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Women in games: A mini guide to working and thriving in the video game industry

Originally published* on Current.com in July of 2012.

By Daniela Capistrano / @dcap

“The single most important thing you can do [to break into the industry] is to make games – even if it’s a mod of a game that you love. Get together with other people and build a game.”—Amy Jo Kim, CEO at ShuffleBrain and Game Designer, Author and Educator

So, you’re a girl and you love video games: twenty years ago this would have been unusual but today almost everyone in the U.S. is a gamer: a 2011 survey indicated that 72 percent of households play video games and the number is growing. A 2013 study revealed that women comprise 45% of the gamer population. Women 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (31%) than boys age 17 or younger (19%).

The struggle: why few women go from gamer to creator

Unfortunately the video game industry is remarkably less diverse; The Boston Globe reports that women account for only 11 percent of game designers and 3 percent of programmersGender discrimination still exists both in how games are made and who gets to make them. Not only do we need more female characters in video games, we need more women and girls to create games.

Women still struggle with making a living and being respected in the video game industry. A 2012 Twitter discussion among women working in games (#1reasonwhy) pointed out that sexist practices, workplace harassment and unequal pay for men and women was common. 

There’s a 27 percent gap in average incomes, with women making $68,062 versus men at $86,418, according to Game Developer Magazine’s 2011 annual salary survey.

More roles for women in games

Men historically have had more influence within the industry, but the culture is changing. Female programmers are in demand and more women are taking advantage of video game design programs at universities across the nation. Reuters reports that the number of women hired by game companies has tripled since 2009, according to recruiting firm VonChurch.

To find out what it takes to succeed in the video game industry, Daniela Capistrano spoke with some of the leading women in video games. The result is this mini guide for girls and women of all ages who want a career making and contributing to gaming culture.

If you’re a guy and you stumbled across this, welcome! There’s plenty of relevant information here for you too.

DISCLOSURE: Despite its length, this article full of industry tips and online resources is called a mini guide because it only represents a third of what Daniela uncovered. To unhide all the goodies hidden within this guide, click the “show/hide” buttons.

The beginning: prepare yourself for a job in the industry

Women of all backgrounds have the opportunity to thrive in the video game industry while changing the way that women and people of color are represented in games – but they need the skills, personal habits and networks that will support their career goals.

Students: Do not believe the myth that boys are better than girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) – it’s not true. While STEM skills are helpful in the video game industry and female programmers are needed, you don’t need to know how to code to work in video games (but consider learning anyway!).

If you want to make video games, start doing it now and teach yourself about the video game industry. Find ways to make learning fun and practice your developing talents. The path to a successful career in video games (regardless of gender) is similar to what’s required in most industries: being self-motivated, asking questions, learning/applying the necessary skills and finding peers and working professionals willing to offer guidance and mentorship.

We’ll explore how to do all these things further in this mini guide.

College grads and women in other industries: Don’t be discouraged if you didn’t excel at STEM in school, don’t know how to code or don’t have a degree in Computer Science. If you are passionate about video games and want to work in the industry, there are many opportunities for you to apply the skills you’ve attained through other work experiences.

If a kid can make games, so can you (watch this inspiring clip of Globaloria students)!

Some video game positions require more advanced technical skills than others, but all require the commitment to understanding how the industry works, where it’s headed and what you’re best suited to do to support the creation of video games.

“As an industry we’re very male centric but that is changing … I’ve heard people make arguments against why it’s important to have women in the industry. I counter with this: why would diversity make the industry worse? Different perspectives within games – and within actual game creation – is nothing but a good thing.” – Shana T. Bryant, Senior Associate Producer at Capcom

Not sure where to start? Get inspired!

Learn more about what your options are by studying the people who are already excelling in the industry. Here are three women with impressive careers in video games who are leading innovation:

Six tips to help you attain your dream job

Designer. Programmer. Developer. Producer. Artist. You might be familiar with these roles. but if they don’t appeal to you, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a career in video games.

