Are women “too smart” for a career in the game industry?

I was recently pointed to a post on Slashdot where it is suggested that women are “too smart” for tech careers, rather than “not smart enough”, as common and misguided wisdom seems to suggest. To wit, “only ‘boys’ are stupid enough to go into a field that’s globally-fungible, where entry-level salaries are declining, and it’s common to think that staying up all night for a company-paid pizza is a good deal.” This is actually a suggestion I’ve heard more than once regarding the unicornification of women in the game industry; maybe, just maybe, it’s not a matter of women actively being denied entry, they say, but a matter of them simply having better things to do with their lives. Right?

People who make this particular suggestion tend to think they’re giving women as a group some kind of compliment, but I feel uncomfortable with it for a number of reasons. For one thing, it implies that women who do work in games, such as myself, aren’t as “smart” as other women, which I, quite frankly, find insulting — and I’m sure many readers and contributors to this blog will feel similarly. Second of all, it does male game developers a great disservice. The truth is, many of us in the industry, regardless of gender, are passionate about game development but also care very much about quality of life issues. I personally do believe that companies with good work/life balances generally do better at attracting greater diversity in employees, and indeed, the stereotype that all game developers must be overworked and underpaid appears to be changing, in this post-ea_spouse climate. Slowly, I’ll admit, but we’re getting there.

Sadly, the kind of comment I usually get on this subject isn’t made with the implication that we should change the way our industry works, but with a more “that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it’s always going to be” kind of mindset. Game dev, like many careers in the arts, is known for being highly competitive to get into, and indeed, many people see difficult working conditions as a way of “weeding out” the competition. As such, the implication that anyone who’s “smart” would stay away is something of a backhanded compliment, meant to exclude rather than include. Instead of questioning why we’re suckered into believing that the only way to make good games is to push ourselves to exhaustion for little in return, we’re essentially being told to ignore and avoid the problem so that the same old people can keep on churning out the same old games with the same old lack of different perspectives. Convenient, isn’t it?

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17 Responses to Are women “too smart” for a career in the game industry?

  1. Jessoteric says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the “backhanded compliment” sentiment. I chose to go into this field for several reasons, and none of them happen to be “because free pizza RAWKS!”. I am pretty sure anyone else in the game industry would agree.

    Personally, I went into this field because:

    1. I enjoy playing games, and want to help shape future games.
    2. It’s a challenge – not just as a woman entering what is perceived as a male dominated field, but also as someone entering a competitive and challenging career where I will have to do a lot of learning.

    I think you have to be not only “smart” to take a job in this field, you have to be flexible and able to learn quickly – regardless of your gender.

    I think it’s a male dominated field because women are brought up being told that “science and math are hard” and are directed toward careers where their “womanly talents” work in their favor – just like teaching is a female-dominated field because men are encouraged to enter roles where their “manly talents” would be a better fit.

    • YelloBird says:

      Yup, I think it was mostly prejudices that scared away people from jobs associated with a certain gender.

      But it is getting better nowadays, as we reached already 30:70 on the grunt level in IT (upper management is different, but then they are MBAs).

      • koipond says:

        Still doesn’t address the problem that the post raises which is that there is a culture within any type of cs field (computer games is just one of many) that is meant to keep women out of the field.

        There was a link on the ls at geekfeminism that led to an article here that talks about how the entrance fee to cs is a geek membership card. Here it’s the same kind of idea, if you don’t have this burning desire there’s no room for a person to discover that they like making games and grow into that role unlike a lot of other industries.

  2. JeninCanada says:

    “Sadly, the kind of comment I usually get on this subject isn’t made with the implication that we should change the way our industry works, but with a more “that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it’s always going to be” kind of mindset.”

    I hate that mindset and am glad to see that there are those who think that yeah, it’s the system that should change and who don’t accept the ‘well that’s just the way it is!’ arguement.

  3. Alex says:

    This is a great post, you hit the nail on the head. So many people fail to realize that putting women on a pedestal is just as sexist as saying we’re inferior, and often has similar effects.

    And complacency with “the way things are” is just generally infuriating!

  4. The attitude you mention in that last paragraph was the depressing part of GDC for me last year. :-(

    I am curious how much of the push for long working hours is because people believe (whether consciously or subconsciously) that it’s the best way to make good games, and how much is because people believe (whether consciously or subconsciously) other things.

  5. Max Battcher says:

    JeninCanada :
    I hate that mindset and am glad to see that there are those who think that yeah, it’s the system that should change and who don’t accept the ‘well that’s just the way it is!’ arguement.

    At the major software where I interned during my undergraduate work, I had someone frankly tell me that they saw “crunch time” issues and waterfall-based Quality of Life issues as the biggest challenge overcome in the last decade in Software Engineering, but that everyone needed to keep vigilant lest that “evil” return. As a large company they were unfortunately one of the slowest big, old school Software Engineering companies to adjust and they made it a big commitment to entertain any and all ideas to keep that sort of culture, in which employee burnout and turnover are preferable to better time and effort managment skills, out permanently.

