Women in video games: the quest for inclusive culture

Four years after allegations of “toxic” corporate culture in the video game industry, a new sectoral study demonstrates that the problem has not been entirely resolved. Women in gaming continue to experience more harassment and feel less heard than their male colleagues. How can studios be more welcoming to all?

We brought this question to researcher Gabrielle Trépanier-Jobin, author of the study Diversité, équité et inclusion dans l’industrie du jeu vidéo québécoise, and Angela Mejia, cofounder of independent studio Clever Plays, who recently underwent HR training to improve her HR practices. 

To begin, the picture painted by the report (based on a summer 2021 survey of 1532 Quebec studio employees), is far from catastrophic. Let’s take two examples. On the issue of belonging, 66% of men responded “completely,” compared to 62% of their female colleagues. Next, 50% of women said they got the credit they deserved, compared to 48% of males. Taking sample size into account, the researcher concluded these percentages represent similar results from one gender to the next.

“If we look only at media coverage in recent years, it gives the impression that all women working in the video game industry suffer and endure sexism and harassment,” says Gabrielle Trépanier-Jobin. “But the situation is much more nuanced.”

We must, however, recognize that harassment and lack of consideration continue to be “gendered.” For example, women say they have received sexual messages three times more frequently than men  (19% versus 6% of men), and have experienced inappropriate touching four times more frequently (17% versus 4% of men). Furthermore, the researcher reports a significant gap between people who can express themselves without judgment (54% of women versus 64% of men) and those who feel the constant need to “prove themselves” (58% of women versus 44% of men). 

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Gabrielle Trépanier-Jobin

Training to break isolation 

To improve this situation, Gabrielle Trépanier-Jobin reminds us that good HR practices start with training employees (on diversity and inclusion) as well as those who supervise creation and production teams.

“Managers have power and authority over employees, yet they haven’t always been trained for these positions,” the researcher notes. “Sometimes people climb the ladder because of success in their creative or technical niche. Which is perfectly fine. Nevertheless, a management role demands emotional skills, to be able to listen to their team. So it’s well worth training managers for this purpose.” 

Next, Gabrielle Trépanier-Jobin points to an aspect of her study pertaining to “solo status,” which means being the only representative of one’s gender on a team, a situation experienced by 78% of women and only 18% of men. However, solo status made 41% of women who experienced it uncomfortable, compared to 12% of men in the same situation. The percentage of women who feel they don’t belong and who can’t express themselves without judgment is “significantly” higher among those with solo status, compared to women on mixed teams. “I find this fact to be interesting, because balancing out teams at work is something studios could quickly put in place.”

Clever Plays, proactively creating safe spaces

In terms of diversity, in many respects, the independent Clever Plays studio serves as a model: it was cofounded in 2013 by a man (Mattieu Begin, formerly of Ubisoft) and a woman (Angela Mejia), its six-employee production team has achieved gender parity, and its latest video game – Operation Tango – showcases a pair of protagonists including a bearded redhead and a racialized woman.

TANGO Wallpaper 4k

Yet far from resting on its laurels, six months ago the studio decided to carry out an external HR exercise to improve its team practices. “The evaluation showed that the values of the founders were well understood by their employees: respect, communication, and the desire to make quality games. However, it was found that we had to work on the notion of safe space.” Stepping back, management effectively realized that senior employees took up a lot of space, and that juniors were shy to ask questions.

“Just becoming aware of the situation can greatly change the dynamic,” she says. “We want our junior employees to feel comfortable saying they are having a problem with their work. To create a safe space, we rely on positive feedback from managers and a message from leadership that makes it clear we want everybody’s input.”

Rethinking game content

Above and beyond internal management, Angela Mejia brings up another issue that could help heal the gaming industry’s work culture: video game content. For a long time, studios were at the mercy of players who defended a traditional vision of gaming, one built on graphic violence and glorification of white heroes with big biceps. Then in 2014, an online harassment campaign by these “gatekeepers” targeted women in the video game industry.

Following gamegate, large studios became aware of their responsibility to the games they were creating. Video games are an incredibly powerful cultural reference, says the Clever Plays cofounder. “I think we haven’t yet understood, as a society, all the impact that games have on people, including children.”

Which raises the question: could making video games with positive content, celebrating diversity, have a positive impact on internal studio culture? Angela Mejia believes that it could. “As an independent studio, we can’t compete with the big studios when it comes to salary, but we can stand out through the quality and subject matter of our games. We look for people who are motivated to create inclusive games,” she explains.

Rethinking game content is a good starting point to make the industry more welcoming to women, and more broadly, to all those from underrepresented communities. 

Philippe Jean Poirier
Philippe Jean Poirier is a freelance journalist covering digital news. He explores the day-to-day impact of digital technologies through texts published on Isarta Infos, La Presse, Les Affaires and CMF Trends.
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