1. Be curious and optimize your distractions.

“I always let myself be curious – even get distracted – when something moves me. I follow blogs on strange photography, infinity and fractals, bizarre fashion trends; things that foster different emotions. When I design, I always start with emotions, sensations, revelations – what do I want players to feel, see, learn? I love paradox and juxtaposition, anything that forces your brain to think in a new way or make unexpected connections. I love going out to quiet places: parks and natural settings. Whenever my throat gets tight – something literally takes my breath away – then I know I should capture or try to understand it. Good game design revolves around creating evocative experiences.“ – Chelsea Howe, Director of Design at SuperBetter Labs

More thoughts on how curiosity informs skill-building:

“I still constantly play games and evaluate all the new platforms. I started on the Apple II and the latest platforms are social networks, ios devices and tablets – intellectual curiosity. I remember when I first started playing Facebook games in 2007 and 2008, being fascinated with asynchronistic gameplay with people. It was really intellectually fascinating to me, this new demographic.” – Brenda Garno Brathwaite, Loot Drop co-founder and award-winning game designer and author

“There was no career path laid out, no game design major or a graphical interface for the Internet when I started. I just kept asking questions and finding resources. One of the things you can use social media for is to learn something. Don’t just use it for chatting with friends. If you want to find game designers, look them up online or on Facebook, send them an email. They are surprisingly open to helping people who have a passion for something, who are asking questions and reaching out.” – Shannon Sullivan, VP, Programs and Production at World Wide Workshop

Here are five more tips for breaking into the video game industry and thriving:

Resources and advice for next steps

All the women interviewed for this article agreed that newcomers should start – right now – by creating or contributing to video game projects through game jam events or other independent collaborations, as a method to build skills and to network.

If you just thought “but I don’t think coding is for me,” don’t let that deter you; there are still plenty of opportunities to volunteer on game projects as a community manager, marketing lead, music composer, artist, project manager, QA tester, or any number of important roles.

Meanwhile, assess what you already enjoy doing in your life and what you’re good at – those skills do apply within the industry. Simultaneously, research roles to figure out what is a good fit for you and take steps to make yourself qualified for the job.

Oh yes, and be sure to play lots of games!

We know what some of you are thinking: “I don’t have time to work for free” and/or “my work and home obligations don’t leave me much time to play games.” Don’t let these reasons keep you from your goals.

Several women in the industry suggested that an entry level QA (Quality Assurance) testing position is a great option for anyone to learn about aspects of creating a game while being paid to do it. Bex Bradley at Microsoft Game Studios was kind enough to provide us with some guidance:

Additional resources (real-life and online)

Follow video game industry news

Find sites that focus on industry trends, game previews, profiles and culture. Destinations like Kotaku, 1UP, Joystiq, GirlGamer, Gamasutra, IndieGames, Destructoid, Giant Bomb,  and PopMatters’ Moving Pixels blog should be just some of your news sources.

Be sure to also follow the critical conversation around video games. Here is a roundup of games criticism sites. If you want to take it a step further, support Play and Games Criticism publishers and writers! Here’s a list of persistent funding pages for games critics, compiled by Mattie Brice:

Aevee Bee – ZEAL (Game Reviews)
Amy Dentata – Articles and Games
Anjin Anhut – Tutorials & Essays about Games and Popculture
Anna Kreider – Go Make Me a Sandwich (Feminism and Games Blog)
Cameron Kunzelman – Videogames and Media Criticism
Cara Ellison – Transmetropololitan Game Criticism
Christopher Franklin – Errant Signal (Video Essay Things about Video Games)
Elizabeth Simins – Art Things
Kris Ligman – A History — And Future — For Writing About Games (Critical Distance)
Lana Polansky – Games, Game Criticism, and Granola
Laura Kate – Gaming Equality Critique
Liz Ryerson – Music, Criticism, Art, Videogames
Lulu Blue – Video Games
Mattie Brice – Games Criticism
Merritt Kopas – Forest Ambassador (Game Curator)
Mike Joffe – Games about Ecology, Nature, and People
Scott Nichols – Video Game Writing
Stephen Beirne – Words about Videogames
Zoe Quinn – Tidbytes, Games, Articles, and Videos

Follow as many sources as you can and be sure to support video game journalists!

Here are some methods to keep up with so much news:

Ways to level up your skills at your own pace

List of women interviewed for this mini guide

To ensure we drew from a wide range of experiences, we reached out to many people in the industry. This list reflects only some of the inspiring women working in video games who also shared their thoughts with Daniela Capistrano:

We’re closing this mini-guide with a treat:

Did you find this guide helpful? Share your thoughts on Twitter with this hashtag so I can respond to your questions and feedback: #WomenInVideoGames

The women I interviewed shared a wealth of information. Are you interested in reading a part two of this mini guide? Let me know at daniela@dcapmedia.com and if 100 people request it, I’ll make it happen!

If you found this mini guide helpful, please don’t steal my work. Feel free to post an excerpt anywhere but be sure to link back to this article and credit me as the source. Thank you!

*Daniela Capistrano republished the 2012 version on this site on March 10, 2014, with edits to include additional resources and data sources. She will be following up with more women in video games to add more quotes and resources directly from women in the industry. If you have suggestions for other resources to add, share them: daniela@dcapmedia.com.