    It strikes me as incredible gall when game development studios forget that they inherited this bad culture from the same place that any other software engineering company has, and that the struggles of, and more importantly lessons from, the “business” software industry don’t apply to the “entertainment” software industry.

    I believe that Software Engineering quality of life studies have left the crunch/overwork culture as indefensible as anything other than a mindset that has to change, as hard and painful it might be to root out and destroy such deep seated “traditions”. Furthermore, I strongly believe it is indefensible to use such an environment as some sort of hazing ritual to define good employees. I think we’ve moved past the point in time where the burnout/crunch periods can be considered anything other than hazing. I think we can all agree that it doesn’t take “smarts” to wish to avoid hazing— it’s common sense. (Yes, it’s not always easy to follow common sense, but that is our human social nature; easier to follow the tribe than to apply logic or reasoning.)

    All of which is to say, “Anyone ever wonder why the games industry still seems deprived of many forms of common sense?”

  6. Max Battcher :
    I think we’ve moved past the point in time where the burnout/crunch periods can be considered anything other than hazing. I think we can all agree that it doesn’t take “smarts” to wish to avoid hazing— it’s common sense. …
    All of which is to say, “Anyone ever wonder why the games industry still seems deprived of many forms of common sense?”

    I don’t think that’s fair – the idea that a company should get as much bang for you buck as possible out of its employees could be considered common sense, as could be the idea that, the more they work, the more they’re producing. And the game industry at times has hard deadlines for good reasons; I wouldn’t just call that hazing.

    I think it’s wrong that more hours is a good way to increase productivity, and I also think that short term squeezing your employees is not good for long-term company bottom lines. (And I don’t personally see flourishing company bottom lines as the highest goal of existence, though I can see why company executives are particularly taken with that point of view.) But the best techniques I know of for avoiding that false dichotomy are hard work, and, while not exactly contradicting common sense, don’t follow naturally from common sense.

    (Having said that, I’m sure there is a real hazing / “one of the boys” component to overwork, and I’m glad this post is shining a light on them. I just think there are better motivations for overwork that need to be addressed seriously.)

    • Max Battcher says:

      It may have at one time been old “common sense”, but the Mythical Man Month was written in the late 70s and every further study has continued to show that for a creative endeavor, and in particular most aspects of software engineering, productivity is not helped by overwork, and more often than not trends towards net productivity loss in even the short term. I stand by my statement that common sense to any software engineer trained in the last decade, at least, that overwork is not ever the answer.

      Bang for buck doesn’t come from overwork, it comes from planning and dedication and “work smarter not harder”. It doesn’t matter how hard the deadlines are. Missing a deadline, or having the possibility of missing a deadline, in an ideal world shouldn’t punish the coders at ground levels, but the people that scheduled/predicted things too tightly or too poorly.

      (Truthfully, how hard should games deadlines be? It’s not like its a life or death industry, right? I would hope that people’s lives aren’t actually at stake if Big AAA FPS doesn’t hit store shelves just the right number of weeks before the Holiday Rush… Yes, money might be at stake, but its potential and effervescent and I’d hope that quality of life trumps money flows that don’t yet exist. “A bird in the hand beats two in the bush,” does it not?)

      (To make matters worse, I’d posit that most companies that think their overwork is a productivity boost probably don’t even use any of the modern tools for productivity tracking and have no clue they are doing such harm to themselves, their colleagues and their entire corporate culture… I’m not sure ignorance is a good excuse for these practices, but…)

      • Alex says:

        Exactly, exactly. And we’re at a point where we’re seeing more and more big games being released in February, March, May, July, September… a game doesn’t HAVE to be released in the holiday season to be successful, and that fact lessens the pressure around certain deadlines as well.

        • Amen to that: the release schedule is ridiculous. My favorite bizareness is seeing big handheld releases at the end of the summer – heaven forbid that we actually have games to play when we’re on airplanes traveling in June…

          (This is totally off-topic, but I love your Chibi Amaterasu icon!)

      • Right, your last paragraph is kind of what I’m getting at – I completely agree that there are better ways, but I also think that there’s still a good amount of ignorance about those better ways. And I would be surprised if every software engineer trained in the last decade knows about them; maybe schools are full of the virtues of test-driven development, merciless refactoring, small iterations, done means done, and high-bandwidth communication, but I would be surprised to learn that.

        And, as you say, “missing a deadline [should punish] the people that scheduled/predicted things too tightly or too poorly.” I don’t know what the state of the art is for training for people in those fields, but I fear that it may be centered on costs and deadlines, seeing people as interchangeable parts rather than as sources of value, let alone as human beings with human needs.

  7. Lake Desire says:

    What career doesn’t have declining entry-level wages? This article assumes that women have a plethora of choices for careers. Considering that women earn 10% of the the wages in the world and own 1% of the property, most women don’t have a the “choice” of finding a career with great pay and working conditions. Fewer and fewer of them exist, and men are more likely to get them.

