Jenny McKearney fell in love with computer science at her all-girls school in Northern Ireland. When she was studying in the 1980s, this was a new subject, and one that excited her. Of course, being at an all-girls school meant she had no idea how male-dominated the field would be.
“I chose computer science at university, and there were five girls and 70 guys”, Jenny says. “I was like, ‘Oh, it's a bit funny. What happened there?’”
Undeterred, she graduated in 1995 and jumped into the gaming industry, working in localization. Her first gig was at Microsoft’s Dublin base, and while this took her to work with all kinds of great teams – including over at BioWare, where she worked on Mass Effect and Dragon Age for 14 years – the gender discrepancy was always obvious.
“[When] I started working at BioWare, I met the 400 people that work there. I was like, ‘Oh crap, there are 20 women’. And we weren’t on production. We were in HR, we were in marketing. And there were maybe like two programmers and one artist.” McKearney says.
“Now, it got better over the years. I was there for 14 years and I saw a huge swing in the industry. I think back to the class I graduated from in ‘95. What would that look like now in 2022?”
That’s why I’m speaking to McKearney and three other women in the gaming industry today. Jenny McKearney, Debbie Gonzalez, Louise Andrew, and Ashley Liu all operate in wildly different areas of game development, but all exist under the Keywords umbrella of companies. Working with Keywords sees them working on all kinds of games – most recently the likes of League of Legends, Mortal Kombat, and Assassin’s Creed. Even though the amount of women and non-binary people in the industry has improved since the 1990s, men still make up 71 percent of game devs. This leaves 24 percent women, and just 3 percent non-binary. It’s bad no matter where you look, with just 2 percent of developers being Black, but a staggering 69 percent white.
This is something Debbie Gonzalez was very aware of when she got her start in audio production in the 1980s. Working across all sorts of mediums – games, film, music – Gonzalez became head of production at the company she was working for. However, at this peak, she then suddenly found herself unable to work in the industry, and all because of an issue we are still reporting on today: crunch.
“In ‘95 I got married, and in ‘98 I had my daughter and decided to stay home. And so I left the industry for about 10 years”, Gonzalez says. “If I had the opportunity to keep working while I was raising a child I think I probably would have done that[…] But there was no option because of what the gaming industry calls crunch.
“That culture has been prevalent for many, many, many, many years. And I could not see a path forward to be a mother and still continue to work.”
Gonzalez instead worked part-time in other industries that were more accommodating. But even now, it feels like gaming hasn’t caught up – and it’s parents that will bear the brunt of it.
“I think that my choice to stay home is something that a lot of men would not have had to make.”
This is something that McKearney also experienced. While she was able to keep working, the hours certainly didn’t make it easy.
“I actually did have two kids as a single parent and worked in a gaming studio. Super tough. But I was lucky enough that I could have a nanny”, McKearney says. “I didn't want that to be the case, but I had to work. I had to make money. I would bring my kids into BioWare. And they would sit in the TV room watching telly while I was working at the weekend.”
As Gonzalez emphasizes, “I don't think crunch culture is a very attractive thing to a lot of women. And I don't think it's attractive to men – I don't think it's attractive to anybody.” But she finds that women in the industry have to be more conscious of what jobs will give them a better work/life balance, which can rule out game development.
When Gonzalez returned to the industry, it had become more flexible in other ways at least. “There is no more separation between mediums. There are IP holders who have IPs that want to create content”, she says. “Riot is a great example, one of our biggest clients. [Riot] had the number one show on Netflix with Arcane. The lines are blurring, there's no more gaming versus television [and] film.”
This, in turn, seems to be helping workers have more power at the negotiating table. “I see people having conversations with clients about managing partner projects in a smart way”, she says. “I think that's going to naturally just attract a lot more girls and women into the industry, knowing that they can have a healthier lifestyle.” Working with Netflix in particular seems to be going well, as she hasn’t worked an hour of overtime on her current projects. Some of this could actually be down to the consolidation in the industry, as bigger budgets mean more money to spend on outsourcing, rather than keeping everyone in the office over the weekend.
But this is all hypothetical for now. Just a look at recent headlines shows that the fight is ongoing. And this is having a very real effect on recruiting diverse voices into the industry.
“Here at Sound Lab, we don't have a single female sound designer”, Gonzalez admits. “Wish we did. We look for them all the time.”
While the battle against crunch culture won’t be won overnight, there is something that all four of the women I spoke to know the industry should do more of: outreach.
Ashley Liu and Louise Andrew didn’t get into gaming on purpose. They got their start in the early 2000s, when there was virtually no outreach.
“It had never occurred to me it was something I could get into”, says Andrew, head of art at D3T and fresh off Alan Wake Remastered’s development. “I hadn't really appreciated that it wasn't just people in Silicon Valley that made games. Someone that I knew at a wedding was making artwork for games. So I tried and took to it.”
