A few weeks ago I heard that an all-women game jam was happening somewhere in London. In a game jam you make a game from scratch in a certain time period, this one was 24 hours.
Many people use Unity or similar tools so that you can get something up and running quickly then iterate. I’m more used to traditional games development, writing code in C++, and taking months or even years to make a game. I had never considered taking part in a game jam before, despite being a programmer in the games industry for 11 years, mainly because I wasn’t sure I had much to offer. But this one seemed different, for this Game Jam I did have something to offer.
I’m a woman and I’ve worked within the industry for years; I’ve made a good career of it, I’ve had a child, and am currently working part time. I’m living proof that despite all the talk of crunch and long hours culture, it is possible to balance a family life and a career in games, which I think is a very positive message to be able to tell any aspiring gamedev students, especially women.
The games industry is very male-dominated (in the 2012 Develop Salary Survey only 6% of developers were female) and I wish it wasn’t so. At Media Molecule we have a better gender split at 22%, and a female director, both of which I believe are contributing factors towards the relaxed and fun atmosphere in the office, and the success of our games. I was keen to meet more women in the industry, find out if their stories were similar to mine, do what I could to help promote women in games… oh and make a kick-ass game with them too!
The lack of gender balance in games is not just about the fairness of women fulfilling their potential either. It’s about profitability and business success. In her recent BBC2 program ‘Women at the Top’ Hilary Devey showed that departments with a balance of genders generated more profit than those with a heavy bias one way or the other. So, if you’re recruiting for your company that’s worth bearing in mind…
So, why are there so few women in games? One possible deterrent to those without a really thick skin are the outpourings of misogyny and hate that you get on any internet site tackling sexism or women in games. For example the reaction to Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube video, or the commentary defending the derogatory comic featuring Jade Raymond, or the treatment of Miranda Pakozdi when she entered a Cross Assault video game tournament. It makes it look like a very uninviting environment, and is a complete misrepresentation of working in the industry, at least in my experience.
However, I feel the primary reason is society’s differing expectations of girls and boys as they grow up. For instance, I’m already seeing my two year old son being steered towards certain toys, whilst a friend’s daughter is steered towards others. The pinkification of girls toys is a real pity. I think that we need to be far more supportive of girls who want to play with ‘boys’ toys and boys who want to play with ‘girls’ toys. In fact I really don’t see any need to separate the toys at all. My son loves playing at cooking. At first my Dad wasn’t sure whether to encourage him or not. Of course I want him to be interested in cooking, and just because he’s a boy he shouldn’t miss out on the joy that is cooking and sharing a delicious meal.
Thinking back, I remember a few instances where I was steered away from what I saw as the ‘fun’ toys and games when was young – at one point my Mum was summoned to my Primary school because my teacher was very concerned that as a girl I was playing with Lego. Luckily my Mum has always supported me to choose the things I enjoy rather than going along with what is expected of me. At secondary school I had careers advice at 16. I expressed an interest in computers and programming and was told that my options were data entry or maybe teaching. Again, I ignored them, and went on to get a first class degree from Cambridge in Computer Science – in your face, careers advisor! There are many more examples of bad advice, or subtle influences that could so easily have steered me away from what has turned out to be my dream job, and whilst It’s a long time since I was I school, I suspect that not too much has changed. The pity is that there’s only so much we can do in the games industry to attract women in, because we’ve already lost them in school.
Having said that I don’t think we should throw our hands up in the air and give up. There are still steps we can take to help! There’s some great work going on making sure that the women we do have in the industry are visible - I think that female role models can be a very positive influence. And there are efforts to bring the women in games together, to unite us, provide support, and make us a stronger presence within the industry. This game jam seemed like something very positive that could help with both, and so off I went.
After a general introduction to the people organising and running the jam our first task was to form into teams. There were lots of introductions, and I was surprised and very pleased to find that there were plenty of other programmers. I formed a team with Sarah, Huda, and Jo. I learnt a huge amount from Huda, a very talented Unity programmer who has just finished her master’s degree. Our artist Sarah worked through the night to create some awesome steampunk style textures. And Jo organised us into a cohesive team; she made sure we had a design that we all bought into, and were not too madly ambitious.
We made a game called Android Grim Reaper – you play the Grim Reaper and have to find and harvest souls as their timer runs out. About 30 minutes before the end of the jam we didn’t have a game that ran, but with a lot of head scratching, and plenty of ingenuity, we pulled together and got a build limping towards functionality. Of course we were over ambitious, tried to do far too much in the 24 hours available, but that’s half the fun and makes for a tense and exciting finish! We’ll be polishing the game and hopefully in a week or so it’ll still be fun, but will also be vaguely understandable to players other than the dev team :)
It was an awesome day, so inspiring and a lot of fun! I’m pregnant which makes you pretty tired at the drop of a hat, so it has taken a week or so to recover from the late nights, but it was SO worth it. I’ll definitely be GameJamming again soon!
Photos courtesy of Zo-ii, thank you!