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Videogame Biz: Women Still Very Much in the Minority

As femme players grow, so do opportunities for distaff developers

Jade Raymond doesn’t bristle when asked about the small number of women working in the videogame industry. It’s a question she gets a lot since she’s one of the few female executives running a major game studio.

As the head of Ubisoft Toronto, she led a team of 300 in producing “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist,” a game that was released in September and designed to revive one of the publisher’s biggest franchises.

In a very male-dominated business where an estimated 12% of the workforce is made up of women, Raymond’s role is unusual.

“We’re like unicorns,” she jokes, but adds that there are more women entering the games industry, after representing just 3% in 1989. “When there’s a woman as the head of a studio, you do attract more women.”

At game publishers around the world, women are making inroads: Bonnie Ross and Kiki Wolfkill, at 343 Industries, are heading up high-profile tentpoles that include Microsoft’s juggernaut “Halo” franchise. Kim McAuliffe and Elizabeth Sampat are leading game designers at Microsoft Game Studios and Storm8. Julie Uhrman and Kellee Santiago are launching hardware including the Ouya videogame console. Robin Hunicke, after producing the indie hit “Journey,” started a game studio. Alisa Chumachenko produced the hit mobile game “Paradise Island” through Game Insight Intl. in Russia. Reine Abbas has scored with Lebanon-based Wixel Studios.

Women in leadership roles in the business come as more femmes are playing games.

Much of that is due to the growing popularity of social and mobile games like “Angry Birds,” “Farmville,” “Minecraft” and “Candy Crush” — addictive casual games that can be played on smartphones or tablets and don’t require a heavy commitment of tens of hours to play. More than half of all social and mobile gamers are women, according to industry research firm EEDAR, but surprisingly as many as 30% of women play more violent games like “Halo,” the group found. “Call of Duty” counts around 20% femme players, while “Grand Theft Auto” is around 15% for the whole franchise, their creators say.

The call to recruit more women to work in game companies also has an acute economic impetus spurred by the pressure to figure out a way to broaden the appeal of titles beyond men (the average age of videogame buyers is 35) after sales have disappointed much of the year.

While making “Halo 4,” Wolfkill’s goal was to make the franchise more approachable in order to become a blockbuster experience. That requires a diverse workforce.

“Games often reflect the culture of the studio they’re from,” says Wolfkill, who has also worked on testosterone-targeted franchises like “Gears of War” and “Project Gotham Racing.” “I think studios where diversity of thought is present definitely shows in the games that they make. A lot (of women) want to be pulled into a world and immersed in a story and a universe, and I think that’s something that’s always been a part of ‘Halo.’ We’re always trying to tell a story with some emotional resonance.”

Gary Carr, a creative director at Lionhead Studios (the “Fable” franchise), believes the games development workforce will be evenly split between men and women within the next five to 10 years.

“I think as developers, in terms of job applicants, we’re noticing now that we’re at last getting the diversity we want when you’re coming up with a creative team,” Carr points out. “I don’t just want guys making games for guys. I want guys and girls making games for guys and girls. You have to reflect that in your workforce, and it’s starting to happen.”

The more high-profile games are also starting to look different.

Activision will enable players of the upcoming “Call of Duty: Ghosts” to customize their characters and play as a female soldier for the first time. This comes as hits like “Mass Effect 3” have also added playable female characters.

“It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Eric Hirshberg, president and CEO of Activision Publishing. “Our fan base is huge,” adds “Ghosts” executive producer Mark Rubin. “We said, ‘We know there are women playing, how can we be more inclusive and embrace them?’ ”

The industry can do much more than just adding female characters.

There are still big differences in salary, with the average income for women 27% smaller than the average income for men in the biz.

And the industry must still wrestle with other issues of sexism and the cliche of the booth babe at conventions.

In March, Brenda Romero, a 30-year vet of the industry who has worked on 22 games over her career, including “Dungeons and Dragons,” abruptly resigned as co-chair of the Intl. Game Developers Assn.’s Women in Games group after the org co-sponsored a party at this year’s Games Developer Conference, which employed scantily clad women dancers to entertain guests. During a prior panel, she stressed her disdain for booth babes at E3, saying they made her uncomfortable. “It felt like walking through a construction site,” she said. “Why do I feel this way? I founded this fucking industry, you motherfuckers. I felt like I was receiving a lot of gazes I didn’t want to receive.”

More changes are guaranteed as more women play games.

The growing popularity of new YouTube stars such as Lisa Malambri (aka Lucy Mae) and Dodger, who record themselves playing action games like “Grand Theft Auto V” on networks like Machinima and Maker Studios, draws millions of viewers of both sexes.

“I think that female gamers — particularly younger gamers — are becoming more comfortable saying that they’re gamers, and that has a huge impact on the industry’s perception,” Wolfkill says.

And execs like Hunicke also are putting pressure on her counterparts.

“You are either working actively to broaden participation in our industry, or you are in the way,” she said during a panel at GDC as a reason for why she promoted the #1ReasonToBe women-in-gaming movement that had launched on Twitter.

Adds Raymond, “Once there’s a critical mass (of female gamers), you’ll get more women entering the industry. They won’t feel alone.”

Women Gamers By the Numbers

70%
Percentage of femmes between the ages
of 12 and 24 who play
videogames

61%
Percentage of women between the ages of 45 and 64 who play games, vs. 57% of men in the same age group

45%
The percentage of
all gamers who
are women

31%
Percentage of women 18 and older that make up the video­game-playing population; boys 17 and under
represent only 19%

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