This off chance meeting has led to Andrew working at Acclaim, TT Games, and in her current position at D3T. Of course, random run-ins such as this aren’t the most efficient way to bring more women into the industry.
Ashley Liu, a service line director at Keywords, has a story that is very similar in this regard.
“I actually started off in the telecom industry,” she explains. “And then I found myself in China, in a very vibrant entrepreneurial environment, and found six people in an apartment doing this thing called computer graphics. At that time [it] was kind of a bit alien to me.”
She immediately found it more engaging than her time in the telecom industry. “Whatever product we made was just these black boxes with blinking lights. Sometimes it's red, and sometimes it's green”, she says. “It’s not the same as when you see your name in the credits, and you see the character that you made move in front of you, and everybody talks about it.”
Andrew very much agrees with this, sharing her team’s excitement over seeing their names in the credits for Alan Wake.
“It boils down to the people,” says Liu, explaining why she’s stuck with gaming despite not seeking it out. ”I'm a geek at heart. And geeks attract geeks. It is a nicer people [focussed] industry.”
So while women love the industry, that bridge to guide them into it just isn’t there.
“41 to 48 percent of the gamers out there in the United States are women”, Gonzalez says. “So women are playing games. They fall in love with games to the point where they go, ‘you know, I want to do that’. But then where do they go from there? You know, if you're a young person, I don't even know a path forward.”
Showing them the path forward does seem to be paying off. Gonzalez says that when they seek out students for tours and internships, 50 percent of attendees will be women. McKearney agrees that this is working, as interns at BioWare were amazed to realize how many other jobs go into making games like Mass Effect other than programming. Andrew is also bridging this knowledge gap, working to let budding artists know that there is a place for them in the industry.
Liu also worries that women may not have felt welcome in the industry when she first got her start. “About 5 to 10 years ago, we really just aimed [games] at a young male [audience]. That's what made money”, she says, theorizing that this particularly alienated non-male artists, due to the over-sexualised look of some gaming characters.
This is something Andrew has first-hand experience in, through her work in art. “I've had words with people in design departments before, to [say] ‘these [designs] are a bit stereotypical’.
“There was a time when the skill sets were always like, the woman has agility and flexibility, yet the men had all these many, many different skill sets. But women [are] small, they can get through holes. No, that's not all women.”
On the flip side, you see less of this from departments that are more diverse.
“At BioWare, we had a really big narrative team, half were male, half were female”, McKearney says. “We had gay people, we had trans people, we had everybody. So you write for those characters. A big triple-A RPG game is fabulous for women to play and work on because it's so inclusive. It wasn't just the bro club.”
Gonzalez agrees. “Anytime your team diversifies, you get different opinions, different voices”.
“That's largely been a problem with the male-dominated culture in game development. Women [will be] objectified and sexualized in these games and there's no consequence”.
“The more we address those issues within the game, the more it's going to speak to everybody's humanity. That's what makes a story.”
Even on the technical side, different people bring unique talents. “Does giving the sound a female perspective, change the perspective? Yes,” Gonzalez shares. “On our team, we have guys that are really masculine. They like everything big and huge. Then we have guys that are more sensitive. They can do comedy, they can do cartoony characters. I think women bring in a whole other perspective to sound.”
As much as changes in how women are represented in games could help, one fact remains: the headlines don’t look very appealing right now. But as offputting as it may be, all four women feel that real change is coming, and the stories we have seen from the likes of Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft will be a thing of the past.
“I do think that [consolidation] is going to be great for women and gender fluid people in the industry”, McKearney says. “Those big companies have got a lot of legal teams behind them. And they will ensure that everything is done correctly and legally. Gone are the days where we could have bullying or sexism in the industry.” It remains to be seen if this happens with Microsoft, of course, as many wait for it to put forward a clear plan to combat abuse at Activision Blizzard.
Liu puts it even more bluntly than that – dealing with abuse is a necessity. “We need so much talent in this industry right now”, she says. “I don't care what you look like, we need people who can solve problems. There's all these buzzwords about, you know, the metaverse and NFTs and all that stuff. [The industry] needs to have people who can actually organise large teams to finish a project.”
This change is being seen already, as Andrew has noticed in her latest job at D3T. “I've worked for companies where there were no women in the top 10”, she says. “At D3T, there are nine people in the leadership and three are women
“The few studios that might still have any archaic behaviours won't last much longer. It's all being talked about, isn't it? It's all being exposed.”
It might sound a bit overly optimistic at first, but it would be wrong to say that the women of Keywords are setting their expectations low. This isn’t a matter of just getting rid of abuse, it’s about making it so that these initiatives to get women in games are no longer needed at all.
And to those who think diversity in games has already gone too far, there’s no entertaining that here. As we round off, McKearney sums up her thoughts with a quote from the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court and I say, 'When there are nine,' people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that.”
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