Players during the Girl Gamer Brazil at Badboy Leeroy Arena
Players at a São Paulo event dedicated to female gamers, which is a growing market © Rebeca Figueiredo Amorim/Getty Images

As soon as Karina* started work at one of the gaming industry’s leading companies, she realised the working environment was poor. “It was ‘bro culture’, like being in a [college] fraternity,” she says. Not only was there a culture of drinking in the workplace from lunchtime, but male colleagues would comment on her breasts, put their arms around her waist, and touch her legs.

“This all happened within the first six to eight months of being in a job,” she says. The incidents took place a few years ago, but a younger woman joining the industry now might find not enough has changed. Gaming has long suffered from criticisms over a lack of female workers, due in part to a series of complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination throughout the sector.

Over the past five years, several big game studios, including Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft and Riot Games, have faced allegations of a culture of sexism and harassment in their organisations.

Although the number of women working in gaming is rising slowly, some are calling for better representation within the $200bn industry today — to reach female consumers through more diverse games.

“The industry has got an image problem,” says Marie-Claire Isaaman, chief executive of Women in Games, a non-profit organisation, which works with the industry to close the gender disparity in the industry. She argues that both toxicity within the companies and abuse online from gamers are “putting women off” applying for jobs. While the industry provides opportunities to work creatively on games played by billions globally, opportunities at entry level are still limited.

According to data from the Game Developers Conference, a leading an­nual event for developers, roughly 23 per cent of people in the industry are women, 5 per cent are non-binary, and 70 per cent are men. The number of women is up just 3 percentage points from the previous year and 6 percentage points from five years ago.

“Half the population are women, half of players globally are women, so why is it that we are still only sitting at a number which is only inching forward so slowly?” Isaaman asks. The answer, she suggests, is that companies could do more to hire and nurture female talent.

Long-term surveys by the International Game Developers Association — representing individuals from all fields of the game development process including designers, artists, writers and programmers — suggest that unequal treatment is on the increase within the industry.

When members were asked if they had experienced or witnessed inequity, 75 per cent of non-minority women and 90 per cent of minority women said they had experienced it, compared with 20 per cent of non-minority men. Half of these men said they had witnessed such treatment.

This is against a backdrop of a decrease in game developer jobs across the industry. In the UK, for example, more than 700 open positions were taken off the market in the six months to the end of December 2022, and the number of available jobs peaked around 2,000 in June 2022, according to UK recruitment platform Games Jobs Live.

“It is quite competitive,” says Sam McKinney, a game designer at Gasket Games in Canada. “There are not a lot of junior roles. When there is a junior role, [there are] hundreds of applicants in the first 24 hours.”

She has not experienced discrimination or harassment and is hopeful the next generation of women can help to change the culture. “Sexism is still very prevalent in certain areas in the industry but, as new people are coming through, we are not putting up with it,” she says. “Some behaviours that were more accepted years ago are unaccept­able now — not that it was ever OK.”

Mara McGreal, a 25-year-old environmental artist at Radical Forge in north-east England, hosts monthly meetups for people working in the games industry. “A lot of events are heavily drink-based,” she says. “Mine are specifically non-drinking to make it more open.”

Changes are under way. Among games workers — writers, designers, programmers — the highest proportion of men is in age groups over 36 but, for those aged under 25, there is a higher proportion of women and non-binary people, according to an analysis by games trade body Ukie of data for 2022.

However, this split remains unchanged since 2020, as does the gender balance in senior roles, where women account for less than a quarter of senior and lead roles.

The FT spoke to 10 women working in gaming — in different roles and across the globe — who all described the industry as “male-dominated”. Half said they had experienced sexual harassment or discrimination within their careers.

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Alevtina Usmanova, a senior game designer at Wooga in Berlin, which makes the mobile game June’s Journey, says it is hard for women to develop their careers. She has worked in the industry for 20 years, including as lead game designer on the Ghost Detective game for Netflix, and notes: “I have held quite high positions, but for me, it was unusual to see the opportunity for a woman to actually get there.” At the start of her career, she was paid less than her male counterparts but sees that changing.

Andrea Gude — a development tester at Activision-owned Digital Legends in Barcelona, working on Call of Duty games among others — says interacting with senior women in the industry helped her confidence. “My biggest issue to overcome was losing this preconception that [a games industry job] is not the best career path, that it is not ambitious enough,” she explains.

Woman in front of a cmputer workstation
Development tester Andrea Gude says ‘more women can propose their ideas’

Gude joined the company at the start of 2023 and sees a business case for having more diversity, to reach a wider audience of consumers through games that women enjoy playing.

“As more women are involved in the development process, more women can propose their ideas and make their perspective part of the development, which is also seen in the product,” she says.

McKinney sums up her hope for the future: “As the generations move through the industry, that will hopefully extinguish [sexism].”

*Name has been changed for anonymity

The story has been updated to reflect the fact that ‘World of Warcraft’ is not among the games worked on by Digital Legends

Letter in response to this article:
Gaming, the male gaze and why sector needs reform / From Tarika Barrett, Chief Executive, Girls Who Code, New York, NY, US

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