  8. Tamda says:

    Oh hell, I’m going to get shot for this.

    Begin tl;dr:

    Okay. I had worked in the Video Game industry, as a tester for about 3 years total. I did a bit under two years at Take Two Interactive (Global Star, 2k, Rockstar, etc) and about a year for THQ.
    I worked Console and PC testing on about 12 games, and logged a few 110 hour work weeks while working at 2k.

    Yes, that is not a typo. I was working 7-7.30 am till 11pm, 7 days a week. I did that for almost 5 months straight.

    What most people don’t understand about the video game industry is that you are not a person. The game is the only person/character the company as a whole really cares about.
    You are simply a cog or worse, a handfull of sand, used to polish the game into a shiney bauble to be sold to the masses.

    If you have the fortitude to get into the trenches and baste in your own juices as your arse gets a crease in the shape of your chair; you too can test video games, have your friends and family belittle what winds up being intensely mental hard work as lazy gaming and not a real job, all for the glory of 9$ an hour. But man the OT, that’s killer money! *sarcasm*

    And if you work extra hard, and don’t complain about the nepotism they can deign to give you a salary, to do the same hours, but with about 1-2k less take home pay.

    That’s the industry from the gunk covered bottom rung. Now for the fun explenations and hindsight.

    -Crunch Time Is Neccisary for some Games-
    No joke, unless you have a large staff of part time testers, IE give them 1 shift a week except for crunch time, you must have crunch time on Movie titles.

    Why? Well simple. Movie titles are the scutt work and bread and butter of every game company. They are total crap 90% of the time, and if you miss the movie release date by even a day you won’t make even half the money you would releasing it a week or two in advance.
    However, Movie games and Scutt games like them, account for almost half of THQ and 2K games total profits!

    While GTA and Dragon Age sell record numbers, they also cost big dollars to make, and are only a single title for a few years work per franchise, while movies, and their games, come out year round by the dozen.

    Even if a movie game flops, it still sells more than 3-4 times it’s total cost. To do that they go to the lowest bidder for Development, and the games are ground out as fast, cheap and dirty as they can, with the most polishing they can cram into the game by release.

    One nightmare Movie project wasn’t even in Dev by a year before the original launch date. The game, from Devs getting it to True Golden Build (the build you buy in the stores) had about 9 months.
    It wound up being released the day before the movie, and was terrible, as testers and the Dev’s kept having to axe entire sections and ideas due to time limits.

    This is all a result of the fact that a Movie Game has to match at least vaugely the plot of the movie, and if the movie is still under wraps or not firmly set, they can’t actually build the real game until the Devs can see what the movie will look like.
    This means a long period of fairly untestable Alpha (Unprogressable game, IE can not go from start to end through gameplay) with a very short period of actual beta and polish work.

    So while the crunch time across the entire industry is BS, for certain titles, like Movie Games, it is the bread and butter and the only reliable way of having bugs worked out properly.
    /tl;dr : Some games need Crunch, which sucks.

    This all winds into the above comments and OP, in that in many ways. This entire industry is insane for anyone who needs a life at all, let alone a decent quality of life. (Unless you’re in the Corperate Offices. Dev and Tester are seen as monkey and poop slinging monkey by Corperate, I have friends that made the transition to Suits confide that it doesn’t just seem that way, it is that way.)

    Many of my Senior Leads quit the industry to have a family, reguardless of if they were female or male.

    Many of my Leads wound up going on Hiatus or flat out quitting for College. To say that the industry as a whole desperately needs to change is like saying Hollywood needs to stop focussing on emaciated actresses for star roles with high wages.

    It’s true. It’s correct. It’s not very likely to happen anytime soon.

    And as for being Female and it affecting? Females tend to not put up with the total crap shifts for as long. Those that make it through are just as common as the men in percentages of total intake. Not many women were applying. Thus of the 5% that survive the bottom rung up approach, only a very select few will be women.

  9. Tamda says:

    Er, in addition (to my earlier post) while many positions don’t require the scutt work, they do require a large portion of your life be devoted to the job.

    And while not ALL Corperations may see Devs and Testers as replacable tools/ mangey monkeys, the two industry giants I worked for sure did. And I know EA is actually worse to their Testers (no word from a Dev house or team that worked with them, just 2K and THQ).

    Those that stick it out and manage to balance a life and their passion for the games rock my world, and I commend them.

    I for one decided it was better to like playing my games than flirting with total burnout, and I know that makes me a weak person. :P

    Reguardless of gender, the Video Game industry is increadibly brutal. For women, it is a double edged sword due to many preconceptions of gender and it’s role in social interactions/expectations.
    Both from the side of the women and the men in each office.

    (Le Gasp! I summarized my entire tl;dr in, what, 4 paragraphs? Sheesh.)

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