This is a guest column by Kay Arutyunyan of CounterPunch – A Virtuos Studio
When I first started my career in digital entertainment production, 13 years ago, it was rare to come across other women industry personnel – be it on client calls or at events. Game trade shows then felt like a boys’ club at times, which was perhaps reflective of the male majority in both game developers circles and among consumers.
Today, however, women comprise about 30% of game developers and nearly half of all gamers worldwide. Games and their development have truly entered the mainstream, despite being traditionally perceived as a male-dominated business and enjoyed only by a select group.
As published by the World Economic Forum: “Just as video games have become richer, fuller and more well-rounded, so too have the communities that play them and those communities are only becoming more inclusive and accessible.” And in these unprecedented times, the role of games in entertaining, enabling social interactions, building communities and thereby broadening the perspectives of almost three billion players worldwide is now more important than ever.
Being in the business of developing content that is so far-reaching, we are afforded the opportunity to make an impact. As such, it is important that both the content developed and the composition of developers reflect the diversity of our audience. It is my belief that the games industry can evolve and accelerate social change for the better, while still proving a business case for accelerated parity and inclusivity – starting with gender.
While the opportunities for women in gaming have grown by leaps and bounds, the representation of in-game female characters and protagonists is still falling behind. Presently, it is still more common to find female characters in supporting roles or lacking in character development versus their male counterparts.
It has been said that women are under- and misrepresented in games because we are under-represented in the industryKay Arutyunyan
It is nonetheless heartening to see that female game protagonists have doubled from 9% in 2015 to 18% in 2020, as reported by Feminist Frequency. In recent years, strong and dynamic female characters have emerged with the likes of Horizon Zero Dawn’s Aloy, The Last of Us Part 2’s Ellie, and Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ Kena, to name a few. It is also worth noting that those games portrayed female protagonists in a fair and relatable manner, from the visual aspects to their backstories.
A figure of 18% in female representation is a reminder that more needs to be done, and progress needs to happen more quickly. It has been said that women are under- and misrepresented in games because we are under-represented in the industry. That's true, and I would add that having more female protagonists in games would be a big pull factor to attract more women to join the industry – from female gamers having more characters to relate to, and more games to enjoy, to more female talent aspiring to work on titles that feature their favourite heroes.
Diversity and inclusivity comes from the top
Representation at the executive levels of organizations matters too, as one of the best ways to enable gender equality is to show and lead by example. For women talent looking to join an industry that is traditionally male-dominated, it can be immediately encouraging to see women at the top of the organizations they are applying for. At CounterPunch – A Virtuos Studio, we have female leaders such as Virtuos’ CFO Jasmine Cheong, Global HR Director Minny Abels, and myself. With over 30% women employees at CounterPunch versus the industry benchmark of 20% female animators worldwide, representation at the top goes a long way in helping attract, as well as instil confidence in women talent looking to join and grow their careers with us.
A clear demonstration of commitment to helping talent grow is also important to lower any barriers to entry. As the field of animation and games development are ones that require some levels of specialization, it is important to provide equal opportunities for career development, while cultivating a culture of continuous learning. Offering skills-based training and personal development opportunities can serve as a great equalizer, especially in encouraging talent to join.
Even when there is representation, it is important that an organization’s leadership team provides and mandates a safe and inclusive workplaceKay Arutyunyan
Education, particularly in the areas of science, tech, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) is critical in the development of the games industry, creating new advancement opportunities for the workforce. Additionally, building a supportive ecosystem that encourages more women to pursue their studies in those fields, or pursue their interest in working in the games industry, is vital to increasing the female talent pool and bridging the gender gap.
And even when there is representation, it is important that an organization’s leadership team provides and mandates a safe and inclusive workplace – one with policies in place, and which emphasizes respect, open communication, and a healthy work-life balance – to retain talent. One way to ensure diversity and inclusivity over the long term is to have KPIs in place, which ensure that organizations are held accountable, so they regularly review and improve upon their policies, efforts, and performance.
Diversity of all kinds adds flair to a workplace and its culture. Having a more diverse set of perspectives and ideas mitigates groupthink and promotes creativity, which is key in creating bigger and better games.
Improved gender diversity alone has been proven to produce better business outcomes - companies with strong gender diversity on executive teams are likely to have above-average profitability. And with one in two gamers being female, better representation of women in games would better meet current demand levels and unlock a previously untapped pool of consumers and talent.
Change is a process, and every effort made to challenge the status quo is a step in the right direction. Gender diversity and inclusivity is really about ensuring a level playing field for all – it should be driven like any other business priority, especially when it has been proven to positively impact the bottom line. The industry has come a long way, and I am confident we can get to the next level in gender parity by ensuring that it shows up more – from the characters in games and the crowd at events to those leading by example at organizations where games are made.