By Malathi Nayak
SAN FRANCISCO Jan 13 When video game developer
Brenda Brathwaite Romero started her career in the 1980s, she
could count the number of female developers in the industry on
Today, many "Women in Games" roundtables she attends are
filled to capacity with new faces. The 46-year-old, sometimes
referred to as the longest-serving woman in the video game
arena, jokes that these days one can even encounter long lines
for the ladies' room at the Game Developers Conference, one of
the industry's largest gatherings.
"Over the years, greatly helped by the social and mobile
boom, there have been many, many women coming into game
development," Brathwaite Romero said.
With women comprising just over 1 in 10 in the video game
workforce, the industry has a reputation for being among the
most testosterone-fueled of the traditionally male-dominated
technology sector. But thanks to the mobile revolution, industry
executives say that's changing.
With smartphones going mainstream and delivering gaming to a
new, broader population, publishers and developers are keen to
tap an audience beyond young males. And, not surprisingly, as
women have explored a growing range of mobile games on Facebook
or other platforms, they have discovered the allure of working
in the industry.
The number of women hired by game companies has tripled
since 2009, according to recruiting firm VonChurch, based on
over 350 placements it has made in digital gaming firms like
CrowdStar and GREE.
In 1989, when veteran games designer Sheri Graner Ray
started out, women made up less than 3 percent of the workforce.
That's now up to 11 percent.
"In 20 years, it's not a lot of growth," said Graner Ray,
who has worked at leading companies like Electronic Arts and
Sony Online Entertainment. But she agrees that number will rise
as more women assert themselves in the industry, educational
programs take hold, and mobile games continue to flourish.
Some of the first engineers at mobile games maker Pocket
Gems were women, and though that wasn't intentional when the
company was founded in 2009, it proved instrumental to success,
said Chief Executive Ben Liu.
Pocket Gems, best known as a maker of family-friendly mobile
games like its popular "Tap" series, recently launched "Campus
Life", where players can build and run a college sorority, to
target a female audience.
"I've worked at other, different game companies and I've
been on floors where it's only guys," Liu said. "Our aspiration
is to create games that are mass market and accessible to all
people, and having that representative base of employees helps
us keep true to that."
DEBAUCHERY 'WAY, WAY DOWN'
Gaming still conjures up images of young men glued to
flickering screens for hours on end, fueled by energy drinks and
waging online battles unto death in such "shooters" as "Call of
Duty" or tactical war games like "Starcraft."
But the advent of affordable smartphones and tablets and the
burgeoning world of social media has drawn in a whole new world
of gamers. Individuals who had never been tempted to plunk down
hundreds of dollars to buy a gaming console found themselves
enticed by a whole new genre of games.
These days, gaming might just as easily mean launching
attacks on pigs in "Angry Birds" or slicing produce with swiping
motions in "Fruit Ninja" -- games that have mass appeal.
"Mobile is still the Wild West and it's founded on this idea
of inclusion, because everyone has these mobile devices and
everyone wants to play," said game content designer Elizabeth
Sampat, who works at social game company Storm8.
That's partly why more than half of America's social and
mobile gamers are women, according to research firm EEDAR, while
they comprise just 30 percent of those who play hard-core
violent games like Microsoft's "Halo 4" on game
Erin McCarty, 24, grew up playing such fare. She went to
engineering school at Carnegie Mellon University, with a goal
toward working in the video game industry.
Today she's the only female engineer in a seven-member team
crafting multiplayer-shooter game "Realm of the Mad God" at
social and mobile game company Kabam that targets male gamers.
But far from feeling different, McCarty considers herself
just another coder at Kabam, where women make up just a fifth of
"I'm around guys a lot and they are always people that I'm
happy to work with," McCarty said.
Brathwaite Romero recalls how her male coworkers on the team
that created the mature-rated "Playboy: The Mansion" game with
nude characters that was published in 2005, were wholly
"I've fortunately not experienced the level of misogyny that
I've heard other people experience," Brathwaite Romero said.
"Some of the debauchery that was evident in the early days
of the industry, like meetings at strip clubs, having strippers
at your party, that sort of stuff has gone down way, way down
from where it used to be."
DANCING GIRLS AND SEXISM
That's not to say the industry doesn't have a ways to go.
First, 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.
Women in the game industry are underrepresented in software
engineering and top-level management, reflecting a similar trend
in the broader technology sector, industry executives say.
VonChurch found engineering positions were skewed more
toward men in their placements since 2009. Female engineers made
up 21 percent from the pool of women it placed, while over half
of the men it placed were hired in engineering positions.
Then there are the occasional throwbacks to the
male-dominated 1980s and 1990s. Gameloft created a stir a few
weeks ago after a holiday party at its Montreal studio ran amok.
The studio, which makes games for devices like Apple Inc's
iPhone, hired a burlesque dance troupe that featured
scantily clad women in body paint. By the end of the evening,
several dancers began to discard their bathing suits, according
to a person with knowledge of the event, who asked not be named.
The dancers were expelled from the event "as soon as their
misconduct was brought to light," Gameloft said in a statement.
Over a month ago, a tweet from a male gaming professional --
"Why are there so few women in gaming?" -- ignited a
top-trending Twitter conversation under the #1reasonwhy hashtag,
that quickly morphed into a now infamous discussion of
discrimination and sexism in the workplace.
"I was told I'd be remembered not on my own merits, but by
who I was or was assumed to be sleeping with," Seattle-based pen
and paper game designer Lillian Cohen-Moore, who goes by
Gaming conventions can bring out the worst in attendees,
said several women gaming professionals. While not a pure work
environment, they are a forum for professionals from across the
industry to convene to talk shop and do business.
Cohen-Moore, 28, said she was appalled to see men at the
annual Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle groping women working as
costumed characters when she worked there last year.
"I've been leery about transitioning into video games
because the culture over there is a lot more blatant and active
in how many sex trolls they have," she said.
Brathwaite Romero, who is married to industry legend and
"Doom" creator John Romero, also recounts a jarring instance at
last summer's Electronic Entertainment Expo, the industry's
"I was discussing a potential contract with somebody and the
guy right next to me is talking about -- to quote him -- 'the
tits and ass' on this particular model. And he's going on and on
and on about this," she said. "This is wrong."
Sampat said in some workplaces, though not at her current
employer Storm8, women are often expected to tolerate off-color
jokes - of which they're often the target.
Before stepping into an interview at an online game company
a couple of years ago, Sampat said a female human resources
employee told her: "It's my job to make sure that all potential
candidates can, you know, take a joke."
"I couldn't help but wonder if she asked the white male
programmer who came in before me whether he could take a joke
too," Sampat said.
Women outside the United States find similar challenges.
Alisa Chumachenko, CEO and founder of Game Insight, a
fast-growing mobile and social company in Russia, thinks having
more women in senior and more diverse roles will help. Her
company of 450 employees has three other women in high-level
positions, but she wishes she knew more women in gaming.
"We need to really look at the women who have become movers
and shakers in this industry," the veteran games designer Graner
Ray said, "and claim them and hold them up and say: 'Here's
where we are, here's what we can do. Pay attention to us.'"