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Archive for March 1st, 2010

XYXX

Larisa and Hatch have beautifully covered the rant side of the latest spat on the  “women in games” issue, and I highly recommend their articles.  I just wanted to chime in from the other side of the fence.  (Yes, I’m a gamer, but today I put my dev hat on.)

I work in games as a technical artist for Wahoo Studios, who also publishes under the NinjaBee name, most recently working on the sequel to A Kingdom for Keflings, recently announced as A World for Keflings.  I used to work for Headgate Studios working on Tiger Woods golf games but I left just after EA bought them and converted them to EA Salt Lake.  I’ve spent a bit of time in the EA Redwood Shores offices before they became Visceral Games (the campus also housed the Sims studios, though I didn’t get to spend time in those offices).  As such, I presently work in a studio with about 25 people, but have worked in one with about 50 people, each for a couple of years, and I’ve worked for a week or so in a studio with hundreds of people.

There are differences between them that owe to a variety of factors, merely one of which is how many ladyfolk are working there.  My impressions are not a scientific poll or conclusive evidence of, well… anything, but they are observational anecdotes of my life on “the inside”, as it were.

Caveats and preamble aside, it is my experience that there is a marked difference between offices where women and men work together and those who are staffed entirely with guys.  I have worked outside the game industry as well, working in retail bookstores and university computer labs, and while there are also clear differences there when the genders mix as opposed to just “the guys”, the game industry seems to be a bit more polarized.

I do believe that any workplace with men and women working together will see a difference from monogender workplaces.  It’s just that video games in general are more of a “boy” thing, and that’s reflected inside the sausage factory as well.

If I may wander off on a brief tangent, I highly recommend the following video, brought to my attention by Toskk over at Andrew’s Of Teeth and Claws blog.

Video Games and the Female Audience

It’s ostensibly on the female audience, but it digs into the dev side as well.  It’s a bit of a bird’s eye view, but relevant anyway.

So, back to the office.  It’s been my experience that when the office is indeed just a “boys’ club”, it tends to be little better than a cubicle version of a locker room.  That is to say, the collective IQ of the room is somewhere around room temperature, conversation is profane and pugnacious, and we wind up with game designs like Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto or BMX XXX.  There is little in the way to check the slide into baser instincts and power/sex fantasies.  Boys who managed to age without maturing are the inmates in charge of the asylum, and their self-restraint is insufficient to the task.

(Edited to add here:  This is a bit of hyperbole, as I’ve worked with some great all-guy teams.  I have seen some bad conversations, interestingly more frequently out in Redwood Shores, but I’ve seen some really good ones as well.  This is almost more a function of human nature than anything specific to games, but since games tend to be more… playful, some civil restraints tend to slide.)

When women are part of the team, it’s reflexive for the boys to be a bit more restrained.  Perhaps this is a Cro-Magnon bit of peacockery, little more than a subconscious mating ritual, but it does tend to change the tenor of a team.  It becomes a bit kinder and gentler, more restrained and focused on propriety and getting work done.  Game design changes from testosterone-laden junk to something with a bit more class.  I think this is a good thing, whatever the impetus.

If that’s a relic of an older, less “progressive” time, where people were more couth and civil, well… I’m one of those who pine for “the old days”.  Now get off my lawn.

Of course, once the “token chick” starts cussing up a storm or demonstrating jockish (pun intended) behavior (sometimes just because that’s who they are, sometimes to “fit in with the guys”), the restraints start melting away again.  If, however, the women on the team maintain their decorum, the boys tend to maintain rough parity of propriety.

No, that’s not fair to put such a burden of responsibility on the women.  The boys should grow up and be men.  And yet, it’s almost instinctive to see that sort of boy’s club mentality, and the leavening that comes with the mere presence of a professional woman.  (A booth babe on the team wouldn’t really help.)

Perhaps that just underlines the Neanderthal mentality of the gaming culture.  It’s a terribly self-reinforcing death spiral in a lot of ways.  Games are made by boys in man-sized bodies, and then played by juveniles of all ages who think “mature” means gore and boob physics.  There is little impetus for women to even bother with the whole thing, and I can’t argue with a lady who dismisses it all.  And then there are those women who do dive in, but are just as bad as the boys.  In the end, that doesn’t really change anything either.

On the flipside, there are a few men who manage to mature and still work in the game industry.  The game industry is still fairly young, and for the young.  A happily married father (or grandfather!) of a few who doesn’t want to work for 80 hours a week in perpetual crunch is something of a rarity in the field.  Most find the environment toxic, unrewarding and underwhelming.  Still, there are a few, at least, I’ve met a few, and I get the sense that it’s becoming more common as our society is learning to accept games as part of our culture and the industry learns better business practices.  Time will tell if these stalwart souls are the vanguard of a better game industry or just victims of an inherently broken system.  I believe that as the gamer demographics shift as they have been, the industry will indeed improve.  I certainly hope so.

In the meantime, it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that there aren’t many women in the industry.  I think the industry would be better off with more women on board.  The times I’ve worked with women on the team are better experiences that produce better games.  …but I have a hard time recommending it to women, and that makes me sad.  I can’t say that I’ll always be working in games, either, and I hope for the true maturation of the medium… but every year that goes by, I feel more like I’m tilting windmills.  I stop short of saying we’re stuck… but we’re definitely bogged down by being a “boys’ club”.  I see reasons for hope, but equal reasons for caution and couth.

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