E3 highlights surge in female game designers

At North America's largest electronic gaming show, E3, new women-designed games and a few female role models are highlighting the surge in women programmers and designers.

After a handful of women show the way, some schools see more women entering field than men

Five years ago, only about 10 per cent of people in the gaming industry were women. Now that number has doubled. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

When you're doing a story about the rise of women in the video game industry, the Electronic Entertainment Expo — the largest gaming trade show in North America — is perhaps not the best place to prove your point. A snapshot; on the right, an unbroken line of youngish men demo-ing games; on the left, one muscular man going chest-to-chest with a teenager because he "keeps staring at him for no reason." Most of the fingers wiggling joysticks are decidedly thick and hairy.

According to statistics, almost half of those who play video games regularly are women. But if you walk around the show floors of E3, which stretch across two buildings in downtown Los Angeles, another statistic becomes apparent: Only about 20 per cent of people who actually work in the industry are women.

A big improvement on 20 years ago

Mary DeMarle (left) and Fleur Marty (right) work for a game studio called Eidos Montreal. Without women in the field, they say, everyone would end up "making the same game." (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

That stat may be disheartening, but 20 years ago, according to Mary DeMarle, the percentage of women was statistically insignificant.

"I was only the third woman hired in the company, and I was the first one who was not an assistant or secretary," DeMarle says. "A lot of times in those early days it was tough because I would pitch ideas, and they would be rejected, but then two weeks later, the guys would be pitching the idea and suddenly it was great."
Belinda Van Sickle, chief executive of Women in Games International, says many of the women hired in the gaming industry have been for non-technical jobs like PR. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Now DeMarle works at the Eidos Montreal games studio, which she says is becoming increasingly diverse. Her experience reflects the trend. Five years ago, the industry was about 10 per cent women. Now that number has doubled. But what seems like progress, at least in part, is an illusion, according to Belinda Van Sickle, executive director of Women in Games International. 

Women get the marketing jobs

"The verticals in the industry have not changed," Van Sickle says, "meaning women have not been able to infiltrate across the industry in terms of job titles."

She says as the industry has grown, companies have been hiring more women in less technical fields like marketing and public relations.
Half of gamers are women, but they still only make up 20 per cent of the gaming industry (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"They're not in engineering, they're not programmers, unfortunately," Van Sickle says. "We haven't opened up the percentages in that category."

New university programs lure women

But those percentages could soon be leveling out, thanks to an influx of women into newly created university programs.

The University of Southern California boasts one of the best video game design programs in the world. When it started in 2002, only a couple of the 15 students were women. Now, says the program's director Tracy Fullerton, there are just as many women in the program as men. Fullerton says one of the best recruiting tools has been the high-profile success of several female alumni.
Catherine Fox just graduated from USC's game design program. She says when she started, she felt she had to stop wearing makeup to fit in. Now the game she helped design will be released in July on Playstation and Xbox. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"People like Kelly Santiago who was the co-founder of That Game Company, and Susana Ruiz who had a break-out serious game called Darfur is Dying," Fullerton says. "So we see a lot of success in those early cases and those folks that helped us to speak to young women."

She's optimistic corporate gaming culture is about to shift.

"I think the game industry has the potential to change faster than traditional media in this area because it's used to changing faster in general," Fullerton says. "We're an industry that's all about change, so I hope that that means that we will be all about change in terms of diversifying our workplace as well."

On the last day of E3, Catherine Fox is offering advice to two young men who are testing a game she helped develop. Chambara is described as "multiplayer stealth-death match game with only two colours." The game is all shadows and angles, featuring a character who looks like a cross between a samurai and a witch.

Getting comfortable with gamer culture

Chambara, described as a "multiplayer stealth-deathmatch game," was designed by a group of students at USC, which now boasts as many women in its game design program as men. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Fox remembers her first days on campus at USC, when she was still intimidated by the male gamer culture.

"Freshman year I was like, OK I'm going to stop wearing makeup because I want to blend in more," Fox says. "There is always the discomfort of walking into a room and being the only woman there."

Now, she says, the incoming first-year class is mostly women. 

"So just in the last four short years it's changed," Fox says.

 She doesn't think of the change merely in terms of equal opportunity. As a gamer, more voices, more variety, she says, just means better games.

"I think by including more types of people in the game development, you can get the perspective that you didn't have before," Fox says, "and maybe get a demographic that you haven't targeted before."

Four years later, she's now a graduate. Chambara is coming out on Playstation and Xbox next month. And half her team is made up of women.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.