting the course to women. We want to show them they can get excellent jobs and do wonderful things in the world of gaming.”

A passion for learning about games technology needs to be fostered at a much earlier age than at A-level, says Ella Romanos of Strike Gamelabs. “The problem is created much earlier, even at primary school level,” she says, “and the issue is in the way the science, technology, engineering and maths curriculum is taught. It has created a barrier between art and creativity. Games programming is very creative, so forcing a distinction is unhelpful.”

Often, this distinction means parents and teachers unconsciously push girls towards art and creativity, and boys towards computer technology. “I was never told [at school] about the job opportunities in games technology,” adds Romanos. “I only discovered this when I took a course in games programming at university.”

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